Streamlining Your Workflow In Ableton Live

Ableton Live Notes & Techniques

Published in SOS December 2005
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Technique : Ableton Live Notes

We begin this new series on using Ableton Live by examining how you can increase your productivity whilst using Live as a writing tool.

Ingo Vauk

live header Clip screen

Welcome to SOS's new regular workshop for Live users. As we are at the start of exploring this exciting software, I thought it a good idea to look at the beginning of the creative process. Over the coming issues, we'll cover the innovative concepts governing work within Live, and look at techniques for streamlining working practices and setting up an efficient system.

Getting Started

In this first article, we'll cover the basics, running through a typical writing session in Live using real instruments, starting with some sketchy ideas in the Session View window and taking them through to the creation of a finished arrangement ready for mixing in the Arrangement View.

To put you in the picture, my studio is based around my computer and a Digidesign Digi 001 interface. I also have a lovely old Wurlitzer piano, a couple of nice microphones, some guitars, a few synths (soft and hard) and more samples than I will use in three lifetimes.

I have a microphone, the Wurlitzer and a Roland Jupiter 8 permanently connected to the Digi 001's inputs, and I use the monitor outputs to feed my speakers. This allows me to sit down and start work almost immediately and, because of the 001's direct outputs, I don't have to worry about latency from the external instruments. The final part of the setup is a MIDI master keyboard, which I use to play in musical parts and also to trigger buttons in Live's Session View.

live 2 Key assign mode
Key Map Mode shows how the Clip triggers were assigned in the example Session.
Key Map Mode shows how the Clip triggers were assigned in the example Session.
Key Map Mode shows how the Clip triggers were assigned in the example Session.

One of the great things about Live is that it gives you almost instant access to your sounds. Rather than have to go through the usual sequencer rigmarole of importing audio files, having browsed through endless windows to find them, it's easy to save certain browser settings in your default Live Set (Live's term for a project), so that you can navigate quickly to the folders that hold your audio files.

This means that you're never more than three clicks away from the next sound, regardless of its nature. Audio files and virtual instruments can be dragged onto the Session view and will sort themselves out in the mixer environment, automatically creating the required MIDI or audio tracks as you go along.

For new recordings, I have created a few blank audio-input Tracks, routed from the Digi 001, with their outputs muted, as I don't want to mix the latency-delayed signal with the direct one coming from the 001's monitor output. The MIDI preferences are set to enable me to record both MIDI note data and also controller information from hardware control surfaces, which Live's manual refers to as Remote control surfaces.

By sitting down and thinking about what you most often need when you start using Live, and then setting up your default Live screen accordingly, you can avoid the messing about that so often gets in your way when you've had an idea and want to start work on it fast.

Audio & MIDI Routing
live Box Midi routing
MIDI routing shows how MIDI from one track's output can be routed to the Instrument of another.
MIDI routing shows how MIDI from one track's output can be routed to the Instrument of another.
When I first started using Live, it took me a little while to get used to the routing methods, especially in the MIDI domain. Because of the innovative way in which Ableton approach sequencing, the terminology can also be slightly confusing. A Track in Live terms is really a channel on the mixer that may just be there in the role of a normal mixer channel, simply processing the audio it gets from its input and sending it to the output. Alternatively, it can actually hold the sound source either as a Clip or in the Arrangement. The MIDI data is taken care of in similar fashion, and can be turned into sound by a plug-in within the channel, or can be routed to another channel or external device from the output. So in the following text, you can always substitute 'track' for 'channel' and vice versa.
You can specify the MIDI In source on a channel-by-channel basis to be any external MIDI device connected to the interface you're using, the computer keyboard, or the output from an existing MIDI track. To use several external MIDI controllers at the same time, each channel/track can be assigned exclusively to an input, so that you are permanently monitoring the relevant MIDI master for the sound. Working alone and with a fixed setup, it usually suffices to set all inputs to 'All Ins' to start with, and then fine-tune your settings as you go.
The MIDI output routing works along similar lines. On MIDI channels that hold a plug-in instrument, the MIDI output naturally gets routed to that instrument. In MIDI channels that are there purely for sequencing purposes, the MIDI Out can be routed to any of the physical outputs, or any other MIDI track. In this case, you have the option to send the data to the track input (one way of bouncing together MIDI data from multiple takes) or to the input of another plug-in instrument.
As with the MIDI routing, the audio signal flow in Live is slightly different to what you might be used to. Audio Tracks can source their inputs from your audio interface or any other audio track or buss within Live. This gets rid of the need to have specific group or buss channels, since any audio track can be configured to do that job. Similarly, the output of a track can be routed to any physical out, or any other audio track. The 'Sends Only' option will lift the audio from the mix buss but still send the audio via the Aux busses — very useful for feeding dedicated effects channels.
I usually set up a couple of general effects on the auxilliary sends and returns in order to cut down on plug-in use early on in the process. With the wealth of processing available from within Live and third-party products it is worth keeping processing economy in the back of your mind. It is very easy to put a couple of plug-ins on every sound, and find that you are running out of power long before you're done. So leaving some of the processing until later and using just your standard reverb on a send will help here. Alternatively, you can resample sounds immediately and disregard the processing chain that led to it. With Ableton's ingenious file-management system, it is never a problem to retrieve a sound at a later point, if you want to redo a section.
Let's Go To Work

To begin, I typically select a loop I want to use to play to, and drag it from the browser into the first empty space on the right of my recording Tracks. I then press the Play button on the resulting Clip. After adjusting the master tempo of the loop, I un-mute the channel to which my Wurlitzer is routed, and set it to input in order to see the level I'm putting 'to tape'. It is good practice to listen 'through' the software at this stage, to make sure you're getting a clean signal without any clipping or similar nasties.

Once I'm happy with this, and I've muted the latency-delayed signal again, I arm the track for recording (using the Arm Session Recording button at the bottom of the mixer channel) and finally I assign my sustain pedal to trigger the Play/Record button of the first empty slot in my Wurlitzer track. This means that I can hit the pedal when I want to start recording, and the drop-in point will be on the next global quantise value set in the transport bar (the next downbeat, in this case).

When I want to record a piano part, I hit the pedal, and Live drops into record on the following downbeat. I record a few bars of the idea, and then stop the sequencer. If I'm worried about my timing at this point, I can adjust it by dragging the Warp Markers in the Clip display. You can see from this how quick it can be to record your ideas in Live.

live 3 arrange envelopes
Here we can see part of the Arrangement that resulted from carrying out a global recording of the Session View.
Here we can see part of the Arrangement that resulted from carrying out a global recording of the Session View.

After recording a few more parts to build on the rhythm track, I'll typically spend some time creating variations and key changes using Live's various transposition, re-triggering and general mangling tools. Rest assured that we will look into these methods in depth in the months to come.

Once you've got enough raw material in the form of multiple Clips, you can think about creating an Arrangement with them. If you wish, you can try your hand at putting the Clips together as Scenes first. A Scene is a horizontal row of Clips that stretches across the Session view, and can be triggered as one entity by clicking on the Scene Launch button on the right.

To create a Scene from Clips, you trigger the Clips you want to use, set them running, and then select 'Capture and Insert Scene' from the Insert menu, or hit the 'I' key while holding down Control and Shift on a PC (Command/Apple and Shift on a Mac). Using this method, it is possible to build up a number of different Clip combinations very rapidly and try out sections of music on the fly. You can label these Scenes (for example 'Verse', 'Bridge', or 'Chorus') by selecting the Scene button and hitting the 'E' key while holding down the Control key (PC) or Command/Apple (Mac).

If you're only using a few Clips as your raw material, you might not need to create Scenes, but could simply trigger Clips in real time as and when you want to hear them. Live allows you to assign so-called Clip triggers to most keys on the computer keyboard, and also assign keys to stop playback of individual Clips at any time. You do this in Key Map Mode, which you enter by hitting the 'K' key while holding down the Control key on a PC, or, once again, the Command/Apple key on a Mac. You then simply click on the function you want to assign a key to, and hit the required trigger key on your keyboard.

I tend to use a Scene-based method of creating Arrangements when the source Clips contain a lot of fine detail, or when I want to create more traditional song structures, but when I want to create a more free-flowing, club-style track, I tend to build an Arrangement by just triggering Clips from individual keys. Whether you use key or Scene triggers is down to personal preference and the type of material you are working on. You can even mix and match both approaches if that suits you best.

Live News
Ableton have released Live v5.0.2, which incorporates a number of bug fixes, including resolving certain conditions that previously led to crashes when using copy and paste. You can find full details of the improvements within the tutorial section of the update software.
live News Multiple Warp Markers
Coldcut will be making files from their new single available to the Ableton Live on-line community, including remix-ready stems and a vocal rant by John Spencer . Keep a look out in the Ableton artist section on www.ableton.com.
Quick tip: a new feature in Live 5 allows you to move multiple Warp Markers at the same time. Simply select a Warp Marker and then hold down Shift to select multiple markers. Alternatively, you can select them all by holding down Control and hitting the 'A' key (on a PC) or holding down Command/Apple and hitting 'E' (on a Mac). You can then move these markers incrementally by using the right and left arrow keys. This can be especially handy if you're working with a long track that hasn't been correctly analysed by Ableton's new Auto-Warp feature.
Making Arrangements

Essentially an Arrangement is created by recording the locations of the Clip triggers you create in Live's Session View into the timeline in the Arrangement View. To do this, you hit the Global Record button in the main transport bar at the top of the screen, and all your subsequent actions are then recorded into the arrange view. If you are using frozen tracks to conserve CPU power you can still do this. However, once you finish the pass, the track freeze will be lost, and will have to be repeated in the arrangement. The example screen above was done in one take in real time. As you can see, a fair degree of complexity is possible using just this simple setup.

Once you're happy with the result, you can change to Arrange View and start fine-tuning your Arrangement. There might be some late or early triggers to correct, or you might want to add some additional Clips manually. This can be done either by dragging Clips from the Browser into the Arrangement, or by copying them from the Session View and pasting them into the Arrangement.

Now is the perfect time to add details such as fills or variations that weren't part of the Clips coming from your Session View performance. You can create new Tracks or drop in to existing ones — this is done by arming the track and then dropping into Global Record mode. Obviously Live allows you to cut and paste in the same way any other DAW does, so you might rework the arrangement by picking out the best bits from the performance. The art, as usual, lies in knowing when to stop. Having said that, the beauty of this way of working is that you can throw together very different arrangements in no time at all. Since I started using Live, I've found that I've changed my way of working from trying to get the perfect track straight away to creating many different ones and combining them into one.

At this stage, I often find that my CPU is stretched to the limits, so I use the available tools to free up capacity. Since I don't want to restrict my mixing options too much, I tend not to 'Render to Disk' until the actual mixing is taking place, but a careful combination of consolidating and freezing tracks can unlock considerable processing reserves. This is a matter of personal preference, but I still like to keep the mixing as a separate stage of working, mainly because I work a lot in different places and I prefer not to mix until I'm in an environment where I'm comfortable with the monitoring. More on that subject in the near future, when I shall be looking at mixing in Live.

Next month, I'll be approaching the session from another angle: recording an Arrangement and then deconstructing it into Clips for remixing and arranging. 


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