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Drum Racks In Ableton Live

Ableton Live Notes & Techniques By Simon Price
Published March 2008

New in Live 7, Drum Racks takes the Instrument Rack concept in a percussive direction. Read on to see what it can do for you and your drums...

A simple drum machine, with individual channels displayed in the mixer.A simple drum machine, with individual channels displayed in the mixer.If you caught last month's Live 7 review, you'll already have a good idea of what Drum Racks are for, but we'll start with a quick recap. (There's also an excellent video at that summarises the features of Drum Racks). A Drum Rack is a specialised form of Instrument Rack, with functionality focused on drums and percussion. Like other Rack types (Instrument and Effect), Drum Racks are shells for building devices from multiple plug-ins. A Rack comprises one or more parallel Chains, each of which is a sound source and signal path. This concept is ideal for building drum machines, because each drum sound can have its own generator or playback device, with its own signal path, filters, effects and so on. All these components are hosted within a single device — the Drum Rack — so that you can treat it as one instrument on one MIDI track.

Using Drum Racks

The screen above shows a simple TR606 drum machine patch made with a Drum Rack. The most obvious difference between Drum Racks and other Racks is the trigger pad section. In this example, each pad plays a single sample, and is triggered by a single MIDI note from a keyboard or pad controller.

The individual channels of a Drum Rack can be controlled in the main Session View mixer. The screen shows how a Drum Rack track can expand to display all the separate Chains in the composite device. From here you can set relative levels and pans for individual drum sounds. Selecting any of the channels in the mixer immediately displays the devices in that chain at the bottom of the screen.

Patterns can be recorded into Clips on the MIDI track containing the Drum Rack patch. However, at a later point you can decide to strip a sound out of the Drum Rack and treat it as an individual track. To extract a sound, simply click and drag its channel to an empty space in the mixer. A new MIDI track will be created containing the sound's device chain. Any MIDI Clips that were on the Drum Rack track will be duplicated on the new track, with just the notes for that sound.

Sound Sources

An important point about Drum Racks is that they are not instruments in themselves. Each sound must be generated by one of Live's other instrument plug-ins (or a third-party plug-in) hosted in the Rack. When you drop a sample onto a pad, an instance of Simpler (Live's basic sampler) is created on that pad's Chain. However, any instrument plug-in can be used to generate sounds in a Drum Rack. In the screen above, another pad has been added, this time using Live's optional FM synth, Operator. The Operator patch was simply dropped onto the pad from the Browser.

Drum Rack pads don't just have to be sample-based. In this screen, the Operator FM synth is being used for the snare sound.Drum Rack pads don't just have to be sample-based. In this screen, the Operator FM synth is being used for the snare sound.When using synths as sound sources, you need to set which note is triggered by the sound's pad. If you look at the parameters in the Chain list, or in the expanded mixer view, you'll see fields for Receive and Play. Receive is the MIDI note that plays the pad for that chain. Play is the note that gets sent to the instrument on the Chain. By default the Play note is always C3, which will play back any samples at their original pitch. For synths, you need to change this to get the correct note when the pad is triggered.

By editing the Receive fields, you can create Pads with layered sounds. In the screen below, a second snare sound has been added. This was initially dropped onto a spare pad, but the Receive note was changed to D1, the same as the first snare. The D1 pad now displays 'Multi' (this can be renamed), and the pad triggers both Chains at once.

Building A Drum Rack Patch

Unless you have the optional Drum Machines or Session Drums packages, you will only have two Drum Rack patches in your Live library. It's therefore essential to learn how to create your own kits to get the most out of Live 7.

Start by opening the Browser view, selecting the Live Devices tab and opening the Instruments folder. Drag the master Drum Rack (not a patch from its sub-folder) to an empty space in the Mixer. A new MIDI track will be created and the Drum Rack's pads page will appear in the Device View.

Next, add some samples to the pads by switching to one of the three file-browsing tabs and locating a sample you wish to add. In the picture on the opposite page, I've opened a folder of TR606 samples from my library, and dragged them to pads in the Rack. When you move the cursor over the pads, suggested sound types are displayed in the status bar, based on the General MIDI standard drum map.

Pad Control

Drum Racks have been designed to play nicely with MIDI pad controllers. The four by four grid has been adopted as a standard by all the main hardware units, such M-Audio's Trigger Finger, Korg's Pad Kontrol, and Akai's MPD 16 and 24. I had my eye on Akai's MPK49 (reviewed last month), but its 3x4-pad grid is a deal-breaker since Live 7.

The neatest feature, when using a pad controller, is that if you have one of the directly supported units (which includes the Trigger Finger and Pad Kontrol, as well as Korg's Kontrol 49 and Micro Kontrol), you can select which pads are being controlled from the software and the controller will follow. To the right of the main pad view there's an overview of all 128 pads, with an outline indicating the pads that are currently in view. Moving this square (by clicking or using the mouse's scroll wheel) brings different banks of pads into view. Supported controllers will automatically control the pads that are currently focused. For this to work, you usually need to select the first factory preset scene on your controller.

We'll take an in-depth look at customising MIDI controllers to do this, and all kinds of other nifty stuff, in a future Live workshop.

Essential Selections

After you've dropped some samples onto pads and triggered a few, you'll notice two things: the level is a bit low, and sounds cut off when you release the note. In most cases you'll want to remedy these issues by changing some settings in the Simpler instrument. You can display the Simpler for any Chain by double-clicking it.

Pads can be set to trigger multiple Chains, to create layered sounds.Pads can be set to trigger multiple Chains, to create layered sounds.First we'll sort the level. The output level of the Simpler defaults to -12dB. You could just push this up, but a more sophisticated approach is to adjust the Velocity response. In Simpler, adjusting the 'Vel' parameter changes the dynamic range of the sample playback both up and down from the basic Volume setting. At a Vel value of 50 percent, the sample should nearly peak when you hit the keys or pads hard.

Next we'll make sure the entire sample plays back, even from momentary triggers. This is achieved by pushing up the Release knob in the Volume Envelope section. A final adjustment that's recommended for drum samples is to turn the number of voices assigned to the sampler down to one. This makes sure that you don't get multiple soundings of the same sample at once, as you wouldn't with real drums. All these settings can be seen in the screen at the start of the article.

Making these settings each time you add a sample soon gets tedious, so check out the 'Default Drum Drops' box for advanced tips on saving your own default Simpler settings. Once you've dropped a few samples onto your Drum Rack, you can switch quickly between different sounds, to make adjustments, by selecting their pad or by selecting their channel in the expanded mixer view. An even quicker method is to enable the small square 'A' button in the Rack's view selector. This lets you display Chains simply by triggering them from your MIDI controller.

Adding Effects

Once you've got your sounds in place, you can add some effects. You can add separate effects to each sound, add global effects to the output of the Rack, and create Return channels within the Rack. To add an effect to a single sound, simply drag it from the Browser to a pad, or to a channel in the extended mixer view. The effect will be added to the end of the Device Chain. You can also view a Chain in the Rack, and place an effect more precisely into the signal flow.

Global Effects can be grouped with the Drum Rack.Global Effects can be grouped with the Drum Rack.This screen shows both control Macros and Return Chains.This screen shows both control Macros and Return Chains.Unfortunately, Racks still don't offer any neat way to mix the outputs of Chains before the final output of the Rack. This means that to add effects across all the sounds, you need to place them outside of the Rack on the right-hand side, as in the screen below. They can then be grouped with the Drum Rack to make a single device. However, this means you have a Rack within a Rack, which is a bit untidy when it comes to making Macros.

Return channels are only available in Drum Racks, and make it easy to share effects like delays and reverbs between separate Chains. To display the Returns section, click the small 'R' button in the Rack's view-selector bar. Returns are Chains that appear in a separate section of the Chains list (as in the screen at the bottom). To add an effect to a Return Chain, drop it from the Browser. By pressing 'S' in the view-selector, you'll make Send level controls appear in each Chain. Each Chain also has an 'Audio To' field. In the Return chains, the 'Audio To' field lets you choose whether the output of the Return goes to the output of the Drum Rack, or is fed directly to one of the main Return Tracks in the mixer. The pad Chains also have 'Audio To' controls, but they are only active in multi-level Racks (where one Rack is nested inside another). These allow you to route the audio from a Chain to Return chains in higher levels of the Rack. You can use this as a way of grouping several pads directly through a single effect.


Macro controls allow you to adjust key parameters within your new drum machine from a single panel at the top level of the Rack (again, like the screen at the bottom). The simplest way of assigning a parameter to a Macro is to right-click the parameter and choose one of the eight Macros to map to. To change the range of the control, enter Map mode, and set the min and max values in the Browser area. One thing to remember is that each layer of any Rack has its own Macros, and they can only map to parameters within their own level. To save a lot of time getting around this, here's a final tip that can save loads of time. Make sure that you map all your Macros for the main Drum Rack before you combine the Rack with any global effects. Now, select all the Chains and choose Edit / Group. All your Chains will be collapsed into a new Drum Rack, with all the Macros automatically tied to the top-level panel. You can now drop your global effects into the top-level Rack.

Drum Racks are about the best thing that's happened for electronic music makers in a long while. Now if only someone could box 'Spare Time', I'd be all set to knock out some tunes. 

Default Drum Drops: A Great Time-saver

The Defaults folders in Live's library let you specify how samples dropped onto Racks will play back.The Defaults folders in Live's library let you specify how samples dropped onto Racks will play back.Whenever you drop a sample onto a Drum Rack pad, Live automatically loads the sound into a Simpler. However, the default Simpler settings are not well suited to most drum applications. As described elsewhere in the article, you will probably want to set a longer Release time so that samples are played in their entirety from any MIDI trigger. You will also usually want to add velocity response, and set the voice assignment to monophonic.

Live 7 has a largely undocumented feature that enables you to save default actions and settings for a number of different operations and devices. In Live's file Browser, navigate to Users / <username> / Library / Application Support / Ableton / Defaults (Mac), or C:\Documents and Settings \ <username> \ My Documents \ Ableton \ Library \ Defaults (Windows). You will see a number of folders for Live's instruments and effects, and also for Dropping Samples and Slicing. Open the Dropping Samples folder, and then the subfolder 'On Drum Rack'. You can save a default Simpler patch here with your preferred settings, and Live will apply these to any samples dropped in the future. The easiest way to save your default patch is drag a Simpler that you've already set up in a Drum Rack to the folder in the Browser.

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