Audio clipping can be a source of pain for producers. It can be difficult to identify what causes clipping and how to fix it.
In this article, I’ll explain what it is, how to identify it, and how to stop clipping in Ableton Live.
What Is Audio Clipping?
Audio clipping happens when an audio signal is too loud, causing it to distort and create unwanted audio artifacts.
It can also damage your speakers, so it is best to be avoided.
Clipping is a problem for producers because it degrades your sound quality and makes the mixing and mastering process more difficult than it needs to be.
What Causes Audio Clipping, And How Do You Fix It?
To help you identify what is causing your audio signal to clip, I will explain a few possible causes you can look for when troubleshooting.
Once you have identified the cause, you can follow these guides on fixing those problems in Ableton Live.
Check To See If Your Tracks Are Too Loud
This is the most common cause of clipping, though it is often easy to overlook.
The first step to identifying whether one of your tracks is too loud is to look at the faders when your song is playing.
If one or more of the fader bars is red or goes from green to red at any point, those are the tracks that are clipping.
Simply put, red means clipping.
If you find that one of your tracks is clipping, try the following.
Turn the audio track down!
It sounds simple enough, but there is a proper way to do this that helps in the long run, such as mixing your song.
In Ableton, it is advisable to use the Utility plugin to control and automate the volume of your track.
The Utility plugin allows you to control and automate the volume of your track (using the gain knob) which makes mixing much easier.
If you have used the Utility plugin to automate the volume of your track to be lower in the verse and higher in the chorus (or vice versa), you can then use the faders in the mixing process to increase or decrease all of your volume settings for that track at once.
In other words, the Utility plugin allows you to have much more flexibility with your track’s volume.
For this reason, I attach a Utility plugin to each of my tracks for gain staging.
If changing your track’s audio signal volume does not solve the clipping issue, and you’ve recorded a live instrument, you probably recorded too loud.
Unfortunately, apart from some clever mixing processes that involve carving out sections of distorted frequencies from the recorded audio, your best bet is to re-record the instrument.
This time make sure that you do not record above -6db. This can be done by changing the input volume setting on your recording interface.
Changing the input volume setting on your audio interface will not solve the problem of clipping and distortion if your instrument or amp that you are playing through is turned up too loud.
Make sure they are at moderate volume and do a few test recordings before committing to a full take.
If you are using a virtual instrument, you can still face some of the same issues as a live recording.
It is quite common for virtual instruments to be too loud – Xfer Record’s Serum is often the culprit of clipping in my projects.
It can be as simple as turning down the master output or ‘out’ knob on the virtual instrument to fix the loudness issue.
If it is still too loud, look to see if any onboard compressors or limiters push the sound too hard and tame them.
This leads me to the next possible cause of clipping.
Your Track Is Clipping But The Fader Is Not Turning Red
There may be instances where a track’s audio is clipping without the fader turning red.
This can happen when you use compression or limiters.
If you suspect that one of your tracks is clipping, but you don’t see any faders turning red, you may be over-compressing, and over-compressing can cause clipping.
If that is the case, try the following:
Reduce the threshold, ratio, and makeup gain on your compressor or limiter.
That should help tame the transients (sounds) so that they are not squashed and boosted.
Remember, it generally pays to go fairly light on the compressors and limiters.
Try chaining your compressors.
By using multiple compressors in tandem on lower settings, you can reduce the overall load of your compressors, which can help boost your sound without crushing it and distorting it.
Check To See If Your Tracks Are Competing For The Same Frequencies
If your project is clipping, but your faders are green, some of your tracks may be competing for the same frequencies.
Tracks in the same frequency range stack up the volume on those frequencies, so even if each track is in the green, they can combine and amplify the frequencies they share. This can cause clipping.
To fix this, try the following:
Pay attention to the frequency ranges of each instrument in your mix. Apply Ableton’s Spectrum plugin and turn the ‘Block’ and ‘Refresh’ perimeters up to the highest setting so that it shows you the frequency spread of the audio signal throughout the track.
Do this to all the tracks that you think could be competing for the same frequencies, and take note of the frequencies that overlap between your instruments.
Once you have identified the overlapping frequencies, it is up to you to create space for each instrument in the mix by carving out some of those frequencies on some of your instruments (using an EQ or by sidechaining them, etc.).
For example, if you have multiple guitar recordings in a similar frequency range, you are likely to experience a muddy sound and possibly clipping.
Take a couple of those guitar recordings and highpass them using an EQ (which allows for the higher frequencies to pass through while eliminating the lower frequencies).
Similarly, take the other guitar recordings and lowpass them, so only the bass and middle frequencies come through. This will allow for the guitar recordings to pocket together instead of competing for the same frequencies.
Or better yet, record in different octaves and modes to help spread across the frequency range.
Check Your Edited Audio And MIDI Clips
Sometimes you do everything properly – you record at the right volume, you’ve automated your track’s gain appropriately, your virtual instruments are running normal, and you haven’t gone overboard with the compressors.
If you have done all of this and you still hear the effects of clipping, such as pops and distortions, you may be at the point of ditching the project or throwing your computer out the window. 😉
We’ve all been there…
Seriously though; what most people don’t know is that slicing up audio or midi clips in Ableton Live’s arrangement view, such as when you cut up samples or copy and paste clips, runs the risk of creating many of the same annoying artifacts (unwanted sounds) as clipping when you playback those clips.
Clips that have been sliced up through removing parts and copying parts can cause the audio to spike in Ableton when you playback those clips.
This can be a maddening experience for those of us who are unaware of this potential cause.
To find out if this is the cause of your problem, give this single step a try…
Create a subtle fade-in on each clip that has been sliced.
In most cases, this solves the problem.
How To Stop Clipping In Ableton – FAQ
Can you master with Ableton stock plugins?
Yes! In fact, I do most of my mastering solely with Ableton stock plugins. My mastering chain of Ableton stock plugins contains EQ Eight for an initial tidy up, Saturator for adding harmonics and warmth to the song, Compressor for smoothing out the dynamics and increasing the attack and presence of sounds, Glue Compressor to tighten the elements and bring them all together, Utility to make frequencies under 130hz mono and a Limiter to make things loud! Sometimes I use Ableton’s Multiband Compressor to add a bit of flavor to different frequency ranges.
Is Ableton good for mastering?
Yes, I think so. There may be instances where it is not the greatest for mastering, such as cinematic scores and surround sound. In those instances, people will sometimes pay a professional to use Pro Tools to master their sound.
How do you build a mastering chain?
There are no set guidelines on which plugins to use in a mastering chain, but the bare basics include an equalizer to tame and accentuate frequencies, a compressor, and a limiter. You will find many guides online about mastering chains – many of which only use Ableton stock plugins.
How many tracks can you have in Ableton?
For Ableton Live Intro, you can have a maximum of sixteen tracks. For Ableton Live Standard and Ableton Live Suite editions, you can theoretically have an unlimited amount of tracks. However, the actual number of tracks that you can have will be determined by your computer’s processing power and the number of effects you use. For instance, I have successfully mixed a project of 160 tracks of live recorded audio on a medium-powered laptop. However, I have struggled to have a 13 track project run properly on a higher-powered laptop where each track uses CPU-intensive virtual instruments and multiple effects. Therefore, it depends on the type of audio effect and the instruments that will determine how many tracks you can successfully run.
Still not feeling your masters and can’t match the levels of the pros?
That’s normal. They’re pros for a reason. Just try and make your songs sound as good as you can and aim to improve a little bit each time.
Why won’t your plugins show up in Ableton?
Go to options >Preferences >File Folder >Rescan Plugins >Rescan.
How to make electronic music with a computer?
Buy/loan computer >Install a DAW >Give up social life >Spend hours reading how-to guides >Produce for years >Eventually become good.
I hope you found this article helpful, and use these quick tips to help improve your music production.
The key is identifying clipping early, but don’t be discouraged if you don’t, as it is a common problem that many music producers struggle with.
By following the techniques above, you should be able to create a mix with plenty of headroom that your mastering engineer will thank you for.
Let us know how you get on in the comments below.
about the author
Hi, I’m Casey, a musician, and writer from the Australian surf coast.
I make midtempo bass music under the name ‘Cavedweller,’ which was inspired by the past and Plato’s cave sages. Originally from a musical background in heavy metal, I also play guitar and drums for the band Mountaris – signed to US record label Transcending Records.