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Opening The DAW: Introduction To Ableton Part 2 - Return Tracks

Updated: Mar 24

Hello again! It’s Tom here, back with some more Ableton Live tips. If you’ve read my previous tutorial, you’ll know all about audio and MIDI tracks – so now it’s time to turn our attention to the third and final type of track: the return track. There are lots of benefits to using return tracks in Ableton Live (or in any other DAW). This tutorial will delve deep into how we can use return tracks within Ableton Live, and what the benefits are.

Unlike audio and MIDI tracks, you don’t actually place any audio or MIDI data onto a return track. Instead, you send the audio from other tracks into the return track. Why would we do this, you ask? Let me explain. The goal of a return track is to process a copy of our audio with any plugin(s) of our choice. For example, if you had a dozen separate backing vocal tracks, it would make a lot of sense to run all of these through the same reverb plugin with the same settings. A return track makes this extremely simple. You create a return track, load up your reverb, dial in your parameters, and simply ‘send’ all of these tracks to the one return track. I’ll go into how this is done a bit later.

Generally, when you use a return track, you’ll set all of the plugins on it to 100% wet on the dry/wet parameter. This is because you can now instead control the effect amount by raising or lowering the amount of the source track you send to the return track.

Our return tracks can be found towards the bottom of our session in arrangement view.

The Pros Of Using Return Tracks

When considering the benefits of return tracks, a key thing to note is that a return track creates a copy of your audio. You don’t just have the one same signal anymore. For example, if you sent an audio track to a return track that has no plugin inserted, all that would occur is an increase in volume. So, if you use a return track to apply vocal reverb, you get to keep your dry signal intact underneath – as opposed to adding a reverb plugin directly onto the audio track and tweaking the dry/wet control, which weakens your dry signal the wetter you go.

Another great feature of return tracks is that you can easily treat audio in a parallel fashion, rather than being limited to a serial workflow. Plugins working in serial means they’re all in a ‘chain’ that passes audio signal from one effect into the next – and if you aren’t careful, it can get clunky. For example, if you insert a delay directly onto your audio track, followed by a reverb, your delays are going to be processed by your reverb. Instead, you could set up an individual reverb return track, and an individual delay return track, and then send your dry vocal track to both of these return tracks. That way, your reverb and delay will be working independently, without impacting each other at all.

That segues nicely into another benefit of using return tracks in Ableton Live: you can use plugins to treat the processing of another plugin. I know that sounds confusing, but it’s not! If we take the vocal reverb example again, let’s assume you have sent a vocal audio track to a return track with a reverb on it – and perhaps the dry vocal track is already on the edge of being quite bright and sibilant (i.e. strong ‘ss’, ‘f’, or ‘sh’ sounds). A reverb can harshly exaggerate these unpleasant sounds… so, we can place an EQ after the reverb on our return track, and use it to filter out the high frequencies from only the reverberated sound. This is impossible to achieve by placing a reverb and an EQ directly onto the audio track, as your EQ would also be filtering the high frequencies out of your dry signal.

Lastly, an often-overlooked benefit of using return tracks is how much it minimises your CPU usage. Instead of applying 10 individual reverb plugins to 10 different backing vocal tracks, you can now send them all through the one plugin. Not only does this improve computer performance, but it will also add cohesion to your mixes and productions. With more and more people working off laptops in their bedroom, this is super helpful.

Of course, there are instances where inserting plugins directly onto a source track is a better approach than using a return track. Generally, when you’re EQing a sound, it’s best to avoid return tracks and do it with a direct insert – since return tracks are a copy of your source track, and you typically don’t want EQ’d return track audio running simultaneously with your source track audio. However, a lot of the time, return tracks are the way to go. Reverbs, delays, compression (for parallel processing), distortion, chorus, and other modulation plugins are all commonly inserted onto return tracks, and that covers most of what you’ll need to produce many genres of music. You can even go a bit crazy and use vocoders on a return track!

The Cons Of Using Return Tracks

Well, that heading is slightly misleading, because there’s only one minor frustration when working with return tracks – and it’s that you can’t create more than 12 of them. Typically, this is more than enough when mixing or producing, but I have had times when I’ll be going a bit crazy with experimentation and run out of return tracks. Fortunately, there are ways to get around the 12-track limitation using Ableton’s plugin rack feature… but it would be great if Ableton decides to allow unlimited return tracks in a future update.

How To Create And Use Return Tracks In Ableton Live

To begin, open up the session you created while following my Part 1 tutorial, or open/create something similar for yourself. Either way, just make sure you have some audio or MIDI ready to send to some return tracks. Note that I'll be referencing the pad sound from the Part 1 tutorial.

Within Ableton’s arrangement view, your return tracks can be found down the bottom right of your screen. There should be a couple there by default. If you can’t see them, you may need to enable them: to do this, click both of the small ‘s’ and ‘r’ buttons running vertically down the right side of your screen. Your return tracks are fixed, so no matter how far you scroll, they will always be visible.

Return tracks on the Ableton Live arrangement view

You can create new return tracks by hitting Ctrl/Cmd + Alt + T, but let's use the first of the two default return tracks already there (likely titled 'A Reverb'). Drop Ableton Live's stock Reverb plugin onto it (or feel free to use your own favourite reverb plugin instead). Make sure the dry/wet knob is set to 100% wet. You’ll be sending your pad sound to this reverb, so the decay time can be on the longer side – shoot for between 3-5 seconds. Feel free to elongate the pre-delay if you’d like to emulate a larger space.

Reverb settings for our example in the return track

To send your pad sound to the return track, first locate your pad track, and look just to the right of the track name where you’ll see a few rectangles with the text ‘-inf’ inside them. This ‘-inf’ marker stands for negative infinite, meaning you’re currently sending none of this track to any return tracks. The first rectangle correlates to your first return track, and the rectangle to the right of that correlates to your second return track, and so on. So, since the return track you just loaded the plugins onto is the first one, you’ll need to adjust the first rectangle.

Click on the rectangle and slowly drag upwards, to make the number increase. The higher the number, the more signal you’ll be sending to the return track. You’ll begin to hear the reverb underneath the pad. Once you reach 0, your return track is receiving the source track at full volume. Pull it down to around -12db.

Sending -12db of Pad signal to the first return track

Let’s go ahead and apply some further processing. Load the stock high pass filter plugin onto your return track, so it sits after your reverb in series, and move the filter frequency up to 320hz. This technique is effective when working on mixes where you need to leave space in the frequency range for other instruments. It removes muddiness, and ensures there are no undesirable low frequencies sneaking out wide in the stereo field.

You’ll also notice a ‘post’ button to the right of the return track name. This refers to the term ‘post fader’. If you click this button, you’ll notice it will change to ‘pre’, which stands for ‘pre fader’. If your return tracks are set to ‘post’, your signal will be sent to them after the mixing stage (i.e. the panning, volume, and track-active controls). This means any panning or volume adjustments you make on the source track will translate to the return track signal. By contrast, when your return tracks are set to ‘pre’, they will source the signal from before the mixing stage. In this case, any panning or volume adjustments on the original track will not follow through to the return track; even if you turn the volume of your original track down to -inf, the signal will still send to the return track at full volume (obviously depending how much you’ve sent).

The Post/Pre function can be found here, to the far right in the mixer section of your return tracks.

Bonus Tips

Do. Not. Send. A. Return. Track. Back. To. Itself.

Unless you want to. I don’t know, could be fun.

But let this be a warning. Sending a return track back to itself will create a compounding loop that we call feedback. It will get louder and louder with each pass, quickly becoming a roar to rival Krakatoa.

All jokes aside, feedback at high volumes can cause hearing damage, so do be careful. By default, Ableton Live disables the sends on return tracks to avoid any accidents. You can override that and enable it, but I don’t want to be responsible for your hearing loss… so if you REALLY want to, you can Google how to do it.

On the other hand, it’s common and useful (not to mention safe) to send return tracks to other return tracks. For example, you could send vocals into a distortion, and then the distortion into a slapback delay. The possibilities are endless, really – so get creative with it.

My default template consists of the following return tracks:

A. Abbey Road Reverb (Valhalla Room -> EQ8)

B. Vocal Reverb (Valhalla Room -> EQ8)

C. Snare Reverb (Valhalla Room -> EQ8)

D. Mono ¼ Delay (Space Echo Tape Delay -> EQ8)

E. Mono ⅛ Delay (Space Echo Tape Delay -> EQ8)

F. Mono 1/16 Delay (Space Echo Tape Delay -> EQ8)

G. Stereo ¼ Delay (Space Echo Tape Delay -> EQ8)

H. Stereo ⅛ Delay (Space Echo Tape Delay -> EQ8)

I. Stereo 1/16 Delay (Space Echo Tape Delay -> EQ8)

J. Flanger (Waves Metaflanger)

K. Parallel Compressor (Soundtoys Devil-Loc)

This is just the set up that works for me and my style… and of course, it ends up changing significantly by the time I’ve completed a mix. But please feel free to copy it and tweak it to suit your needs.

Wrapping Up

I hope this tutorial serves as a good introduction to sends and returns in Ableton Live! If you’re brand new to return tracks, use these tips to experiment and practice… once you get used to it, your workflow will improve big time. No more mucking around with dry/wet knobs, and no more re-balancing levels every time you apply a new plugin to your tracks. Plus, your computer will thank you for it.


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