Ableton Live Tutorial: Processing Your Beats

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In Part 2 of the Ultimate Live Guide we built a nice, clean MIDI beat with a few realistic variations, but now Martin Delaney explains how to dirty it up!

For this Tutorial you’ll need the project files which you can download by clicking here!

In our last tutorial, we began a new Live project and created a beat using one of Live’s more acoustic, natural-sounding kits. All good but now we’re going to cannibalise that beat in two different ways – we’ll duplicate and process it to create a new tuned percussion part that plays over the top, and we’ll also convert that original beat to audio, before slicing it up for yet more processing, removing some of the slices completely and replacing them with totally different sounds.

There’s no right or wrong about the type of drum sounds you use; what matters is they’re right for the project you’re working on at the time. Truthfully in most genres these days, you’ll be working with many drum tracks playing in parallel, combining acoustic and electronic sounds.

Dance music tracks are typically based on core drum kits derived from the classic drum machines of old, the Roland TR-808 and TR-909, but these sounds will be customised, processed with audio effects, and often layered alongside more realistic percussion sounds for a richer texture.

As well as mixing and matching source kits, there’s a lot of leeway with sample resolution and sound quality; you can build a kit that includes nice high resolution drum hits alongside grungy little samples that you’ve grabbed from an MP3, YouTube, or you’ve resampled from a little dictating recorder. Mix and match – that’s what it’s all about.

During the tutorial we talk about freezing and flattening tracks – this retains each separate clip within the track, which is incredibly useful. Just be aware that Flatten is destructive – your original track is gone! What I usually do is duplicate the track, then create a group track called ‘Spare’ which I use to contain all of the original versions of my frozen tracks.

You’ll notice that every clip in a flattened track is double the length of the original source clip – this is a feature not a bug(!), designed to accommodate effect tails at the end of loops – this makes sense because it’s quite annoying to hear a reverb tail cut off and begin again as a sample loops. If you’re obsessive about house-cleaning, which I am, you can use the crop sample command to put your clip back to its original length.

We added the Resonator effect to our new percussion track. I love the Resonator, it has quite a distinctive sound, although that means that sometimes you have to tweak it somewhat to get something different. It’s very important to use that Note control though, and make sure it’s pitched correctly to fit in with your other parts – things can get a bit discordant otherwise.

Having programmed and customised a beat earlier, we’re now converting it to audio and beginning the process all over again, slicing it up and adding different sounds and effects. We’re doing this because I want to show you the very cool ‘Slice to New MIDI Track’ command, and also because it’s another interesting creative step you can take.

Even when you’re working with something you’ve programmed yourself, you can give it more of a ‘sampled’ vibe by converting it to audio and slicing it up. It makes you use different tools in different ways. ‘Slice to New MIDI Track’ is great if you have a beat from another record, and you want to edit the arrangement, or tweak or even replace some of the sounds in the sample; putting a compressor on the kick in a sample loop is a good example. I also like to use lo-fi effects such as Redux, Erosion, and Cabinet to dirty things up a bit.

The correct technical term for the slices made by this command, as they’re created and placed in a rack, is ‘chains’. Dragging samples or instruments to replace slices is a big thing; you can take a loop from an old record and totally replace the kick or snare with another sample. Or as we touched on here, drag in an instrument. The slice will be replaced, and the instrument will play as the clip loops. You can build really interesting loops by adding soft synths, audio effects…really taking it on to another level.

If you’re ever following a drum rack tutorial and you’re not seeing everything, make sure to click on the black buttons at the bottom left of the rack – these will show and hide the various elements that make up the rack, including input/output routing, effect sends and returns (yes you can have these in a drum rack), and of course the macros, chains, and devices.

If you really want to go big with elaborate evolving beats, you can start using automation as well. This is a real opportunity to go nuts, because you can automate every device in every chain in the rack, and that can be hundreds of parameters. And of course you can separate the length of the automation loop from the clip length (with the Link button), and do that individually for each parameter, so warn your friends and family that you’re going to disappear for a few weeks!

That’s all we have room for now and we haven’t even mentioned the totally awesome ‘Convert Audio to Drums’ command. That will have to wait for another tutorial. Next month we will use the Simpler instrument and MIDI Effect devices to add some bass to our beats..

Focus On Quantization

Sometimes Live treats audio and MIDI in similar ways. An example of this is quantization. We discussed this for MIDI already, but we can also do it with audio samples – a very powerful feature. Try the sample in our example Live set, Loose Beat.

Double-click the clip to see the waveform – you’ll see it’s not exactly in time and we can fix this. Right-click inside the waveform and type Cmd-U. You’ll see the peaks in the waveform snap to the grid. Cool! To change the quantization values, use Shift-Cmd-U to access the quantization settings.

Processing Your Beats

1: Open our example set – TUGTAL3. Select the drum track and type Cmd-D to duplicate. Right-click the new track, choose Freeze Track, then right-click again and choose Flatten, creating an audio version of the track.

2: Freeze and Flatten makes double-length audio clips – this helps handle effect tails and the like. Use the Loop Brace, Start Marker, and Crop Sample command to cut the clip back to the original length.

3: Set the new drum audio clip to Beats Warp mode if it isn’t already, then go down to the bottom of the Warp controls and choose the top arrow icon, pointing to the right only.

4: This deactivates the Transient Loop mode, which determines how the gaps between slices in Beats mode are handled. While the loop’s running, click and drag downwards in the adjoining box to reduce the decay between slices.

5: It sounds cool, yes? It’s gating the waveform’s transients. Drag right down to 0 for a delicious clicky part, then use the Transpose knob at the left to raise it by 24 semitones or two octaves.

6: Go to the Audio Effects category in the Browser and add the Resonator preset called Berlin to the track. Set the Note inside Resonator to E2, then try setting the Dry/Wet mix at 35%.

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