In this Ableton Live tutorial, Dubspot’s Rory PQ takes us through the basic tools and approaches to audio mastering using an Ableton Live native devices and an Audio Mastering Template that is available as a FREE download below. Learn many more industry secrets and advanced Mixing and Mastering techniques in our upcoming courses. See Dates and Register Today!
What is Audio Mastering?
Audio mastering is the final and most crucial step in post-production. It is the process of taking a final mixdown and preparing it for distribution. Mastering is a skilled art that relies on a combination of audio technology, psychoacoustics, trained ears, and musical intuition. The goal during the mastering stage is to polish the final mix and give it that professional edge so that it stands up to commercial quality and loudness.
Using multiple tools, Mastering Engineers make subtle decisions to maximize the overall output level, correct mix balance issues, form a cohesive mix, enhance particular sonic characteristics, and apply various other processing moves to achieve a professional sounding master.
To help get a better understanding of the mastering process and the common tools used in a mastering chain, we created an Audio Mastering Template for Ableton Live available as a FREE download.
The template is intended to demonstrate some basic tools used in the mastering stage and uses all Ableton Live native devices. In addition, there are three audio tracks set up for referencing your master against other commercial masters. To use this template, simply load up your tracks, and apply only the devices needed for the job.
Glue Compressor | Bus Compression
Live’s Glue Compressor is an analog-modeled compressor based on the legendary SSL 4000 G-Master Bus Compressor from the classic 80’s SSL mixing console. SSL modeled compressors are ideal for compressing full mixes or bus groups because of their transparent compression characteristics and unique ability to “glue” a mix together while adding just the right amount of punch and drive. When using the Glue Compressor for mastering, it’s often recommended to use a longer Attack, shorter Release, and minimal Gain Reduction. The goal is to use subtle amounts of compression to achieve a more cohesive and punchier mix without compromising clarity. Also, placing the Glue Compressor first in our mastering chain will help tighten up the mix before applying further processing.
- The Glue by Cytomic
- SSL G-Master Buss Compressor by Waves
- SSL G Series Bus Compressor by Universal Audio
Dynamic Tube | Add Warmth
Applying subtle amounts of saturation to add texture and bit more perceived loudness is another approach mastering engineers use to shape the mix further. Second in our mastering chain, we added Live’s Dynamic Tube to apply some mild saturation over the entire mix. Dynamic Tube has characters of a tube amplifier and works great for warming up existing harmonics. You could also use Live’s Saturator device if you want a more aggressive sound. However, when mastering a mix, subtle moves often have better results, and the mild effect of Dynamic Tube works great in a mastering chain.
Alternative Saturation Plugins
- Inflator by Sonnox Oxford
- Vitalizer MK2-T by SPL
- Varisaturator by Voxengo
Compressor | Gentle Squeeze
The third device in our mastering chain is Lives Compressor. It’s common to see various types of compressors being used in a mastering chain to achieve more RMS power without over compressing the mix. Mastering Engineers often use multiple compressors to share the workload. Using a few different compressors each with different sounding characteristics to apply subtle amounts of compression is a more transparent method to gently tame mix, and is often more pleasing sounding. Allowing a single compressor to do all the work may make a mix sound less powerful and more squashed. For example, two different compressors with 1.5dB of gain reduction may sound punchier and louder than the same compressor with 3dB of gain reduction.
- PuigChild 670 Compressor by Waves
- Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor by Universal Audio
- Virtual Buss Compressors by Slate Digital
Compressor | De-esser
The fourth device in our mastering chain is another instance of Live’s compressor configured to act as a de-esser. De-essers are more commonly used on individual tracks to remove sibilance from vocal tracks or even used to control excessive high-frequency information from other instruments such as hi-hats, snares, guitars, and other sounds with harsh frequencies. De-essers can also be used on an entire mix to tame unpleasant frequencies in an a controlled frequency range and achieve a smoother high end that will translate better on big systems. Enabling the Sidechain EQ on Compressor and choosing the Bandpass filter will allow use to focus on the frequency range that sounds harsh and apply gentle compression to control aggressive frequencies.
- SuprEsser DS by Sonnox Oxford
- Pro-DS by FabFilter
- Renaissance DeEsser by Waves
EQ Eight | Reductive Mid/Side EQ
Once you have a more cohesive and controlled mix, it’s common to use a digital parametric EQ to apply subtle amounts of reductive equalization to shape the mix further before applying additional processing. The fifth device in our mastering chain is Live’s EQ Eight set to Mid/Side Mode, which allows us to EQ the mid and side frequencies independently. It’s often recommended to reduce frequencies with one EQ and have another EQ dedicated for boosting frequencies later in the mastering chain if needed. Using multiple EQ’s gives us more control and allows us to use different types of EQ’s to apply different equalization characteristics. For example, digital EQ’s work best for reductive equalization, while others may prefer an analog modeled EQ for boosting frequencies because they color the sound in a pleasant way. When applying reductive EQ, Mastering Engineers often use a low shelf filter to control sub-sonic frequencies to reduce the load on speakers or sweep the mix and cut unpleasant frequencies. The goal here is to clean up the mix and control before applying additional processing effects.
Alternative Reductive Equalizers
- Pro-Q 2 by FabFilter
- bx_digital V2 by Brainworx
- EQuilibrium by DMG Audio
Multiband Dynamics | Multiband Compression
The sixth device in our mastering chain is Live’s Multiband Dynamics for applying multiband compression. Dividing the mix into separate frequency bands allows us to have more control over independent frequency ranges. Live’s Multiband Dynamics device is a mastering processor that has three independent frequency bands, with adjustable crossover points and compression settings. Having independent control over the bands allows us to compress each frequency range differently and further balance the mix with the separate gain controls. A common move in mastering is to apply gentle compression to the low-frequency band so you can increase the output level or push the limiter harder to gain more low end without needing to boost with an EQ. This approach can often result in a more punchy and controlled bottom end.
Alternative Multiband Compressors
- Alloy 2 by iZotope
- Pro-MB by FabFilter
- Linear Phase Multiband Compressor by Waves
Multiband Harmonics | 3 Band Exciter Rack
Another common move during mastering is applying different flavors of saturation across independent frequency ranges. Multiband harmonic enhancers create additional harmonics that deliver a warm enriched sound, and can often be used to enhance a sound more musically then boosting with an EQ. It’s common to see Mastering Engineers applying subtle amounts of saturation to the high and mid bands to give the mix more presence. Unfortunately, Live does not have a multiband exciter, so for our seventh device in our mastering chain we created a three band Audio Effects Rack using a phase inversion technique so that the rack has a more transparent sound. Each band is also loaded with Live’s Saturator device so that different amounts harmonic distortion can be applied across the frequency ranges. Alternatively, you could also use Live’s Dynamic Tube or Overdrive devices.
Alternative Multiband Harmonic Exciters
- Ozone 6 by iZotope
- Saturn by FabFilter
- Vitamin Sonic Enhancer by Waves
Multiband Stereo Imaging | 3 Band Imager Rack
Multiband stereo imaging is another common move used in mastering. This technique allows you to widen or narrow the stereo field independently for each frequency band. Spatial imaging is used to enhance and alter stereo separation. For example, a Mastering Engineer may use stereo imaging to rebalance a stereo mix, transform a mono track to stereo, or enhance spatial imaging by widening the high and high-mid frequency bands. Typically the low-mid and low bands are left centered or even narrowed in the sub frequencies. For our eighth device in our mastering chain, we created a 3 Band Imager Rack similar to 3 Band Imager Rack only this time the frequency bands are loaded with devices to control stereo width. The Low and Mid bands are controlled with Live’s Utility device, and the High band is controlled with another Audio Effects Rack designed to create stereo separation with a psychoacoustic phenomenon known as the Haas Effect.
Alternative Stereo Imagers
- Ozone 6 by iZotope
- S1 Stereo Imager by Waves
- MB-7 Mixer by Blue Cat
EQ Eight | Additive Mid/Side EQ
The ninth device in our mastering chain is another EQ Eight set to Mid/Side Mode and is used for additive equalization. Treating frequencies with additive EQ is a common move to enhance elements of a mix that sound dull or deficient. In this mastering chain, it is the last stop to add presence and shine if needed before reaching the limiter. The type of equalizer used at this stage is entirely up to you. Some Mastering Engineers prefer the transparency of digital EQ’s while other Engineers like the color and sound from modeled analog EQ’s.
Alternative Additive Equalizers
- Pro-Q 2 by FabFilter
- Passeq by SPL
- Massive Passive by Universal Audio
Limiter | Loudness Maximizer
The last, and notably the most important device in our mastering chain is Live’s Limiter. Loudness maximizers allow you to create an overall louder or fuller master by limiting the dynamic range and boosting the perceived overall level of the mix. Enhancing loudness is crucial to meet commercial levels. Correctly applying limiting lets you boost the level of your mix without sacrificing dynamics and clarity.
- Pro-L by FabFilter
- L1, L2 & L3 Ultramaximisers by Waves
- FG-X by Slate Digital
Additional Devices | Reference Tools
Also included in the mastering chain is a Utility device with the wide set to mono for referencing your mix in mono. Checking your mix in mono is important to ensure your mix translates well on mono systems. Also, Live’s Spectrum device has been placed at the end of the chain to visualize, in real time, the frequency response of the audio signal across the entire frequency range of the mix. Spectrum analyzers and metering tools are the perfect tools for visualizing changes made during mixing and mastering, and are helpful in troubleshooting problematic mixes.
Now that you have some basic mastering knowledge, download the template, practice some of these approaches, experiment with rearranging the devices or swap them out with your prefered plugins, and have fun.
Learn the well-kept industry secrets of EQ, compression, panning, level balancing, reverb and special effects and transform rough ideas and basic compositions into a commercial master. Investigate how to use key concepts and tools in your tracks, while paying special attention to techniques of metering and spectral analysis in order to apply science alongside the art.
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