Gain Staging in Ableton Live Done Right

Have you ever noticed that a sound is different when you run it through effects at a high or low level? That’s one of the reasons why gain staging is so crucial. However, 80% of the time I’m mixing someone else’s work, I get a mix that’s way too hot. It’s either clipping on the master or even worse, already clipping in individual tracks. Most people simply turn down the master and call it a day, but then wonder why the mix sounds so crappy. It’s no surprise if you overload the effects whether it’s the native ones or plug-ins. Quite frankly, this probably is the source of the myth that Ableton Live doesn’t sound as good as other DAWs.

In the days of analogue mixing, you’d have to find a balance between getting the sound as high above the noise floor as possible while leaving enough headroom to avoid clipping. These days, the noise floor is generally so low, there’s rarely a need to carefully balance the signal-to-noise ratio. Yet, while analogue clipping could sound quite good, this is not the case in the digital domain. There, clipping produces anharmonic distortion which sounds sheer ugly. Think of gain staging as giving you a safety buffer to avoid clipping and an overloaded, too hot mix.

The Signal Flow

Before we talk about gain staging, we should quickly go over the signal flow in Live. I noticed that this is something a lot of users aren’t really aware of. Yet, it’s critical to understand it.

The signal flow in a track in Ableton Live

The signal flow in a track in Ableton Live

The signal in a track originally comes from either a clip or an input source (external instrument or mic, rerouted track) when it’s audio. In MIDI tracks of course, we only get audio once the MIDI data is converted into sound in the MIDI instrument. Then it goes to the device chain in the track (as displayed in the device view in Live) into the device on the left (or right after the MIDI instrument on MIDI tracks), then through every audio effect in the track from left to right. Finally the sound goes through the mixing element with volume and panning before it is routed out to either the master track or whatever track is chosen in the Audio To setting.

Take it Down

Gain Staging with the Utility EffectSo if the signal comes in too hot from a clip, simply turning down the volume won’t cut it. That’s because the volume comes last in the signal flow. A lot of the clips shipped with the Live Library or available for purchase are very loud and need to be adjusted. The same goes for presets of MIDI instruments. Use the volume setting in the Live instruments or plug-in for this.

If you’re recording an external signal, make sure you’ve set the volume to a decent level that avoids clipping even when the sound gets much louder all of a sudden. That’s especially important when you’re recording vocals as the volume of a voice can fluctuate between a whisper and a scream. The rule of thumb is to keep the average volume level at about -10 to -12 dB. Don’t forget to check the mic positioning in terms of distance to the computer and other gear that might introduce noise. If you’re recording something that creates noise on its own, make sure that the sound level is well above the noise floor without clipping.

If you’ve already got a clip in your track in Live, you could of course simply reduce the gain level within the clip. However, this is not a neutral operation in Live and might change the sound. Instead, add the Utility effect as the first device in your effects chain in every track and adjust the gain accordingly.

Clipping must be avoided on all tracks that are routed out of Live. This is first and foremost the master, but this depends on your routings in your Live Set. Don’t forget to keep an eye on the master volume. It should not only stay in the green, but leave a headroom of about -3 to -6 dB for mastering later on.

Don't Forget the Effects

Now that we’ve adjusted the volume of the clip or other input source, the signal will move through the various effects sitting on each respective track. Not every effect will output at the same volume level as it has  received it. Very often intentionally so. Also here, we have to ensure that the levels are sensible. Luckily, we have small meters between effects showing if the volume levels are in the green or red. Most effects, native Live ones or plug-ins alike, offer output level controls. Some even for the input as well. Make use of them to boost or attenuate to achieve a good level.

Gain Staging in the Device Chain

Gain Staging in the Device Chain

In music, there are always exceptions to the rule. Sometimes you need to run a signal too hot to achieve a specific sound. If so, just make sure that in the end at the output no clipping occurs anymore.

A little tip: If the volume of your track seems too quiet overall, leave the faders in Live alone and instead adjust it via your audio interface, its control software or your monitors. Leave “the make it loud” bit until the mastering stage.

By | 2017-02-02T20:09:09+00:00 September 7th, 2016|Music Production Tips|27 Comments

About the Author:

Madeleine Bloom is a musician, producer, multi-instrumentalist and singer from Berlin. She studied Electroacoustic Music at the Franz Liszt Conservatory. In the last few years she's worked as a technical support for Ableton and has helped countless people with her in-depth knowledge of Ableton Live, various other music apps as well as audio engineering.

27 Comments

  1. Ulysse September 8, 2016 at 09:37 - Reply

    Hi there!
    nice article.
    I was just wondering what you exactly mean when you say “you could simply reduce the gain level within the clip. However, this is not a neutral operation in Live and might change the sound”?
    Cheers

    • Madeleine Bloom September 8, 2016 at 09:47 - Reply

      I assume you’re wondering about the second sentence mostly. There’s a whole chapter on neutral and non-neutral operations in the Live manual, that should clarify your question. https://www.ableton.com/en/manual/audio-fact-sheet/

      • Brent D. October 7, 2016 at 04:29

        Thanks for that link. I’d never read that section of the manual before (shame on me lol), so there were a few things in there that I wasn’t aware of previously. And I’ve never commented on any articles on here before, I don’t believe, so I’d also like to thank you for everything you do to help us out. You always have awesome, informative articles, and the amount of extremely high-quality freebies you give away is mind-blowing– not to mention the amazing products that are for sale on here, which are always brilliant. I’m sure I speak for pretty much everyone when I say thank you! Your hard work and generosity are very much appreciated!

      • Madeleine Bloom October 7, 2016 at 19:08

        Aw, thank you very much. :)

    • Mark Burnett October 7, 2016 at 15:48 - Reply

      Changing gain is ‘technically’ non neutral because it will result in the inability to cancel the signal using an inverted phase copy of the original. It does not however colour the sound in the way we would assume any other non-neutral operation might. So it does change the sound but only in volume, as such I always start with the first possible gain in the signal path (usually the clip gain for audio and the instrument volume for MIDI) and work forwards from there.

      • Madeleine Bloom October 7, 2016 at 19:11

        Slightly different approach, but same result. I prefer the Utility effect to set the initial volume. I find it more clearly laid out. It’s also a good reminder where I left off, if I’d been working late and didn’t make it through all the tracks.

  2. Alex September 10, 2016 at 10:50 - Reply

    Great tip – don’t think this is talked about enough. Probably worth mentioning using limiters in the chain to help with spikes caused by effects racks or odd harmonic distortions in midi instruments.

    • Madeleine Bloom September 10, 2016 at 11:30 - Reply

      I haven’t mentioned limiters and that for a reason. A lot of producers who don’t do gain staging will just drop a limiter on every track and squash the waveforms into sausages. I use lots of real instruments and voice and hardly any limiters or compressors. Limiting and compression are overvalued precisely, because so few people use gain staging.

      • Jim John Marks October 6, 2016 at 22:45

        Agreed! I almost never use the faders in Live and the only compression or limiting I use is in my final mastering chain (unless I’m dealing with a really dynamic drum sample that needs to be tamed before being put to use). The Utility device is my best friend. Basically you can manage a rough mix across all your channels before you even _think_ about what’s happening on the Master. I find it a huge time saving mechanism. My effect rack for mastering is practically drag and drop. Minor adjustments if a particular effort is especially quiet or especially loud, but beyond that, just push it into the -3 to -6 range and call it “done”.

      • Madeleine Bloom October 6, 2016 at 23:56

        I do use the faders, but I’m working with lots of recorded instruments and voice that of course have more dynamics than MIDI instruments.

  3. Mike September 17, 2016 at 08:31 - Reply

    As always, great stuff. I personally am guilty of thinking that Ableton is not as good sounding as other DAWs. For some reason I find it harder to gain stage and mix in general in Live and tend to bounce out to pro tools. I am currently trying to mix a project in Live though, so I’ll have to remember the utility effect. Thanks for this. There might be people who know more about Live than you, but if so they’re not writing on the internet.

  4. Jonathan October 8, 2016 at 00:12 - Reply

    There is no problem with tracks that are in the red.

    From Live’s manual:

    “Because of the enormous headroom of Live’s 32-bit floating point audio engine, Live’s meters can be driven far “into the red“ without causing the signals to clip. The only time that signals over 0 dB will be problematic is when routing to or from physical inputs and outputs, like those of your sound card, or when saving audio to a file.”

    https://www.ableton.com/en/manual/mixing/

    If you put a sample on an audio track, add a utility with +35db of gain, then send the audio to another track with a -35db utility, it will phase out completely with the same sample on a third track.

    • Madeleine Bloom October 8, 2016 at 16:50 - Reply

      Yes, but that isn’t the case for all the effects on the track which will change the sound (Live devices or plug-ins). And you seem to be forgetting that recording is already part of the gain staging process, so it surely matters there. Also, at some point you will have to route the audio out through physical outputs, so why not consider this before it becomes an issue which I’ve seen time and time again.

  5. Mario October 14, 2016 at 17:12 - Reply

    Thanks for great articles!
    I switched to Live from Logic and I’m missing one crucial mixing tool in Live – pre-fader metering. It’s one of the most important mixing tools for me and it’s not available in Live. With pre-fader metering, gain staging is very easy and precise. Small meters in Live, between plugins, are too small for me.
    Do you know if pre-fader metering will be available in one of the future version of Live or if there is any trick how to achieve it in Live.

    • Madeleine Bloom October 15, 2016 at 00:19 - Reply

      If you have Max for Live, this should do the trick: http://www.maxforlive.com/library/device/2980/basic-meters

      • Mario October 15, 2016 at 22:31

        Thanks! Hope pre-fader metering will be available in one of future versions of Live…

      • Jeremy Murray-Wakefield March 6, 2017 at 00:24

        There is pre-fade metering – just not all tracks on show at once.
        It is shown in the device view between each device you have in a chain (or just by itself, if you have none)

      • Madeleine Bloom March 27, 2017 at 12:53

        Yes, and Mario said they were too small to be used as proper pre-fade meterings and I agree.

  6. Kent Sandvik February 9, 2017 at 20:04 - Reply

    I wish Ableton Live had a default so set the dB value when creating channels, let’s say I would set it to -6dB by default, not 0dB which is the case just now.

    • Madeleine Bloom February 10, 2017 at 15:17 - Reply

      It does when you create your own default tracks. Change the level to -6dB, then right-click on the track title and choose ‘Save as Default Audio/MIDI Track’. The MIDI track requires an instrument for this to work though and it will be part of any MIDI track you create. This goes for any devices added before saving it as a default.

      • Jeremy Murray-Wakefield March 5, 2017 at 23:30

        Not quite.

        You can delete the instrument prior to saving as the default MIDI track.

      • Madeleine Bloom March 27, 2017 at 12:43

        You’re right. It maintains the volume setting when you add an instrument.

  7. Kent Sandvik February 9, 2017 at 20:06 - Reply

    The issue with hot signal has really to do with plug-in headroom, if a plugin has a small headroom to operate within, let’s say a vintage compressor, it can’t really fully analyze and do its job. The output from such hot sources also has very small dynamic changes — looks like a brick wall (and sounds like one) compared with the holy grail of audio output looking like a fish comb.

    • Madeleine Bloom February 10, 2017 at 15:18 - Reply

      Yes absolutely, but also all instruments and effects of the used DAW.

  8. Dan April 6, 2017 at 20:37 - Reply

    I’ve read this article and honestly watched many videos and stuff trying to learn proper gain staging so I can do proper mixing and also trying to learn mastering at the same time! From everything I’ve read and also tips I’ve received I know I’m supposed to use a utility on every track as the first thing (which I’ve got) and my understanding is to pull the gain down (pure signal no eq’s or anything else active, volumes all at unity gain 0db) all on everything until the master bus reads a peak of no higher than -6, I then activate all my stuff on every track and the max readout doesn’t peak much higher than that (although there is one more peak that takes it to -3) so I start using track volumes to pull it down but by the time I’ve got all the dynamics in place I’m peaking no higher than -13.5, average about -15 for most of the track, probably worth mentioning my highest individual track volume is -6 as well and last time I exceeded that it sounded horrible…. (feeling like I’m having trouble mastering it with that much headroom) am I doing something incorrectly at the mixing stage? I can’t find answers anywhere, even though people are swearing that they like this much headroom when mastering!

    • Madeleine Bloom April 6, 2017 at 21:06 - Reply

      I’d recommend grouping tracks (e.g. all synths) to create submixes. Mix the tracks within each group with each other until the levels work, then most of the time it’s only about balancing the various submixes. Learning to mix is enough at first. I focused on that and had someone else master my work. EQing is quite important and it takes a while to know what to do and be confident about it. Just hang in there, it takes time to become good.

      If it feels like too much headroom when you have a master output of -6dB, try more than one compressor with gentle settings in a row.

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