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Mastering in Ableton. Using Spectrum module

Written by Jim Pavloff.

In this article I will tell about one method to control your mix using a built-in Ableton's spectrum analyser. I use it while mastering every my track. The one of the most important requirement of mastering process is a presence of a big number of different sound monitors for your music. The more monitors you have to listen to your masters, the more probability that you will make a correct mastering to your tracks.

In different monitors you will hear different sound picture. Some unpleasant sounds can become heard more than before while listening through another monitors. And when you will tune up your sound to suit different monitors,  then you will find out some middle value of the mastering parameters, and your master will sound good through all your audio-monitors.

All those things above are good not only for audio-monitoring. Additional visual monitoring is good too. One way of visual monitoring is to use a spectrum analyzer. It helps me to control a balance of low frequencies in my master mix. It is very useful, because it's too hard to hear this balance correctly by your ears. Spectrum analyzer will show you a level of low frequencies in your mix, and you can then compare it to another reference quality track to see a difference and to correct it.

Spectrum analyzer in Ableton realised into a module called Spectrum. It can be found in browser on "Live Devices" tab, inside an "Audio Effects" folder. Below in the figure it is shown the settings of  Spectrum module, which are used to control the master sound.

I place Spectrum module in the end of my master chain, after the last plug-in that take part in mastering process - after Waves L2. Usually, main bass harmonic of the kick drum comes inside a frequency range 48-60 Hz. Exactly this frequency is the loudest frequency of all the sound spectrum for all club-style music. You can easily notice the peak (on the figure), that corresponds to this frequency - it's the highest peak at left. According to my researches, the maximum of this peak in a final master should lay somewhere inside a range of  -12 dB ... -6 dB along a vertical scale. It is the optimum low frequency balance level in the mix.

Next, if you go to right side along the spectrum,  there are less loud peaks inside a range of 70 - 120 Hz. These peaks are base harmonics, that respond to a bass part in your track. The height of these harmonics must not be higher than the height of low frequency peak of a kick drum. Because kick drum must sound louder than the bass. If the height of bass harmonics is higher or on the same level as the kick drum's harmonics peak, then it means that your bass and your kick drum are conflicting and mixed together incorrectly. In this case you will need to reduce volume of the bass track, or also you can cut some low frequencies off your bass by using EQ on the bass track.

You can control bass and kick drum balance using spectrum analyzer not only at the mastering process. You can also do that before mastering, when you mixing up the balance of all instruments. However, you don't have to rise up a maximum volume of a low-frequency harmonics of the kick drum right up to -6...-12 dB, because it can lead to signal overload. Making the lowest frequency rise up to it's maximum ceiling must be done at mastering stage.

You can use a spectrum analyzer also when you writing your track. It can help you to cut some bad frequencies from your samples. To do that, you should first determine a bad unpleasant frequency visually by it's peak in some frequency range, then point a mouse to that range in a spectrum analyzer, and to see the value of this frequency. And then, when you know the value of the unpleasant frequency, you can cut it using EQ on a corresponding track.

One more moment about spectrum analyzer. I often see in it another interesting thing - it's a high frequency slope in the highest (right) spectrum range. It can be clearly seen on a figure above, in the most right end of the spectrum. Why? The thing is that this slope usually presents on most recordings, that have been mastered through expensive analog gear. It eats some part of a high frequencies, but also it adds some analog warmth to the mix. This slope can be done by cutting high end frequencies on a mastering stage by using EQ inside Izotope Ozone 4 plug-in, and also using PSP MixSaturator2 plug-in. These things will be described in detail in my next publications.

You can use Spectrum to view and to study a sounding of a reference firm tracks. It will help you to feel the sound spectrum and to adapt to a correct picture. Let's open some high quality reference track  on an empty audio track inside your project. Then drag a Spectrum module onto this track. Set up it's parameters as on your master Spectrum module (see the figure above). And now hold it, there's one important thing I have to say here. Let's imagine that you want to play this reference track inside your ableton project to compare it with your master mix. If you open this track on an empty audio track and just will try to play it back, then it probably will go through all your master chain. It will drastically worsen the quality of the played firm track, because you making mastering over another mastering. To avoid that, you should assign the output of this audio track to go in a bypass of your master chain. To do that, in the Arrangement View mode (horizontal layout of the tracks), you should switch on a small round button in the right bottom corner of the main work area with the "І.О" icon on it, and to reassign the output of the track from  "Master" to "Ext. Out", as shown on the figure below:

After that is done, you will be able to listen to your reference track in a bypass of your master section by clicking a Solo (S) button on it. Within one of the following publications I will tell you about another useful and interesting method of a visual control of your mix - monitoring using an oscilloscope VST plug-in called S(M)exoscope.


Written by Jim Pavloff, 2010

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