Need Live Looping Help: LEVELS/MIX ?

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jah4life
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Need Live Looping Help: LEVELS/MIX ?

Post by jah4life » Wed Apr 23, 2008 6:30 pm

I am trying to find a RELIABLE way to make sure that all of my loop and track levels are consistent while looping audio on the fly in a live performance situation. My issue is when I start looping live sounds, especially my guitar and keyboards, the levels are inconsistent.

I play a guitar or keyboard part, it's totally the right level in the monitor when I play it and it seems to be getting the best signal level possible. But then when I loop it, it drops usually about 1db or more, and it's conspicuously quieter than the rest of the mix. I have to rush to get the level back up, and in the studio it's no problem, but for live performance this is just not ok. I would like to get it so I can be totally confident that all my on-the-fly loops will be at the right level the first time around so I can focus on more important things, like playing the song.

I already have a compressor and limiter on the Main output. Do I need a compressor on the input? On the loop track? Should I bus all of my loops through another track with a compressor on it? How can I do this but still keep the load down on my CPU?

Also, when everything gets going, it's easy to start sounding muddy and cluttered. Any good ways open up the mix and get each part more defined (besides having a compressor on every track or other CPU hungry methods)?

I know how to set my gain stages, so I don't need instructions on how to get the best signal to noise ratio or highest input levels.


I have looked through some of the threads on live guitar/echoplex style looping in the vein of Kid Beyond, etc. I have implemented a similar setup for about a year now, and it's been pretty good to me. But I keep running into this same problem, and I know there must be a simple solution, but most of these threads seem to focus mostly on how to use controllers and creative routing to achieve quasi-sound-on-sound looping and not really on the mix. If there is a thread that already discusses this issue, feel free to just direct me there. Thanks.

laird
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Post by laird » Wed Apr 23, 2008 6:38 pm

1db isn't conspicuous... but thats neither here nor there.
I think what you are experiencing is just a difference between Monitoring levels and Recording levels?
I'm not sure what your setup is... but if say you play guitar into a mixer, route that mixer into your soundcard, then back out to your mixer... you just have to turn the input gain up on your soundcard to compensate.

Use a compressor only if you are experiencing problems with your live loops being too dynamic... say clipping in the loud parts but too quiet in the quiet parts.

jah4life
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Post by jah4life » Wed Apr 23, 2008 7:14 pm

My setup is as follows:

Guitar > amp > sm57 > motu traveler > ableton track 1 for input > track(s) for loops

for keys:

all in ableton:
Midi track w/ lounge lizard or mtron > audio track(s) for looping


I have the input gain set to appropriate levels on the Traveler. Since 1 db is not conspicuous, then we'll just say it drops enough db's to be conspicuous. The guitar's input track is only being sent to the loop tracks and not to the main outs since it's first being played and monitored through my amp, and all i need to hear of it through ableton main outs are the loops upon playback. Does that make sense?

Of course I know I need to match level of the amp to the level of the loops and the whole mix; this is just one piece of the puzzle. But even when the main mix and the amp are all even, the loops end up coming through just a bit too quiet. If I push the input gain any higher it starts clipping. That's why I thought a submix with a compressor might help.

laird
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Post by laird » Wed Apr 23, 2008 8:02 pm

Well, yes a compressor would help if you are already maxing out your headroom.

basically, yes, you just need to drop in a plugin that'll boost the output of your tracks that are just too quiet. (or... drop the volume of everything else, saving yourself from having to limit the dynamics of your guitar in order to hear it in the mix)

ideally, you'd just turn the volume slider up on those Live tracks before-hand and set your recording levels by ear (OK, the guitar sounds a little too loud, which means its right).

I think with your setup, since you aren't monitoring pure Live output, whatever you do will likely involve a bit of this "by-ear" fudging.

jah4life
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Post by jah4life » Wed Apr 23, 2008 8:56 pm

laird, thanks for your feedback. Guess I have to reassess my overall mix, probably by just bringing it down a bit.

the "by ear fudging" is what i had hoped to avoid, since it's what I currently do. Basically as a result I rely on who ever is running the house sound board to get the mix of my ableton main outs, my amp and vocals right in the house and in the on-stage monitors. That's where it gets sticky. With enough time to sound check it's not a problem, but when it's all rushed and no time to check more than a minute of music, it's a real disaster sometimes. Plus every sound guy has a different idea of how it "should" sound and that's rarely how I intend for it to sound.

To eliminate the on-stage monitoring issue, ideally I would like the whole mix plus a click track in my headphones, and the mix without the click to the main system.

Is it possible to split the signal into main outs (1-2) and separate stereo outs with the same assignment as the cue/click out (3-4)?

electropoet
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Post by electropoet » Thu Apr 24, 2008 1:06 am

You have stumbled upon one of the more difficult aspects of using Ableton Live IMHO. Not that it is hard or anything, just that it takes a little foresight to get everything working (and sounding) properly. I imagine that each musicians situation is unique, so there is no 'one size fits all' answer. The best bet is to apply sound mixing technique. With that said...here are 2 things I'd keep in mind.

First...employ a method to your metering/gain staging. Make sure once you get things sounding right...you do the same thing everytime. As your set-up becomes more complex it is important that you are always keeping the levels under control and using the same metering technique...nothing is more frustrating then constantly having to re-assess what your volume levels should be at. Plus, all your loops from various projects will be recorded at different levels instead of unifrom.

Second...never set a channel fader higher than -12 bd. This goes against conventional wisdom...but it has been shown time and time again that the reason ITB mixes sound like shit when everything is summed and sent to the master fader is because most people slam the channel faders which can quickly cause clipping and other un-natural sounding artifacts. So...my advice when you are re-configuring your mix levels is to never have a channel fader go above -12...you can easily configure midi controllers to not go above that. Don't worry that the individual channel is not close to the normal peak. That is a hold over from analog days. Digital gives you plenty (I say Plenty) of headroom with out picking up noise from the floor. Obviously don't woefully under-record level...but if you leave your channel faders at -12 and then get your loops to play back at the same level as your live guitar sound, then I can promise you that your overall mix will sound better....especially when you go to render. This may be a little to technical...but going back to issue number 1 (above)...I think you'll be better off in the long run if you apply this technique now and always work the same way...rather than always having to change things up.

For the record...I use a small mackie mixing board to get all my instruments into Ableton and using the above set-up still have to trim the main output by 6 bd or so to get the overall mix squared with whatever instrument I'm recording....but that will depend on how you've got your soundcard trim inputs set.

Also...I tried using an guitar amp in my set-up...but is was just to hard. Ever thought of using a direct out from you amp? Mine didn't have one...so I just use a Boss GT-8...no...not nearly as pure as my very nice vox...but for use with live the trade off was worth it...as always...YMMV. Plus...I hook the direct outs in stereo and love the panning (delay) sounds...but I suppose it just depends on the music.

Hope this helps somewhat.

Angstrom
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Post by Angstrom » Thu Apr 24, 2008 1:30 am

Have you tried a different method of routing the output? I have no idea what outputs a motu traveller has, but this is what I would aim for as a more controllable alternative:

guitar into soundcard(!) -> into ableton and looping tracks, out from guitar & guitar looping to soundcard ->guitar amp-> sm58 -> F.O.H guy

the reasoning being : the loop and instrument relative levels can be fixed in software and both of them are delivered to the guitar amp in a premixed way and then that is taken by the FOH guy.
The system you have means that the stage sound and the loop sound are disconnected from each other, it's never quite going to 'sit'

this may not work for you, just a suggestion.

jah4life
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Post by jah4life » Thu Apr 24, 2008 5:52 pm

Electropoet,

I tried your -12db idea to great effect. At first it seemed like I was going to get too quiet of a signal, but with some tweaking it ended up sounding just as "loud' but with more definition in the parts and way more headroom.

A couple of questions, though. Are you suggesting that I leave EVERY fader on Ableton at max -12db, even the MASTER FADER?

B/C I still need to leave the master up at zero to get the levels I need (so far).
What is your method of getting the mix to be "louder" when you have all the faders at -12?

I just put a compressor on the master out and set my levels using that, but it doesn't seem ideal, or like the 'right' way to do it. but maybe it is?

Lastly, this causes issues with my VSTi's. For some songs I have one instance of a VSTi (lounge lizard or Mtron) and have several tracks set up for looping them. With the original setup (faders close to or at zero db), I had no issues with volume drops.
But now, when I play the vst, it's at the right level, but when I loop it into another channel, it drops SIGNIFICANTLY in volume.

My workaround for this is to have all the VSTi loop channels set higher, around -7 to -5 db, in order for the loops to be at the same volume as the other tracks at -12db.

This is really strange because it seems like the volume I'm hearing from the vsti should then be the same volume, or at least CLOSE to the same volume as the loop that you record from it, but without this workaround, it's not even close.

Any feedback is greatly appreciated, and thanks so much to all of you who have chimed in here.

electropoet
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Post by electropoet » Thu Apr 24, 2008 8:19 pm

Hey man,

Regarding the master bus. I leave it at unity...i.e. 0 db...the idea is to keep the summing from clipping and getting cluttered. If you are still peaking out, or in my case need to lower the master outs so that I'm calibrated using my external mixer then I just use the utility pug-in and lower to the desired amount. This works fine.

Regarding the utility plug-in. Use it. You don't really want to use a compressor to set levels....although you certainly can. With a compressor you want the level to be exactly the same when you flip it on and off...this is so you can a/b the effect the compressor is having on the audio. If you boost the level of the output, then you will almost always think that the compressed sound is more impressive and therefore having the desired effect, when in fact it may sound like shit. Set the compressor volume so you can a/b the sound and really tell if the compressor is doing what you want. On that note...learning to hear compression takes time...its very subtle at first and most people over do it. Make sure you are not crushing your dynamics. A/Bing is essential to being able to set it correctly. If your levels are still to low...you guessed it...add the utility to boost (or cut) the signal...this little plug-in is essential and barely registers as a cpu hit.

Regarding plug-ins. I don't use to many (save Reason)...but you shouldn't have that problem. If you are playing the vsti's and then recording what you play via audio then it should be as simple as setting the right volume on the instrument and then boosting it using the utility plug-in. That -12 db figure is an estimate...but works well...i'd use it for a majority of your tracks...but if you need to boost vsti tracks by 5 db or so, you probably wont notice a difference. Just don't slam the master bus...shit will get muddy. Remember...if you several tracks all playing at exactly unity (or 0 db)...you master bus will not also be 0 db...it will be something more...so keep those channel faders down and work from there...

Just keep working at it...but make sure your not winging it...employ a good sound method and always work the same way and you will ultimately have better luck.

I'm no expert...but this is what has worked for me.

Cheers.

jah4life
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Post by jah4life » Thu Apr 24, 2008 11:04 pm

Thanks again. I have been using compressors for a while now, so I am definitely aware of the effect they have on a sound. It was just a trade off for me to get the right levels at the master fader. Also have been keeping the master out at unity, just wanted to run that by you. I didn't realize the utility plug could be used to boost levels (always just used it to invert phase. duh! that's what that gain knob is for...), so I just went with the compressor. Great tip! Thanks again.



so with the vsti's, are you suggesting that I put the utility plug on the LOOP channel, and therefore boost the looped signal? I'm pretty sure this is what you're saying...


*EDIT

Also, with the master track: If I have a compressor on there, too, do you think it's better to put compression before or after the utility plug?

laird
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Post by laird » Fri Apr 25, 2008 4:17 pm

I think the take-home message is: if your guitar track is too quiet, make sure you turn it up (or better yet, everything else down, like you did!). Don't use a compressor to turn everything else down.

At least thats what i was trying to say earlier, and I think thats what electropoet is saying here, too.

If you do use a compressor on your master Bus to help even out all the levels in a hands-free manner, or use it to tame the occasional volume spike before it gets to the PA.... that's fine. And if you are doing that, then the Gain-Function on Compressor will make a downstream Utility plugin redundant.

So if you can get away with REPLACING your compressor instance with a Utility, then great! Still, Compressors do have useful functions.

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