Download tutorial file (3.7MB zip file; contains Live set and samples)

Have you ever sat down at your computer, a new song practically bursting out of you, when this happens? You open your audio-recording program, hit Record, and...Bam! Suddenly you’re at the mercy of the software. You’re barraged by dialog boxes, sidetracked by editing options, and lost in forests of knobs and sliders. Before you know it, half an hour has passed and all the bubbly joy of that new song has been sucked out of you. So you end up recording a dry, lifeless take, or even worse, you throw in the towel for that day.

Maybe that’s a little drastic, but if you’ve tried to record yourself on a computer, then you’ve come across flow problems. That’s frequently because most recording programs are set up for just that—recording and editing, not playing. Traditionally, recording engineers would handle all the technical issues of recording, and the musician would be left to concentrate on the music. But now that recording programs and equipment have become more accessible, many of us have become our own engineers and technicians.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have an audio recording program that was an extension of your instrument? A clear bridge between the wood of a guitar and the circuitry of a laptop? Well, Ableton Live is the next best thing. This user-friendly program was designed for live performances by musicians who wanted to use the recording studio like a musical instrument. As performers and recording engineers, they felt stymied by the non-real-time nature of typical audio programs, so they wrote their own.

Ableton Live photo Ableton Live is a sequencer and looping program you can play like an instrument.

Live gives you all the main features of an audio recording program and a MIDI sequencer, as well as some cool effects and virtual instruments. But its unique design can really help to combat lost inspiration in recording situations. And when you’re playing a live show on a laptop, Live can become an instrument in itself.

In this tutorial we’ll cover the basics of Live for the home-studio and laptop musician. Those who already know the program may also pick up a few new tricks. If you don’t already have Live, just download the demo version from Ableton’s web site. The demo has all the features of the full product except the ability to save your work and export audio.

For this tutorial, we’ll also assume that you have a microphone and a MIDI keyboard connected to your computer, along with good speakers or headphones. But note that you don’t need external equipment to make music with Live. You can simply build music out of MIDI and audio loops.

That said, one of the most affordable ways to get into Live (which normally costs $499) is to buy it with a hardware bundle. Several keyboards and audio interfaces from M-Audio come with scaled-down versions of Live. The company’s new Black Box guitar effects processor/drum machine/USB audio interface ($299.95 list) includes a four-track version of the program.

Live a Little

Let’s start by recording a few audio loops into Live. You’ll want to be in Live’s Session view (see Figure 1), which is the default window that opens when you launch the program. In Session view, the screen resembles a mixer and the tracks run vertically. If your screen is showing the horizontal Arrangement view instead, press the Tab key.

Incidentally, many beginning recordists are confused by the difference between tracks and channels. The word track is derived from analog tape, on which discrete signals are recorded on parallel stripes of magnetic particles. Channel refers to a physical input or output path through the recorder. A typical analog cassette tape has four tracks—left and right in each direction—and plays back through two channels. On modified tape recorders like the TASCAM Portastudio series, the four tracks are available simultaneously, so you can record, say, bass, guitar, drums, and vocals. During mixdown to stereo, you can then adjust the level, tone, and panning of each track. (Panning, short for panorama, is the balance between left and right output channels.)

Figure 1. Session View Figure 1. Live’s Session view is a combination mixer and sampler. (Click to enlarge.)
Figure 2. Arming a track.

Now choose a tempo—for example, 80 beats per minute (bpm). To set the tempo, go to the upper lefthand corner of the screen and type a number in the tempo box (immediately to the right of the TAP button). You can also adjust the tempo by clicking in the tempo box and dragging the cursor up or down.

If you haven’t already set up your hardware audio inputs and outputs, do that now by opening Live’s Preferences window, clicking the Audio tab, and selecting your audio interface from the drop-down menus. Now, with your microphone ready to go, select channel 1 (mono) as the input on track 1, and click the small Record button at the bottom of track 1 to arm it for recording (See Figure 2).

Grab whatever instrument you have handy—I’m using an acoustic guitar—or simply record your voice. Before we start recording, let’s engage the metronome so we have a tempo reference. The metronome on/off button is three spaces to the right of the tempo box; it contains one black circle and one white circle.

Live is set up to record loops, but you can record a whole song straight through if you’d like. For this tutorial I’m going to work with eight-bar loops.

Figure 2. Track 1 is now ready to record from external input 1.

Figure 3. Clip slot

Read My Clips

Each track in Live contains up to 20 clip slots (see Figure 3), which are like cells on a spreadsheet. These slots can hold either audio files or MIDI files, looped or unlooped. You can drag premade files into them, or you can record new performances into them.

Let’s arm clip slot 1 in track 1 and record a loop into it. Realistically, you’ll need a few seconds to get ready after you hit the Record button, and of course you won’t be able to hit the Stop button exactly when eight bars are done. So after recording, we’ll crop our loop into eight bars. We do this in the Clip Overview window at the bottom righthand corner of the screen (see Figure 4). If the waveform isn’t loaded into the Clip Overview window, simply click below the window on the tab containing the waveform.

Figure 3. Clip slot 1 in track 1 is now playing an audio loop. Only one clip in a track can play simultaneously.

Figure 4. Waveform tab. Figure 4. Click the small waveform tab to load the waveform into the Clip Overview window above it.

Act of Warp

Live automatically adds warp markers to any short loop of audio you record or drag into a clip slot. These markers provide rhythmic guideposts that enable you to change the tempo of a song without changing the pitch of the original audio files. The program stretches and shrinks the audio between the markers to make everything fit. That lets you layer a 110 bpm drum loop with a 100 bpm guitar part and have everything play in rhythm. It’s a great feature that’s found in several other audio programs, but I think Ableton gives you the most flexibility.

In Figure 5 I dragged the first and last warp markers so that playback starts at the beginning of the guitar signal and stops at the end of the eighth bar. I also could have adjusted the timing of individual chords by dragging internal warp markers left or right to line up with specific points in the waveform.

Figure 5. Clip Overview Figure 5. Clip Overview window, with 8-bar loop cropped (Click to enlarge.)

Here’s an mp3 of an acoustic guitar loop I recorded and cropped. You can play with the original by downloading the tutorial files at the top of this article.

Figure 6. Device Browser

Bright Lights, Big MIDI

Now let’s record some MIDI drums to fit in with our audio recording. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Basically, a MIDI controller (such as a keyboard) sends digital messages representing individual notes or parameters. A synthesizer receiving those messages will then trigger and shape sounds to produce music. Live (and other MIDI sequencers) can record those messages so you can play them back or edit them. Ableton designed the MIDI part of Live to act like the audio part, so it’s very user friendly.

Let’s start by dragging one of Ableton’s virtual instruments (software synthesizers) into a MIDI track. For that, you’ll need to open Live’s Device Browser, found at the left of the Session View window. Click on the little Live icon to open it (see Figure 6).

Drag the Impulse drum-machine instrument into track 3. You’ll need to drag it into the bottom part of the session view where it says “Drop MIDI effects, audio effects, or instruments here.” Now let’s open one of Impulse’s preset sound banks by selecting the Recall Preset arrow on the Impulse instrument (see Figure 7). We’ll open the Toronto preset.

Figure 6. Live’s Device Browser window gives you access to virtual instruments and plug-in effects.

Figure 7. Impulse Figure 7. Impulse presets
Figure 8. MIDI Record

To record a MIDI performance, you need a MIDI controller. (I’m using an M-Audio 02 USB MIDI keyboard.) Now activate the Arm Session Record button on track 3, activate clip slot 1, and record away (see Figure 8). With drum sounds, usually the kick drum will be mapped to the bottom C on your keyboard.

Treat the MIDI recording like the audio: You’ll probably have to go back and move the loop points in your MIDI loop so it starts at the right point (see Figure 9). Also, if you’re not rhythmically inclined, you may find it easier to record the kick, hi-hat, and snare parts separately by letting your loop play and recording each separate part every time the loop restarts. Make sure the OVR (overdub) button is selected. Here’s an example of what I recorded:

Figure 8. The MIDI track is armed for recording.

Figure 9. Impulse MIDI Recording Figure 9. Cropping a MIDI recording (Click to enlarge.)

Far-Reaching Effects

Now that we’ve learned the basics of recording in Live, let’s experiment with some of Live’s effects. You can find the effects in the same browser window where you found the Impulse instrument. Live has everything from delays to bit-reduction effects, and you can also use Audio Unit (for Mac) or VST plug-ins you already have on your computer.

Let’s drag the Simple Delay effect into our MIDI drum track, and set the delay time for the left and right channels to 3 (meaning three sixteenth notes, or a dotted eighth note). Now set the feedback to 57% and the dry/wet balance to 18% (see Figure 10). You should be hearing something similar to this mp3 example:

Fig. 10. Delay Settings Figure 10. Adding a synchronized echo to the drums with the Simple Delay effect

Pretty cool, huh? Immediately you’ll notice a more realistic feel to the drums. Adding dotted eighth-note echo is a fun and quick way to accomplish this with MIDI drums.

EQ Very Much

Next, let’s process the drums a bit more, and then we’ll go ahead and process the acoustic guitar track. I put Live’s Auto Filter on the drums, set to 4.43kHz with a 2.44 Q. (The first number is the filter’s resonant frequency; the second, Q, is the amount of resonance or emphasis.) The auto filter can be a lot of fun. Simply by grabbing the green circle with your mouse you can move the filter’s frequency, making the sound speak.

You can also map the green circle to a knob on your MIDI controller so you can control it more easily. To do that, just click on the MIDI mapping button in the upper righthand corner of the screen, click the parameter you want to control, and then turn a knob on your MIDI controller. Then click the MIDI mapping button again to exit map-assignment mode. That’s it! You don’t have to dredge up some hard-to-find window; it’s right at your fingertips. We’ll get more into MIDI mapping toward the end of the tutorial.

After the auto filter, I inserted Live’s Compressor 2 to get a fuller, more compressed drum sound (see Figure 11). If your drums ever sound thin or lifeless, a little (or a lot of) compression can do wonders. I set the compressor to a 4.8 ratio and a –16 dB threshold to really squash the drums. That means that every part of the signal that pokes its head above the threshold is reduced in level by a factor of 4.8. With the peaks thus tamed, you can boost the overall level of the drums.

Figure 11. Dynamic Compression Figure 11. Drum effects (Click to enlarge.)

Last, I used Live’s reverb effect to give the drums a little space. Here’s an mp3 of what that sounds like:

Guitar Heroism

Now let’s try some effects on the acoustic guitar track. First, I added a little compression to boost the level a bit. I set the ratio and threshold a little lower than on the drums because I wanted a more natural, dynamic sound. I also set the release a little longer since an acoustic guitar has more of a ring to it. The next effect I used on the guitar was Live’s EQ 3. I didn’t do any drastic EQ changes, but I did clean up the mids and highs a little bit, and I took out some of the low frequencies (see Figure 12). Then I put a little reverb on the guitar to give it a fuller sound. For fun, I added Live’s Erosion effect, giving the guitar a gritty digital sound. Here is an mp3 example:

Figure 12. Guitar Effects Figure 12. Applying guitar effects (Click to enlarge.)
Figure 13. Browsing for samples
Figure 13. Browsing for samples.

Live Comes Alive

So now that we’ve got the basics down for recording audio and MIDI, let’s experiment with some ideas for a live-performance setting. If you’re a vocalist or a singer/songwriter like David Grey, you can really be a one-person band with Live. And it’s especially great for electronic or dance music performers.

Let’s use the example of a singer/songwriter who plays guitar and sings. You have a café show coming up, and all you want to bring is your guitar and your PowerBook. Setting up drum loops ahead of time is a good idea for this type of performance. If you have access to a loop library you can just drag in any drum loop once it’s on your hard drive. To use an audio loop, open one of the file browsers to the left to the screen, pick an audio file, and drag it into an empty clip slot (see Figure 13). If the Preview button is lit, you can audition the file—at the song’s tempo—by clicking the file name once with the mouse. It’s also possible to send the preview signal to a second set of outputs, which is essential for DJ-style cuing, where you don’t want your audience to hear what’s coming up.

Now that you’ve dragged an extra drum loop into my song, you have your guitar loop, your MIDI drum loop, and your new audio drum loop. Now you just need to MIDI-map some functions to make your live show really shine. Of course, you can also use MIDI mapping to “play” your sequence while recording. First Let’s map clip slot 1 in track 1 to middle C on the keyboard. Then let’s map clip slot 1 on track 2 to D, and clip slot 1 on track 3 to E (see Figure 14).

Figure 14. MIDI mapping Figure 14. Mapping Clip Slots to MIDI notes.

Now that these loops are MIDI-mapped, you can trigger them at the touch of a key. Here’s a sample of how a song intro might go:

Another way to trigger multiple loops is to MIDI-map a scene (row) within the master track (see Figure 15). Triggering a scene will play all the loops that are in that scene’s clip slots. It’s a great way to trigger choruses or changes within songs.

Figure 15. Scenes Figure 15. Clicking the Play button in the Master cell will trigger all clips in the row.

Live, Happily Ever After

With a little imagination and some experimentation, Ableton Live can really become an artist’s tool for stretching beyond the normal limits of acoustic and electronic music. Once you learn the program (which doesn’t take much time at all), you’ll be surprised at how much more music you make. I hope you never lose that primal inspiration for making music, and I also hope you can use new technology to explore it. Feel free to e-mail me with any questions or concerns, and don’t forget to check out the great tutorials on the Ableton web site.