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I make demos on Ableton, but I am new to the world of mixing.

I've never been good at balancing volume levels. I do my best to dial in my levels--whichever knob I reach for first, typically--but the result is always frustrating and never consistent. For example, I'll end up with all my DAW levels cranked so high the audio is distorting while my MacBook is on its lowest volume. Or I'll cap out the volume on my laptop/headphones/etc, but the DAW levels will be as low as they can go. Sometimes, I'll think my levels are okay only to touch my keyboard and nearly blow out my eardrums.

I'm hoping that you can help explain the best practice with regard to volume settings ("signal chain?") so that I can focus more on music and mixing and less on finicking with volume controls.

Here are some of the various different ways I can control volume with my at-home set up:

  1. Instrument volume level, ex. MIDI controller volume or electric guitar volume knob.
  2. Studio Monitors (Level currently at +4db).
  3. Laptop (Standard MacBook volume up or down keys).
  4. Audio Interface ("Channel 1 Gain"; "Channel 2 Gain"; “Monitor”; “Input Playback/Direct”; and “Headphone Volume”).
  5. In DAW (Clip gain adjustments; Faders; Master Volume; Control knob with headphone logo next to it).

The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook, by Bobby Owsinsky, says that many mixers monitor at conversation level (79 dB SPL) or lower. My track volume in Ableton reads -5.55 (unit?).

I seriously need to balance volume levels before I can actually learn to mix! Do you have any suggestions for me? Thank you.

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  • What audio interface do you have? What monitors do you have? Sep 15, 2022 at 2:02
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    Black Lion Audio Revolution 2X2 USB Audio Interface and Yamaha HS7 Powered Monitor (Pair)
    – 286642
    Sep 15, 2022 at 2:05
  • "My track volume in Ableton reads -5.55 (unit?)." I don't use this software, but this is most likely dB relative to the volume of a full-height waveform in the audio data. The software cannot tell how loud your hardware (i.e. speakers) will play the sound; it doesn't know anything about the physical volume knob, dimensions of the speaker apparatus etc. Sep 15, 2022 at 12:42

2 Answers 2

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Before you launch Live to start recording, composing, mixing, etc., do the following:

  1. Leave the monitors at their current setting and do not change that.
  2. Turn the big monitor level knob and the headphone level knob on the Revolution 2x2 all the way down.
  3. I would normally expect that your laptop volume control would have no effect on the levels coming from the BLA Revolution 2x2, but that might be wrong in this case. If you go into audio preferences on your MacBook and set output to the 2x2 and it still lets you change the volume, then turn it all way up (knobs on the 2x2 are still all the way down at this time).
  4. Open Live and leave or set the master fader in the Live set to unity gain, AKA 0, which should be the default. Never change the master fader in any Live set for any reason. Sometime you might read or hear advice about changing this level. If you don't fully understand the reasons to change it in what you read or hear, you're not ready to change it - leave it at 0. If you open up a set you worked on in past and it's not at 0, set the master to 0 again.
  5. If you haven't started mixing anything in Live or if you just added a new track, set the new track fader or all the faders to -6 dB. This is -6 below the default level. The problem is with all the track faders at unity (0, default) it's easy to overdrive the virtual summing amp inside Live and get distortion. -6 dB is a good starting point until you have recorded and started mixing. Most tracks will be mixed lower than -6, usually only tracks that were recorded very quietly would go above -6.
  6. Now you're ready to start playback in Live. You should see the master fader jumping but hear nothing from the monitors.
  7. Slowly bring the big knob (monitor level) on the 2x2 up until you can hear the Live session at a comfortable level. The big knob is big because it's where you should reach to adjust your listening level and it's the only place you should adjust your listening level. The only other thing you would adjust is if you want to use headphones instead, you would plug them in, turn the big knob all the way down and slowly turn the headphone level up until they are comfortable.
  8. Every time you're done working you should turn the headphone and big knob levels on the 2x2 all the way down to zero. Every time you start working again you would turn the monitor or headphone knob back up to an appropriate level. Before you start playback in Live check the big knob and headphone level to make sure they haven't been set really high.
  9. Learn approximately where you like the big knob and headphone controls on the 2x2, and aim to turn them to about the same place every time.
  10. A good trick for checking balance during a mix is to turn the volume down almost until you can't hear and see if you can hear all the tracks or listen for tracks that have dropped out while others are still audible. If you use this trick, again use the big knob or the headphone level on the 2x2 to lower the volume and then bring it back up to your normal level.
  11. Before you start playing a keyboard or instrument through Live for the first time in a session, lower the big knob and/or headphone level, even all the way if you want to be sure. There are too many little ways a level can be very high in a hidden place that the easiest way to check is to put noise into Live and watch the meters jump with the listening level turned down just in case it's really loud in the meters. If it is, you can troubleshoot the gain staging for the really loud track with the listening level set very quietly and then turn up to the normal level when you have the problem fixed.

In short, set your listening level on the BLA 2x2 and your track levels on the individual track faders in Live.

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  • Thank you, Todd! What is the relationship between the "Input Playback" control and the big knob ("Monitor")? The big knob doesn't have an effect on the sound until the input playback is turned up. How do I know how far to turn up the input playback before turning up the big knob?
    – 286642
    Sep 15, 2022 at 22:29
  • @286642 Which sound are you trying to listen to? The sound from a guitar or keyboard plugged into the 2x2 or the sound coming from Ableton Live? Sep 16, 2022 at 0:47
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    @286642 Either way it looks like BLA manual recommends putting the “Direct” knob at 12 o’clock (straight up): blacklionaudio.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/… Sep 16, 2022 at 0:50
  • Regarding your claim "it's easy to overdrive the virtual summing amp inside Live and get distortion": AFAIK, you can't clip Ableton's channels or summing, because there's virtually infinite headroom. You can clip individual plugins (if they're of clipping sort) and master outputs, and you can clip the VU meters visually. If you can demonstrate that the channel summing clips, I'd be interested to see it. I tested it, I used a kick drum with +36 dB level, channel VU meter completely red and beyond, but I could counter in the master bus with -36 dB gain, and the end result is clean, no clipping. Sep 17, 2022 at 13:12
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica Oh I think you’re right. The meters will show red but the audio won’t actually clip inside Live. I stand by the recommendation but I’ll edit the answer to be more accurate. They must be using one of those fancy new floating point summing amps now. Of course in the early versions of Live the audio would actually clip in the summing amp. Sep 17, 2022 at 13:54
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  1. MIDI controller keyboard volume fader- it's not clear to me what this is actually controlling.

  2. Studio Monitors- +4 is standard. You would turn this up if your interface outputs a quiet or unbalanced signal. Set it and forget it.

  3. Laptop- All the way up. Turning this up gives you a better signal to noise ratio for free. Set it and forget it.

  4. Audio Interface- This is now your system volume adjustment, whenever you need to adjust system volume. "I want to turn my pc volume down since it's late and my mom's sleeping" - reach for this knob.

  5. In DAW- Clip gain and faders get changed if a sound needs to be louder or quieter relative to the other instruments. Clip gain is before effects, fader is after effects. "The guitar needs to be quieter/louder" - reach for the guitar's fader or clip gain. Don't try to set your system volume by moving all of the individual track faders together. The only time you'd ever do this is if don't have room to work on the fader- i.e. you want a couple instruments louder but they're already maxed out, or you're tired of making tiny movements at the bottom of the fader's range.

    The master fader controls the level of the actual project you're working on. You would adjust this before exporting a track, so that it exports at the right level (as loud as possible without clipping)

    The "control knob with headphone logo"... I don't use Ableton, but I assume this is like FL Studio's second "Master Volume" knob. This lets you adjust how loud a project sounds while you're working on it, without actually changing the level of anything in the project. I use this to turn down my monitoring level once I finish mixing and start pushing the track louder, because mastered music is so much louder than the other projects that you're still working on. Or, you can use it to level-match your project to reference tracks on spotify/ windows media player/ whatever.

The only realistic way you can calibrate your setup to 79dB is by purchasing a decibel meter, holding it where your head would be, and measuring the loudness of your speakers.

And lastly... you can start learning to mix right now. You don't need a monitoring system calibrated to 79dB SPL to learn to mix. The calibration is just an extra little step toward getting more consistent results when mixing.

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