Electronic Guitar: Triggering Effects with Ableton Live Clips

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Ableton Live’s unique position in the DAW world stems from the fact that it is as much performance as recording software. Forward-thinking guitarists like Eivind Aarset, Avi Bortnick, and Dan Phelps use a laptop loaded with Live as part of their effects arsenal. Part of Live’s appeal is its looping capabilities, but it also functions well as a platform for a plethora of plugins that let guitarists create sounds unavailable through pedals. Live’s suite of included plugins offers a great fuzz (Saturator) that can go from mild to wild; Filter, which can operate in envelope or auto mode; and one of my favorite ambience generators, Reverb. And that's only the beginning – include Max for Live, along with third-party plugins, and you have a suite of sonic modifiers that outdoes even the largest pedalboard. But it doesn’t stop there: Live lets sonic explorers achieve wondrous new sounds by modifying the parameters of those plugins with Clip Envelopes, while playing in real time.

Any DAW user should be familiar with using automation to make a reverb effect more prominent as the track goes on, or perhaps change the length of a delay from verse to chorus. Using Live’s Clip Envelopes, you can set up similar effects and crazier ones as you play in real time.

To work with clip envelopes, first record any length clip (with no sound) in the guitar channel. Set the channel to In, not Auto, so you will be able to hear your guitar as you play. Install the plugin effect you wish to modify. Click on the clip and then click on the E [now diagonal arrows in Live 10] in the lower left corner of the Clip View to reveal its Envelope box. This contains two dropdown menus. The top menu chooses the Device or plugin, while the bottom box lets you choose one of the parameters of that device. Now, you can draw automation for that parameter right in the clip.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

For example: You can automate the clip volume to create effects from tremolo to chop; send your guitar signal to an effects send only on beat four of a measure; or pan the signal in perfect time but random intervals — or all of the above. You are not restricted to one plugin or a single parameter. With one clip you can control as many plugins and parameters as you like. In Figure 1, I am controlling the Frequency (or rate) of Live’s Auto Pan Plugin, set for a tremolo type sound. At random intervals the speed of the trem jumps to a near ring modulator rate. In Figure 2, I am making use of the clip’s ability to control multiple parameters. The output of the delay is set to decrease over two bars because another clip envelope increases the feedback over those same two bars. As delay feedback approaches runaway levels, the volume can increase to ear- and speaker- destroying levels. This way the feedback effect stays at a constant volume. Keep in mind that this is all happening as I'm playing. You should experiment with multiple clips that modify the same effects in various ways.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Native Instrument’s Guitar Rig offers LFO and envelope modifying modules that permit you to affect their amp and pedal emulation’s parameters in real time, but to my knowledge, there is nothing, short of creating your own effects in Max/MSP, that lets you control sound modifiers to the extent of Live’s clip envelopes.