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.

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Recipe 1: Beat Shuffling

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:

  1. Load a beat by dragging it from the browser into an audio track.
  2. Double-click on the clip to open it in the clip editor.
  3. Click on the E button in the editor's lower left corner to open the Envelopes box.
  4. Make sure Clip is selected in the box's upper menu (the Device Chooser).
  5. Select Sample Offset in the lower menu (the Control Chooser). The sample-offset envelope shifts any part of the loop forward or backward by as much as two quarter notes, so that it plays audio drawn from a different part of the sample. (If Sample Offset is grayed out, change the warp mode to Beats.)
  6. Make sure Snap to Grid is switched on (Ctrl-4 on Windows; Apple-4 on Mac).
  7. Switch the mouse to Draw mode (Ctrl/Apple-B), and draw a new envelope, as shown in Figure 1.
Fig 1. Sample Start Offset Figure 1. Dragging the sample-start offset envelope below the zero line plays a segment from earlier in the sample; dragging it upward plays a segment from later in the sample.

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.

Recipe 2: Impulsive Grooves

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:

  1. For convenience, copy the loop to a second slot in the track.
  2. Double-click on the copy and move the start marker to the point in the waveform where the desired drum hit begins. (See Figure 2.)
  3. Drag the clip into an Impulse slot. (See Figure 3.) You may need to shorten the decay time in Impulse so that you only hear a single hit.
  4. Now change the start marker and drag the same clip to a different Impulse slot.

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.

Fig. 2: Sample Start Marker Figure 2. Moving the sample-start marker (white triangle) lets you trigger a specific hit in the Impulse sample player.

Fig. 3: Impulse Loading Figure 3. After you've marked the hit you want in the clip editor, you can load it into the Impulse sampler with a simple drag-and-drop.

Recipe 3: Chopping a Feel

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.)

  1. Double-click the clip to open the waveform in Clip View.
  2. Click on the E button to open the Envelopes control panel.
  3. Select Clip from the upper drop-down menu, and Volume from the lower one. Your screen should look more-or-less like Figure 4.
  4. Zoom in on the left end of the waveform until you're looking at just one measure. This will bring up 32nd-note grid lines.
  5. Hit Ctrl-B (Mac: Apple-B) to turn the mouse cursor to a pencil tool, and draw a square notch from the top of the envelope to the bottom between the time points 1.1.3 and 1.2, as shown in Figure 5. (In Live, "1.1.3" means bar 1, beat 1, 16th-note 3.)
  6. Continue drawing until you have a rhythm you like in the first measure, as shown in Figure 6. If you hit Play at this point, you'll hear the pad sound cutting in and out in the first measure, but the other three measures of the loop will still sound the same, because we haven't done anything to them yet.
Fig. 4: Volume Envelope Figure 4. Selecting the clip's volume envelope for editing.

Fig. 5: Creating a Volume Envelope Figure 5. Drawing a volume envelope.

Fig. 6: Multisegment Volume Envelope Figure 6. Creating a multisegment volume envelope for the first measure of the loop.

If you're feeling creative, you can draw a rhythm manually in all four measures using the same technique. But here's a shortcut:

  1. Zoom out to display the whole loop.
  2. Hit Ctrl-B (Mac: Apple-B) to get rid of the pencil tool, and drag across the first measure with the mouse (as shown in Figure 7) to select the envelope breakpoints you just created.
  3. Hit Ctrl-C (Apple-C) to copy the breakpoints.
  4. Click-and-drag in the area directly below the beginning of measure 2 (the "2" in the time ruler). In the default color scheme, this one region, an eighth-note wide, will turn a dirty orange.
  5. Hit Ctrl-V (Apple-V) to paste, and your breakpoints should appear in measure 2. Repeat this procedure for measures 3 and 4. Your envelope should now look more or less like Figure 8, and sound like this:
Fig. 7: Selecting the Envelope Figure 7. Selecting the envelope in the first measure.

Fig. 8: Four-bar Rhythmic Envelope Figure 8. A four-bar rhythmic envelope.

Recipe 4: Chopping a Feel (in Stereo)

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:

  1. Pan the new track to the right, and the first pad to the left.
  2. Drag across the entire rhythmic envelope shown in Figure 7 and use Ctrl-C (or Apple-C) to copy it.
  3. Open up the Envelopes panel for the new track. Because this is a MIDI clip, there isn't a clip envelope to control volume, so select the Mixer Track Volume envelope.
  4. Drag across the second eighth-note region to select it, and hit Ctrl-V (or Apple-V) to paste the envelope. The result should look more or less like Figure 9.
Fig. 9: Offset-Pasting a Rhythmic Envelope Figure 9. Pasting the rhythmic envelope into another clip an eighth-note later.

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.

Recipe 5: Secret Sends and Inserts

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.

Recipe 6: Moving MIDI

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:

  1. Drag the clip from Session View over to the Arrangement selector button in the upper right corner of the screen. Don't release the mouse button yet. The main window will switch to Arrangement view. Now you can drag the clip to the left of the screen and park it anywhere in its original MIDI track.
  2. Zoom in to view the note where the cool pitch-bend is located.
  3. Drag across the note(s) you want to move.
  4. Click in the clip rectangle above the MIDI notes, as shown in Figure 10, and drag the data to a new time location.
  5. The previous step separates the original clip into two separate clips, which is not what we want. So shift-click to select both the original part of the clip and the part you've moved, right-click (Mac: Ctrl-click) to bring up the context menu, and choose Consolidate. (Ctrl-J/Apple-J does the same thing.)
  6. Now grab the edited clip, drag it back to the upper right corner to the Session View selector (which will cause Session View to reappear), and drag it into a vacant slot in the original track. Presto--you've just moved both the notes and the associated controller data.
  7. To finish the job, go back to Arrangement View and delete the clip from the track.
Fig. 10: Moving a Portion of a Clip Figure 10. Moving a portion of a clip in the Arrangement view.

Recipe 7: Dialing in the Operator

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:

  1. Drag the clip into Session View if you need to, then go back to Arrangement view and drag across the envelope you've recorded.
  2. Right-click to bring up the context menu, as shown in Figure 11, and copy the envelope.
  3. Go back to Session view and double-click the clip to display it in the clip editor.
  4. Make sure the same knob is selected in the clip's envelope area, then click at the left end of the clip display area (or wherever you want the envelope to start), and hit Ctrl-V (or Apple-V). The parameter envelope you recorded in the arrangement will be dropped into the clip.
Fig. 11: Copying Envelope Data Figure 11. Copying envelope data in Arrangement View.

Recipe 8: Beat Generation

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:

  1. Load an audio loop. Anything will do, but a two- or four-bar drum loop might be best.
  2. Set Interval to 1 Bar, Offset to 4/16, Grid to 1/16, Variation to 0, Chance to 100 percent, Gate to 4/16, Pitch to 0 st, Pitch Decay to 0.00 percent, Volume to 0.0 dB, and Decay to 0.00 percent.
  3. Leave Repeat and Filter switched off. Switch the Mix/Ins/Gate selector switch to Ins.
  4. Start the beat.

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:

  • The Interval knob tells Beat Repeat how often to grab a sample. Settings of 1 Bar and 2 Bars are probably the most useful.
  • The Offset knob tells Beat Repeat how far from the start of the measure the sample should be taken. Controlling this knob from a MIDI slider works well.
  • The Grid knob determines the size of the sample. If it's set larger than the Gate, Beat Repeat will do nothing, because there won't be time for any repetitions of the sampled segment before the gate ends.
  • The Gate knob controls how long the sampled slice will be repeated before the effect shuts off.
  • The Mix button blends the effect and dry signals. The Ins button replaces the dry signal with the effect signal whenever the effect is active. The Gate button lets you hear only the output of the effect (equivalent to a 100 percent wet setting).

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.)

Live and Learn

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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