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Wavetable: Ableton's New Synth

Ableton Live Tips & Techniques
Published May 2018
By Len Sasso

1: In expanded view Wavetable’s oscillators, envelopes and LFOs are displayed above its filters, modulation and output settings. Waveform graphs (top) illustrate Wavetable’s FM, Classic and Modern oscillator effects.1: In expanded view Wavetable’s oscillators, envelopes and LFOs are displayed above its filters, modulation and output settings. Waveform graphs (top) illustrate Wavetable’s FM, Classic and Modern oscillator effects.

Take our crash course on Live 10’s new Wavetable synth.

Wavetable, the latest addition to Live’s line-up of instruments, is versatile and surprisingly easy to use. You can’t import your own wavetables, but with 194 of them spread across 12 categories as well as copious modulation and effects options, there is plenty to work with. Exploring factory presets is often a good place to dive in with a new synth, but a better way to get to grips with Wavetable is to take an in-depth look at its oscillators, so let’s start there.

Insert Wavetable on a Live MIDI track and open its Expanded view by clicking the button with the black triangle at the top-left of the instrument. You’ll see the Sub oscillator and two wavetable oscillators across the top with three envelope generators and two LFOs below. At the bottom, in Live’s Device view, you’ll see Wavetable’s filters, modulation matrix and output controls. You can resize the upper display vertically by dragging from the top, and if you drag down far enough, the oscillators pop back into the Device view. You then use tabs to choose among individual elements. With Expanded view closed, the envelopes and LFOs also appear in Device view. For now, hide Live’s Browser, maximise Expanded view and enable Live’s Info view (Shift+?) to reveal hints about Wavetable’s controls.

Oscillators

In the default preset, only Osc 1 is enabled and it uses the ‘Basic Shapes’ wavetable, which morphs through sine, triangle, sawtooth and square waveshapes. To audition the waveforms available by scanning this wavetable, play a note and use your MIDI modwheel or click-drag vertically in the waveform display. The waveform highlighted in orange is what you’re hearing. Notice that dragging vertically on the waveform (or the slider to its right) sets the beginning position for modwheel modulation. You can set the modwheel’s range between 100 and -100 in the modulation matrix at the bottom-right of the Device view — negative values cause the modwheel to scan downward. To explore the full selection of waves, keep the range at 100 and set the start position to the bottom of the wavetable (0.0 percent on the slider). You can select different wavetables from the menus above the oscillator or step from one to the next by clicking on the left and right arrows at the top-right of the oscillator panel. For some different eye candy, click the round button at the top right of the Osc 2 panel.

The drop-down menus at the bottom-left of each oscillator window offer three types of modulation: FM, Classic and Modern. Each has two parameters and their settings persist when you change types, making it easy to compare them. FM lets you set the modulation amount and relative tuning (±2 octaves) of a hidden oscillator modulating the frequency of the selected waveform. Classic is sync’ed pulse-width modulation. PW lets you set the width of the selected waveform, and Sync sets the relative frequency of a hidden oscillator (100 percent for two octaves) to which the wavetable oscillator is sync’ed. Modern offers two forms of distortion: warping and folding. As you adjust the parameters, Wavetable’s waveform graphic changes to represent the modulation.

Filters

Wavetable offers two identical multimode filters and lets you arrange the signal path in three ways: serial (everything passes through the first filter followed by the second), parallel (everything passes through both filters and their output is mixed) and split (Osc 1 passes through Filter 1, Osc 2 passes through Filter 2 and the Sub oscillator is split between them). If you disable Osc 2 in Split mode, you get separate filtering and modulation for the Sub oscillator using Filter 2.

2: Filter 2’s Split mode; LFO 1 and Env 3 modulation settings add moving resonant peaks to Wavetable’s Sub oscillator.2: Filter 2’s Split mode; LFO 1 and Env 3 modulation settings add moving resonant peaks to Wavetable’s Sub oscillator.In screen 2, Filter 2’s Morph mode yields a combination band-pass and high-pass filter. Its frequency is modulated by LFO 1 in sample-and-hold mode and its resonance is modulated by both note velocity and envelope 3. The Sub oscillator’s Tone setting adds harmonics as you increase it from 0 percent to 100 percent, which will make the resonant sample-and-hold modulation more pronounced. All this results in dancing sample-and-hold resonance peaks at the beginning of high-velocity notes. Try it with different selections for Osc 1’s wavetable as well as different Octave settings for the Sub oscillator.

Tweaks

Here are some less obvious ways to tweak your Wavetable sounds:

  • Graphically adjust the beginning, end and shape of each Wavetable envelope segment by click-dragging its large and small square handles. The Amp envelope has some obvious exceptions — you can’t adjust levels at the beginning or end of the Attack segment nor at the end of the Release segment, whereas these adjustments are available and quite useful for the other two envelopes. When you want exact values, use the numerical settings in the Time, Slope and Value categories below each envelope. For example, a Slope setting of 0.0 percent gives you a straight line.
  • Try the envelope Loop modes selectable from the drop-down menu at the top right of each envelope. ‘None’ is the standard envelope behaviour — hold at the Sustain level until the key is released then follow the Release segment. ‘Trigger’ plays the envelope from beginning to end once for each note. ‘Loop’ loops the entire envelope.
  • Fade-in either of the LFOs using the time setting at the top-right, labelled ‘A’ (for Attack). Notice that the LFO graphic reflects the fade-in. Try this with LFO 1 in the screen 2 example.
  • Use the controls to the right of the fade-in setting to tempo-sync the LFO rate (note icon) and configure it to restart with each incoming note (R button). Use the Offset setting (bottom-right) to determine where in its cycle the LFO restarts.
  • The bottom half of the output section offers six different Unison modes and lets you set the number of unison voices as well as their combined level. In Poly mode the Unison setting applies to each voice. Classic and Phase Sync modes detune and pan the voices symmetrically, and with Phase Sync they are also sync’ed at each new note. Shimmer and Noise modes add subtle and not-so-subtle random pitch jitter. Position Spread mode spreads the wavetable positions with slight detuning, and Randomize mode does so randomly.

And Effects

Wavetable’s sounds tend to be harmonically rich, and the options for thinning things out and focusing interest where you want it are limited, so it often helps to turn to effects. The simplest choices for basic sculpting are EQ Three and EQ Eight, but my go-to plug-in with Wavetable is Multiband Dynamics. In order to dial in the best result, set up a three-chain Audio Effect Rack with the first chain empty, the second chain holding the factory ‘Multiband Compression’ preset and the third chain holding your modified version of that preset. Use the Rack’s Chain Selector and Macro 1 knob to select among them and then turn on the Rack’s Auto Select button so that the chain in use is always visible. The other Macro knobs are up for grabs, but I like to use 2, 3 and 4 for Low, Mid and High gain respectively, and 5 and 6 to adjust the low- and high-crossover frequencies.

3: This multiband compression Rack lets you compare the uncompressed sound, the factory Multiband Compression settings and your altered version of those settings.3: This multiband compression Rack lets you compare the uncompressed sound, the factory Multiband Compression settings and your altered version of those settings.

Live’s audio effects can add motion and harmony as well as completely repurpose Wavetable sounds. Here are a six examples combining factory Wavetable and Audio Effect presets:

  • Wavetable ‘Ambient Spaces: Desert Dream’ is a slowly evolving vocal-sounding pad and Grain Delay’s ‘Five’ preset adds a subtle fifth above.
  • Wavetable ‘Bass:Mechanix Bass’ has a muffled edge to it and sending it through the new Pedal effect’s ‘Bass Guitar Front of Stage’ preset brings that edge to the front without overdoing it.
  • Applying Filter Delay’s ‘Moving 3-5-6’ preset to Wavetable’s ‘Effects: Rubbery Flick’ spreads the bouncing-ball effect both spatially and temporally.
  • Add a bit of Echo’s ‘Clean Delay: Dark Pillow Tap’ preset to Wavetable’s ‘Mallets: Hang Drum Festival’ preset and dial down Echo’s Dry/Set mix a bit.
  • Wavetable ‘Pad: Airlite’ is an airy pad that could use a little motion. Try Frequency Shifter’s ‘Flanger’ preset for that.
  • Wavetable’s ‘Synth Rhythmic: Chasing the LFO’ has a vocal edge to which Corpus’s ‘Pipe Resonator’ preset adds harmony.  
Published May 2018