To Ableton or not to Ableton, that is the question. Anyone who has used the multifaceted tool Ableton Live has probably considered working it into a DJ set. That potentially daunting task raises many questions, which can be boiled down to one fundamental conundrum: on the grid or off the grid? Live is famous for locking multiple pieces of audio to a common grid, making mixing them together at various tempos a breeze. However, in many DJing situations, the required mixing techniques are decidedly off-the-grid, play-it-by-ear and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kinds of transitions. Put another way, the question could be phrased, “To quantize or not to quantize?” Many months back, we did a series on basic DJing with Ableton Live 6 (see the January and February 2007 issues of Remix, or browse them at Remixmag.com). Fortunately, there have been several key developments since then that have made it easier to answer the quantizing question. In reality, it can now be affirmatively answered: Yes and yes! It's very possible to have the best of both worlds in one DJ set.
BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM
The key component that was added to Ableton Live 7 since Remix last discussed it as a DJ tool is DJ-style tempo bend. Ableton didn't quite implement the feature that I had been asking for in the past year, but it came close. Instead of the ability to individually nudge each track as you would turntables, you can now globally nudge and bend the master tempo to which all tracks lock into. That means you can more effectively set up and manage Live 7 as a single turntable with multiple sound sources locked to its grid. In Live 6, the only way to manually line up Ableton's music engine with other sound sources is to ride the tempo fader and match them up by ear. While not impossible, that method introduced several problems, including forcing you to restrict the possible tempo range to a smaller, more usable number. Now with global pitch bending, you can make tempo adjustments and keep Live in time with a DJ set through tempo bends as you would a pro CD player.
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The next best thing to having Live perform like your favorite DJ software would be putting your software inside of Live. Image Line Deckadance ($99 for the House Edition or $179 for the Club Edition; www.deckadance.com) supports just that by allowing you to run it as a VST plug-in inside a master DAW host, such as Ableton Live. The Deckadance master tempo slaves to its host automatically and then you can slave each deck to that tempo, automatically making each song the same bpm as Live. Unfortunately, that's where the automation ends because any phase-matching between the two pieces of software must be done by ear. This is not a failure on Deckadance's part but simply a reality of a long-standing problem that all DJ programs face. How do you take nonsequenced material without a true MIDI clock and sync it up to other pieces of audio software? Image Line's developers told Remix they are working on the problem and expect to solve it in the near future.
THE NEXT BEST THING
Even if your favorite DJ program won't run as a VST, you can still get your mix running through Ableton's powerful audio engine. For Mac users, there is a free way to get the audio output of any DJ software into Ableton for further tweaking and re-looping. The handy program that enables this internal routing wizardry is called Soundflower and is brought to you by the makers of Max/MSP, Cycling ‘74 (www.cycling74.com). With it you can send the master mix of your DJ program to a single stereo track in Ableton for final mastering touch-ups, or send several DJ decks to individual Live channels and perform all your mixing inside Live. Syncing of the programs’ tempos is also possible if your software can send out MIDI clock to drive Live remotely. Windows users need not feel left out. There are a few comparable products out there, including Virtual Audio Cable 4 (http://software.muzychenko.net) for Windows 2000/XP/2003/Vista, which comes as a free trial version or a full version for $30.
Native Instruments' Traktor 3.3 ($229; www.native-instruments.com) supports sending out MIDI clock to other programs, but it is primarily limited to tempo matching. To date, it seems a difficult task to generate a truly solid MIDI clock from a recorded piece of audio, so the phase match between programs must be adjusted manually. You can trigger Live and start it on a down beat using the Traktor hotkey Master Tempo Clock Send, but when Live is in slave mode, the new pitch-bend ability becomes disabled. That means to nudge the timing of Live, you must turn off the MIDI clock slave input while making those adjustments. In that scenario, you're better off matching up the tempos by hand and then dialing in the timing using your ears as you would with a third deck.
The impressive new Torq 1.5 update from M-Audio ($50 update from Torq 1.0 and also bundled with Torq Conectiv and Torq Xponent; www.m-audio.com) also promises MIDI clock output, but at the time of this writing, it was not yet available to test and confirm how well it keeps other software linked up. As technology advances, it may get easier to live in both the quantized and nonquantized worlds harmoniously, but for the time being, that is going to require a little bit of creative thinking to keep things matched up.