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Ableton Live Drift Synthesizer

Ableton Live Tips & Techniques By Simon Sherbourne
Published June 2023

Screen 1: Drift’s easy‑to‑follow control panel.Screen 1: Drift’s easy‑to‑follow control panel.

Float away with Live 11.3’s new synth...

Live version 11.3 has arrived in public beta form, and it’s MPE‑themed. But don’t switch off if MPE is not your thing or you don’t have an MPE controller. There’s a brand‑new instrument device that we’re going to explore here, and although it supports MPE it works just fine without it. We’ll dig deep into MPE and its integration in Live 11 another time.

Drift features a familiar two‑oscillator subtractive synth engine, and I guess was conceived as a new default virtual analogue sound source in Live. I say this because it will be in all versions of Live from Intro upwards, and has a simple user panel that’s more approachable than the Analog device. It’s less dense in its layout and has Push‑friendly graphics. It’s not just a cut‑down Analog, though. It is slightly less flexible in its routing and has fewer onboard mod sources, but its oscillators are considerably more versatile and it has a whole bunch of exciting and unexpected stuff going on that might not be apparent at first glance, making this a really special little synth.

Shape Shifting

The first block on Drift’s panel accesses two oscillators and a noise source. Each oscillator has a pop‑up shape/mode selector, with osc 1 having a few more options. Ableton say that Drift is influenced by modern synths and modules, and you certainly feel that here. Osc 1 has a Shape control that appears to do different things depending on the basic oscillator mode. There’s an oscilloscope display that shows the product of the whole oscillator section to give clues as to how the sounds are being manipulated.

With the sine and triangle shapes, the Shape control appears to apply wave folding. The third mode provides morphing between triangle and saw. The fourth shape looks like half a sine and triangle stitched together, which the Shape control progressively clips, providing a pleasing harmonic sweep — a great starting point for classic poly sounds. The sawtooth and pulse modes get a sync sweep treatment from the Shape control, while the final square mode gets pulse‑width modulation.

Screen 2: Each of the oscillator modes are affected differently by the Shape control.Screen 2: Each of the oscillator modes are affected differently by the Shape control.

Note that slap in the middle of the oscillator 1 section there’s a modulation assignment mapping MPE Slide to Shape. If you look across the other sections you’ll see that most have these local mod assignment options, allowing you to make quick patches in addition to any modulation you set up in the main mod sub‑page. If you don’t have an MPE controller available, you can flip the Shape modifier to an envelope, velocity, mod wheel, etc. At the bottom left there are two further mod selectors that affect both oscillators. Usefully these default to env 2 (to quickly dial in kick or 808 bass‑type sounds), and LFO (bring on the Boards Of Canada wonkiness).

Dynamic Filtering

The Osc Mix section has a nicely intuitive interface, with on/off buttons for each oscillator, level dials, and arrow buttons that set whether each source routes through the filter or bypasses it. The primary low‑pass filter has two modes. One is 12dB/octave and one is 24, but they are also tonally different analogue models. This is complemented by a high‑pass filter. Again, there are a couple of direct mod source selectors, with MPE Pressure pre‑mapped. I’ve made a habit of switching this to env 2.

One of the many dashes of secret sauce in Drift is the dynamic interplay between the oscillators and filter. Firstly there’s a progressive and pronounced saturation that comes in even at modest input levels. The oscillator levels default to ‑6; anything above that will start to transform the sound. As both oscillator gains are modulation destinations you can use this to add harmonic movement.

The resonance of the filter also responds differently to different input levels (and between the two modes). At very high levels the resonance has little effect on the sound, but it gets more pronounced as you back off the input. Then, curiously, as the input from the oscillators drops to ‑12dB and below the filter starts to self‑oscillate. If you set the filter to key‑track you can effectively crossfade between your oscillator sources and tuned‑filter oscillation by adjusting the levels.

Mod Tricks

Screen 3: Both the LFO and cycling envelope can be sync’ed to the audio‑rate oscillators and used for FM.Screen 3: Both the LFO and cycling envelope can be sync’ed to the audio‑rate oscillators and used for FM.Next up we have two envelopes and an LFO. The first envelope is a fairly standard ADSR, with exponential decay and release. The second is the same unless you put it into looping mode. This essentially turns env 2 into an LFO or function generator that resets on note triggers. The controls change from ADSR to Tilt, Hold and Ratio. Tilt bends the shape of the cycling envelope from its default triangle toward a ramp wave in either direction. At the extremes this produces an exponentially curved shape. Hold adds a time stage between the rise and fall, and Ratio adjusts the frequency.

This is where things get even more interesting. Both the LFO and cycling envelope can be manually set to Hz or ms speed references, but can also be sync’ed to tempo or to the oscillators. This last option opens up FM as a sound‑design option, letting you modulate the pitch of the main oscillators. Adjusting the shape of the envelope creates shifting timbres. The LFO has several different shapes to choose from for different‑sounding FM results. The sample and hold option introduces noise of different flavours.

The LFO has a local Amount control which adjusts its amplitude, and this can be modulated. This gives you a way to scale the amount of LFO modulation over time using the envelopes (or other expression controls) so you can make traditional FM sound‑design choices such as adding an aggressive timbral attack to a sound.

The humble Voice Mode section of Drift holds a lot more goodies than a run‑of‑the‑mill synth.

Guided By Voices

By now you’ll probably not be surprised to hear that the humble Voice Mode section of Drift holds a lot more goodies than a run‑of‑the‑mill synth. Four voice modes are available: Poly, Mono, Stereo and Unison. Choose anything other than Poly and an additional Amount control appears. This is self explanatory for Unison mode, applying the classic stacked, detuned voices. In Stereo mode, voices are panned across the stereo field for a wide sound. But the surprising option is Mono. With the Amount control at zero percent this provides a regular monosynth voicing. However, as you increase the Amount, additional sub‑oscillators get blended in for extra fatness.

Last but not least we reach the control that gives the synth its name: Drift. As you can probably guess, this control introduces pleasing analogue‑style instability, altering the pitch and tone of each voice. This interacts in juicy ways with what’s happening within the voice modes, and is particularly gorgeous in stereo spread mode.

More MPE

Screen 4: Like many of Live’s devices, Note Echo now has dedicated MPE controller support, in this case to dynamically control feedback.Screen 4: Like many of Live’s devices, Note Echo now has dedicated MPE controller support, in this case to dynamically control feedback.Drift may be the new MPE showcase instrument in Live, but 11.3 also expands on the MPE capabilities of various other devices and areas. The existing instruments Analog, Collision, Tension and Electric have been added to the list of MPE‑aware devices (which was previously Wavetable, Simpler/Sampler and Arpeggiator), and you’ll find Pressure and Slide controls added to their user interfaces. The factory patch library has been updated to take advantage of these new abilities.

The MPE Control device, which lets you manage and shape incoming MPE and convert it to traditional performance modulation, has had some refinements, including the ability to convert Pressure to Slide for flexibility when controlling a synth that can use aftertouch but not MPE. An interesting new trick is MPE in the Note Echo MIDI effect, allowing you to map all three flavours of MPE movement to the feedback control, which is fun.

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