Fantastic Elastic Machine

Computers and software revolutionized the recording studio more than a decade ago but have since struggled to become more than a cumbersome and awkward
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Computers and software revolutionized the recording studio more than a decade ago but have since struggled to become more than a cumbersome and awkward

Computers and software revolutionized the recording studio more than a decade ago but have since struggled to become more than a cumbersome and awkward part of musicians' onstage setups. Today, thanks to ever-increasing processor speeds, developers have begun to craft software for jamming and improvising on the fly. Ableton's Live is a truly groundbreaking application that not only renders audio completely “elastic” in terms of tempo and pitch but also enables users to record, arrange, audition, edit and effect audio material in real time without ever hitting the Stop button.

A brilliant modular interface accomplishes all of this in one full-screen window. As possibly the first music software designed for live performance from the start, Live is less about using computers to improve upon 20th-century technology than it is about making sure the computer becomes the musical instrument of the 21st century.

Now updated to version 2.0, Live packs more power and many more features; some of the most important are covered here with tips about how they can help enliven your music. Many additional improvements — such as better handling of nonlooping clips, tempo-change automation, tap tempo during recording and playback, individually resizable tracks, improved file organization and individual presets for each effect — help make the case that as Ableton continues to develop Live, the revolution will be computerized.


Live 2.0 adds four Warp modes that provide options for the way each audio clip is time-stretched. You select these modes with your audio in the Clip view. Tones mode works best with vocals, bass, horns and other single-note instruments. Its Grain Size control helps tune out artifacts. The Texture Warp excels with layered sounds like orchestra swells and synth pads, but it can also add subtle flanging to beats and rhythmic patterns. Re-Pitch mode merely speeds up or slows down a loop without time-stretching it; this affects the clip's pitch just like the pitch control on a turntable. You can also elect to turn off Warp altogether.

The most common Warp mode for dance music is Beats, which preserves the attacks and note onsets (transients) of drum loops, as well as any other highly rhythmic material. Its Transients control indicates at what note value the rhythmic activity is occurring. Abusing this control can be very effective: Try using overly fast transients to introduce what sounds like a fast, high-feedback delay to drum loops or a mechanic vibrato sound to a pad, sustained vocal or other sustained sounds. Transients that are too slow can alter the entire rhythm of a clip, frequently with delightful results.

These effects are often even more interesting when the loop is pitched up. I took, for example, a standard four-on-the-floor beat with the kick playing quarter notes and the hi-hat playing eighth notes and transposed it up eight semitones (see Fig. 1). There was a more metallic sound with 16th- and 32nd-note transient settings and “rolls” on the drums at the eighth-note (1/8) setting. At the half-note (1/2) setting, the whole rhythm changed into an off-kilter yet funky garage-style breakbeat. Applying these same settings to an already busy breakbeat can produce some wonderfully hesitant and choppy results. Experimenting with these settings across all tracks in a song can quickly transform a bland house or hip-hop joint into a mesmerizing polyrhythmic drum 'n' bass or breakbeat track without even needing any programming.

You can also use the Warp markers to rearrange the timing of the loop. Warp markers are meant for setting the proper start and end points of a loop, but they're also used for manipulating its groove. You can set as many Warp markers as you want and drag the events that they mark forward or backward within the loop. In no time, that straight four-on-the-floor beat can become a wonderful stutter fill with triplet timing or the foundation for a whole new drum track.


As liberating as it can be to record fully malleable loops with different Warp modes in Live, it can also be compromising when the unavoidable need strikes to record full-length linear tracks. That's why Live 2.0 adds traditional multitrack linear recording to its capabilities. These tracks can still undergo the Warp treatment if necessary.

A key variable in Live's linear recording is the ability to perform punch-in and punch-out overdubs. This means that if you've recorded a track linearly and you'd like to record over a certain section of the track, you can use the Punch/Loop markers to designate the section you want to overdub and record as many successive takes of the section as you want.

Refer to Fig. 2 and notice that the Punch/Loop markers have been set from measure 17 to 25 as indicated in both the Arranger view above the tracks and in the Control Bar fields in the upper left of the screen. This indicates that the punch-in begins at the beginning of measure 17 and lasts eight measures. Activating the Punch-In and Punch-Out switches in the Control Bar lights them up green and ensures that nothing will be recorded outside of the markers. Between those switches, the Song Loop switch activates continuous loop recording within the Punch/Loop markers.

In Fig. 2, recording has already taken place on the organ track between the Punch/Loop markers where some rhythmic organ stabs have replaced the repetitive chord progression of the original track. During the overdub recording, four full passes of the eight-measure loop were recorded. You can see the full overdub recording in the Clip view at the bottom of the screen. The unused material is shaded, but it remains available. You need only to move the Clip view's loop marker forward to change which take you hear in the organ track. In the Clip view of the overdub, you could also experiment with the warping techniques explained in the previous tip to take your overdub into unforeseen territory.


Even if you aren't yet hip to VST plug-ins, Live's got you covered with a satisfying selection of bread-and-butter effects. Live 2.0 adds two tasty modules, Gate and Redux. Gate is a standard noise gate that cuts off or attenuates signals when their levels fall below a user-specified threshold, useful for masking background noise or truncating decays. Redux destroys audio by reducing its bit resolution or sample rate. Reduce the bits from Live's default 16 to 12, and you'll get the gritty feel of vintage samplers. The lower you go, the more everything will sound like an Atari 2600 explosion. Downsampling reduces the number of samples of the clip that pass to the output. At 1, every sample passes; at 2, only every second sample passes; and so on.

As with all of Live's effects, you can take full advantage of Gate and Redux by twisting their parameters with automation curves. Take a look at Fig. 3 to see how multiple automation curves within a single effect can completely transform a track. Automation curves are created when you record parameter changes into a track with a mouse, a QWERTY keyboard or a MIDI controller. You can also “draw” automation curves with tracks from the Arranger view. Curves always start as flat lines, and you double-click on the line to create a point. Drag the points within the waveform to begin to create slopes where the y-axis represents parameter amount and the x-axis represents time.

I used Redux with three automated parameters to mangle a drum loop. (In Fig. 3, you will see three identical purple drum tracks for the sake of showing three automation curves at once. You really only need one track.) Taking rhythmic advantage of the downsampling, I drew automation curves for both hard and soft downsampling that bounced from no effect up to serious degradation on every beat. A simpler third curve toggled between the hard and soft downsampling at every measure. Swapping in and out between two types of quick downsampling sweeps gave this average beat some swing and stimulating texture.

Moving on to a long sustained pad synth, I applied Gate and drew an automation curve that toggled between maximum and minimum threshold on every beat. With the threshold at its maximum, the gate is effectively closed, and no sound passes through. You don't need a gate to achieve this; you could do the same thing with the Track Volume curve. However, the gate's Floor control can adjust whether the signal shuts off completely or attenuates to a lower level when it is below the threshold. I drew a Floor curve that rose from infinite floor (mutes the signal when below threshold) to 0 floor (no affect to signal when below threshold) during the course of two measures and then fell back down to 0 during the next two measures. So as the threshold was opening and closing the gate at every beat, the floor was slowly moving the signal from silent to nearly full volume when the gate was closed on every other beat.

Keep in mind that recording automation with knob or mouse movements in real time is often easier than drawing them. If you do draw the curves, only draw one repetition of the pattern you want and then duplicate — Command + D (Mac), Control + D (PC) — the loop; the automation curves will duplicate along with the loop. You can also copy curves and paste them into other tracks.


Live 2.0 raises the level of remote control possible from either a MIDI controller or a QWERTY keyboard. Users can now map both tempo and transport controls to MIDI devices or keys. QWERTY keys can send note on and off messages such as Start, Stop and Record Enable transport buttons, and MIDI devices send Note On and Off, as well as continuous controls such as tempo automation. You can also choose a MIDI control or keyboard key to function as the tap tempo input.

To begin mapping parameters to a MIDI controller, you must first set up your MIDI devices in the MIDI/Sync Preferences dialog. Live will let you choose MIDI devices that are recognized in your OMS Studio Setup. Another new feature to Live 2.0 is that it can now receive MIDI from two input devices.

Users have more than one way to enter MIDI mapping and keymapping in Live 2.0: Click on the Key or MIDI buttons in the controller bar at the top of the Live window and choose Edit MIDI Map or Edit Key Map from the Options menu. Or you can use the keyboard shortcuts: Command + M (Mac) or Control + M (PC) for MIDI mapping, and Command + K (Mac) or Control + K (PC) for keymapping. Once you've entered a mapping mode, Live will highlight all of the parameters eligible for remote control. You need only to click on the parameter to select it and then use the MIDI control or keyboard key that you want for that control to assign it.


Inventive laptop lab rats were already able to twist Live into a sort of misfit DJ tool for mixing finished tracks into a set. Now that Live 2.0 includes a crossfader in the Session View (underneath the master volume), that task becomes much easier. But the crossfader is perhaps better applied to mix in and out between groups of the user's own loops. The first thing to do is map the crossfader to a MIDI slider or knob for smoother handling. (See the previous tip for more about MIDI mapping).

Just as on a DJ mixer, Live's crossfader moves in and out between groups of tracks assigned to either the A (left) or B (right) positions. With the crossfader in the exact center position, all tracks play unattenuated. Any Live track can be assigned to A or B, and all of its associated clips will share that assignment. A track with no crossfader assignment will be unaffected by the crossfader's position.

Even the effects-send tracks can be assigned to the A or B crossfader position. In the example laid out in Fig. 4, only the Send 2 effects are active with the crossfader all the way to the right. Rather than mixing between groups of tracks, you can also use the crossfader to make the transition from one set of effects to another. Notice that the track named PAD has no crossfader assignment, yet its signal is being sent to both Send 1 and Send 2. Therefore, with Send 1 and Send 2 assigned to A and B, respectively, a slow sweep of the crossfader from right to left causes the PAD track to make the transition smoothly from one chain of effects to another.

Hopefully, this list of tips will help you get more out of Live 2.0 and breathe some fresh air into your creative process. If you're still hungry for more, take a peak at, where the company maintains an excellent user forum and offers e-mail tech support for users.