Keep your channel faders low and the Master at 0db!

Ableton Live - dB Set Up

Today I would like to talk about the biggest epiphany I had when it comes to recording entirely inside a computer. If you take one thing away with you by reading this blog this should be it. In 1996, Steinberg released Cubase VST which stands for Virtual Studio Technology. For the first time, someone with a limited budget and a PC could record audio to the hard drive and have access to a virtual effects rack and software synthesizers. People today call this mixing “in the box”. This had profoundTascam Portastudio implications, so much so I would compare it to the release of the Tascam 4-Track Portastudio. Recently, laptops have become so powerful that they themselves can be full virtual studios anywhere you are.

Almost weekly I am asked for mixing advice. Usually after a few probing questions I discover that 90% of the people unhappy with their sound are making the same mistake. They are completely overdriving their internal summing bus! Take all your song’s individual channel faders and bring them at least -12db and keep the Master fader at 0dB at all times.

Look at your DAW’s mixer. Now imagine the volume of your individual channel fader’s adding up from left to right heading to your Master. If you keep your channel faders close to zero surely your Master will go over odB and clip. As we all know any clipping in the digital realm is very bad.

Why not keep your channel faders all hot and turn the master down? Because you will still be overdriving cheap plug-ins. Well written plug-ins can handle a hot signal but some of the coolest freeware and to be honest some big name effects clip internally when even a warm signal is shot at them. The worst part about this happening is there is no visual warning. All you know is your mixes just sound like crap.

If you ran a test overdriving one plug-in and pushing a channel fader too hot you may not notice anything. But keep your levels low in a complicated song with over 10 channels and you will definitely notice a major improvement.

If this is news to you don’t stress about it. It took me a while to wrap my head around it. To give credit where it’s due I first came across this advice when reading an article in EQ magazine by Craig Anderton. After I read it I emailed Digidesign MBoxhim to clarify some questions I had. He was graceful enough to answer me and I then did some searches online and found this was huge discussion on several high end pro-audio forums. Forum members at Tapeop, Gearslutz and the Digidesign sites were rambling on about audio levels and mixing ITB. Most of the threads were over 50 pages. Everyone was learning the same lesson.

How did I choose -12db as a start point? First, each DAW has a different summing engine so your own number may differ. I use Ableton Live and originally I was starting projects with channel faders at -6db. However, I constantly had to adjust them all down as I built the songs up. I settled at -10db but recently I noticed something very interesting. In Live 7 they introduced Drum Racks and a Slice to Midi feature. A group set of faders becomes automatically available to you for the individual drum sounds of audio slices the new features create. Guess what? The channel faders are automatically set to -12db! It seems Ableton headquarters has also caught on how to make their DAW sound better. Interesting no?

In Ableton Live if you hover over the Track Volume slider you can see the exact dB it’s set at by looking at the Status Bar located bottom left of the screen. If you click on a channel faders small left facing triangle you can then use the up and down arrows to nudge the volume in small increments.

Apple AU Limiter

As I mentioned in this post something to keep in mind is when you add EQ to a sound you add dBs. If you add +6db of high end EQ to a vocal you may want to adjust the channel fader. Lastly, I add a limiter to the Master and set it at -0.1 to catch anything that manages to spike a little too loud. Anyone with a Mac has Apple’s free AU limiter built-in.

I think you will really enjoy mixing quiet a lot more once you try this method.

photo credit: oooh.oooh

52 Comments

  1. Nice one, thanks for clearing that up, I’ll definitely try it.
    I’ll have to have a search around the options menus of Cubase SX 2 to see if it has a similar function to set the faders to -12db, though I’m sure it would.
    This would somewhat revolutionalise my mixing as usually I try and keep my kick drums hitting close to 0db, and mix around that, continually dropping the master fader as the song builds. I guess using this method my kick drums will be hitting -12db. That sounds very low to me, and in the early stages of a track I will probably just have to turn my amp up, but I will try it regardless.

    Reply

    1. I found this article to be extremely helpful. I too am used to keeping my kick at zero and building the track around that. Constantly turning down the master volume knob as I add more elements.

      I was experimenting with this method. I found it really helps once you get your main elements (kick, bass, hat, snare/clap) to then get all those matching zero. Once that’s done the rest of the track is pretty easy to mix. Turning down the master volume knob about that just a bit won’t hurt anything.

      Great site!

      Reply

      1. I think the -12dB rule applies more to not overdriving any of the plugins you use for processing a sound. e.g. eq’s, compressors, reverbs, ect… If you’re using vsti synths, samplers, drum machines, make sure the output on the actual plugin is not redlining. Because if you slap a eq, or some other dsp device after it more than likely the input level it’s receiving is not of desired level and not optimized to work within those limits. Lower the source output, if you’re doing busy electronic music make sure you high pass eq anything that is not bass, and drums. Actually you should even slap a highpass on those as well, there’s lots of unnecessary frequency content below 30hz that eats up a lot of headroom “loudness” and makes the bottom end flabby and undefined. If your kicks, snares and other percussion is lacking punch, try layering them. One 808 type kick with the highs cut out, another kick with a more pronounced attack and scoop out all the lows on it. Try changing the pitch of them and fine tuning the start points on either to get them hitting together well then compress and final eq to glue them together. Same goes for bass and other instruments like piano as well. This isn’t some concept that is only utilized in dance music. Recording engineers have been doing this for decades in rock, pop, and other popular styles of music. If you listen to any stems from popular artists of the past there’s more than enough layers that make up the whole. With all that said, make sure your composition isn’t a jumbled up mess as well. All of this is something i’m still working on, but improving on day to day.

        Reply

  2. Hi Pete,

    I would suggest using either compression or some other plug-in like Izotope Trash to get your kick sounding the way you want. You could also consider a sub-mix of all your drums. Honestly though if your music sounds the way you want it too then don’t change anything. I should have added that into the article… the sound is the most important thing not any numbers.

    Reply

    1. vintage warmer works magic on kicks as well.

      Reply

  3. Thanks for the tips. I’ve been slowly learning this lesson myself. It takes a lot of determination in order to keep those faders down. It’s a good idea to remind people that if you want to keep things banging, as you push down the faders, you can turn up the volume on your monitors to compensate for the loss of volume energy in the mix. That said, it’s always better to mix at low volumes, but few of us want to :)

    Here’s another question… in your helpful screen shot the level in the Master is right at 0db. If you final mix was that high – does that give a mastering engineer enough headroom to work with? My guess is no, but it’s just a guess because none of my work ever gets sent to a real mastering engineer! But I believe that if you plan on mastering, you are going to need additional headroom in the Master fader. I plan on mastering a lot more in the future, and I’d like to learn more about building a mix for this process.

    Reply

  4. Yes, this is absolutely a must thing to know. I suspect a lot of those who claim that their mixes in Ableton Live are muddy are indeed overloading the bus. Not that Ableton has tried to clean up some of the issues in Live 7.0, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

    I wish Live had the same feature Logic has had for ages where you could select multiple or all volume sliders, and when you move down one, the others also go down. This is a quick way to adjust a group or all channels in case during production they have gone up again. This seems to be a common pattern when producing….

    Another idea is to place the Utility in the master and control the total value returned into the master bus. I’ve seen this idea used even with Logic, the Plaid demo project in the Logic Studio package has a gain adjuster in the master bus. This also works well, as I do think that the limiters and exciters don’t work well if the incoming signal is very hot.

    Reply

  5. Hi Kent,

    You bring up two great points… Ableton really needs to let us grab multiple faders at the same time and I also use the Utility plug-in sometimes when dealing with level issues. By the way to people stopping by and reading this be sure to check out Kent’s blog and music: http://www.kentsandvik.com

    Reply

  6. Hi Oliver
    Thanks for this great tip. But I have a doubt, Would-12db be TOP limit for the fader in each channel when mixing? Or just a starting point.
    Thanks!

    Reply

  7. Hi Luis,

    Oh just a starting point. I usually find if I start the fader off at less than that I have to adjust them down later. The only thing I would say keep set is the Master fader at 0dB.

    Reply

  8. Excellent advise. But at the same time i know i’ve been using live for about 3 months and i’ve already caught on that when the master turns red things start sounding bad. I mean this isn’t rocket science, its red for a reason, don’t ignore it. And especially in live you can see levels between plug-ins, so if you see something coming out really hot from a distortion plug say, insert a utility and keep it under control, you’ll notice the difference immediately.

    Reply

  9. Awesome advice. Thanks,am fairly new and was having problems with this.

    One thing though I was wondering is for a drum rack, do we turn the drum rack down -12 if the individual tracks are down?

    Reply

  10. Great advice. I’m learning so much about mixing from these lessons.

    I’ve got a nice limiter/mastering plug in and wonder if you’d recommend extracting down to a .wav file and then bringing that .wav file in for mastering or if you’d do it in the original mix by putting the mastering plug in with the master bus?

    Thanks again.

    alec…

    Reply

  11. I usually bounce the file. Then bring it in again to a blank set up. Master, export and bring the exported mastered file in. I look at the waveform to see if its clipping. Then I also A/B with the unmastered version just to make sure I like what I did. Good Luck!

    Reply

  12. this idea is basically all about gain structure.so technically u should send the hottest signal to the channel strip without clipping. after processing the individual channels,they sum up at the master fader. having many channels feeding the master will def push it to the red

    Reply

  13. Kentsandvik website does not work…?

    Nice article Oliver.
    Any luck pointing me towards effective use of the A/B switching?
    I get the gist if it; just curious about its use.

    thanks!

    .dave.anton.

    Reply

  14. hi oliver,

    wonderful post. here’s a little quote from the live manual that really threw me off: “Because of the enormous headroom of Live’s 32-bit

    Reply

  15. hi oliver,

    something must have happened with that last comment because the quote from the live manual got cut off…

    here’s the gist of what i was asking: when exporting from live, i’ve noticed that the “normalize” feature will attenuate a signal that would otherwise clip (believe it or not, i actually tried to get live to clip an exported signal at one point and noticed this). therefore, is there anything other than signal clipping that can be a problem when you let the master signal go into the red?

    thanks so much!

    – mike

    Reply

  16. I’m going by my own ear and what I’ve read many other places and in general for me I get much clearer nicer sounding mixes when my faders are low. I did a bunch of tests. To your question more directly… I think you can distort plug-ins if you hit them too hard.

    Reply

  17. cool. if my first comment hadn’t been cut off and i wasn’t too lazy, i would have explained that the point you made about plug-ins distorting was a big revelation to me. so, thanks a million for that one! however, i was just asking about the master fader level specifically (i.e. assuming everything is sounding good up to that point in the signal flow) and wondering if you had any insight on that issue specifically.

    thanks again for all your great posts!

    Reply

  18. Wicked , thanks for the tip!
    I tried this out and my mixes are much clearer and easier to control now . I’ve noticed that my overall result after exporting the track is very low in volume . I’m not skilled in mastering so , i was wondering if there’s any tips you could give on how to get a louder result without clipping and destroying the final mix.

    Amazing blog btw !

    Reply

  19. Hi JD. Thanks for the nice words. Glad the tip helped you out. Making your final song louder is a big subject but here’s a place to start, download the Mastering with Ozone guide: link. You can use your DAWs built-in compressors/limiters to do the job but I like Ozone a lot and the guide is a good read of the overall concepts you would use with any plug-in. Good luck!

    Reply

  20. Much appreciated , thanks!

    Reply

  21. Oliver! This is my first time coming across your site and I haven’t been able to stop reading your posts! I first landed here in search of the beat swing technic and my eyes just kept going…

    Thanks for the great advice and researching what you present on your site. I will definately have to go through my old tracks and mix them down more proper!

    Your site is awesome! Keep rockin…

    Nytel

    Reply

  22. Thanks for reading Nytel. Much appreciated!

    Reply

  23. yeah, i always leave my master fader at -0.3 or -0.1 if i can, that way its gonna be loud, but never peak above 0dB – i dont know if abelton is like protools, but protools shows a peak at 0dB and anything over 0dB as the same thing, so i try to be safe and always set the master to less than 0 =) especialy if im mastering, but then again, i never master in abelton =)

    Reply

  24. Hi Oliver, just stumbled upon your website and let me say it is fantastic!

    Anyway, I read your article on keeping my faders low, and decided to try it out on a new track of mine. Everything sounded much more “clear” just like you said. However, I have two questions. First of all, all of my channels sound great, the bass, kick, percussion, samples, etc; they all sound “unified”…but my lead just doesnt stand out. The only way I made it stand out was raising the fader level a lot more than -12 db. It sounded good, but maybe you know a better way? Secondly, once the track is rendered, it sounds much more quiet than any other song I have… should I just add Izotope Ozone to the master channel and raise the volume?

    Thanks in advance

    Reply

  25. Hi Toy. Welcome to the blog! There are a several things you could try to get your lead synth to stand out without raising it’s volume: try a compressor or use parallel compression on it, maybe a certain frequency should be bumped up with eq (that will still raise the volume but only on the specific freq), try a subtle motion effect on the lead like a phaser or possibly try to change the sound itself. Lastly, there could be a lot of low end on the lead you may not hear or need which is adding to its volume… use a low cut filter or eq to roll off everything below 100 like in this image: roll_off_the_bass.jpg You may not need that low end stuff and it’s adding to the db of the sound.

    Reply

  26. Hey Olivier. I’ve just bump in to your blog and found this topic very usefull, so i’ll be droping by often to check what’s new.
    Thanks for the lessons.

    right now I’m in the transition from stricte Hip-Hop beats (made with acid) to more electro style music – and i’m finding A’Live very usefull and easy to use.
    However it’s sometimes hard to adjust without ability to set personal keyboard shortcuts or (as someone above mentioned) to mix without “select and adjust few tracks” option
    I hope to see it maybe in A’Live 08 :)
    Peace

    Reply

  27. Hi Spox. Thanks for stopping by. I agree we should be able to select a few tracks and adjust them all at once. I suspect Ableton wants to implement it. For now I make Groups and also use the Utility plug-in. Remember you can see Keyboard Shortcuts in the integrated info box (bottom left) and also in the manual. Good luck with the transition!

    Reply

  28. related ableton live specifics: http://tarekith.com/misc.htm

    Reply

  29. I liked the historical context however I disagree on the technical aspects.

    1. Turning down a channel’s volume (or up) will not affect that channel’s plug-ins at all. It will not overdrive them. The reason is that the fader is the last thing in that channel’s signal chain.

    2. Ableton live internally processes at 32 bits. 8 of these bits are used for an exponent multiplier, and the other 24 bits are used normally, linear like a wave file or an audio cd. The consequence of the exponential multiplier is that you have tons of headroom. You could have your signals boosted 100 db or more and still be fine, so long as you cut the level by 100db in an insert on the master channel.

    Internal “clipping” does not normally happen in the host (ableton) as the result of any “summing”. Clipping can happen in plug-ins, if they are programed that way, however this can always be avoided by placing a plug-ing before it and adjusting the gain.

    Clipping can happen when it is rendered, because at that point it uses a linear format, like a 16 or 32bit wave, and does not have the luxury of those 8 exponential bits.

    3. You are correct that plug-ins may be overdriven, however in your scenario, you could just set the prepre-gain slider on the master channel’s limiter to -12db instead of turning your channels down -12 db. It would be the same thing mathematically.

    4. I think you might be confusing when you say you “set the limiter at -.1db”. This limiter does not give you the option to set the max db. It is probably hard coded to operate at 0db. What you set was the pre gain.

    I am not saying that your experience with improved sound quality is fake. It is real I am sure, however it is probably the result of hitting a master limiter/compressor/mastering-plugin too hard and does not have to do with internal “summing”.

    Reply

  30. Very good technique. Most people whack the bass too loud and wonder why it sounds muddy. In Ableton I normally get the tracks how I like them sounding without taking “red” in consideration and no limiters. Then once all tracks are done I lower everything to the point of no red and then put a mastering limiter on the master to get the volume back up.

    Reply

  31. Thanx for the tips!

    Quick question… do you also bring the track volumes of your Return tracks down to -12db or do you leave these at zero? I have a couple of them running out and back to effects (KaossPad3 and Big Muff Fuzz) if that makes any difference.

    Reply

    1. Yes I keep the Sends a bit low too… the key is not to overdrive (at least when it comes to Ableton’s summing).

      Reply

  32. Hi, interesting advice. However, I will have to say that I totally agree with the comment user william sharkey made just above. This basically the same thing as setting a limiter (or a compressor with a “soft clip” for that matter) at -3db, on the master fader. Mathematically speaking, I’m not totally sure.. but personally I think messing with individual channel faders to comply with -12db might also still essentially take away from each channel’s volume characteristics. Meaning, since every instrument channel most likely has different EQ dynamics (i.e.; arbitrary highs/mids/lows, etc.), setting them all to a certain sum would essentially be the same as using a “brickwall” type limiter on a master fader, just before mastering, which also leaves the “-0.1″ option in the dark. Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe the standard for a mixdown just before mastering is -3.0db, and -0.1 is well above a mastering level to be set on a master fader. My opinion..

    Reply

  33. … is this rule working on digital mixers too? I have Yamaha 01V/16. I´m not working with software sequencers, just recording output to Wavelab.

    Reply

  34. Hi Oliver,
    thanks for great article! I’ve been trying to understand the “magic” of mastering for a long time, finally U put it in a very clear way:-)

    Reply

  35. Another of the reasons you should not lower the master is because it lowers the the actual resolution !
    I usually tend to keep channels at “-16 dBFS” and just bring up the volume with the “makeup” gain of any compressor or limiter in the master. Great posts, and site !

    Reply

  36. About William Sharkey´s post on technical aspects:

    – Turning down a channel’s volume (or up) will not affect that channel’s plug-ins at all. It will not overdrive them. The reason is that the fader is the last thing in that channel’s signal chain.

    He is right about that, you need to use plugin (freeG for instance) or hosts own trim for the level change.

    And the problem is not exactly “summing” (like in analog).

    Reply

  37. Hi. I use Reason and my issue has been with my kicks and bass. If I leave them at 0db on the channel fader then the kicks aren’t ‘heavy’ enough. The same goes with the bass. Reason has a Master suite/limiter which levels the master output. I usually boost my kicks then level my master output to 0db. Most times I’m not very pleased with the mix. Any suggestions?

    Reply

  38. @litekicks :

    Use your kick drum signal to sidechain compress your bass signal. When a kick hits, it will trigger comp on your bass track, making room for kicks and avoiding bass frequencies overload. That should do the trick, try it with an average threshold, but a strong ratio, reasonable sidechain attack time (ie about 50 ms) and a long release (somewhat between 70 and 120 ms).
    A long release time gets you a pumping effect on the bass track; quicker release gives you room for your kicks, but you won’t notice the compression triggering at each kick drum. You’ll get to hear the kick clearly, and you’ll get a clear bass when kicks are not hitting.

    Here’s how to do it in details http://www.reasontutorials.net/2009/04/side-chain-compression-reason-tutorial/

    Also, try focusing on your mixing before thinking of limiting / mastering your track. Limiting your master bus only prevents master clipping. Kick / Bass issues often come from frequencies clashes (bass frequencies are much more quick to saturate, so that a kick and a bass, even at lower volumes, are likely to sound muddy if unprocessed) rather than level ones. To avoid it, make sure your bass makes room for your kicks (or the inverse, depending on what style you’re mixing down – I assume it’s dance music); for instance, with your kick signal triggering a sidechain compression on your bass track.

    Reply

  39. @Mongrand thumbs up for the info!

    Reply

  40. i recently applied a similar principle to my hardware recordings
    i record my gear a lot quieter (around -12 to -16db) and makes mixing much easier

    Reply

  41. Following this advice causes the exact opposite of the problem for which ive been searching the answer.
    I imported a reference wav file to my DAW.
    The imported wave file looks almost like a solid block of audio: it is up at around maybe -.01db HOWEVER: it sounds gorgeous.
    Conversely, MY bounced mix looks like it is half as high: the loudest area is at about -6db or so. When i bounced my wav out of Live It sounded VERY loud.
    The mindwrecking yearslong riddle is:
    Even though Live’s meter says “-0.1db”, and my ears say “ok that’s got to be as loud as a mixdown should be”, the rendered wav file is at -6db. And when played in ipod or in my car, i have to turn the volume on the ipod all the way to hear anything.
    It keeps me awake at night, and ive given up hope trying to figure it out.

    Reply

  42. Hi Oliver,

    just found out about this article and it’s indeed very helpful.
    But I do have a few question; I’d like to know how you (or other people) handle their drum-rack in Ableton.
    Do you really keep every sample you load into the drumrack at -12db? And what will you say is the highest db level you can use for the best sound/dynamics?
    How do you place the fader on your mixer for the drum rack? also at -12db or do you keep this at 0db?

    grtz
    Michael

    Reply

  43. At 24 bit 0VU on a large format analogue console is at approx -18dBFS on a DAW meter, this is where an SSL or NEVE console would operate at. 0VU = +4dBu or 1.23 volts. So when your mix peaks at -18dBFS on your stereo output meter on your DAW you are at the same electrical level as would have been found on an SSL or NEVE desk !

    Peaking near or at 0dBFS is a very high electrical level at the analogue output of a typical £100 – £200 sound card.

    Do this :

    Operate at 24 bit, peak your kick drum or snare at -18dBFS when you start your mix then you will have plenty of headroom and not approach 0dBFS in most mix downs. Your monitoring will be cleaner as well as the tiny opamps will not be as close to their working limits. (i.e. adding distortion to what you hear)

    cheers

    Reply

  44. Hmmm. I’ve been doing these exact techniques in Logic Pro 9. I’m certain they apply there as well. I’m gonna remix and totally master my next track in Ableton Live, w/Ozone 5, though as I’ve been using the ultra system demanding Logic Pro and not without a little pain and I’ve yet to try it all from the ground up in Ableton Live which is where I write everything anyway. Been spending years, not that many, exporting all the stems to Logic Pro for total mastering. Ableton Live is my first DAW love. Thanks again Dubspot for the incredible tips. Let’s see what happens. Let’s make those tracks cleaner and louder!

    Reply

  45. I didn’t read all the comments, but you mention over-driving the plugins. I agree about the levels but the faders are post gain so am I incorrect for thinking the gain staging of the plugins would not be affected by moving the faders?

    Reply

  46. Hey, if you read SOS’s article about gain staging, they explain how DAW’s are designed to clip at a different value than analog systems. See this picture:

    http://dt7v1i9vyp3mf.cloudfront.net/styles/news_large/s3/imagelibrary/G/GainStaging-02.jpg?_eyvJd_9VLias8itikySOMcrnMIanelM=&itok=OtdSZGIh

    Now people may get pedantic about the technical terms I’m about to use (db vs dbfs, I don’t know the difference) but its beside the point; 0db in the digital world is actually +24db in the analog world. When people using analog gear would push it into a clip past 0db, it is actually the same as someone with digital gear pushing their signal past -24db. Don’t take my word for it, read the article, it explains why -12db is optimal.

    http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep13/articles/level-headed.htm

    Reply

    1. Justin… thanks for the article!

      Reply

  47. all these suggestions do help a better mix. what im puzzled by is now my waveforms appear smaller within Live when printing stems from subgroups. my question is should I be concerned with how my waveforms look or mainly on how they sound when brought together. ?

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>