Whether you're producing tracks in the studio or venturing onstage with a laptop, Ableton Live has an incredible array of features that can take your music to a very high level. But because Live breaks down the barriers between the traditional DAW (digital audio workstation) and musical instruments, it isn't always obvious how to tackle a particular musical task.
In this feature, I've collected eight of my favorite Live techniques. (A couple came from Dave Hill of Ableton--thanks, Dave!) Several techniques require version five of Live; you can download a free demo at the Ableton website.
Rather than cycling a loop endlessly, I like to make musical changes--an extra kick drum to lead into a crucial downbeat, an extra snare tap, or a more radical reorganization of the beat. Live gives me several ways to do this.
A fun way to reshuffle the drum hits within a sampled beat is to use a clip envelope. To try this, first:
That's all it takes to mangle the beat. When you find something you like, Ctrl-drag (Mac: Option-drag) the clip to a second slot in the same column and keep editing. With a little trial and error, you can build up a set of cool variations on the same beat.
Here's an audio example. You'll hear a two-measure beat from the Live 5 library, first in its original form, and then as transformed by two different clip envelopes. The form of the MP3 file is AABBAACCA.
If you want to add hits, rather than moving them around, you can drag the clip into a slot in the Impulse sample player. When you do this, however, Impulse will play the clip from the beginning. Here's how to trigger a drum hit that's later in the clip:
With this technique you can assign up to eight hits from a loop to MIDI keys, either for live triggering or for recording into a new MIDI clip.
Clip envelopes are the key to many of Live's more radical sound manipulations. Using a clip envelope, for instance, you can gate a sustaining sound to produce an urgent "transformer" rhythm. For this example, we'll start with the audio file "RnB - 84 - Pad 1.wav" from the Live library's Pad directory. (In the audio example files, I'm backing it up with the rhythm clip "Beat Bugz - 80 - Main.alc" from the Beats/Electronic directory.)
If you're feeling creative, you can draw a rhythm manually in all four measures using the same technique. But here's a shortcut:
The basic transform in the previous example sounds okay, but not yet inspired. To ramp up the musical interest, I suggest loading another pad--perhaps "Fizz Pad - Chords 4.alc." (You'll probably want to grab all of the MIDI notes in this pattern and drag them up by three half-steps so they'll harmonize better with the sample.) Now:
Because you've pasted the rhythm an eighth-note later than in the first pad, you'll hear a staggered rhythmic effect between the left and right channels, like this:
Just for fun, I messed with this example a bit more by adding rhythmic delays to both pad sounds. Here's the result:
If you have Live 5, you can download Transformer Envelope.als (16KB zip file) to inspect the edits in detail.
Each Live track has a pair of send knobs, which can be used to route signal to aux-return buses A and B. If you need more than two returns, you can right-click at the top of the Session View window and choose Insert Return Track from the pop-up menu. But that will clutter up the screen with send knobs for every track, most of which may go unused.
In some circumstances a better approach is to create a normal audio track and select another audio track as the input for the new one. Just grab the pop-up menu where it says "Audio From" and choose the source track. There are three scenarios in which this may be useful:
Virtual knobs. Some third-party insert effects lack wet/dry mix knobs. By parking such an effect on a separate audio track, you put the wet amount on its own mixer channel fader. Problem solved.
Delay effects. I like to process a delayed signal differently than I process the dry signal. For example, I may run the wet output of the delay through a distortion effect, a flanger, or a filter. Putting the delay on a separate mixer channel and setting its output to 100 percent wet makes this easy. For example, here's an MP3 of the same beat, running through two separate audio tracks (panned left and right), each with its own delay, distortion, and EQ:
Multichannel processing. With synths that have multiple outputs, you can use this routing scheme to put separate effects on each output. After instantiating a synth, choose the separate output in a new audio track, and add effects as needed. I often use separate outputs on Native Instruments Battery drum synth, for instance, to put reverb strictly on my snare. The individual pads in Live's Impulse sampler also appear in the audio-track input menu.
Some MIDI sequencers let you select both notes and controller data at the same time and move them around in the edit window. This is especially handy if you've recorded a good-sounding pitch-bend and now want to move the bent note to a different beat.
Live won't let you select both notes and controller data at the same time in the clip-edit window, but there's an easy workaround:
Ableton's Operator FM synth plugin (a $149 extra) will produce lots of great sounds, but its MIDI inputs are limited. It won't respond to modulation-wheel messages, for instance, so adding vibrato from the LFO in real-time performance is awkward.
If you're working in Arrangement View, however, there's an easy workaround: assign the LFO's Mod knob to MIDI real-time control. You do this by clicking on the MIDI button in the upper right corner of the main Live screen, clicking on the Mod knob, and wiggling your MIDI controller's modulation wheel. Then click on the MIDI button again to turn off assignment mode.
Once you've made this assignment, you can record mod-wheel moves while laying down a synth part or add them as overdubs. When you do this, you'll discover that they aren't recorded as MIDI controller data. Instead, Live records the actual movements of the LFO Mod knob. That is good news, because it means that after recording your first modulation overdub, you can reassign the mod wheel to some other Operator control without losing the mod-wheel move.
The newly recorded envelope data won't be copied back to the Session view if you drag the clip from the track into a session slot. All is not lost, however. Here's what to do:
Live's new Beat Repeat effect is powerful, but it's not exactly intuitive, and the explanation in the manual is rather dry. Here's how to get your head around Beat Repeat:
With these settings, the following will happen: in every measure (Interval: 1 bar), the effect will begin on the second quarter-note beat (Offset: 4/16). During the next quarter-note of the loop (Gate: 4/16), you'll hear the output of the effect. The sample you'll hear during that time will be one 16th-note long (Grid: 1/16). As a result, the second beat of every bar will consist of a 16th-note sample repeated four times. Because Insert mode has been selected, the sample will replace the original audio during the period of the Gate time.
Play with the controls one at a time and listen to the result, restoring them to the values given above before you try changing a different one. You'll quickly get a feel for what they do:
One final idea: if you set Interval to 1/32 or Chance to 0.00 percent, Beat Repeat will always pass only the dry signal. Do that. Then put the effect in Insert mode and map a QWERTY key or MIDI button to the Repeat button. Set Grid to 1/32 or faster, and program a moderate amount of Decay and/or Pitch Decay. Whenever you tap your programmed key or button, Beat Repeat will start recycling the most recent slice of the sample. You can trigger it whenever you want a rhythmic variation.
In the following MP3, I've automated several of Beat Repeat's parameters, all based around the Repeat button, to give you an idea how you might want to interact with it. The loop is "Breakbeat - 133 - Beat 3.wav" from the factory soundset. (I also added a bit of Saturator distortion to the track to give it an edge.)
If you're using Live, be sure to check the Live user forum from time to time. There's a whole section on tips and tricks. And if you have favorite ways to use Live, share them with others! We're all in this together.
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