Ableton Live is arguably one of the best music production softwares out there, especially for electronic musicians and DJs, in part because of its ability to be used as a live instrument in and of itself.
Ableton is relatively pricey but well worth it if you’re looking for a super mailable and creative audio workstation. You can check out our article about whether it’s worth the price here, where we compare it to other workstations.
What makes Live so cool? A few things, but mostly the dual workstation aspect– the Arrangement and Session views, the mixture of which opens up exciting new creative possibilities and workflow.
However, if you’re thinking about whether you can properly mix and master your creations in Ableton Live, we’re assuming you know about the wonders of the program and are looking for direction in finishing up a project.
Maybe you’ve only ever worked in Ableton and you don’t have the dough to dish out for a whole other program? Maybe you’re researching DAW’s, trying to decide which one is right for you and your studio?
You can mix and master very well in Ableton Live, many famous musicians and producers do. However, as the name suggests, it is software that excels for composition and live performances and that is part of the reason why it costs more than other DAW software.
If things like that don’t bother you though, then good news– you can still mix fairly easily and even master your tracks in Ableton without compromising the final sound. It just requires a little creativity.
Mixing and mastering are the two last steps in music production, necessary for sending your track out into the wide digital world. In this article we’ll talk about some of the complications of mixing and mastering in Ableton, how it can affect your mix, the complexity of the process, and whether you’d be better off using another DAW for this purpose.
It may require one or two changes in the way you normally mix your tracks, but you can polish up your song in Ableton, no problem. Would another program work better for this purpose? Maybe. Honestly, it mostly depends on how you work, or how you plan to work. Let’s get into it.
Mixing and mastering; a general overview
With the plethora of DAW’s these days, musicians and producers have an unprecedented amount of options with regard to composing, recording, mixing and mastering music. With these fantastic programs constantly changing, upgrading and evolving, we can now write, record, edit,
Mix, master, all in one workstation. This is awesome for those of us on a budget (like myself), as there’s no need to pay for multiple programs. It also simplifies the process in that there’s no need to work with various toolsets that these programs offer (many of which require some time to master), and you can work effectively in one framework.
Many producers have been working with the same program they started with (and grown to love), for years. The more professional you get, the deeper the technical immersion into each of these processes, and that can possibly result in a literal workstation built just around mixing tracks. There are producers (I know a few) who focus almost exclusively on the mixing and mastering process, to the point where they hardly record anymore. Let’s go over these terms quickly to give some background.
Mixing, for those just starting out, is the balancing of the various components in your, well, mix.
You don’t want anything to be drowning anything else out, you want everything to be ‘sitting’ well with each other in terms of timing, EQ levels etc.
You’re looking to have certain things in the foreground of your track or creating a nice soundscape in the background, whatever it may be.
It’s the after-process, looking over all your work and fitting it more snugly together, almost like a puzzle.
Some of this happens while you’re recording or composing of course, but going over everything after you’re done is when real mixing happens.
When you’re editing your mix, you’re paying attention to how the different elements of your composition meld and mesh with each other, fixing compression, warmth, fading, volume, panning, saturation, and basically going over each component to make sure they’re playing nicely with their friends.
Mastering, on the other hand, is more general (and yet somehow more specific?) It’s the process of prepping your mix for distribution.
Simply put, it’s about making a good mix better. It’s the birds-eye view, especially for an album, as mastering would focus more on the interplay between the different songs, how they sound one after the other, making sure they’re fading into each other properly, etc.
Generally mastering happens after the mixing process, once you have it all together as a master track, because fitting together all the little parts and pieces was taken care of during the mixing process, but to each their own.
It requires a different skill-set than mixing, and it’s what makes the songs you hear by famous artists sound so sweet and clean.
It really is an art form, and many people (especially those who are just starting out) send out their final mixes to professional or semi-professional producers who, besides having a more experienced ear, will also just have equipment that’s better suited to balancing the final sound.
The better the equipment, the more exact you can be in mastering a more complete, complex and deep track; that quality will inevitably filter down to the cheaper equipment most listeners own and still sound amazing. A good producer will, in fact must, take that factor into account while mastering (the factor of most people not listening on the highest-quality studio headphones) and make changes accordingly.
These days however, mastering is becoming more and more accessible to the masses with the evolution of DAW’s and specific plugins to aid the process.
You’re DAW, surprisingly enough, does not necessarily affect the final sound of your track, as many of them overlap in their basic functions and capabilities. The principles stay the same. But there are major differences in workflow. So how does Ableton handle these processes?
Mixing and mastering with Ableton
The Arrangement View in Ableton kind of works the way you might be used to, looking fairly similar to other programs with multiple tracks and a timeline and everything.
Session View is more loop-based, and it’s unique to Ableton, primarily designed for playing live.
This workstation is really great for it’s specific purpose, but does it compromise the mixing and mastering process?
Well, like we said, Ableton is slightly limited in terms of complexity. Even if you do have the upgraded version, it’s called ‘Ableton Live’ for a reason- unlike Cubase or Logic or other big names, it was built for live performance and looping in mind and it can get overwhelmed with large amounts of tracks, not to mention heavy tracks.
The more complex your mix, the harder it’s going to be on Ableton, especially on a less powerful computer. If your recording or writing style is lighter or less complicated, this may not bother you, but it is something to think about if you would like to move forward with music production.
There are also small details that drive some people crazy when mixing with Ableton, such as problems with automation (there is no compensation for delay in automation when working in Live, which can cause problems when using plugins). Poor performance with a large audio buffer, and the goal specific orientation that comes with the dual-view design, all good examples of why finalizing your mix in Ableton can be frustrating.
That’s not to say it can’t be done, though! Ableton still has the capabilities of another DAW, you just may have to get used to working in a different way if you’ve been using more ‘traditional’ workstations until now.
If you just bought Ableton and you’re wondering if you need to invest in another program to prepare your music for distribution, you really don’t.
It will sound good. There really is no difference in sound quality after mixing in Ableton, if you learn how it’s done.
What do we mean by changes in workflow?
Opening a new session with a single multi-track (or a bunch of stems, which are various track components that have been condensed) and working on it in that form, as opposed to Logic where consolidation is not specifically necessary when mixing. Stuff like that.
An argument may be made, perhaps, that because the mastering process is slightly more complicated in Live, you’re liable to make more mistakes and your track will suffer accordingly; but that can happen in any workstation, and the answer is, as it often is in music, practice practice practice.
That said, the aforementioned quirks of the Ableton workstation are a factor, so once again, think about how you work. There are plenty of people who take a final mix out of Ableton and transfer it to another DAW, Pro Tools or Logic for example and master it there. But that of course comes with a big cost implication!
There are some who do both mixing and mastering in another workstation, and there are some who use Live for everything, start to finish, and swear by it.
So think about how you’ve produced digitally before, or how you’d like to produce as these preferences will dictate your choice of workstation from the beginning, including (obviously) but not exclusive to, mixing and mastering. And of course, if you’re thinking of investing in one DAW for the foreseeable future, take into account these limitations in Ableton.
There are many in-depth and technical tutorials on mixing and mastering in Ableton on youtube (for free, of course), as well as online courses you can take with sites like Udemy or Coursera.
The Ableton page itself has a wealth of information and can be an excellent resource. Use these as tools to help you understand whether or not Ableton is right for you. Personally, the pros of working with Ableton Live are well worth the possible inconveniences of mastering within the program, but that’s just me. What about you?