Can stock plugins in Ableton achieve high-quality mastering?

by Sep 3, 2019Blog, Tutorials0 comments

The mastering Gauntlet started on September 1st!  Check out www.themasteringgauntlet.net to see the latest news and announcements regarding the challenge.  While open submission period is now closed, follow us on Instagram and comment on our daily challenge posts for a chance to win free mastering!

It seems that everywhere online that I turn to, people are asking questions about mastering and if it’s possible with stock plugins, or what plugins should they get?  And, with every post came a deluge of wide-ranging responses, but there was a common denominator among them;

“You can’t master with stock plugins, go buy more!”

Even some reputable artists with decent-sized followings were telling their producer communities that they would never recommend using stock Ableton tools for mastering.  I decided to dive in and see if I could agree with their perspective, that you have to invest hundreds – sometimes even thousands of dollars on high-end mastering-centric plugins to achieve a commercial quality result.   It would seem like a natural conclusion, after all, as I’ve invested lots over years as I’ve refined and dialed in my custom signature chains for EDM to get a very specific character.

So, I set about trying to replicate my signature chain as closely as possible, this time using only what is available with Ableton Live’s Suite in order to answer this one question:  can stock plugins in Ableton achieve high-quality mastering?

In the tutorial video, I walk through the redesigned mastering chain using 100% stock plugins in Ableton Live.  Each processor in the chain is placed in a specific order to do a particular task.

The song I’m using to demonstrate the mastering chain is from a client, Lucas Franco, who’s prepping to start releasing a whole lot of music in the coming months.  As soon as I have more information for how to contact and connect with him, I’ll update this article and share the info.

What’s this chain doing?

While I walk through what individual processor is doing in the chain and what I’m listening for, how I approach manipulating each module, the whole “sound” of the chain is meant to create a style of leveling and tonal character that provides a “sheen” by softening transients while still allowing for the perception of punch and lift to the loudness of the track can reach into extreme levels providing a mix is well balanced.

The two-stage multi-band approach does the bulk of the contouring while squeezing the critical areas of the frequency range that allow for quite a versatile use across many sub-genres of EDM.

However, where this chain becomes very niche, is in how the transients are being softened.  Compared to other, more traditional mastering chains that can create an edgy hardness to the transients in percussion elements and really sharpen the impact of the material, this is intentionally doing the opposite.  That’s not to say you can’t achieve impact and punch with this style of mastering chain, but it’s meant to smooth out and create a sense of gloss in the final sonic presentation.

The Result

So, first, I’d like to share my thoughts on where those artists are saying they would never recommend using stock plugins to master.  Just why would they give the advice like this?  They’re intentionally setting the tone from their perspective, and you have to keep in mind they’ve been in the production game for a while, enough to have experience and resources built up to reach for a higher personal standard.  Everyone’s answers are going to reflect just where they are in their career, or which echelon of the industry they reside in.  Those with higher standards are often sitting much higher up in the industry than those they’re offering advice to.  But what strikes me as off-putting about their answers is that they’re not taking the time to illuminate their perspective and the reasoning behind why they put down the stock plugins.

So, I say all this because I myself would probably not ditch all of the well-invested resources I’ve built my custom, signature chains with over the years, for just stock plugins.  There are some very small, minute differences happening at every stage and even some things in my chain that just couldn’t be replicated with stock plugins – such as the Waves Center Stereo tool for tweaking spatialization and controlling the lows and highs with the specific dials that plugin offers.  Is that really necessary, though?  No.  I don’t even use that across every master, every time.  It’s just one trick in my bag that I can use to quickly achieve a specific result for a very specific task.

So, can the stock Ableton plugins do the job?  YES! I feel completely confident in the master I demonstrated here in Ableton. It did some things differently from my custom chain, but it still achieved impact and punch, allowed me to dial in tonal balance that the artist was wanting to achieve, and reach a loudness level that the artist and I felt satisfactory without being overly loud.  The fact is the tools available to everyone today, no matter whether you’re just starting out, or have been doing this for a while, can achieve whatever you want.  It’s not about the gear, the gear doesn’t make the record.  It’s how you use it that makes the difference.

I would argue to anyone who’s constantly on the hunt for a “better” plugin to help them achieve a sound they’re struggling to get, could simply spend more time learning the tools.  Save your money on more important things.  Invest in yourself first (ie: save money by putting it away in investments that yield returns) before spending on gear or software that doesn’t truly provide you a return on your investment; especially if you’re still early in your career or just beginning

Explore the chain for yourself

With the launch of my special challenge project – The Mastering Gauntlet, I’m challenging producers and artists to shift their mindset and think smarter.  Why spend thousands of dollars on plugins that only get you that extra 1%?  If you follow anyone successful in the music business, they’ll tell you that just putting out music, and staying consistent with acting on your goals is how you build success.  I’m just as guilty as the next person when it comes to over-investing to chase that final 1%.  The truth is, nowadays, the stock plugins that come with modern DAWs are so powerful that you can absolutely achieve commercial-quality results without having to spend any more of your hard-earned cash!  So, I decided to challenge myself by attempting to rebuild my signature chain with Ableton’s stock plugins.  If you heard the demonstration in the tutorial video, the demonstration speaks for itself!

Your Burning Questions Answered!

I hope this helped you find the answer to the question, Can stock plugins in Ableton achieve high-quality mastering?  More importantly, uncover the perspectives and reasons why or why not.  However, If you want to know why mastering is so important, I’d recommend reading my previous article titled just that: “Why is Mastering So Important?“.

As we head into September, I’ll be mastering 1 song per day as part of the Mastering Gauntlet Challenge.  If we still have openings, I’ll be posting on Facebook & Instagram to invite people to submit their mix for free mastering.   The goal is to master 31 songs for 31 artists by October 1st, 2019.  Each day, I’ll be recording a walk-through series where I dive in and explain my approach to mastering the philosophies and dilemmas that crop up with each mix.  Come October, I’ll start releasing each episode and take the questions I’ve received as they apply to the mastering job I’ve done, and answer them.

This would be the perfect time to answer your specific questions you may have about mastering.  What would you like to know?  Leave your comments below and I’ll make sure I address them especially tailored to fellow Ableton Live users!

Need your song mastered?  I offer free mix critiques and mastering previews!  Reach out to me with a brief description of your project, and what your goals are with this release and your brand!  I’d love to hear from you.

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