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DJing in Live — Limiters are not the answer!

This is a common ‘helpful tip’ about playing live or DJ’ing with Ableton Live — ‘put a limiter on the main output bus.’

After recording a set last night (which you’ll hear about when I get approval from one artist to use a track) I have spent some time rendering, tweaking, and then re-rendering a mix, because of leveling moves I made in the heat of the moment.  It’s really hard unless you have some sort of giant external meter to watch to keep things properly leveled.

Several times during the mix I brought tracks up to the point they were pegging the limiter giving you that dreaded ‘solid ingot’ waveform.  I’m going to take the limiter out of my standard setup and resolve to watch the meters better, and use my ears. If you clip the main output in Live a little bit it does a fairly good job of soft-limiting to keep from going into digital clipping.  But it’s better that you LISTEN to what you’re doing and be conservative than to use the limiter as a crutch.

The problem isn’t that it sounds ‘bad’ — it sounds OK.  But it doesn’t sound great, because you lose all dynamics. If you’re DJing, everything you play has already been mastered and limited within an inch of it’s life, to limit it more is to second guess the mastering engineers, using much less sophisticated tools.

As for the general philosophical idea of DJing in Live — I love playing vinyl, but especially when it comes to making a studio mix, I like the flexibility that Live gives you, and freedom from cuing and beatmatching as primary concerns.  When I do one of my studio mixes, my concern is to showcase the stuff I’ve recently acquired in a way that is meaningful musically to me, not show off my skills.

I go through a lot of tracks to find the ones that speak to the mood I’m going for, and pre-sequence them, usually in order of tempo.  I actually do record the actual mix in real time — I’m triggering and fading and EQing live.  But I’m not above going back and correcting levels.  Or in the mix I just did, loop the end of one track to make the transition to the next more graceful.

My goal is to get to where I don’t have to tweak after the fact, and every time I record a set I get closer.  When I listen to the first mixes I did with Live a couple years ago they make me cringe.  I want to be able to get in front of a crowd and use the flexibility of Live to make it sound great and move a crowd.  Getting away from using the mouse and staring at the screen can make a big difference.  The APC40 is nice in that way, but actually the mappings I have for the XSession Pro are a more complete mouse-eliminator.

One reply on “DJing in Live — Limiters are not the answer!”

why not just use the limiter as a safeguard? You don’t have to be hitting it all the time. Plus, can you really rely on a pair of mackies or house monitors to know when you are clipping? :D

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