Chance Meeting - EMusician

Chance Meeting

Learn how to use Ableton Live as a DJ tool. Loop-based performance software Ableton Live offers something for every DJ, and I fully encourage you to explore just what that is for you.
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In recent years, many people have predicted that DJing and live music would get back together after a long, nasty divorce. Besides several notable exceptions, the true integration of musicians and DJs has not occurred. Instead, they skipped the romantic reunion and merged into one. Once a rare sighting, you are hard-pressed to find a flyer that does not contain “Live” after at least some of the names advertised. The term live and the name of the ubiquitous software that makes this revolution possible are so commonplace that we almost need to come up with a new one and permanently concede the word “live” to Ableton. Pardon my manners; let me clarify for those of you living on a handmade raft off the coast of Bali. I am of course speaking of the loop-based performance software Ableton Live.

This program offers something for every DJ, and I fully encourage you to explore just what that is for you. Even if you don't want to be the next Richie Hawtin and just need to mix in and out of a pair of songs, Live can do that. With all its creative potential, I doubt you would stick to just mixing two songs together, but it can be used as a simple DJ tool. “Just how is that?” many people have asked, citing the software's obviously non-DJ traits. Although it's clearly not a DJ-focused program, almost all of the crucial functionality exists in the software. You just have to think outside of the decks. With that in mind, lets tackle some of the major questions you may have about DJing with the latest version of the software, Live 6.

How do you manage your music collection? Does it interface with iTunes?

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Learn all about Ableton Live in one place. Find tutorials, reviews, videos, artist interviews all about Ableton Live on the Ableton Hot Topic page.

At the present time, Live does not interface with iTunes. However, it's not that unrealistic to run iTunes side by side with Live. You can take advantage of all the management tools iTunes offers and then pull songs directly from there into Live. A simple drag-and-drop will not work, but once a song is selected in iTunes, hitting Command + R (CTRL + R on a PC) will open up a finder window with the song file. That file can then be dropped directly into Live. If the song has already been pre-analyzed by Live's audio engine, then it will be ready to play almost instantly. These extra steps may seem a bit annoying but really don't take that much time. The song analysis can also be done in batches overnight to avoid waiting the first time a new song is loaded.

So I can play full songs, including MP3s?

Yes. Almost every file format, including MP3s and MP4s, can be played directly within Live. Although it is a loop-based program, entire songs can easily be played from front to back just like you would in any other DJ software. Okay, so you can play all your songs and fairly easily load them into Live, but how do you sync up two songs without records controlling them? That also requires thinking outside of the decks. Rather than syncing songs to each other, Live syncs them to a single master tempo that can be changed at any time. So if your master tempo is 120 bpm, any song that is dragged in will automatically be time-stretched to that tempo. So theoretically, if you drag in four songs, they will all be adjusted to 120 bpm, and no tempo matching is required. The precision of this feature depends on how accurately Live has determined the bpm of each song. The program usually does a fairly good job on most music, but some user input is required on almost all songs for perfect results.

How do I accurately determine the bpm of each song?

Detailed tutorials and movies can be found on the excellent Website www.abletonlivedj.com, but here is a simplified overview: You determine the bpm by creating a beat grid. This is defined by two things — the downbeat and the tempo. By first defining where the first beat of the song falls (the 1.1.1), Live starts the grid at that point. Then you can go through the song file and manually drag the grid points to match up with the beats. Once you reach the end of the song and everything lines up, you should have an accurate bpm. With a little practice, it will only take a few minutes for each file. Don't want to spend the time? Go to www.dancetracksdigital.com, where you can find songs professionally prepared for Live.

How do I keep songs in time with each other?

In theory, you don't need to pitch bend. Live automatically locks each song's grid to the master grid or “click.” As long as every song is fine-tuned in advance, then they will always be perfectly in phase with each other. In my opinion, this is not a complete solution, as some degree of fine-tuning will always be required during a Live set. That can be done by hand by manually moving the warp marker with a mouse (not a MIDI controller). As you move the warp marker backward or forward, the entire song's phase shifts in relation to the other songs, and you can dial in the timing perfectly. Good for preparing songs in advance but too crude for use in the club, this remains the only serious flaw in using Live as a DJ tool. But this shortcoming is overshadowed by the fact that you can do the tedious job of adjusting timing in advance, which will free you up onstage to rework songs rather than massage them together.

I've barely scratched the surface, so next month I will show you more specific techniques and dig deeper into the intricacies of Live 6. I will also cover how to use Live as the world's best third deck, a job at which it really excels. Most notably, in this capacity, you can control the phase of Live and keep it in time with other songs just like a traditional turntable. Your homework? Visit www.ableton.com, download the demo and try to mix two songs together. It's really quite easy.