EDIT: This tutorial (or experiment, mostly) is quite dated. The findings that I’ve observed and wrote about back in 2010 was my first experiment with Mastering in Ableton Live. Feel free to completely ignore this post as it may lead you into miss-leading territories.

Reaching that competitive loudness in your audio tracks is sometimes hard to understand when you first start entering the realm of Mastering. I am by no means “an expert” on the subject, as I’m still experimenting and learning along with each tracks I create.

A valuable Mastering tip I would like to share with you involves only a couple of handy tools built right into Ableton Live 8 (and 7 too perhaps…):

  1. The Limiter device;
  2. The Utility device;

With this happy married couple, it is possible to boost your tunes quite considerably without affecting the “punch” or “kick” too much in your tracks. Lets see how its done – shall we!

– First, place your track (preferably a WAV) into a new Audio Track;

– Since we’re only dealing with one track, you have the choice to add the following devices on either the Audio Track itself, or the Master Track. Although you have the choice (which should result the same outcome), I would recommend using the Master Track for good practice – and in case you wish to put another track in the mix or are crossfading between multiple tracks (ex: a CD mixdown);

– Insert a Limiter on your target track (recommended: Master);

– Observe how many dbs (decibels) your track’s peaks are overflowing over the “perceived” volume of your instrumentation (ex: the kick drum’s peak exceeds by 6db compared to the rest of the audio material). Although the amount can be perceived by looking at the waveform view itself, remember to use your ears while changing the limiting threshold!

– With the amount figured out, set the Limiter’s threshold value minus (-) the amount you’ve observed. So in our example, we can enter -6db. If you toggle the enable-button on and off while your track is playing, your ears shouldn’t perceive any changes, or at least nothing significant. The release time on the limiter should be fairly fast (definitly smaller than 150ms), but not microscopicly small to the point it creates undesired limiting fluctuations (similar to a compressor with too small of a release time). This may depend per material it is being applied onto. The goal is basically this – squish the exceeding rhythmic peaks without affecting the smooth musical peaks. The musical peaks are desired, therefore we have to make sure we retain their quality and fluctuation intact.

– At this point it seems like we lost some amplitude, huh? This is where the Utility device comes in play! Insert it AFTER the Limiter (just to repeat… make sure to place it AFTER because we want to affect the sound only after the limiter did its magic).

– Now, its time to pump up the volume! Not with the Master Fader however! Use the gain-knob provided in the Utility we just dropped after our limiter. Raise it up about the same amount that we took away in our Limiter. Sometimes it may not be the exact opposite value, all depending on how close the initial material was close to the zero (0) db mark. For example, we may have to adjust our gain to +5.8db – remember to do this while in playback so you can adjust the value in realtime and note the last-peak value on your Master Track.

If you reach a last-peak value that never goes beyond -0.30 (or -0.10 if you’re a risk-taker), then you should be hearing your mastered track in all its loudness and glory!

Of course, this shouldn’t be your official last step before deploying your track on the web or distributor: take your master-track for a test-drive on various sound-systems (that means: home-stereo, headphones, ear-phones, laptop speakers, ghetto-blaster, car stereo with OR without a subwoofer, or a club system if your target audience is for seductive booty shakers ;) ).

There you have it! Simple yet efficient way to boost the juice on your track without laying a finger on an external DAW application like SoundForge, Wave Editor, Cool Edit or Adobe Audition!

As I’ve mentionned before, I am by no means an expert in audio mastering, but I hope this prooves to be an effective home-studio technique to raise your track volumes at a comparable level you would expect while browsing through your iPod music collection.

Just keep in mind not to overdo this process too much. If you are, chances are you should change it in the mix, not the master!