Using Ableton to Play Live
Performing electronic music live can be approached from a number of different angles depending on your goals, the type of gear you use, or the DAW that you choose to employ. Working with Ableton Live, your approach will likely involve triggering the DAW's clips, both audio and MIDI, in desired sequences, in order to achieve the final product. The following article will address the necessary steps required to take you from set-up to performance with Ableton Live.
Step 1: Choosing your Gear
An important thing to remember regarding an Ableton live performance is that it is in fact a performance. In light of this, the further you can remove yourself from the computer, the better. Staring into a screen and triggering clips with the mouse is less engaging for the performer and the audience. Create some space between yourself and the computer by incorporating controllers into your set-up.
Before settling on a specific product, it will be helpful if you visualize exactly what you intend to do with your performance.
If your objective is mainly to trigger clips, grid-based controllers are the product for you. If you plan on real-time keyboarding, you may wish to incorporate a MIDI keyboard controller in addition to a grid-based controller. There are a number of different controllers on the market today and choosing the correct option with reference to your performance goals is the first step towards developing your set with Ableton Live.
Ableton’s own, Push 2, for example, was developed specifically with the layout and depth of the DAW in mind. As a result of this, performers are afforded an immense amount of control over the fine parameters within the software. The direct influence of the DAW to the controller means that both experienced and novice producers will benefit from the translation of the screen to the controller.
Ableton Push 2.
A more affordable alternative to the Push 2, is found in the Novation Launchpad S. Although the Launchpad may not be as quite as involved as the Push 2, it is more than capable of achieving what is most often desired by performers (triggering clips and programming beats). Additional capacity to manipulate parameters of the mix create sufficient depth in the launchpad and it’s simplistic design allows it to be very accessible to beginners.
Novation Launchpad S.
For performers who chiefly aim to trigger clips, there is the Akai APC 40 MKII. Another unit developed with Ableton in mind, the APC40 MKII will automatically sync to the software once plugged in. Dedicated controls for the sends, the A/B crossfader as well as a bank of 8 assignable encoders facilitate dynamic control over the triggered clips. Despite lacking the velocity sensitive pads found in the Push 2 and the Launchpad, the APC40 MKII remains a very strong performance tool.
Akai APC 40 MKII.
If your ideal live performance involves real-time keyboard playing, you may want to additionally incorporate a keyboard controller. Akai's Professional MPK2 (which comes in 61,49 and 25-key variants) features semi-weighted, pressure sensitive keys along with a range of assignable pads and knobs for additional manipulation. Alternatively, Novation’s Launchkey MK2, which comes in at nearly half the cost of the MPK2, features many of the same control parameters minus the semi-weighted keys.
Akai MKP2 (top). Novation Launchkey MK2 (bottom).
However you visualize your live performance, it is important to select the right gear for the job. Doing a bit of preliminary research will ensure that you are working with the tools that you require in order to achieve your performance goals with Ableton Live.
Step 2: Optimizing your Set-up’s Latency
When performing live it is absolutely critical that you reduce the latency between your external gear and your software so that you may secure a smooth performance. Latency is the difference in ms between an input signal in a system and it’s succeeding output signal. With a significant amount of latency, a noticeable delay will occur between the time you press a button and when it’s result actually plays - this can easily disrupt your timing as a performer. Fortunately, there are several variables that can be quickly changed inside of Ableton Live in order to address the latency in your set-up.
A helpful guide to reducing latency is provided by the Ableton Live team and can be found at:
Step 3: Organizing your set
Now that your gear has been optimized for performance, a clean and organized project file should be your next concern.
1. Project Formatting
To create a solid base for your performance, include all of the clips for every track that you intended to use within a single project file in Ableton Live. This means that you should bounce (where possible) each of your completed tracks into grouped stems which will then be re-imported into a conglomerate project file. Not only will this save you time by removing the need to load new project files for every incoming track, it will also further separate you from the computer, aiding in your presence as a live performer.
With your files loaded into the project, begin to colour code your tracks, clips and scenes. Give thoughtful names to these items as well, ensuring that you will be completely aware of what each track and scene represents in your performance.
Project file with several tracks. Colour coded for organization.
2. Track Grouping
The next step in developing an organized performance is to group together similar tracks. Unless it is specifically desired for creative purposes, there is no need to have start/stop control over each individual drum sound or each layer within a multilayered synth. Grouping these elements together will allow their sums to be triggered by a single button, as opposed to triggering each part individually. Combinations between layers can be created in succeeding scenes, which can then be triggered vertically in the session view. Grouping in this fashion saves time, valuable grid-space, and it frees you as a performer to move on to more interesting tasks.
Several elements grouped together under the label "Drums."
3. Rendering MIDI to audio
Whenever possible, you should aim to render your MIDI tracks to audio, as audio tracks require significantly less CPU. Should you desire the ability to modulate parameters inside of a synth plugin, consider whether these functions can be performed using additional plugins (preferably Ableton stock), rather than controlling the parameters within the synth plugin. Parameters such as reverb, delay or filter cutoff, can easily be modulated as additional plugins, removing the need to control theseinside of the patch. This will free you to render the track to audio, thereby reducing your CPU load. Organizing your set under this rule-of-thumb will aid in facilitating a smooth performance.
Sub-optimal manipulation of parameters.
Optimal manipulation of parameters once VST has been rendered to audio.
Step 4: Creative Workflow Tips
Though a clean and organized project file is the most important part of facilitating a good performance in Ableton Live, there are a number of productivity tips that can be employed to further enhance one’s workflow and inspire creativity.
1. Follow Actions
Add a pinch of unexpected interest to your performances by implementing follow actions. While in the session view, under the launch box tab in the clip view of an audio or MIDI clip, you will find follow actions. Follow actions allow you to automatically trigger additional clips within the track according to an interval of your choosing; for example, choosing the last clip in the column to be triggered after 4 bars. The creative potential for this feature is immense, allowing you to automate drum fills at designated intervals, to introduce harmonic variety in a chord progression, or to incorporate subtle melodic accents in a lead line.
Follow actions inside of the clip view.
2. Launch Quantization
When working with several different clips, increasing the length of your projects launch quantization can become very beneficial. Located to the far right from the tempo marker, the launch quantization is used to determine the amount of time in between triggering a clip and when it actually plays. Increasing this amount from 1 bar to 2 will give you an extra bar to trigger more clips and determine your next move. This gets more interesting when you begin to incorporate independent launch quantizations for specific clips (found under the launch box). Utilizing this feature, you can set specific clips, such as percussion loops, to lesser values than your global launch quantization, allowing you to creatively trigger your loops at irregular intervals.
Launch quantization: Independent (top), Global (bottom).
3. Ableton's Crossfader
Enhanced control of your tracks dynamics can be achieved by utilizing the crossfader found under the master channel of the project. After enabling the “x” button in the side bar beside the master channel, the crossfader will appear along with A and B buttons under each track. By assigning your tracks to one side or the other, spontaneous removal of specific elements is facilitated by sliding the crossfader to one side or the other. This technique works great with the kick drum assigned to one side and the hi hats to the other - sliding the crossfader to either side will remove one of the elements.
Crossfader enabled (top). A/B selection (bottom).
4. Remove Stop
Occasionally you may want to incorporate an element which features an extended phrase length, such as an evolving drone or a pad sound. Unfortunately, you've found that you plan to trigger a new scene before the extended phrase has finished. To solve this issue, highlight the empty slot located above or below the extended phrase, in the succeeding scene you wish to trigger, and hit Cmd E (Ctrl E on windows). This will remove the stop button from the highlighted scene, allowing the extended phrase to continue playing through it's entirety.
Stop button removed above and below "PADS," with Cmd E (Ctrl E on Windows).
5. Program Change
Increase your efficiency by using the Program change option when available. The program change function allows you to switch presets from one clip to another, within a plugin or an external synth (when supported) within the same track. Simply specific the bank, sub-bank and program number that correspond to your desired preset from inside of the clip view. This can also be done with instruments native to Ableton Live by utilizing the chain selector. After enabling the chain button inside of an instrument rack, set each of the instruments within the rack to their own chain number. Now open the envelope modulation for the chain selector and set it to the desired chain number in each clip.
Program change (top). Chain selector (bottom).