Amassing over 400,000 YouTube followers by posting esoteric music theory videos is a media miracle by any standard, but Adam Neely’s engaging, irreverent style and thought-provoking insights have earned him an audience most musicians only dream of.
Adam’s deep knowledge of music, combined with his ability to correlate audio theory, has resulted in compelling lessons such as “The Coltrane Fractal” and, more recently, “What does music mean?” But another aspect of his work is his innovative approach to Ableton Live.
After Adam visited my college for a few lectures, I asked him to share a few of his favorite Ableton tricks with EM’s readers.
ODD TUPLET SWING
You can create wonky swing rhythms with a quintuplet (5-tuplet) swing, where the downbeat lasts 3 quintuplets and the upbeat least 2 quintuplets. This is a good way to mathematically calculate rhythms that feel unquantized while keeping everything to a grid.
STEP 1 Draw 5 sixteenth notes into a MIDI clip, and then select them by dragging from the upper left corner of the clip (Figure 1).
STEP 2 Drag the margin selector over so that the 5 sixteenth notes fit within a single beat. You now have quintuplets (Figure 2). You can repeat steps 1 and 2 with any odd number of sixteenth notes (7, 11, and so on) for strange tuplet rhythms.
STEP 3 Copy and paste these notes into as many voices as you’d like to use (Figure 3).
STEP 4 Like a sculptor chiseling away at marble, delete the notes you don’t want in order to create a mathematically precise beat. Keep the snare on 2 and 4 and you’ll have something that is both familiar, yet very strange (Figure 4).
To hear this time-signature in action, check out my band Sungazer’s tracks “Dream of Mahjong” for 7-tuplet swing and “Sequence Start” for 5-tuplet swing.
SAMPLE REPLACING: ACOUSTIC DRUMS
Ableton Live lets you layer sampled drums onto a real acousticdrum performance. Sample augmentation is common in pop, rock, and metal styles, where artists beef up each of their acoustic drums with heavier, punchier samples. Getting a good blend preserves the human element of the performance while adding power and sonic space.
But you can also get really weird with it by layering other kinds of samples alongside a real, human performance. This is what JoJo Mayer calls “the distance between 0 and 1.” For me, it’s a new way of looking at blending electronic and acoustic music.
STEP 1 Select a single acoustic drum clip and right click Convert Drums to New MIDI Track.
STEP 2 By applying this algorithm, Live will automatically separate the drums into three discrete voices—kick, snare, and hi-hat (Figure 5).
STEP 3 Clean up the MIDI to just the hits you want that correspond with the track you’ve converted (Figure 6).
STEP 4 If you’re having trouble with getting a clean conversion, try duplicating your track, adding a gate, freezing it, flattening it, and then go through steps 1 through 3 again. I’ve had the best luck with drums that have been close-miked so the transients can be picked up more clearly. Unless you are close-miking hi-hats, cymbals are difficult to work with.
Repeat steps 1-4 with all the drum tracks you would like and you’ll now have far more options. Try throwing 808 samples on the kick’s MIDI track, having the snare MIDI-trigger vocal slices, or the Tom MIDI-trigger bass drops. There are no limits to this approach, and it’s a great way to bridge the gap between traditional instrumental performance and new tech.
MICROTONAL SYNTHS IN DRUM RACK
Writing microtonal music (e.g., where scale tones don’t fit within the normal 12-tone equal temperament keyboard) can be tricky. Not only are modern DAWs not typically set up for it, but it’s also hard to come up with something that sounds “good” enough and inspiring when you’re first starting out.
Let’s start with the Harmonic Scale, which uses simple frequency multiples that match the harmonic series found in nature. The resulting scale will include recognizable intervals, such as perfect 5ths and major 3rds, but also more alien-sounding intervals such as the harmonic 7th. This scale is also unusual because the lower notes are far apart, whereas the higher notes are close together. Odd but useful!
STEP 1 Create a Drum Rack and then drag in an Operator to C1.
STEP 2 Under Osc 1, click Fixed, and then type 50 into the frequency (Figure 7).
STEP 3 Drag another instance of Operator to C#1, click Fixed, and then type 100 into the frequency.
STEP 4 Repeat this process to fill as many slots of the Drum Rack as you’d like with frequency multiples of 50 (Figure 8). It’s time-consuming, but worth it! Be sure to save it as a preset.
STEP 5 Since you’ll have many instances of Operator loaded, whenever you change a parameter on one instance you’ll have to right click and select Copy Value to Siblings to make all of the instances of Operator sound the same. This feature allows you to quickly copy any parameter changes to a single drum within a rack to all of the other drums.
Once you have this set up, try experimenting with MIDI effects like arpeggiators and chords and you’ll get some wacky but interesting textures. Because all the notes are part of the natural harmonic series, they tend to work together, even if they are dissonant and not part of the traditional equal-temperament tuning.
RAMP-UP RHYTHMIC EFFECTS
I got this trick from Australian electronic producer Mr. Bill.
STEP 1 Take a sample and route the output of that track to a second track (Figure 9).
STEP 2 Record enable the second track, then slow down the tempo of the project to Live’s lowest value, 20 BPM.
STEP 3 Set the pitch warping algorithm of the sample to Texture (Figure 10). Now, hit record as you mess with the Grain Size parameter of the algorithm (Figure 11).
Step 4 As you adjust the parameters in real-time, you’ll get weird, rhythmic ramping that is hard to achieve by other means. Once you’re finished recording, you’ll have a unique new sample that you can re-warp or slice up for percussive effects.
I really like this technique and the way Mr. Bill works because he’s mostly warping and using audio, not MIDI. It’s another interesting way to think about workflow, and the more ways you can think about workflow the better.