Both audio and MIDI can trigger that creative spark and get the ball rolling when it comes to composition. Liam O’Mullane sets you off on the right track in the first part of a new series, looking at becoming a power user of Ableton Live
When it comes to starting any kind of work in Live, there has always been a variety of ways to kick things off. Live can be used for traditional songwriting with a traditional sequencing approach in Arrangement View, or used as an interactive jamming tool for experimental work in Session View. Live is also capable of being a ‘live’ performance tool, too, so there’s no wonder many people struggle to find a good workflow with this deceptively simple yet incredibly open-format tool.
In this series we’ll take a thorough look at the various aspects of Live 9, Live 9 Suite and Push. Although these all present different options for creating music, we will have a single aim in a bid to accommodate them all – to make music that is creative, unique and well produced. Numerous new tools have been introduced in Live 9, and the inclusion of Max for Live within Live 9 Suite opens up an expansive creative playground to all. And although Push is still in its infancy, we’re already finding some very enjoyable ways of using it to interact with music. So irrespective of the level of investment you’ve made in your Live 9 setup, we’ve got you covered.
Although we’re catering for all ability levels, we’ll assume that you at least understand the very basics of Live. And remember that there are some extremely useful built-in lesson packs that integrate very well into the program, so if you find yourself out of your comfort zone at any point in this series, just go to the View menu and select Help View. The selection of lessons will then appear to the right-hand side of everything else in Live.
To begin, this month we’re looking at various ways to create and manipulate an initial idea through the use of MIDI or audio. Your audio can be single sounds, loops or something you’ve recorded yourself. MIDI can be used to control a huge variety of instruments, but at this stage it doesn’t matter whether it’s bass, pads, drums or lead lines as we’ll start by focusing on MIDI note data. If you can competently manipulate sounds at this level, you’ll have very tight control over how the sound can then be varied throughout your work before getting tangled in a web of automation, layering effects and so on.
Although a power user needs good ideas and an ear to produce, workflow is also important, so with audio, MIDI and workflow in mind, let’s get started.
Fast, Creative MIDI Editing
1: If you’re inputting MIDI by hand, try to double-click and hold down your mouse/trackpad button to create a note and set its length in one movement. A highlighted note can then be moved from left to right with the arrow keys; pitch can be altered using up/down.
2: To move from one note to the next using the arrow keys, hold down [Alt] at the same time. You can be looping around while editing to hear your changes, or use the MIDI Editor preview button (the headphone icon above the vertical piano) so you hear each change in pitch as you make it.
3: If you’re struggling to get an idea started or just want to explore a different approach from usual, try inputting successive notes by holding down the [B] key to momentarily engage Draw mode. This starts you off in a step sequencer-like way. Now use the key commands already covered to change a note’s pitch and press  to mute any unwanted notes.
4: No matter how your MIDI part has been created, there are some great editing tools available in Live, but you’ll first need to highlight two or more notes. The mouse is the obvious choice for this task, but for quick keyboard work, hold down [Shift]+[Alt] while using the arrow keys. You can alter this section or duplicate your work and alter the second to extend the phrase.
5: The Invert (Inv) and Reverse (Rev) buttons to the left of the MIDI Note Editor will flip all highlighted MIDI notes upside down or back to front respectively. Both are easy ways to create variation in your parts. A reverse of a beat or half/a full-bar’s worth of notes is useful for creating variation at the end of a phrase. Alternatively, highlight random sections to alter for a less predictable outcome.
6: Two other useful functions for creative editing are the half- and double-tempo functions (these are the :2 and *2 buttons above Inverse and Reverse). These let you change your MIDI, and double-tempo is especially useful for creating small flourishes within a piece. You can stretch highlighted content for more control over this type of change – just drag the stretch marker above the notes.