Ableton Live isn’t new anymore and it develops slowly (a good thing, because this keeps it stable and reliable), but there are new users jumping aboard the Ableton train all the time. Live’s most distinctive features are the Session View – where we jam and experiment – and warping, which provides easy time-stretching and looping of audio. In this tutorial, we’re going to go right back to the basics and remind ourselves of the fundamentals that make Live such a killer music tool for Mac and PC, on stages and in studios everywhere.
We’re starting with a brief walkthrough on launching Live, playing some simple loops, and loading an audio effect. If I was asked to give out homework before the next tutorial, I’d advise you to explore the interface and to practise the most common keyboard shortcuts to customise your view, which will usually begin with Alt-Cmd- then a letter: for example, Alt-Cmd-M to show/hide the mixer, and Alt-Cmd-I to show the In/Out View. These are all shown in the relevant menus and listed in the manual as well (in addition to the manual, there’s also the Info View, which is toggled by typing ‘?’, a useful source of info as you mouse around the screen).
Pressing tab will take you between the Session View and Arrangement View and understanding the relationship between these views is what will make you an absolute Live ninja – and yes, you can use both views at once.
Suits you, sir
Although Live follows a one-window display principle, it’s easy to tailor to your own needs, thanks to the Look Feel tab. There are different colour themes, zooming and adjustment of brightness and colour intensity. Alongside the Alt-Cmd shortcuts already mentioned, in some cases it’s possible to drag and resize certain elements of the interface, like dragging tracks or the browser wider, or popping out devices such as Wavetable and EQ Eight into a much larger full-screen mode.
The browser is the way into your entire Live library. As well as seeing devices and their presets, you can view samples, plug-ins and create shortcuts to any folder on your computer, or a connected drive, or even to online storage. As you accumulate material, it gets harder to manage, so if you’re heading for a specific item, wherever you are in Live at the time, type Cmd-F and start typing.
The browser will open if it isn’t already and, as you type, you’ll see a list of results appear – definitely the fastest way to fly, if you know the name of what you’re searching for. Colour coding is also massively helpful for organising your stuff – use the Context Menu (right click) to choose colours for a track or clip.
When you get to the end of our 18-step walkthrough, you can add another step: click the circular arrangement record button at the top of the screen, then begin playing with the clips and the effect we loaded. Hit the Spacebar or click Stop when you’ve finished. Then hit Tab, and you’ll see that everything you just did has been recorded into the Arrangement timeline – press [F10] to enable it for playback.
You need certain accessories to get the best from any music software. Usually, this would be an audio interface and some kind of MIDI controller – often Push, in the case of Live. If you don’t have the budget for an interface now, just use the computer’s speakers or headphones, that’s fine. Note also that some interfaces are bundled with a free copy of Live, so that can be an affordable way in.
As far as controllers go, a dedicated piece like Ableton’s Push is ideal and we’ll be referring to that throughout these tutorials, but if you can’t afford that at the moment, use the MIDI and Key map modes to create your own control setup, with the computer keyboard and whichever MIDI keyboard you already have.
It’s quite impressive how much you can do with the Live/Push combination, without looking at the computer so much. For a very basic example, you might observe that Push shows clip colours – but of course, being pads, they can’t display any other info, such as clip names! However, press and hold the Push Select button and tap a clip and you’ll see all the clip info you need on the Push display.
It’s not like getting an overview of all the clip names in your project, but once you start using it, it’s second nature – this works with scenes, too. The best way to learn Live is to use it little and often; don’t wait weeks and then have a binge session of hours and expect to remember it all, just do a little bit every day if you can. It’s pretty much like learning an instrument!
Back-to-basics with Push and Ableton Live 10: step-by-step
1. Sure, you can use your computer speakers or headphone input, but a dedicated audio interface will give you far more flexibility down the line. They nearly all connect via USB, so hook it up to your computer and install any necessary drivers or control software.
2. Let’s assume you’ve already installed Live 10. If not, go to ableton.com and grab the demo. With your interface connected, launch Live and authorise it. After that, open Live’s Preferences and configure your interface under the Audio tab.
3. While we mention it, the Live 10 demo gives you the full version of the software, with all the features, instruments and effects. It’s fully functioning for 30 days – when you want to purchase Live, you can choose either the Intro, Standard, or Suite versions.
4. Connect your Push, if you’re using one – that’s another USB port occupied! All being well, Live should recognise and configure Push automatically – although it will also check to see if you need to do any firmware updates (which won’t take long if required).
5. We’ve provided an example Ableton Live set with some content to get us started (you can use the Live demo) – copy it to your computer and open it by double-clicking on the .als file inside the project folder (we’ll talk more about file management later).
6. If you’ve got any eyesight issues, or you’re working under difficult lighting, or you just like to customise things, Live has the Look/Feel tab in Preferences, where you can choose a different colour scheme and set a zoom level for the overall display.
PUSH AND THE BROWSER You can browse and load your Live content direct from the Push display. Press the Browse button, choose a category at the left, then use the buttons or knobs to navigate to your content and use the Load button to add it to your project.
7. In Session View, tracks are organised left-to-right. You should see the clips laid out on the Push pads and onscreen. If not, press the Push Session button. Tap any clip to trigger it and you should see track levels and hear audio.
8. Travelling light without a Push, or other controller? You can launch clips with mouse clicks, too. The clips loop indefinitely, unless you stop them by clicking the square Stop button at the bottom of each track, or at the bottom of the pads on Push.
9. Clips will also stop if you click the square Stop button in an empty slot in the same track – only one clip can play in a track at once. Adjust the volume of each track with the fader in the mixer below the tracks.
10. If you click the small black ‘L’ icon at the bottom left of the screen, you can change the launch behaviour for the selected clip, using the box immediately under ‘Launch Mode’. Remember these are per clip, and also work with Push. Toggle is useful for hardware control.
11. While you’re doing that, apply different quantisation values to the clips. Just by using launch modes and quantisation, you’ll see how clips in Live can be more organic than simply turning them on and off. It’s very powerful once you get a handle on it.
12. These are all audio clips. Change the project bpm at the top left of the screen while the clips are playing, and they should speed up and slow down very smoothly without changing pitch. This is Live’s warping (time-stretching) at work.
PUSH AND THE BROWSER PT 2 If you’ve got a lot of material in your library, you can use the favourites section in Live to add colour-coded shortcuts to your most-used stuff! You can also toggle preview on/off so you can hear the sounds as you cycle through.
13. Note that all of the material in our example set this time is audio – you can tell from the waveforms – but rest assured that Live has a great selection of software instruments just waiting to be played and programmed… we’ll get on that soon.
14. Click the large-ish triangle at the top left to show/hide Live’s browser (or use Alt-Cmd-B). From here, you can access everything in the Live Library and anything else on your computer, with shortcuts to your favourite folders and content.
15. Open the Audio Effects section at the left, then go to Drum Buss in the right column. Click the small triangle next to Drum Buss and you’ll see the presets for that effect. Drag Compression Gate across to the track containing our drum beat.
16. As well as Push, you can use any MIDI controller with Live, whether it’s pad-, keyboard-, or mixer-style. Some automatically take over Live, some will need a bit of help via MIDI Map Mode – type Cmd-M, then anything in blue can be assigned.
17. Click the item you want to control, then move the control on your hardware to assign it. Move on to do some more, then when you’re finished, type Cmd-M again. There’s also Key Map Mode, which uses the computer keyboard in a similar way – Cmd-K.
18. If you open the browser while in either map mode, you’ll see your current assignments, with text descriptions and the range of parameters displayed. You can also delete assignments from here and – more interesting – type in new values to restrict the range of chosen controls.
For more Live tutorials and workshops, check here.