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Ableton Live: Velocity Manipulations

Ableton Live Tips & Techniques By Len Sasso
Published February 2020

Screen 1: This MIDI Effect Rack uses Velocity and Key zones to reroute incoming C1s (kick) with velocity below 80 to G#2 (alternate kick).Screen 1: This MIDI Effect Rack uses Velocity and Key zones to reroute incoming C1s (kick) with velocity below 80 to G#2 (alternate kick).

We look at how you can use MIDI velocity to manipulate Live and route notes to different instruments.

We tend to associate MIDI velocity with loudness — a measure of how fast your finger or hand is flying when it strikes a keyboard or drum head. On acoustic instruments, that indeed influences how loud the resulting sound is, but on electronic instruments, coming from a MIDI keyboard or pad, velocity is just a number that you can apply to volume or any other malleable parameter. This month we'll take a look at using velocity in Live to route notes to different instruments. This bears a passing resemblance to velocity switching in your favourite sampler, but it lets you velocity switch between any number of different instruments of any kind as well as to modulate the switching settings.

Split The Kick

You can use velocity to split any note lane in a drum clip between two Drum Rack pads so that low-velocity notes play one pad and high-velocity notes play the other. The simplest way to do that is to use a Live MIDI Effect Rack's Velocity zones, as shown in Screen 1. To split a single-note lane, create two chains in a MIDI Effect Rack and set each chain's Key zone to the single note you're splitting (C1/kick drum in this example). You'll also need one or two additional chains to pass the rest of the notes to the Drum Rack. If the note lane you're splitting corresponds to the highest or lowest pad used in the Drum Rack, one additional chain will cover the rest; otherwise you'll need one for the higher pads and another for the lower pads. The next step is to use the Velocity zones in the two single-note Rack Chains to separate the high- and low-velocity notes. The velocity ranges of these zones depend on where you want the split. Don't overlap the Velocity zones unless you want some notes to play both pads, and don't leave a gap between them unless you want some notes to play neither. The last step is to add a MIDI Pitch effect to one of the single-note chains to transpose its output to the alternate drum pad (G#2/alternate kick drum in Live's Beat Tools Digi Kit used in this example.) This setup works with any MIDI clip as well as with MIDI step sequencers.

Insert the MIDI Effect Rack before the Drum Rack on the Drum Rack track and play the drum clips on that track. If you're using a MIDI sequencer, you can sometimes insert it before the MIDI Effect Rack. Sequencers that contain their own instruments or that are AU or VST plug-ins usually must occupy their own instrument track and be routed to the MIDI Effect Rack track. That also lets you capture the sequencer's output on the MIDI Effect Rack track, which is useful when the output contains random elements. You can go a step further and record the results of the split on three separate MIDI tracks by setting each track's input to come from either the Post FX or Post Mixer output of the appropriate chain of the MIDI Effect Rack and then routing the track's output to the Drum Rack track. Post Mixer lets you use the Split Rack's Chain Activators (speaker icons) to silence the track's input.

A Different Drummer

One way to improve on this setup is to replace the Velocity zones in the single-note chains with Live Velocity MIDI effects as shown in Screen 2. When you do this, reset each chain's Velocity zone to span the full range. In the low-velocity chain, set the Velocity effect's Range numerical and Out Hi knob to the top of the low zone and set its Lowest and Out Low settings to 0. In the high-velocity chain set the Velocity effect's Lowest numerical and Out Low knob to the top of the low zone, and leave its Range and Out Hi settings at 127. In both cases, use the Velocity effect's Gate mode in order to suppress notes outside of its range. Incoming notes will now pass through the low-velocity chain if their velocity is less than or equal to the low zone setting and will pass through the high-velocity chain otherwise. One advantage of using Velocity effects is that you can automate or modulate the zone boundaries, and another is that you can use the Velocity effect's Drive, Comp and Random knobs to modify the outgoing velocities.

Screen 2: Macro knob assignments let you split incoming MIDI notes between two Rack chains targeting adjacent instrument tracks. Separate Macro knobs allow you to create gaps or overlaps.Screen 2: Macro knob assignments let you split incoming MIDI notes between two Rack chains targeting adjacent instrument tracks. Separate Macro knobs allow you to create gaps or overlaps.When you need to split more than one note lane between Drum Rack pads, you can add more chains to the Rack or you can stick with two chains and split all note lanes between two Drum Racks. In that case, the second Drum Rack would normally be a copy of the first with the pads you want to swap holding the alternate kit pieces, but you can also use entirely different Drum Racks. One nice thing about this setup is that you can actually use it for swapping any instruments, not just Drum Racks.

The first step in converting the single-note split Rack to an all-note split Rack is to expand both C1 Key zones to the full key range. Also delete the Pass-thru chain, because all notes will now pass through one of the other two chains. You can use a Pitch effect after the Velocity effect in either chain to target different Drum Rack pads, but when you're swapping typical 16-pad Drum Racks starting on the C1 pad, you won't need to. Next, load each of the targeted Drum Racks onto its own track and, as before, set that track's input to come from the Post FX or the Post Mixer output of the appropriate chain of the Split Rack.

On electronic instruments, coming from a MIDI keyboard or pad, velocity is just a number that you can apply to volume or any other malleable parameter.

Screen 3: Chord, Pitch and Scale effects added to a  velocity-split Rack.Screen 3: Chord, Pitch and Scale effects added to a velocity-split Rack.When you're swapping instruments instead of Drum Racks, it's easy to confuse velocity splitting with pitch splitting and then to use high- and low-pitched instruments respectively on the high- and low-velocity tracks. But, any pitch might be sent to either track, and the same pitch might be sent to both tracks at different times (or at the same time if the zones overlap). In short, pick instruments for their different sounds, not for their pitch ranges. Velocity splits work equally well with polyphonic clips and sequencers, and if things start to get busy, setting the high-velocity minimum above the low-velocity maximum can thin things out. You might also automate or modulate these knobs to make the parts more or less busy as the song progresses.

When you want more than two Velocity zones, the best approach is to duplicate the velocity-split Rack and insert the copy at the end of either or both of the original Rack's chains. That splits the original zone in two, so the new Rack's high and low settings need to be within the original zone to have any effect. It might seem simpler to just add chains to the original Rack, but because the Velocity effect's Range is the zone's size, not its boundary, the settings get tricky.

Enhancements

Here are 10 ways to get more out of your clips and sequencers with velocity-split Racks.

  • Add a Velocity effect before the velocity-split Rack and use its Random knob to add more variety to the velocity of incoming notes. It is also a useful workaround with single-velocity step sequencers.
  • Add a Gate-mode Velocity effect before the velocity-split Rack and set its Out Low to 127 and its Out Hi to 0. That will invert the split. Also experiment with other velocity ranges and curve shapes.
  • Add a Scale MIDI effect at the end of each chain to keep things in key.
  • Automate each Scale effect's Base setting to match key changes in your song.
  • Add Pitch MIDI effects before the Scale effects to vary the outgoing pitch ranges — the Scale effects will keep things in key.
  • Automate the Pitch effects to manipulate the output pitch ranges in real time.
  • Add a Chord effect before the velocity-split Rack and automate the velocity settings for its active Shift controls (those not set to '0 ST') to influence which instruments receive different chord tones.
  • Automate the Chord effect's Shift settings to change chords. Alternatively, you can create a Rack of Chord effects and automate the Rack's Chain Selector to change chords.
  • Use automation of the Pitch effect's Pitch knob to change the targeted kit piece in the velocity-swap Drum Rack in Screen 1.
  • When using a step sequencer that supports multiple sequences, use automation or assign a Key zone to change sequences.
Published February 2020

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