Certain restrictions and disciplines need to be applied in order to keep your work manageable. We plan to process sounds with filters, faders and effects, so having these options spread over too many channels will soon become confusing. Most songs can be divided into drums, bass, melody and ‘other’ (the latter reserved for musical sounds that aren’t stealing the limelight from the melody along with other sounds like special FX and risers, etc). It’s most common to create your drum sound from several layered loops, so if they’re grouped into a drum deck they can be treated as a whole. The same goes for the other elements, and this is very simple to set up. Hold down the [Shift] key, click and highlight the top of each track you want to group, then select Group Tracks from the Edit menu. Repeat this to create your four decks so you can start to add DJ-like processing to them for sound-manipulation.
This masterclass from Claude VonStroke takes you through the core elements of Ableton Live production:
After beat-matching, channel- and crossfader-manipulation is one of the oldest skills in a DJ’s arsenal. If you release Live’s crossfader from reference track duties – the simplest way is to mute the reference track (you can always use solo to hear it again in the future) – the unassigned side of the fader can be used to rhythmically mute any of your four groups. Right/[Ctrl]-clicking (PC/Mac) the crossfader on Live’s screen lets you choose a preferred crossfader curve for a faster and more instant muting effect, like that of a scratch mixer. If your skills are up to it, there’s nothing preventing you from creating more complex patterns through a combination of channel and crossfader rhythms at the same time.
This double-fader technique is a simple way to manipulate various elements in your song, but you’ll need to set up a new audio track in order to record your actions as a new loop. Channel-fader action and any other processing of a group can be recorded directly from the output of that group. Set the Monitor In on the track you will record on to listen to that group. Crossfader action is trickier to capture as it happens on the master track, not the groups themselves. This means that everything you hear from the master needs to be recorded.
There are two workarounds for this. The first is to set an audio track to record the master output of Live, but that means you can listen only to what you wish to record at the same time, so everything but a synth part you want to chop would need muting, making it hard to know what tempo and rhythm you’re working to. The other option is to create a fake crossfader by assigning the crossfader on your controller (or any other regular fader) to the Mute button of a Utility Device from Live’s Audio Devices. Like assigning Activate buttons to Macros (as discussed in the Setting Up Complex Control step-by-step), you can set the Mute button to kick in when the crossfader is only fully to one side. As this Device is on the group deck itself, this will be recorded along with channel fader movements.
Bi-directional low- to high-pass filters are great tools for DJ-like control. Live doesn’t include one but these three plug-ins are free online: The Pilgrim, HiLo Filter and DJMFilter.
Filtering is commonplace on many hardware mixers and DJ software these days, so we’re assuming that you’ve used them before. Filters are useful in production in many of the same ways as they are in a DJ set. You can bring a sound in or out with a rumble using a low-pass filter. High-pass filters let you bring the body of a sound in or out while maintaining an element of bite and brightness. Live’s Auto Filter can be set to one or the other at a time, so you’ll need to create two if you want both filters available per deck. We personally prefer to add a third parts bi-directional filter plug-in for a setup that’s much more intuitive in terms of a DJ’s approach. Bi-directional filters enable you to sweep from low-pass through to high-pass with the central position being neutral – an essential tool to move swiftly from one filter type to another in a musical way.
For music production, a filter is most useful in one of two ways. The first is for fixed positions, or slow to medium sweeps. These might continue throughout a sound to provide elements of variation. More extreme changes in position can be useful to add impact before a new section. The second use in production is to create a rhythmic performance that becomes part of the sound. An example of this is to record four bars of you filtering a one-bar loop to create a longer loop.
The Vestax VCM-600 (excellent faders and curve control) and AKAI APC40 (assignable buttons, a super-fast crossfader and great integration with Live)
As a DJ, effect types like flanger, bit-crusher and delay shouldn’t be foreign to you. These effects are found on most DJ equipment. These and plenty of other options are available in Live. They can be punched in and out as momentary effects (great for fills before a new song section) or applied in a way that creates an entirely new sound. This can then be recorded as a new loop.
Delays are good to apply to sounds with plenty of space in their content. Without the space you are just adding clutter to an already busy sound. Map delay times to a MIDI controller and change the setting at different points in the song – a simple but engaging way to create interest to the listener. Chorus, flanger and phaser can all be used on sounds if they don’t need maximum attention as they tend to push sounds back in a mix. Background pad and ambience sounds benefit greatly from this.
If you’re from the days of creating stutters with two copies of the same record, you can use Live’s Simple Delay to create the same effect. Set the Delay Time to Link so it’s just a single mono delay rather than a stereo one. The Time should be set to four measures and the dry/wet dial can be used as a crossfader between the original and repeated sound. Try this on drum loops and hear how adjusting the dry/wet can create interesting new drum patterns.
The next step in terms of timing manipulation is to experiment with re-triggering loops as you would when setting cue points to a track in a set for reworking live. This is covered in the Cue Point Triggering step-by-step. Although this is also incredibly simple, it uses the same principles as the more advanced loop-slicing and re-programming available in Live. But this approach can produce the same types of results when used in conjunction with a channel fader to mute parts in and out for that chopped-up effect.
Asides from learning some basic Ableton Live navigation skills, all we’re really talking about here is turning your existing skills in a new direction. In time you can start exploring your own drum programming using single drum samples or a drum machine plug-in, then move on to instruments and all the flexibility they offer. But for now, there are plenty of ways in which you can produce your own tracks with the skills you already have – albeit in a slightly different way.