Last month, we covered some basic questions and concepts about using Ableton Live 6 as a DJ tool. If you missed that issue, you can always read it and other archives of this column at remixmag.com. Now, let's take those concepts and put them into practice by looking at some real-world applications. If DJing with two turntables is your normal comfort zone, and switching to turntable-friendly programs like Serato Scratch is a little scary, then jumping on the Live boat could be a really intimidating idea. It's understandable, as many people are hesitant to give up the simple and easy-to-comprehend two-song/two-turntable interface. Don't worry, there is an easy way to integrate Live into your existing set and slowly become more comfortable with the concept.
MATH WON'T KILL YOU
We are going to set up Live as a third deck, mixing it in and out using a MIDI slider to keep the computer in time with records, CDs or other musicians. This is possible without a MIDI controller, but for intuitive, hands-on control, I highly recommend using one. A few things to look for are long sliders to mimic the pitch control of a turntable. The M-Audio Trigger Finger is a good option because it has four sliders.
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Assuming that you have a MIDI controller connected and sending data to Live, assign any available slider to the master tempo (top-left corner, next to TAP). Click on Command + M (CNTL + M on a PC) to go into MIDI-assign mode, click on the master tempo and move the slider. Now, when you move the slider, your master tempo will move all the way between 60 and 200 (the default Live tempo range). Because every song you play in Live is controlled by this master tempo, you can ride the master tempo just like a turntable, keeping one song, or many, in time with music outside of Live. How precise that movement is depends on the range setting. Setting the range is also done in the MIDI assignment window in Live 6. Before changing those values, we need to know the approximate tempo of the song you are mixing out of. The global tap tempo is a good way to determine that. Now, we need to shorten the tempo range to be a fixed amount above or below that tempo. For instance, if the record playing is at 125 bpm, your range should be somewhere around 121-128. You can make that as narrow as you like for more precise control, but to get the same action as a turntable, you first need to do some simple math.
The Technics SL-1200MK2 pitch fader is four inches long and moves ±8 percent. So for example, multiply 125 bpm times .08, and you get a 10-bpm range. At 125 bpm, that's ±5 bpm, or 120-130. The Trigger Finger is about 2.5 inches long, so to get the same feel, we need to set the range at a bit less than that, roughly ±5 percent, which works out to be about ±3 bpm, or 122-128. You will need to reset the range as the tempo changes, using the same distance each time. No need to recalculate based on length because the turntables naturally vary at different tempos as well. If your MIDI controller supports it, it might be wise to reverse its output so that down is faster and up is slower, just like the trusty wheels of steel.
One last thing, and you'll have a very functional third deck. Because we are playing against music outside of Live, you don't want it to snap to the internal-quantize settings. Set the Global Quantize setting (top-center screen) to “none.” Now you can easily start Live in time with any other audio. Riding the tempo is the most effective way to keep Live in time after that, but there is a way to do pitch bend-type movements. With the Global Quantize set to zero, you can use the nudge buttons in each audio clip's property window to push the song forward or back in small increments. It's not very precise, but it can come in handy if you don't want to mess with the tempo.
THE RACK PACK
Once you get familiar with keeping Live in time with other music, layering several songs is a cinch. Then it's just a short hop, skip and jump over to DJing fully with Ableton. Already there? Ableton 6 offers a few great new features that can help take your DJ set to another level. One of my favorites is the introduction of racks, where you can easily combine several effects into one unit and then control multiple parameters with a single MIDI-assignable knob. EQs, filter sweeps and delays are the DJ's bread-and-butter effects, but they can get stale rather quickly. Ableton allows you to dramatically personalize these standard DJ tools.
For example, a highpass filter is fun and effective, but it gets boring after excessive use. Try building your own filter that has the following characteristics: Instead of just layering multiple effects on top of each other, which can quickly get annoying, use different effects to kick in at different stages of the filter sweep. You may want to leave the filter as is for low-cut range, cleanly removing bass and kick, but then as it works up into the mid range another timed resonance filter kicks in, adding tempo and texture. Then, as you finally filter out most of the track, a triplet delay kicks in, creating a dramatic build. These different stages make a much more playable effect that will stay fresh longer. The above example and much more can be done with creative mapping of macro controls in the racks. The possibilities are only as limited as your imagination.
While writing this, I stumbled across a post that was asking how a certain famous DJ created a specific effect with Live. The answers were broad, and almost all of them were possible ways to accomplish the same thing. In Live, there are a million roads that lead to compelling sounds and mind-blowing performance effects. You just have to start somewhere.