Master Class: Ableton Live

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FIG. 1: In this Session View, notice how I''ve named the Scenes in the right-hand column.

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FIG. 2: The Arrangement View''s linear timeline.

When I first launched Ableton Live, I immediately noticed the Session View—that page resembling an Excel spreadsheet (see Fig. 1). I quickly learned to avoid it by tabbing over to the Arrangement View (see Fig. 2) and composing and performing music there. It just made more sense to me, as I was coming from a Pro Tools and Cubase background. How else was there to approach music but from a linear standpoint? I continued like this for several weeks until I tabbed back over and decided to confront my fear of the non-linear. Although it was strange at first, when the beauty of it finally clicked in, I was hooked on utilizing these clips for everything from production to live performance.

Here''s what I learned: The Session View is the key to unlocking musical improvisation and creativity. If you''ve ever struggled to finish a song, the Session View is for you. If you can''t stand cutting and pasting an arrangement, it''s for you. If you''ve ever wanted to perform your music in a more improvisational way, it''s definitely for you.

Think of when you''re creating a spreadsheet and you have the header at the top of the column, with all of the data below it. All of the data in the column is related to one another. It''s the same with the Session View. Each column is a track or part of a song, and most people tend to group files that are similar on one track. For instance, if you are using vocals in your song, you might have a track labeled Vocals with different vocal takes for different parts of the tune. If you have a MIDI track with a virtual synthesizer, then all of the clips or segments that fill in these boxes will have the same timbre and sound because they will be playing the same MIDI instrument.

Each of these tracks corresponds to the tracks on the Arrangement View when you tab over. If you change the volume of one track in the Session View, then it also changes the volume in the Arrangement View. The Session View gives you the visual mixer to look at, but all of these properties can be changed on the Arrangement side as well. Try triggering some clips: Each of the clips have their own Play button, can be triggered independently of one another, and can be stopped by either pressing the Master Track''s Stop button, the last square on the track, or by pressing any of the available squares on the track itself.

Tracks contain independent clips of either audio or MIDI, and there are also horizontal rows called Scenes. On the Master Track you''ll see numbers with arrows next to them. When these arrows are pressed, all of the clips on the horizontal row will be triggered. For instance, if you have several tracks of audio and MIDI with clips inside them—such as Vocals, Drums, Bass, Synth—and you want them all to play at the same time, then you could place them all in one horizontal row and trigger them with a Scene.

The way that clips and Scenes are triggered is unique to Ableton Live. You might notice that when you trigger a clip or Scene it doesn''t play right away. This is because of an ingenious concept called Global Quantization. To the right of the timeline on the top of the screen you''ll see a box with a drop down menu that defaults to 1 Bar. It means that anytime you trigger a clip or Scene within a bar''s time, the sound won''t play until the downbeat of the next bar. This is critical, especially while arranging a song or in live performance when you probably have more interesting things to think about, like automation or tweaking effects.

To fully understand this concept, change the Global Quantization to None. Now when you press a clip or Scene, it will play instantly. Next, try to trigger it directly on the downbeat. You might be successful, but notice how much effort it takes to make it happen exactly in time with the rest of your clips. It''s much easier to keep it at 1 Bar and leave nothing to chance.

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FIG. 3: Setting up the Launch mode parameters.

3-2-1, LAUNCH!
Each individual clip can have it''s own quantization as well. If you double-click inside the clip and make sure that the circle with the L inside it is activated (at the bottom of the screen in the Clip View window), then you''ll see a section under Launch called Quantization. By default it''s set to Global, meaning the clip will trigger at whatever you have the main quantization set to. However, you can change the clip to be something different. Having a clip quantization of None can make sense if you have one-shot samples or effects that you want to sound when you trigger them with, perhaps, a pad, if you''re using a MIDI controller.

Also in the Launch section are choices for different Launch modes. These also add to the fun in the Session View and can create game-like challenges. Just as each clip can have it''s own quantization, the way that it behaves when you trigger it via mouse, MIDI, or keyboard can be altered, as well. The default mode, Trigger, means that when you trigger the clip, it continues to play until you stop it (see Fig. 3).

Gate starts the clip and triggering the clip again stops it. Toggle starts the clip and, once triggered again, it will stop on the next downbeat. Repeat means that if you hold down the arrow, then the clip is repeatedly triggered at the clip quantization rate.

Each of these Launch modes can be useful in different situations. Perhaps you have a clip that you want to be able to repeat on the fly, using little or no quantization to create a sort of glitch effect—use Repeat. Perhaps you want to be able to stop a clip by simply pressing it again instead of navigating to the Stop button—select Gate. What if you have a longer clip that, over time, you want to play with different parts? You can copy the clip to the following scenes and use Legato mode. If activated, Legato mode means that when the clip is triggered, it won''t start playing from the beginning of the clip, but will start where the last clip left off. So if the last clip ended with bar 2, the next will start with bar 3. Another cool way to use Legato mode is to have several different clips of similar content and discover different sequences of content that flow well together.

Both utilitarian and creative, Follow Actions are an often overlooked section of the Session View—a math nerd''s dream or an improvisational game. You can program a clip to automatically trigger another clip in a continuous section. For example, sometimes during a live performance I''ll be playing violin and not have any hands free to trigger a new clip. I can simply double-click in the clip and set my bar amount to, say, 4, and then choose to trigger the next clip in the track. Then, after the clip plays for 4 bars, then next clip down will play.

Taking the practicality a step into more creative territory, Follow Actions can be great for improvisational production and performance techniques. By making use of the second Follow Action and Chance choosers, you can make your music creation into a game of probability. Now you can tell the clip to either play the next clip or play any clip in the continuous section and you can set a probability of the likelihood of each Follow Action occurring using a ratio. For an equal opportunity, put the same numbers on either side. For a stronger possibility on one side, put a higher number there. A 1:10 ratio means that the first choice will occur one time for each 10 triggers.

Follow Actions are independent of global quantization but not clip quantization. Combining different clip quantizations and different Follow Actions can make for some happy accidents in both your productions and performances. Try setting small clip quantizations and Follow Actions with a section of similar drum loops and record the outcome by busing the output to another track using the I/O section.

By now you should have a better idea of what these different parts of the Session View actually do. The fun part is putting it all together. There are new MIDI controllers popping up every day that are suited for triggering clips in the Session View. A few of my favorites are the Akai APC40 and APC20, the Novation Launchpad, and Livid Instruments Ohm64. These pre-mapped grid controllers are excellent both in the studio and onstage. Instead of clicking with the mouse you can press buttons on a controller, which allows you to really improvise and perform your music. In addition, the knobs and faders on these controllers can correspond to effects parameters in your session, allowing you to change, for example, a filter cutoff in real time or raise a delay''s feedback amount.

I think of each Scene as a section of a song, like a chorus or verse. All of the parts that I want to hear during that section I''ll place horizontally on their respective tracks. The first Scene represents the intro of the song and I build the song moving down to the next section, which might be a verse, chorus, or the like. At times when I''m composing and arranging, I''ll change the Global Quantization to 8 Bars. This means that the Scenes will sound after 8 Bars, which is a good start for most song structures.

Each Scene can be renamed. By right clicking on a Scene and choosing Rename (or command + R) you can label the Scene (e.g., Chorus) as well as add tempo and time-signature changes. For instance, if you want the section to change to 133 bpm and switch to 6/8, then you would simply name the scene “Chorus 133 bpm 6/8.” Then, when you trigger the Scene, the session will automatically change to these parameters of your choosing.

If there is a clip that you want to continue playing through different sections, you can either copy the clip to the next slot down or right-click on a clip and choose Remove Stop Button (or command + E). This allows the clip to continue to play until another clip or a Stop button is triggered. This method is interchangeable for performing live as well. The beauty of the Session View for me is that instead of traditionally sequencing a song by copying and pasting it, I can simply jam on the parts to come up with my arrangement, whether I am in the studio or playing live. This has helped me finish far more songs than I did in the past because it is much more fun to perform my song and then clean up the recording afterwards than spend time cutting and pasting in a linear fashion.

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FIG. 4: Recording a song into the Arrangement View.

To record your song into an Arrangement, simply press the Global Record button at the top of the application on the timeline and start triggering sounds and tweaking effects (see Fig. 4). Once you are finished, tab over to the Arrangement View and check out your song. Now you can clean up your automation and arrangement, but most of the difficult work is done. This is also a great way to record your live performances. Once you have recorded to the Arrangement View, you''ll notice that the red button on the timeline at the top of the screen switches to grey.

This is called the Back to Arrangement button, and it is always a source of confusion for new Live users. When the button is grey, it means that you will only hear the audio and MIDI in the Arrangement View.

Once you have material in the Arrangement View and trigger something in the Session View, the button turns red. Now you''ll hear a combination of the Arrangement and Session Views. Notice how the tracks correspond to one another and the track is now grayed out on the Arrangement side because the sound from that track is playing from the Session View. This is a great way to audition a new beat or sound in your arrangement without committing to it.

If you want to only hear the Session View after you have material in the Arrangement View, there are two ways to go about this. You can trigger a Scene in the Session View, overriding all of the tracks in the Arrangement View, or you can press the Stop Clips button in the Master Track on the Session View. Both achieve the same goal of only hearing the Session View.

My company, Electronic Creatives, focuses on solving specific and complex technical issues for artists and productions. After assessing the client''s needs, I carefully determine whether or not the Session View is the proper choice for their production. If a client needs to loop a segment of a song, go back to a certain section in order to keep the show flowing gracefully, or improvise and perform with a grid controller, then the Session View should be used. Music editing is dramatically easier in the Arrangement View, so if a client suddenly wants to take out a verse, it''s easier to do so there. Lots of times I build a show in the Arrangement View and then once the show is set, I''ll transfer it to the Session View. Arrangement View is also necessary if you''re scoring to picture.

However, once you learn to make music in a nonlinear way using the Session View, the process will accelerate your art to the next level.

Laura Escudé is an acclaimed violinist, compose, sound designer, and Ableton Certified Trainer.