Recording & Remixing With Ableton Live

Ableton Live Notes & Techniques

Published in SOS January 2006
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Technique : Ableton Live Notes

In the first instalment of this two-part article, we examine how you can use Live as a conventional digital audio workstation.

Ingo Vauk

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A multitrack take in Live's Arrangement view looks very similar to any other DAW.
A multitrack take in Live's Arrangement view looks very similar to any other DAW.

Although Live is mainly known as a loop-based sequencer, it has a surprisingly powerful set of features that make it a useful tool for recording and arranging audio more conventionally. This month, we'll look at how to approach a multitrack recording session using Live as the front end — and next month we'll take it apart and explore how you can use Live's unique features to remix and rework the arrangement you've created.

Set Up, Look Sharp

Before we begin, there are a few settings in the default preferences that need to be adjusted in order to turn Live into a multitrack DAW with multiple active inputs.

To activate inputs from your interface, you can go to the Preferences panel (found in the Live menu on Macs, or the Options menu on PCs), or use the 'Configure' option from the pull-down menu in the Input section of the I/O module, which opens the Audio Device preferences (see the screenshot overleaf). It's worth planning a 'track sheet' in advance to optimise the use of your computer's resources — think about the maximum number of inputs you'll be recording at one time and limit the settings accordingly.

A quick aside here — once you've finished your main multitrack takes, it's worth closing down any inputs that are no longer required so as to cut down on CPU overhead (this also holds true for output assignments).

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You can change your audio interface settings by clicking the 'Configure' option in the Audio From drop-down menu.
You can change your audio interface settings by clicking the 'Configure' option in the Audio From drop-down menu.

Another aspect of resource management is the file format you opt for. Obviously the higher the bit depth and sampling frequency are, the harder both the drive and the CPU will have to work. Generally speaking, your drive will handle anything in playback mode that it has recorded simultaneously without fuss, but remember that your track count will go up once you start overdubbing. Judging the CPU load is a little more tricky, because of the plug-ins and additional processing that will be introduced later on. Real-time time-warping is by its nature processor-intensive, and you are going to be doing a lot of that in Live. As with the track count, it is worth having a plan as to what you are trying to achieve with the overall production. If it's sonic purity and high dynamic range across a limited amount of tracks, then by all means increase the sampling frequency and use the 24-bit or 32-bit coding available to you. If, however, you are going to process and tweak the sound extensively, and are planning on track counts to rival those of the finest '80s producers, stick to 16-bit at 44.1kHz. As you might expect, these parameters are to be found in the Preferences as well. Confusingly, though, they're located in two different places — Audio / Settings for the Sample Rate, and Default / Audio Format for bit depth and file type.

Generally speaking, a normal 7200rpm drive can reliably record at least 24 tracks of (16-bit/44.1kHz) audio at a time, but it is worth testing your particular system before you invite a bunch of musicians into your studio. I also find that disk maintenance such as defragmentation (or even wiping the drive before a big session) is worth doing, regardless of any claims your operating system might make in that department!

While you are setting up the Preferences, it is also worth checking that Auto-Assign Colours is set to 'On' in the Default section (see the 'Name & Number' box over the page), and that you've disabled both the Arm and Solo Exclusive buttons in the Misc / Behaviour section. This ensures that Live will allow you to arm and/or solo more than one track at a time. Alternatively, you can Apple/Ctrl-click the Arm or Solo buttons on screen to achieve the same result.

It's also a good idea to disable 'Auto-Warp Long Samples' in the Clip Default preference menu, otherwise Live will attempt to quantise your recording after it's been made. With live recordings, it's best to hear what you've actually got without any manipulation — at least at first. This is even more relevant when you're not working to a fixed tempo or click track; in cases like these, quantised playback won't bear any resemblance to what was played in the first place! But of course you can always disable Warping afterwards to restore the unadulterated audio.

The next step is to create the required number of Audio channels. This can be done in either the Arrangement or Session Views using the 'Insert Audio Track' command (Apple/Ctrl+T) from the Insert menu. You do not have to specify mono or stereo tracks, since Live will automatically record in the format determined by the input settings.

You can choose the input and output for each channel in the I/O section of the mixer using the key command Alt+Apple+I (Mac) or Alt+Ctrl+I (PC), which toggles this display on or off. It's also sensible, although not strictly necessary, to name each channel/track, since Live will then neatly name all your subsequent takes (again, see the 'Name & Number' box over the page).

Now is also a good time to save the Live Set. If you put it into a folder on your Audio drive called 'RED', Live will automatically place any audio you subsequently record into a folder named 'RED Sounds' on the same level as the Live Set itself.

Recording Processed Signals
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If you want to record a processed signal you need to set up two separate channels. The external signal arrives at channel 1, where it is processed by the two compression units, while channel 2 records and monitors the signal. This kind of arrangement can produce considerable latency, so it is best to monitor the signal directly from the input of your mixer.
If you want to record a processed signal you need to set up two separate channels. The external signal arrives at channel 1, where it is processed by the two compression units, while channel 2 records and monitors the signal. This kind of arrangement can produce considerable latency, so it is best to monitor the signal directly from the input of your mixer.
What, no subgroups? No dedicated input channels? Just Audio and Return Tracks? The fact is that because of the clever routing architecture, these two audio objects are all you'll ever need when working in Live.
Audio Tracks can basically be any type of console component you want them to be; output busses, input channels, subgroups, or anything else you might think of can be configured by choosing the right source and destination.
In the screenshot, you can see the incoming audio being routed through some dynamics processors in the first channel, before being sent on to the second channel for recording to disk.
Channel 1 ('In+Plug') takes its input ('Audio From') from External Inputs 1+2. The channel is set to monitor its input at all times, which means that there is always level present on the meter.
The channel is running two of Live's dynamic processors — Compressor II, which is set to be a fast-acting limiter to take care of occasional peaks, and Compressor I, which compresses the signal more gently for overall level consistency. In Auto Monitor mode, the channel listens to the input signal when the sequencer is stopped or recording, and during playback, the signal comes off disk. This is the most common monitor setting.
The output ('Audio To') of channel 1 is routed to Sends Only. This means that the signal is not present in the mix buss or any of the outputs of the audio interface.
Channel 2 ('Post Rec') is the actual recording channel. As you can see the 'Audio From' input is set to receive the signal from '1 In+Plug', which is the processed signal. The track is armed and ready to record; all that remains to be done is to trigger one of the empty Clip Slot buttons in Session View, or switch to Arrangement View in order to record using the Global Record function. Channel 2's 'Audio To' output is routed to the mix buss in the usual way.
As you can imagine, the processing on the input side will produce considerable latency, so you cannot use this signal during recording for the musicians' monitor mix. The advantages of recording processed signals are that you free up CPU power for later on, and you capture the polished sound — so there's less painful decision-making required later, at the mix.
This is just one example of how routing can be used to create virtually any signal path in Live.
Let's Boogie

Although it sounds complicated written down, all of the above should only take about 10 minutes, after which you're ready to record. Naturally you will have to go through the usual soundchecking routines, monitoring the signal both at the input and output stages, and you might want to record a 'dry run' of each instrument to check your mic placements and instrument sounds.

From here on, you should stay in the Arrangement View (the Tab key toggles between the Arrangement and Session views). Arm all the required tracks, either via the View / Mixer menu, or by hitting Alt+Apple+M (on Macs) or Alt+Ctrl+M (on PCs). If you are aiming for a tight, steady performance, it makes sense to use a click. Live's own metronome (situated in between the Swing and Ext sync controls, in the top left corner) does the job, but given the amount of loops and grooves Live ships with, you shouldn't have any problem coming up with something a little more inspiring. To set the level of the metronome, use the Cue Level control (headphone symbol) situated next to the master fader. If you don't want to use a click, you don't have to, but if you're planning to tighten up the performance later using Live's time-warping facilities, it makes life a lot easier. Having said that, it is usually easy to force most material into some form of synchronisation using Live, but keep in mind that if you start off with a relatively tight performance, you will have fewer audible artifacts when using the Warp functions.

When you are ready to record a take, you press the Global Record button in the centre of the transport panel, or F9 on Macs or PCs, and hit Play (the Space bar). This will drop all armed tracks into Record mode.

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Using the Punch In and Punch Out buttons ensures that you create smooth drop-ins. Spontaneous, manual drop-ins can sometimes cause audio playback glitches, as your CPU may have difficulty handling the 'unexpected' data.
Using the Punch In and Punch Out buttons ensures that you create smooth drop-ins. Spontaneous, manual drop-ins can sometimes cause audio playback glitches, as your CPU may have difficulty handling the 'unexpected' data.

If you're recording multiple takes, it is probably best to record them sequentially; this will make it much easier to splice multiple takes together. The alternative is to save different takes in different Live Sets, but this is much less simple when it comes to editing.

Unlike a lot of DAW systems, there is no way of grouping tracks together for editing purposes. This means that you have to be careful to select all tracks when you move them around, so that they stay locked together and you don't run into phase problems. Apple/Ctrl+4 toggles the Snap To Grid function on and off — this is very useful when moving unquantised audio around.

If you find it is necessary to drop into takes, it is best to use the Punch In and Punch Out buttons (either side of the Loop Switch at the top of the screen, as you can see in the picture to the left). Length and position of the drop-in section can be set numerically or by dragging the Loop Start/End bars underneath the time ruler on the arrangement display. Spontaneous drop-ins work best with individual or small numbers of tracks — with multiple tracks, they can be slow and lead to audio glitches while the software is 'getting ready' to record (although this problem varies depending on your hardware and the performance of your system).

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Once a recording has been completed with a number of overdubs and drop-ins, it is useful to compile each track into one continuous audio file.
Once a recording has been completed with a number of overdubs and drop-ins, it is useful to compile each track into one continuous audio file.

Once you are happy with any edits and drop-ins you may have made, it is very useful to consolidate the sections of audio into continuous files, so that you don't lose any of the edits by mistake. If you have a multitrack recording that you plan to time-correct, you should create audio files of equal length, since this will enable you to superimpose the timing of one track onto all the others (we'll look at this in greater depth in the second part of this article). If, for example, you have cut the beginnings and ends of tracks to different lengths to get rid of unwanted noise, insert short slices of silent audio at the beginning and end of each track until they're all the same length again. If you now Select All (Apple/Ctrl+A) and then consolidate your selection into Clips by hitting Apple/Control+J, Live will create new audio files of the same length containing all your edits. And there you have it — one finished recording, ready to be mixed or remixed.

As I said at the beginning, Live enables you to work very much as you would with a traditional DAW, and up to this point, what I've described doesn't differ much from sessions you might run in Logic or Pro Tools. From here on, however, it's a very different story...

In part two of this article, next month, we will look at how to correct timing, and deconstruct a recording like the one made this month in order to mix and remix your material in ways that only Live can... 

Name & Number
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You can see here how each take is automatically named by combining the track name with the number of the take and channel. The automatic colour assignment also helps to identify the take the material has come from.
You can see here how each take is automatically named by combining the track name with the number of the take and channel. The automatic colour assignment also helps to identify the take the material has come from.
It's worth mentioning Live's way of naming and archiving newly recorded audio. As with most DAW systems I have come across, Live names newly recorded audio files after the channel/track they were recorded on. It also adds the take number to this name for easy identification. Live can identify audio used in a Set even after it has been renamed in the browser; however, it is best to label material clearly for your own future reference. The easiest way to do this is to name the recording channels suitably ('Piano', 'Lead Guitar' and so on) prior to the first take by selecting the top of the track and hitting Apple/Ctrl+R, and then let Live do the rest.
Enabling the 'Auto-Assign Colours' preference (found under the Defaults menu in the Options menu on PCs, and in the Live menu on Macs) adds a visual guide to the chronology of your takes, assigning a new colour to each one as you add takes and record drop-ins and overdubs.
It is often useful to save Sets under different, descriptive names as the project develops, since this gives you the opportunity to return to a certain point in time (before a mix was bounced to stereo, for example). Another advantage of doing this is that Live will create an audio folder in the browser for all new data created with that name. This is useful when you consolidate audio into fresh files after tweaking the raw material, since the consolidated tracks often end up with the same name as the source material. If you have saved the Set under a unique name, Live will have written the consolidated audio into a dedicated folder that has the name of the Set with the suffix 'Sounds'. By clearly labelling tracks right from the start, you will build up a clean browsing architecture that you'll be thankful for as your audio collection grows.

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