Making The Leap To Laptop: Bye-bye vinyl, hello Ableton Live

In the DJ’s world, continuous re-invention is key—dance music’s ability to mutate and change is one of the reasons it has sustained for decades. And over the past few years, Ableton Live has become a cutting-edge tool for DJs who want to create fresh remixes and add new tracks in real time. If you’ve been using Live as a DAW, you might be surprised to find out how Live has enhanced the art of DJing from simply playing tracks (and making sure the transitions aren’t train wrecks!) to folding in a creative combination of loops, live tracks, rhythmic processing, and more. I’ve been using Live for the past five years, and its ability to keep tracks locked in sync while I layer melodies, beats, vocals, or grooves has given my performances a level of versatility I never had before.
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In the DJ’s world, continuous re-invention is key—dance music’s ability to mutate and change is one of the reasons it has sustained for decades. And over the past few years, Ableton Live has become a cutting-edge tool for DJs who want to create fresh remixes and add new tracks in real time. If you’ve been using Live as a DAW, you might be surprised to find out how Live has enhanced the art of DJing from simply playing tracks (and making sure the transitions aren’t train wrecks!) to folding in a creative combination of loops, live tracks, rhythmic processing, and more. I’ve been using Live for the past five years, and its ability to keep tracks locked in sync while I layer melodies, beats, vocals, or grooves has given my performances a level of versatility I never had before.

STUDIO MEETS STAGE MEETS DJ

When I first began as a DJ spinning vinyl, I enjoyed serving as a conduit for the music—feeling the ebb and flow of a party, and being at one with the crowd. But I also felt constrained at times. Track selection is essential when DJing, but sometimes you’d play a track and it wouldn’t quite work as you expected. Possible solutions were limited; you could mix the track out early, or try to add generic-sounding effects. But often, all that was needed to make the music really work was something simple, like a punchier kick, different bass line, keyboard stab, or familiar vocal snippet. With Ableton Live, you’re able to integrate these smoothly into the musical flow.

As a producer/remixer I use Pro Tools, Logic Pro, and Ableton Live. The beauty of using Live for DJing is that it’s like bringing part of your studio to a gig. Back in the vinylonly days I had to print dub plates (a costly, time-consuming experience) to play original creations. Now I can test tracks easily in various states of completion in a club setting, then go back to the studio and edit a song according to what worked and what didn’t.

LIVE’S SPLIT PERSONALITY

One of Live’s unique features is the ability to treat music in two different ways: The non-linear flow of Session View, where you can hop around from loop to loop and create arrangements on the fly, or the more traditional, linear approach of Arrangement View. I use both; Arrangement View is ideal for editing tracks, chopping audio, and creating loops for performances. It’s easy to spend an afternoon editing samples from all my musical influences: How about some John Bonham drums? A Dr. Dre a capella perhaps? Definitely need that Doors keyboard riff . . . with Live stretching these samples to fit the project tempo, I can mix them into that evening’s set. In my musical world, Arrangement View is mostly about pre-production.

Session View comes into play when it’s time to DJ. Here I color-coordinate samples according to key for easy identification when mixing (see Figure 1). Some of the tracks I play may be popular in the charts, but I’ll improvise and add new layers of bass, drums, pads, or vocal samples to make it my own unique remix. With Live I don’t have to focus on beat-matching because it automatically locks to the tempo, providing I’ve “warp marked” the loops properly in advance. Warping beats is done in a window where you can see where transients fall in relationship to the beat; lining these up with the waveform instructs Live how to “stretch” the file so it matches the project tempo. This isn’t as tedious a process as it might sound (unless you’re trying to warp a loop with a very uneven tempo)— usually I only need to do a few beats at the front and a few beats at the end of a WAV file in order to establish its groove.

FABULOUS FEEL VIA GROOVY GEAR

Live offers “in the box” mixing with a crossfader, mixer, and EQ options, but I still want a mixer’s tactility. So, I hook my MacBook Pro to four mixer channels via a MOTU UltraLite FireWire 400 sound card (audio runs from a Lacie Rugged Hard Disk through FireWire 800). This setup lets me retain my traditional DJ side by being “hands-on” with the EQ and crossfader.

To have my laptop screen match the mixer configuration, one Live channel (a “column” in Session View) combines kicks, percussion, beats, and crossover audio loops. One channel of the physical mixer is dedicated to these loops. This simplifies changing keys, beefing up a track with a heavier kick, or filtering out a track that’s not working and paring down to a basic drum rhythm. Though I may have six or more channels on-screen, it’s easy to change the output assignment to feed the desired sound card channel so that more than one sound feeds a given mixer channel.

I also use M-Audio’s Trigger Finger, whose buttons and controls are mapped to Live—the program makes it easy to map external controllers, as well as QWERTY keryboard shortcuts, to various Live parameters. Not only does this untether you from the mouse, getting physical avoids the dreaded “checking your email” style of performance. Trigger Finger allows launching loops, scenes, and cool effects with a push of a button, and altering effect parameters in real time by presetting them for control by particular knobs. Live can also quantize time-based effects to the beat, and it’s just as easy to bring in new effects as it is new loops—just drag-and-drop them on an audio track.

Another useful technique is to create “mega-effects” by combining several effects and controlling multiple parameters with a single knob. This can go way beyond the genericsounding effects that come with mixers and FX units; for example, you can build a custom filter that uses different effects at various stages of a sweep. Adding effects and automation to a sample creates a sound that is familiar, yet different. And unlike vinyl, tempo is independent of pitch in Live (unless you set it otherwise).

For some gigs I use an M-Audio Oxygen 8 MIDI keyboard controller to hold chords for pads, and sometimes create riffs with Live’s soft synths. If necessary I can record MIDI parts on the spot, and Live will automatically place those riffs into the right time. I use this sparingly because I don’t want to make the tracks too busy. I also like to be conservative with CPU consumption to avoid dropouts or other buzzkillers, so I use efficient virtual synths like Rob Papen’s Predator and Live’s own well-rounded synth, Operator. Paul Van Dyk uses two MacBook Pros for his performances—one for audio and one for soft synths—but those of us who aren’t as well-heeled can get by with one laptop by exercising a bit of care.

STAYING POWER

At first I was worried about the durability and general feasibility of setting up in a DJ booth, but setup and takedown has proven to be quick and painless. With my hard disk and interface both powered by separate FireWire ports, my rig is actually quite stealth (see opening picture). For example, I was able to complete a tour of India without a single hiccup; the only extra gear I needed was an international power plug adapter.

When I first made the leap to laptop there were limited choices for DJs, but now there are many options available: Vinyl, CD decks, Flash Drives, Serato and Traktor scratch controllers, and more. All have their benefits, but I still enjoy using Live the most. Its interface and flow seem to work synergistically with how my brain is wired. Some of the bigger DJs I’ve opened for have been fascinated with my Live setup. Matt Darey almost ran back to his hotel room to grab his external hard drive to plug into my MacBook when the CDJs at the club were malfunctioning, and even Armin Van Buuren told me he had been tempted to make the jump to laptop with Ableton Live.

As to the future, I’m looking forward to the new features in Live 8, I have an Akai APC40 controller on order, and I’ve heard of an upcoming development partnership with Serato. Yes, exciting and creative times lie ahead!