We offer an introduction — or a refresher — to the mysteries of Live.
If you’re just starting out with Ableton Live or are thinking about giving it a try, here’s a look at the most important ways it differs from standard digital audio workstations (DAWs) such as Logic, Pro Tools, Cubase, Sonar and others. If you’ve been working with Live for a while, this may remind you of some things you haven’t tried recently. Whatever your status, check out the ‘Further Reading’ box for links to articles detailing many of the topics introduced here.
Let’s first get Live’s terminology out of the way. The document that is open when you’re using Live is called a Set (file extension .als for ‘Ableton Live Set’). Sets are always contained in a Project folder along with any data created by those Sets. (Sets can also use data from outside the Project folder.) Live instrument and effects plug-ins are called Devices (file extension .adv for ‘Ableton Device’), and those are often grouped in a Rack (file extension .adg for ‘Ableton Device Group’). Third-party material for your Live library is usually delivered in Live Packs (file extension .alp for ‘Ableton Live Pack’), and you can also collect all of a Project’s assets into a Pack for archiving or sharing.
Point Of View
The first thing everyone notices about Live is that there are two ways of working: Arrangement view, in which MIDI and audio clips are laid out on tracks running horizontally along a timeline, and Session view, in which clips are laid out in a two-dimensional matrix. Arrangement view is the standard DAW approach and is most commonly used for creating and mastering songs, remixing, scoring to picture and so on. The Session view approach, in which clips are triggered manually using the mouse or a MIDI controller, is more often associated with performance. What makes Live different is that the two approaches are linked, which lets you use them interactively.
The most important fact about the two views is that they share tracks: columns of the Session view matrix correspond to the Arrangement view’s horizontal tracks. (Rows of the Session view matrix are called Scenes.) Each track can play clips in only one view at a time. Initially all tracks play in Arrangement view. When you trigger a clip in Session view, it takes over playback for the clip’s track, silencing any clips that may be playing on that track in Arrangement view. When that happens, Arrangement view sprouts a new button at the end of the track and clicking that button gives playback back to Arrangement view, resuming playback of the clip (if any) at the current timeline position. There are also Back To Arrangement buttons in both Arrangement and Session view to return playback of all tracks to Arrangement view. Here are three of the many ways to use Arrangement and Session view interactively:
- When one or more tracks in a section of your arrangement aren’t to your liking, place alternatives to those parts in Session view clip slots on the same tracks. If you arrange replacement clips for different tracks in the same Scene and all the other clip slots in that Scene are empty (no Stop buttons or clips) you can launch the Scene without disturbing Arrangement view playback of other tracks by clicking the corresponding Scene Launch button on the Master track. That way you can audition several alternatives accompanied by other tracks in the arrangement. You may also prefer to record new takes for a section of your arrangement in Session view.
- The mixing controls for Session view tracks are more informative and easier to use than those for Arrangement view tracks. You can have access to those while working in Arrangement view by opening a second Live window (Command-Shift-W/Control-Shift-W).
- When you’re working up a performance triggering clips in Session view, it often helps to record your trial performances as arrangements. Click the transport’s Record button to enable Arrangement view recording and then trigger any Session view clip to start recording. To keep trial performances from overwriting each other, place an Arrangement view Locater at the end of each performance (Create menu) and right-click it to select it as the start location for recording the next performance.
What You See
Live’s user interface is divided into the four sections shown in screen 2. Global settings along with Live’s transport are arrayed along the top. Arrangement or Session view appears at the centre (1). Live’s file browser is on the left (2) with a pop-up window at the bottom for the Groove Pool, which lets you apply the groove of any audio or MIDI clip to others. The Detail view (3) is where you inspect and edit clip contents as well as create and edit instrument and effects devices. Live Devices present all their controls in the Detail view, whereas AU and VST plug-ins open their own control panels as in other DAWs. You use the right panel (4) to manage Set and Project content and to view Live Lessons and help files.
Live comes with many built-in lessons accessible using the tabs that appear when you open Help View, and third-party Live Packs often include Help View Lessons which open automatically when you open Sets from the Pack. You can suppress panels 2, 3 and 4 to maximise space for Arrangement and Session view. If you have two windows open in Live, they will always show alternative content for panels 1 and 3; whereas panels 2 and 4 appear in only the main window.
Live’s Browser (2) makes it easy to find things in your Live library as well as elsewhere in your file system. With the Categories pane at the top you can quickly search for a specific type of data, whereas the Places pane at the bottom lets you browse your file system. The top four locations in Places are permanent, but you can add or remove other locations as needed. In either pane, the search is further restricted to match all of the words you enter at the top (order doesn’t matter).
Live lets you gather tracks into Groups for submixing and other purposes. The left three tracks in screen 2 are an example: the blue and yellow tracks are contained in the Group displayed as the green track and their audio output passes through the green track, which routes it to the Master track for output. The Group tracks themselves do not hold clips, but you can use them to trigger rows of clips within the Group. Notice also in screen 2 the horizontal slider below the Master track and the A/B buttons at the bottom of the individual tracks. They work together to let you crossfade between tracks assigned to either A or B, while unassigned tracks are unaffected by the slider. You can assign computer keys or MIDI notes to snap the slider left, right and centre or you can assign a MIDI controller to move the slider over its full range.
You’ll find further details on the features described here as well as other facets of Ableton Live in the Live technique articles cited below.
- June 2010 ‘Live Clip Slicing’ and August 2012 ‘Warped Designs’ will fill you in on Live’s tools for slicing and time-warping for both audio and MIDI clips.
- October 2010 ‘Follow The Leader’ tells how to use Live’s Follow Actions feature to trigger sequences of clips and Scenes.
- February 2011 ‘The Big Freeze’ shows how to reduce CPU load by temporarily or permanently rendering tracks in place.
- December 2011 ‘Rack ’Em Up’ offers details on creating and using Racks containing Live and third-party instruments and effects.
- December 2012 ‘Deconstructivism’ shows how to convert a finished arrangement into a series of Session view Scenes, which you can then revise and reorder to create a new arrangement or to use as a performance Set.
- October 2013 ‘Group Therapy’ covers how to use Live’s powerful track grouping feature for a variety of creative tasks.
- November 2013 ‘Groove Mechanics’ will help get your groove on with Live’s Groove Pool.
- January 2014 ‘Fade Away’ sheds light on using Live’s crossfader in performance as well as for mix-down and sound design.
- June 2014 ‘Work Smarter’ is a compendium of tips and tricks to combine Live’s Session and Arrangement views more efficiently and to keep track of what’s where.