Intro To Ableton Live

In this article, we’re going to see if we can’t break Live down into it’s simplest terms to try and help you decide if it’s for you or not. Live tends to be one of those odd things.. Either you love it, or well you just don’t. Numerous threads continue to pop up on music forums everywhere about Live and why people just don’t seem to “get it”.

If it’s any consolation, I was one of those people. But, no doubt as you also know, I’m also a Live user myself and somewhere I was able to make the jump and “got it”. So in this article we’ll put together my own experiences in the transition along with my own observations of other people and the questions they usually have along the way to sort of suss out the jig with Live.

Just to give you a bit of a background on myself, I originally started out using Cubase VST way back when and trakker programs (as they were called) before that. I come from primarily a sound design and composition background, having run my own company dealing with those two topics successfully for over ten years. It put me through college and now more or less I do music for enjoyment. My focus then turned to dance music primarily and then I dived in and started using FL Studio with version 4 and concluding with 6 when I made the switch to Live.

I had heard about Live only vaguely back then and never really tried it until I received a demo with some gizmo I ordered. It was then that I decided to try it out and all I could say about it was that I was floored. I looked cool. It looked like the future was now and we were composing music on some device right out of ST:TNG. Then I tried it and I didn’t get it.

The next logical thing I did was to ask for help and and in doing so, I encountered Ableton’s hard core user base. I suddenly found myself in the midst of lumber jacked truck drivers that were making music that sounded like it should have been coming out of broken Soviet arcade machine instead of a laptop and they had the nerve to tell me that yes I was right, I didn’t get it.

Frustrated and defeated, I put it aside for a while and went back to working in FL Studio. Now you have to understand at the time, there was no real tried and true method of performing live electronic and EDM music, aside from DJing. As a side note, Live actually started out as a DJ program and alienated a good portion of it’s original fan base by including MIDI and VST hosting.

But up until that point, you were either a DJ or you went with what existed at the time, if you were a computer based musician that it is. Previous to computer based performance, there’s a rich history there of groove boxes and other methods, which are a bit beyond the scope of this article. However what you were basically left with consisted of mainly doing a mix down of your tracks and leaving out one or two key parts (usually the lead lines) that you would play live on a keyboard. It worked great at the time and still does as many people use the technique for other types of music, but for electronic and EDM, it left something to be desired.

The main problem was with those particular styles and that style of performing is that it doesn’t allow for a lot of flexibility or spontaneity and playing just one or two lead lines can actually be boring after a while. Although to it’s credit it can be done with great effect, for instance, take Liam Howlett, who insisted on playing the bass lines live as the backbone of The Prodigy’s live performances.

I digress, but let’s cut to the chase here and analyze where we are. At that point I had identified a deficiency in the way I performed my music. You may be feeling something similar right now and that’s what gave you the idea to check out Live. That brings us nicely to the next item of business. The first thing you should do is examine your current setup and workflow and then start to formulate some expectations about what you want out of Live and how you think it will help you. It’s ok at this point if you don’t understand Live, but it’s important to understand what you feel isn’t working for you in your current setup.

The problem here is that many people trade or change DAWs every now and then just to be different because they’re tired or bored of their current work flow. If you’re just looking for change, hoping that it will unclog some mental roadblocks, Live is probably going to cause more than it solves. Live is different, but it’s different with a purpose. You also need to ask yourself if you’ve been interested in DJs, groove boxes (including the MPC), electronic music, dance music or performing any of those kinds of styles. If you aren’t, the truth is, is that Live probably isn’t going to add much to what you’re already doing. However, if you are, that’s probably why you’re here.

The easiest thing to do to see if Live is right for you is to just try it. You can download a demo for free from this link. Ok once you get it up and loaded you’re greeted with something similar to the following screen:

This candy colored spreadsheet looking thing you’re looking at here is the core of Live, known as the session view. This is the point where most people “don’t get it”, including myself way back when. Most DAWs work in a linear fashion, from left to right. To understand Live, you need to tilt your perception 90 degrees to the right. Each column is the same thing as a track in a traditional DAW such as Cubase or Sonar. Each colored bar (called a clip in Ableton speak) is an individual pattern or sound. So Live will host two kinds of tracks: audio and MIDI. An audio track can have a different segment of audio in each clip, but MIDI tracks only hold patterns in clips. Each MIDI channel can hold one VST and any number of VST effects. Double clicking the clip will bring up either the audio or the MIDI pattern in the bottom pane. Double clicking the column title will bring up the VST instrument and VST effects in a MIDI channel. Double clicking the title in an audio channel will only let you see the VST effects for that channel, since each clip holds it’s own audio segments. Right between the bottom pane and the clips section is the mixer, which works just like any other DAW’s, so no surprises there.

As I said, that’s the core of Live. The next thing to understand is that the power of Live is hidden in two things: its ability to manipulate audio and its ability to have any and everything mapped to a MIDI controller. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, you can check out a previous tutorial I did on mapping the Korg Nanokontrol to work with Live.

I’m fond of saying “if you can get it in audio, you can get it into Live” and that’s because, well it’s true. The point of Live from this point on is either to record in material, either from CDs, MP3s, live vocals anything you can get into an audio file, or to write your own material from VSTs. Once you’ve done that, you then are free to perform back your material in the style of a DJ or live PA act. In fact, it’s very similar to working on groove boxes. You accomplish this by mapping buttons on any MIDI controller to the clips or by using a specialized controller such as the Novation Launchpad or Akai APC 40 and APC 20. Only one clip can be triggered at a time in each column, but each clip can hold any length of audio or MIDI data. Considering that you have the freedom to go up and down as well as left and right across the grid of clips, you have a lot of real estate to work with. You also have the ability to turn effects on and off and lots of other neat things with all the MIDI mappings that are possible.

That in a nutshell, is the gist of Live. It’s a very non-linear way to work. And of course, probably someone has said to themselves by now, “what about the arrangement view?” Yes, well what about it? I’ve specifically held off discussing it until after presenting the session view for reasons that we’ll now get into. Pressing the tab key or clicking the top circle in the upper right hand corner of the screen will take you to the arrangement view. This is no different in form or function to the multi-track view of any other DAW.

The reason why I didn’t mention it though is that it shouldn’t be a selling point to Live; the session view should be and here’s why: It’s expensive. Now how can that be a selling point? It’s not really, but when you break it down it makes sense. You probably already have another DAW that for all intents and purposes, works fine. I’ve heard people make the argument that they prefer the simplistic workflow in Live over other DAWs and that’s a valid point. But when we take into account what we get and for how much it costs, it becomes a hard sell.

Live retails for around 300$ new, for the basic version. That puts it on par with DAWs such as Cubase & Sonar, and above the cost of all inclusive programs such as FL Studio and Reason. Now here’s issue: Live doesn’t come with all the user content (groove templates, samples etc.) nor the synths of programs like Fl Studio and Reason. In contrast, it does come with a nice suite of effects such as delays, reverbs and compressors. But the down side to those is that they have a DJ or techno sort of feel or tune to them, as they were prototyped and developed by Robert Henke, of Monolake fame. There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s what you’re after, but it’s something to be aware of.

If you were looking to replace your old multitrack style DAW with Live though, it’s going to be an issue as you’re you’re not going to get the feel out of them that you’re used to in your current DAW. However, if you’ve extended your current DAW with extra effects and processors rather than relying on the built in ones, the transition will be a bit easier. While I’m not going to tell you how how to spend your money, I do think it’s a large and unnecessary investment to make out of boredom.

I also wouldn’t recommend Live as a first DAW either. It may be cool and what everyone seems to be using these days, it’s also going to be a huge investment from the ground up. There’s the upfront cost of Live itself, but then you’re going to want to add VST effects, synths and maybe a drum machine or two and then the costs will really add up.

What I would recommend doing is starting off with a program like FL studio and Reason where you get bang for your buck (a sequencer, synths, samplers, samples and other content). Practice and learn the basic of electronic and EDM music production and then when you’ve either felt the itch to perform live or feel like you’ve pushed your DAW to the limits, then take a look at Live. You’ll quickly find there are many options on the table for extending your workflow into it. You can drop your VSTs into Live (if you’re working in FL Studio) and you can export stems, MIDI files and even mix downs and whole songs for importing as well. Last but not least, you can also rewire both Fl Studio and Reason into Live to synch the sequencers and send audio into an audio track inside of Live.

I do want to add in one more thing here at the end. Live is really bad with MIDI. It’s notorious for having synch problems and when in arrangement view, many of the standard tools you’ve come to be familiar with in standard DAW environments, don’t exist or have equivalents in Live. However, Live is quite adept at being able to host and map VSTs and their functions to various controllers as well as making them editable. But Live shouldn’t be thought of as a MIDI sequencer in the traditional sense either. I’m not trying to give you the idea that I’m being unnecessarily hard on Live or trying to steer you away from it. But rather the idea that Live is a specialized tool like a Torx wrench or sniper rifle.

So there you go. I don’t think Live is really that hard to get, what’s more difficult to me is understanding why you need it. If you can really take stock of your current needs and compare and contrast them with Live’s emphasis on a performance based workflow, you’ll be head of the game. And by all means, dive in and try it. Then come back and ask questions; here at my forum, or at any of them in the internet. The more you try and diversify yourself, the more you learn about yourself in the process.

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