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System Analysis

Ableton Live Tips & Techniques By Len Sasso
Published July 2015

We show you how to analyse a song using Live’s built-in tools.

When analysing a piece of music for its structure and content, there’s no substitute for careful listening away from your computer and your instrument. But when you need a closer look, Live is a great tool for breaking a song down into its component parts. This month we’re going to look at how Live makes it easy to implement key elements of this process. You can do most of the things described in either Session or Arrangement view, but because of its timeline orientation, it is usually easier in Arrangement view, and that’s the approach I’ll take. You can find more information on the hows and whys of song analysis as it applies to composition in the new book, Making Music, by Ableton Head of Documentation Dennis DeSantis (makingmusic.ableton.com). It is a tremendous source of ideas for getting started, getting finished and getting unstuck.

It’s About Time

When you import an audio file to an Arrangement view track for analysis, you’ll probably want it to play as recorded rather than trying to match Live’s tempo. For that, you’ll need Live’s Record/Warp/Launch preference Auto-Warp Long Samples set to ‘Off.’ Notice that when you change Live’s tempo the audio clip stays locked to the Time ruler at the bottom of the arrangement, and the Beat ruler at the top moves relative to the audio. You can warp the clip to Live’s tempo and tie the clip to the Beat ruler by clicking the clip’s Warp button in Live’s Clip viewer. That will place a Warp marker at the beginning of the clip and set its warping tempo (Seq. BPM in the Clip view) to Live’s current tempo. The clip will still play as recorded unless you change Live’s song tempo. If the song you’re analysing is arhythmic, set Live to a convenient tempo (240bpm will align Live’s bar lines to Time ruler seconds) before warping the clip. If the song has a fairly consistent tempo, it is worth the effort to figure out what that is and then warp the song at that tempo and set Live to the same tempo. If the song has significant tempo changes, you can warp each section and automate Live’s tempo to follow.

The quickest way to deduce the tempo of a song or song section is to use Arrangement view’s Loop Locators to isolate a short loop and then manually stretch or shrink that to the correct number of beats. To isolate the loop, ensure Live’s Snap to Grid option is turned off (Command-4/Control-4), start the loop playing and then drag Arrangement view’s Loop Start and End Locators until the loop plays correctly. Once you’ve done that, here’s how to calculate the tempo:

  • Click the Arrangement view Loop Brace to select the section of the clip within the loop.
  • Split and consolidate that section (Command-E/Control-E followed by Command-J/Control-J).
  • In the Clip viewer, you’ll now see a Warp marker at the beginning of the loop. Right-click it and select ‘Set 1.1.1 Here’ from the drop-down menu.
  • Double-click at the end of the clip to place a Warp marker there and drag that Warp marker until the loop spans the correct number of beats. The Seq. BPM reading in Live’s Clip view will now be set to the loop’s tempo.1: A loop in an Arrangement view audio clip is captured, split and consolidated, warped and then shrunk to match its true length of four bars.1: A loop in an Arrangement view audio clip is captured, split and consolidated, warped and then shrunk to match its true length of four bars.

When you know the loop’s tempo, set Live’s tempo to match, replace the clip on the Arrangement view track with the original audio file, click its Warp button in the Clip view and, if need be, set its Seq. BPM to match Live’s tempo (see screen 1).

When Live’s tempo is matched to your song’s, song sections will in most cases fall on or very close to bar lines. You can click-hold in the Scrub area at the top of the Arrangement view to find the exact start of any section and then right-click in the Scrub area to add a Live Locator there. You might also want to use locators to mark other events that are difficult or impossible to fully analyse on the fly. For performance, that might be a fast solo or some chords buried in the mix. For composition it might be layered sounds or the transition from one section to another.

2: To copy a section of audio from Arrangement view to Session view without disturbing the original, first select the area to extract and then click-drag on the clip’s label while using the Tab key to switch to Session view.2: To copy a section of audio from Arrangement view to Session view without disturbing the original, first select the area to extract and then click-drag on the clip’s label while using the Tab key to switch to Session view.

What You Hear

The first step in getting to grips with a mysterious part is to isolate the snippet you want to analyse and move it to a Clip slot in Session view. To do that, click-drag in the Track display of the audio clip in Arrangement view to select the desired region. Now click-hold the clip’s label above the selected region, hit Tab and drag the clip to a Session view clip slot. More than the selected region will probably have been copied, but the selected region will be enclosed in the clip’s loop. Right-click on the clip and choose ‘Crop Sample’ from the drop-down menu to crop the clip to the loop (see screen 2).

3: An audio clip comprising a piano chord is opened for analysis in Seventh String Software’s Transcribe! (bottom).3: An audio clip comprising a piano chord is opened for analysis in Seventh String Software’s Transcribe! (bottom).If need be, use the ‘*2’ button in the Warp section of the Clip view to double the clip’s length and thereby halve its playback speed. In Complex Warp mode, that’s usually enough to learn the notes whizzing by. For hard to decipher chords, you might want to try a third-party utility such as Transcribe!, a free Mac and PC application from Seventh String Software (www.seventhstring.com). The easiest way to use a stand-alone sample processing application like Transcribe! to process Live clips is to select it as the Sample Editor in Live’s File/Finder preferences. Clicking the Edit button in the Sample section of Clip view will then launch that application and load the clip (see screen 3).

Homing In

When you’re trying to ferret out a specific part from a stereo audio clip, you have three parameters to work with: pan, frequency and level. Although none of those will completely isolate the part, one or more of them can make it more prominent. Live’s Utility, EQ and compression devices are helpful tools for this. Let’s start with pan. A sound’s position in the stereo field comes down to how much of it is present in the left channel and how much in the right. If the sound appears in both channels, you can use the pan control in either Live’s mixer or the Utility device to home in on the position that provides the least interference. If the sound appears in only one channel, use Utility to reduce or eliminate everything that appears in both channels in order to make your sound more prominent. To do that, set Utility’s Width to 200 percent and click its Phz-R (phase-invert) button. (You’ll find more details on using Utility for mid/side conversion in the SOS September 2012 Live column.)

4: In this clip, piano is on the left, bass is in the middle and drums are on the right. Utility solos the right channel (drum and bass), and EQ Eight emphasises the bass frequencies. Limiter then suppresses the loudest drum transients allowing you to bring up the bass level.4: In this clip, piano is on the left, bass is in the middle and drums are on the right. Utility solos the right channel (drum and bass), and EQ Eight emphasises the bass frequencies. Limiter then suppresses the loudest drum transients allowing you to bring up the bass level.After you’ve manipulated the pan position as best you can, try using one of Live’s EQs to create a frequency band around the pitch range of the part you’re after. EQ Three is the easiest: just turn off the GainLow (L) and GainHi (H) bands and play with the two frequency knobs to narrow and position the GainMid (M) band. The 48dB/octave mode is typically best for this. When you need visual feedback and more control over the shape of the curve try EQ Eight instead. Start with two filter banks, one set to low cut and the other to high cut, and position them to best capture the part you’re after. Then add one or more bell-shaped banks between them to see if you can make the part clearer. If you’re still not quite there, you might be able to use compression or limiting to suppress hot transients from other parts, allowing you to raise the levels underneath. In many cases, you’ll only need one of these options, but if you use more than one, the order listed is a good place to start.

Published July 2015

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