Ableton Live isn't just a DJ tool, but a very capable audio workstation. This month we begin a look at how to approach Live if you want to use it as a fully fledged audio sequencer.
Sit 10 people down in front of Live, and you'll see 10 different ways of using the program. A DJ might load mini-songs into Clips and 'warp' the tempos so that they match up, then crossfade between them to create sets. An avant-garde composer may choose to use it mostly for live, on-the-fly signal processing that gets captured and resampled; I use it as a 'remix machine' for doing live arranging with overdubs — sort of a cross between mixing and performing. Others see it as a standard digital audio workstation with some unusual extras thrown in... and that's what we'll address in this column.
The idea for this article came from SOS Editor Paul White, who proposed a series of 'defector's guide' articles for those who were switching from one sequencer to another — for example, those who used Logic for Windows before Apple dropped support, and felt on unfamiliar ground when trying to climb the Sonar, Cubase or Acid learning curve. They were to cover the fundamentals so those using the new platforms could quickly figure out navigation, where to insert plug-ins, and so on.
As it turned out, I would just about get an article written when a new revision would be introduced, and it seemed I could never catch up. In this case, though, Live 's DAW paradigm (like the program itself) has remained internally consistent. Those who are intrigued by Live but are most comfortable in coming in via the DAW 'back door' can do so, but it takes a bit of effort to understand the ' Live ' way of doing things. Once traditionalists are comfortable using Live as a DAW, they may find it a lot easier to get into Live 's many additional features.
Let's Make A Mixer
Live has two main views; Session view and Arrangement view. Session view is Live 's unique take on doing on-the-fly looping, composing, and remixing. The Arrangement view follows the 'linear timeline' recording model, much like conventional DAWs. You can go into record mode, then record into the arrangement as you would any DAW track.
However, there's the added bonus that Live can also act like Acid or Sonar, where you can drag loops directly into the Arrangement view. These will be converted into 'warped' Clips that loop, and stretch with any changes in tempo. You can also work in this manner with portions of a recorded track, or even an entire track.
So is the Session view irrelevant? No, because this is where you put together a mixer. For DAW fans, you can consider the Session view the console or mixer view, while the Arrangement view is the edit view. Here's how you go about creating a mixer in the Session view.
By default a new Live Set will include an Audio track, a MIDI track, and two Return tracks (although they may be hidden). Each track has 20 scenes. As we won't be working with scenes if we're using Live as a traditional DAW, they aren't needed and just take up space; you can remove them by Selecting All from the Edit menu (Ctrl/Apple + A) and then selecting Cut Scenes, also from the Edit menu. One scene will be left, because all tracks must have one scene.
Live 's Mixer has several show/hide options on the bottom right-hand side of the main Session screen. To most closely mimic a traditional mixer view, click on 'IO' to show the I/O section, 'S' to show sends, 'R' to show return tracks, and 'M' to (of course!) show the mixing controls (fader, pan and so on).
Each track in Session view corresponds to a track in the Arrangement view. To create a track, right- or Control-click on any blank space within the Clip/Device drop area, and select the type of track you want to insert (Audio, MIDI or Return). For now, let's create a mixer with six audio tracks, two MIDI tracks, and two Return tracks (which should already exist if you started with a default new Live Set).
To delete a track, click on the track name to select it, then hit the Delete key or select Delete from the Edit menu. To move a track, for example to have all the audio or MIDI tracks together, click on the track name and drag it to the desired new position.
Of course, you can add tracks at any time. But for now, you should have a mixer that looks somewhat like the picture on the previous page (this assumes you've hidden the browser to make more space).
The Live 'Audio Channel Strip'
The Live channel strip works a bit differently to those in other sequencers, but there are also a great deal of similarities. Let's start at the top and work our way downward.
At the top is the track title bar, which contains the track name. To rename, right/ Control click on it and type in a new name.
Now comes our first major point of departure: where are the insert slots for plug-ins? Live has a separate Track view pane (which is keyed to the selected track) where you can drag effects in from Live 's browser. If this isn't visible, the easiest option is to just double-click on the track name; this opens up the Track view and displays any effects that are present for that track. If the Track view is already open, a single click on the track name will reveal the Track view for that track.
Signal flow is from left to right, with audio hitting the input, and the output going to the pan/fader/send section. Interestingly, Live has a feature I wish all sequencers would adopt: in the Track view, there's a level meter at the input and output of the chain, as well as between each effect. This makes it very easy to do gain staging with multiple effects.
Unlike conventional sequencers, when one of its a built-in plug-ins is inserted, Live automatically shows that plug-in's GUI in the Track view. VST effects are handled differently; there are four interface editing options, depending on which button you click on and select to the immediate left of the plug-in name.
If neither button is on, you'll see an X-Y controller where you can choose the X and Y parameters from drop-down menus. This allows for fast tweaking of important parameters.
If the right arrow button is selected, the effect 'unfolds' toward the right to reveal the various parameters offered by the effect, but presented as linear faders using graphics provided by Live. Once selected, this button turns into a left arrow button; click on it to fold the parameters back up.
If the 'wrench' (Edit Panel) button is on, Live shows the effect's native graphic interface. This can be enabled with either the parameters unfolded or not, give you two editing variations.
Ins, Outs & Monitoring
The 'Audio From' field selects the signal source. The option that will be most familiar to conventional DAW users is 'Ext. In'. The field below this chooses from whatever input sources are enabled, as chosen under Options / Preferences / Audio / Settings / Input Configuration. For example, if you have an audio interface with four pairs of stereo inputs, and they're all enabled, you'll be able to choose any of the pairs, and most likely either side of the pair (mono) as the input source. There's also a quick shortcut to the configuration option: In the Master track's Master Out field, select Configure and you'll jump right to the audio preferences.
Note that Live also offers some creative options not necessarily found in typical DAWs, as shown in the above picture.
The Audio From field will show any Rewire devices, should you want to Rewire an output into a Live mixer channel. Be aware that selecting a Rewire source will not automatically launch the Rewire-compatible application — you need to do that manually.
Resampling routes the master output back into the channel input. This is like a 'track bounce' function, as you can mute tracks, change levels, panning and so on, to create a particular mix at the master out, then bounce it to the 'resampling' track. It's a great way to build up massive sounds without having to burn up lots of tracks.
The track numbers show that you can route the output of a particular track into the channel, including the Return tracks. This is particularly handy when used with virtual instruments, as described in last month's Live Techniques article.
Monitoring choices are 'In' (sends whatever signal is feeding the channel to the output), 'Off' (the input signal doesn't go to the output, although any previously recorded signal does), and 'Auto'. The latter is most like the record monitor function found on multitrack tape decks: when record-enabled, Monitor is set to In and monitors the incoming audio. During playback, Monitor is off, and you hear whatever was recorded. This is probably the option you'll use most often, although once more referencing my previous article, you might do things differently with soft synths.
The Audio To field determines where the track's audio will be sent. External Out sends the signal directly to your audio interface. If selected, the field below it chooses from whatever output sources are enabled, as specified under Options / Preferences / Audio / Settings / Output Configuration. This process works similarly to how inputs are selected, except that you're choosing outputs.
Master is a more conventional option, as it sends the channel to the Master buss. This, in turn, is assigned to a particular audio interface output. You can also send the output to the input of any track except the one you're sending from (well you don't want howling feedback, do you?).
If you have all the I/O set the way you want and don't need to do any further editing (say you're mixing down previously recorded tracks, for example), use the 'IO' show/hide button to hide the I/O section.
Sends & Returns
Whenever you create a Return Track, Live obligingly adds another Send control to the Send section, located between the I/O assignment and pan/fader sections. 'Aux buss' effects are added similarly to other effects, but with the Return tracks. In other words, you select the Return track, then drag the desired effects into the Return track's Track view.
However, when it comes to Sends, Live is not as flexible as the average DAW because there is no separate pre-fader/post-fader option for each send. Instead, sends are paired with like-lettered Return tracks — the 'A' send controls feed the 'A' Return track, the 'B' send controls feed the 'B' Return track, and so on. Any letter group can be made pre- or post-fader, with all send controls in that group being either pre or post.
Solo, Mute & Record
Live departs a bit from the standard sequencer protocols with send and mute. First of all, there is no mute function, but rather, a 'track activate' button (the big button with the track number). When on, the track is enabled; when off, the track is muted.
There are Solo buttons, and these are 'additive' in that you can Ctrl or Apple-click on Solo buttons to solo multiple tracks simultaneously. When any solo is active, tracks that are muted but normally activated change colour from yellow to light grey, whereas tracks that are muted but normally deactivated are coloured dark grey. Meters for tracks that are muted are also greyed out, making it very easy to see which tracks are soloed.
The record enable button works exactly as you would expect it too — it arms a track for recording. As with the solo buttons, if you Ctrl or Apple-click on several record buttons, you can record into multiple tracks simultaneously.
Level, Pan & Metering
The Pan control is right above the Track Activate button, and works as these things normally do. The fader works as expected, but has no calibrations; level-setting is something where you really do have to 'play it by ear'.
You can shrink a channel's width to show more channels by grabbing the right side of a track's title bar (the cursor turns into a bracket) and dragging leftward. However, this greatly shortens the fader throw, as it stacks the fader on top of the track activator/solo/record buttons. I wouldn't recommend this unless you're using a control surface and don't really care about what the fader looks like on-screen.
Finally, metering in Live has no calibrations, so you don't really know by how much a signal is over or under the maximum allowable headroom. However, the meters do have the helpful characteristic of turning red in the event of distortion, making it easy to see if the track has clipped.
Well that's enough for now; in part two we'll by cover the MIDI channel strip, and then work our way over to the Arrangement view to further explore Live as a DAW.