Any DJ worth his salt can select, mix and creatively manipulate other people’s work, but these skills can also be transferred to producing music. Liam O’Mullane explains in this Ableton Live Tutorial
The art of DJ’ing has inevitably evolved over the years, but the core skills have remained much the same. A good DJ needs a musical ear to pick out quality tracks, and can detect the different energy levels and musical feel of each track in their collection so they have control over their set’s dynamics.
They also need the skills to perform the mix live, which can be as basic as crossfading from one track to another in the last five seconds regardless of any difference in BPM, or performing continuous, pulse beat-matching of one track to the next to perform a seamless mix. In fact, genre and DJ’ing styles aside, the only big difference in more recent years has been the degree of audio manipulation involved, along with the use of additional audio loops and samples to augment a mix.
Audio manipulation can be as basic as fast fader and rhythmic flicks of the crossfader to get that chop-and-change sound. The next step would be the use of EQ, filter and multi-FX. Additional sounds can be triggered from a sample deck or cue points on a deck, letting you add single-shot audio-like special effects to your mix or reordering loops and small sections of a track respectively.
These skills, built up over the years, can be the basis of your approach to audio production. Here we’ll look at production that utilises those DJ’ing skills – while minimising the need to learn new skills – for successful music production.
In The Beginning
There are quite a few software choices when it comes to sequencing and mixing your own music. Logic, Cubase, Reason, Pro Tools and Ableton Live are the most common titles you’ll hear when it comes to which program to use. They all have plenty of attractive features, but it’s Live that wins over the DJ crowd. This is mainly due to its looping nature, ease of use, and that 99 per cent of its functions can be carried out during continuous, undisturbed playback. This feature is called Session View, which lets you work like you’re in the middle of a DJ’ing mix, so it’s a comfortable place for you to start.
We recommend that you initially get to know the software by learning to mix a few tracks together to understand its basic functionality. Live comes with some excellent tutorials in the Help View window for this under the Help menu at the top of the screen. An 11-page walkthrough called DJing will teach you the basics on how to beat-match your music (Warping) and add EQ. If you’re completely new to the program we recommend having a browse through most of the short lessons on this page to gain confidence in getting around the application.
We will show you how to use Live for working with looped and single-shot (non-looped) audio and MIDI clips. Use Session View to create a combination of sounds that you can base a track around. You can then use your DJ’ing skills to trigger and shape each Scene (row) to create a full track. Now you are ready to get started, let’s look at a simple trick to help achieve a more professional-sounding track from the very beginning. This involves DJ’ing between your own track and other released tracks that you rate in terms of production value and musical content.
Use EQ on your Deck Groups and individual layers as you would in a DJ mix. Choosing which sounds are allowed to have bass (bass sounds and kick drum) and taking out the bass on other sounds to avoid pushing the mix into the red.
It’s most likely you’re wanting to create your own music because you’ve been inspired by someone else’s. There’s also a good chance that you’re into a particular sound of the moment and have a handful of new tracks that would be great examples of what you want to create. Grab one or two favourites from this selection and drag them onto a new track within Live. This will mean they’re on hand at any moment to help judge how your own work is sounding.
Time spent learning Live’s Beat Repeat will enable you to loop a single beat of your song to then divide into smaller loops, allowing you to easily create build-ups to new sections on the drum group
Another benefit of this setup comes from splitting the reference material into song sections – or what DJs tend to call phrases. In dance music you’re usually talking clean sections of 16 to 32 bars when a track maintains similar sounds and musical parts until a noticeable change at the 17th or 33rd bar. This is the next phrase in the track. After splitting the track into separate audio clips per phrase, you can concentrate on the musical elements and sounds in each phrase. This will give you a more clear idea of the type of material needed to create the given genre and style of music in question.
We’ll now look at the various options available for sound sources in a song and weigh up º pros and cons when used as a DJ’s approach.
An investment in a quality sample pack for the genre you want to produce is like buying the best tracks for a mix – and should not be overlooked. Take time to be the ‘selector’ of your song elements and concentrate on the best starting point for a great-sounding track.
Many people over-complicate the process of music production at the stage of sourcing sounds. As a DJ, you already have an ear for a good or bad sound, so use your skills and treat this stage as you would when building or selecting tracks for a record crate. You don’t need to be creating a track yet, purely building up a crate of quality sounds.
The most immediate source to work with is an audio loop. These are usually 1–2 bars in length, meaning they’ll require some variation over time when played throughout a 16–32-bar section of a song or they’ll quickly become monotonous.
Single samples can be used on their own as the basis of a track or alongside an existing bed of loops. They offer more control as you need to program in your own patterns, but this requires some basic knowledge of how to sequence drums and melodies. They’ll have a professional, polished sound to them, so, as when working with loops, require minimal understanding of mixing and processing. However, they won’t carry the same energy, which may or may not be an issue depending on how sonically dense/sparse the music needs to be.
Instruments offer the greatest amount of flexibility as you can not only program in the notes they play, you can shape how that instrument will sound. They also require a much more in-depth understanding of mixing, although buying specialised preset packs for the genre you’re working with can help a lot.
Working with loops, then, is a good place to start: spend your time picking the sample packs for the style of music you want to create. Although the price of a quality sample pack might point you towards ‘free’ online content, we’ve seen plenty of people waste time looking for samples all over the net with only mediocre results. With commercially released material, the price pays for production decisions by the makers – knowledge you may not have at this stage. Loopmasters, Sample Magic, Prime Loops, Samplephonics, Future Loops and Wave Alchemy are all good starting points.
As you grow your skills, use single samples to augment your sounds. Play to your strengths: don’t jump in too soon, grabbing lots of single samples and setting up instruments. As you’ll find, your DJ skills will enable you to create plenty of interest in your sounds.
When using groups to manage your musical elements like a four-deck mix, set up a channel for each group so you can record your filter, fader and other processing.
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.
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.