There are many recording studio software programs available today, and the competition between DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) manufacturers has resulted in them all now offering very similar features. Some of the more popular ones of the last few years such as FL Studio, Cubase and Logic all offer advanced audio and MIDI editing tools, as well as compatibility with a host of third party plugins. But since its launch in 2001, Ableton Live has become increasingly popular amongst both bedroom and professional producers, and this is partly down to its extremely easy to use and intuitive interface. But where it really leaves the other DAW packages behind is in its use with live performances. With its newly improved warping engine, it is now possible to drag loops into a project which will nearly instantly be set to the tempo of your track, and can be altered in pitch and tempo without warbling, stuttering or other artifacts. This is great for DJ’s performing live, who can easily synch their tunes together in perfect time by simply dragging and dropping, or using a MIDI controller. In this review, I will mainly be looking at some of the ways in which you can combine live instruments (guitar, bass, drums) with Ableton for live performances.
Firstly, lets get some of the prices and computer specifications out the way – now in version 8, Ableton Live (or just Live as its often called) is available for both Mac and PC users, and costs around £400. It requires Mac OS X 10.4.11 or later or Windows XP/Vista/ DVD-ROM Drive and a minimum of 1GB Ram. It comes with a host of powerful instruments of its own– synthesizers, samplers, drum machines and effects, and is compatible with VST (for PC) and AU (for Mac) instruments.
When you first open up Ableton, you will notice that there are two views you can have of your project – the Arrangement and Clip views. The Arrangement view will look familiar to those who have used a DAW before, with the timeline across the bottom and your instruments/tracks listed vertically. But with a simple click of the tab button, you will be taken to the Clip view. The clip view page is designed to be used with loops – either ones from your library or ones you can make on the fly. Here, your software instruments or tracks are shown horizontally, and variations of your loops can be arranged vertically on each track. Each track has its own mixer channel, onto which you can drag effects, or send to an effects bus. This clip view may seem like a simple idea, but by having all your loops set out in front of you with the option to trigger any combination of them in real time, perfectly synched, is what makes Ableton great for on the fly music production.
So how do you combine Ableton’s features in a band situation using say drums and guitars? Well the first thing to check is whether your drummer is comfortable playing along to a click track or not. Some may prefer to listen to a click using headphones whereas others may just want a looped beat loud in a nearby monitor. Both options are easy to set up with Ableton as it allows a separate headphone and monitor mix to be set up as you please. But not all drummers are comfortable playing along to a click, so using pre recorded loops with a drummer that is varying in tempo can cause all sorts of problems. One way round this is to use the tap tempo function in time with the drummer. This can easily be assigned to a key on your qwerty keyboard or MIDI controller. If you need both hands available for other instruments, its handy to assign this to a foot controller. A cheap way top do this is to attach a foot controller to your MIDI keyboard (using the switch or sustain pedal inputs), and then to assign this to tap tempo using the MIDI learn map in Ableton. The Nudge up and down feature is another way of altering the tempo of Ableton during a live performance. This allows you to temporarily speed up or slow down Abletons playback to match what you hear, especially useful if you are just slightly speeding up or slowing down during a performance.
It’s worth quickly mentioning MIDI controllers at this stage. For a live performance with a band, you want easy accessibility to the controls within Ableton. These are commonly connected to your computer with a USB cable. There are many available that have been designed specifically to work with Ableton. Novations launchpad for example is designed to work with its clip view, making it easy to see what loops you are launching. At the cheaper end of the market are Korgs Nano controls. There are three available, so you have a choice of knobs, sliders, pads and XY pads to choose from to suit your needs. If you need your hands free to either play the keyboard or guitar for example, you may want to consider a foot controller. Again there are many available, but have a look at Rolands FC 300. This has plenty of foot switches and two expression pedals that are easily assigned to Abletons parameters.
Rather than using pre recorded loops during a live performance, you may want to record your loops on the fly. With Ableton 8, they have the Looper, an extremely easy to use device in which you are unlimited with the number of overdubs you can make. Simply assign the record button to a MIDI control of your choice (again, I find a foot controller is best), press record, play your loop, press it again and Ableton has detected its BPM and you are now looping. You can use the tap tempo or nudge controls to keep everything in time. The only limitation with this however, is that you can only delete the last loop made, so once several loops have been made, you are stuck with them. But there is a way around this. Say you wanted to record a loop (this could be guitar, bass or vocal beatbox), then create several harmonies on top and then take out the first loop you made. Well firstly you need to get the right MIDI controller. If you are looking to have control over say 8 separate loops, you will need a MIDI controller with 8 buttons. Both the korg nano kontrol and Roland FC300 I mentioned earlier will do this for you. Simply set up a separate track for each loop you want to make within the clip view, and assign your MIDI controller to record/stop record for each of those tracks. You will also need to assign a control to mute the track. When you press record, Ableton will wait for the beginning of the bar before recording, and if you press stop record, it will wait until the end of the bar. This ensure all your loops are all synched together. It will then instantly play back your recorded loop. Then its a case of simply layering your loops on the 8 separate tracks and muting the ones you don’t want to hear as you go along.
Ableton also allows you to route your audio where you please. Taking another example, lets say you want to record guitar loops over a pre recorded drum loop, but have the guitar sounds coming out of your guitar amp and the drum loop through a P.A. This is down to the soundcard that you are using and how many inputs/outputs it has. You will need to have at least one input and 3 or 4 outputs on your soundcard to do this. All of this can be done on the mixer channel shown in the clip view page. Simply assign the audio input to the input of your guitar, and the output to say output channel 3 (for mono) or 3 and 4 (for stereo). Then connect these outputs to your guitar amp. Any other sounds that aren’t routed to the guitar amp will automatically play through outputs 1 and 2, which you can connect to the P.A.
Another great feature in Ableton is that by simply pressing record at the top of the clip view page, your performance will automatically be recorded in the arrangement view which can then be edited later if you wish. This is great for recording all the ideas you come up with during a practice.
Ableton is a hugely powerful DAW, and can be tailored in many ways to suit your needs. If you want to use it just as a composing tool without the use of loops, Ableton has all the features that you would expect from a music software program. But with the right soundcard and MIDI controller, you will find new ways to intuitively incorporate your software music production in a live performance.