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Going Live in 11

  • Music

This past Friday I released a new, if incomplete track. There really wasn’t much response from my adoring public, but hey, that’s okay. That wasn’t exactly the point of that particular exercise.

So, here’s the next, very close to completed iteration of that. It still hasn’t got a name, so for now, it’s just Live-Set-1.

Last week’s as yet unnamed and incomplete Berlin School inspired work created entirely within Ableton Live. This version has some slight mix and mastering refinements, and has been rendered at a much higher quality.

After years of just plain not being able to grasp anything about the way Ableton Live works, I was finally able to begin to come to grips with the software. That’s largely due to some videos by YouTubers Synth Seeker and TEATRO, specifically Synth Seeker’s A Simple Berlin School Ambience Generator and TEATRO’s Ableton Live 11 for Beginners videos. It was these two videos that switched the light bulb on over my head and allowed me to finally see the simultaneous simplicity and power, and value of Ableton Live.

While I still really do like Studio One for certain kinds of work — it’s great for mix-downs of my bands’ live shows and for recording and mixing more “traditional” styles of music — it’s cumbersome for the kinds of music that I’m wanting to produce now. A case in point is the short song Prelude to ArpaPing, which I did last November. I used Studio One for that, and the workflow was tedious at best, in part due to Studio One’s more rigid ideas about time signatures.

Prelude to ArpaPing — Started as a newly created patch on the MicroFreak using a Fairlight sample in the new User Wavetable engine. It’s taken on a life of its own. Produced in Presonus Studio One.
Ableton Live session for last week’s song.

Now, back to Ableton Live. Unlike a traditional DAW like Studio One or Cubase, Live is better oriented towards live performance due in part to its loop-based workflow. Wait. What? Did I just say live performance? Yes, and we’ll get back to that at some point. It was that loop based, live performance interface (called Session View) that was throwing me off for so long. I could never quite grasp how to build an actual song in Live. It turned out to be embarrassingly simple, mostly, once I saw how it worked [and I’ve since learned even better ways to produce a finished product in Live]. Each column represents a “track,” and each cell represents a clip or loop, which can be pretty much any length you want them to be — and they can even run at different speeds (musical divisions or multiples of the base tempo). In this view, clips in a channel will loop until you tell them to stop or play another clip — or tell the whole session to stop.

Clips also don’t have to be in full measures — you can make a clip that’s three bars and a beat long, if you want. Starting and stopping of individual clips doesn’t need to coincide with the beginning or end of a measure, either. This makes looping polyrythmic pieces easy.

Ableton Live arrangement for last week’s song.

But wait! When you do need to be able to lay out a song in a more traditional format, say for outputting a version of a live set for an album, or for dealing with long clips that may run the full length of a song, there’s also arrangement view, which I didn’t previously know existed.

Once I understood that 1) the arrangement view existed and 2) how it related to clips and some of the powerful ways that clips could be laid out in an arrangement, I realized that this is a much more powerful and flexible way to work than the generally more linear method used in a “traditional” DAW. Yes, you can build clips in a traditional DAW and lay them out in an arrangement by copying and pasting. But they oftentimes struggle with translating to a live performance.

And, there’s that “live performance” phrase again. Yes. I intend on making original music that can be performed live as either an online live set or on stage, and I’ll be using a computer when I do it, most likely a laptop. For live control, in addition to at least one keyboard, I’ll be wanting to use a pad controller to fire off the various clips. To that end, in addition to upgrading to a full version of Ableton Live, I’ve also ordered a Novation Launchpad Pro, which I hope to have in the next few days.

Novation Launchpad Pro mkIII.
Photo: Novation Music

The Launchpad Pro is an interesting multipurpose device that not only works as a controller optimized for Ableton Live, but also has a full-featured 4-track MIDI sequencer built in that can work with external hardware, with almost any DAW or VST host, or with an iOS device to become the hub of a live setup that doesn’t require a PC.

The Launchpad has a facility to instantly send its internal patterns to clips in Ableton Live, so it and an iPhone could be used to start a project that gets finished on the computer in the studio. While not quite as easy to carry around as a self-contained device like the Novation Circuit Tracks, it does come pretty close — and it has the integration functionality that the Circuit Tracks lacks. The Launchpad, a laptop or iPad (with appropriate software), and a pair of headphones will be a powerful portable production platform.

I’m also really looking forward to extracting the MIDI track data for OPZED from the OP-Z and bringing it into Live so I can complete that little song — there are a few motifs within it that I really like. On the one hand, I’m disappointed that I’m not gelling with the OP-Z, but on the other, I suppose it’s all a part of the journey and this is simply the next fork in the road.

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