Although Ableton Live 10 is packed with workflow enhancements and impressive new effects (such as Echo and Pedal), the biggest news for sound designers is Wavetable, an impressive new approach to wavetable-based synthesis, with an interface that lets you see nearly every design and modulation element on a single screen.
This month, we’ll examine Wavetable's features in depth, along with a few additional tips from Ableton’s Lead preset designer and soundteam member Huston Singletary.
Some users have compared it to Serum and Massive, but Wavetable’s engine is different, with its own unique collection of wavetable data and filter options; it doesn’t replace either of those synths, but instead, expands the range of this popular synthesis method. Wavetable’s architecture is key to its capabilities.
Its two oscillators include nearly 200 preset tables organized into 11 categories. This makes it easy to find a starting point if you know what type of sound you’re after. In addition, Wavetable includes a flexible sub-oscillator that provides a wide range of functions that belie its name.
Those three generators feed a pair of multimode filters that can be arranged in parallel, serial, or split configurations. This is followed by an amp (volume) section and topped off with a unison effect that includes several modes that break new ground.
Unlike other plug-ins, there’s no dedicated effects section, because Wavetable is baked into Live Suite. Consequently, if you want to add final processing, you can take advantage of Ableton’s massive library of audio effects. Of course, if you’re a Max for Live user, you can design your own.
Getting the hang of Wavetable’s dual-oscillators is best done by simply dropping the instrument in a track and starting with the default preset, which consists of oscillator 1 only (osc 2 and the sub-oscillator switched off ) feeding a 2-pole lowpass filter, with cutoff at max. From here, you can audition the contents of the 11 wave-table categories and inspect the tonal character of each, while sweeping them with the wave position slider (see Figure 1).
Pro Tip. Setting the wave position to 50%, then applying a slow triangle LFO to the “Osc 1 Pos” routing in the mod matrix with a value of 50, is a great way to sweep each table automatically as you familiarize yourself with the content.
Each wavetable category has a distinct flavor.
Basics: Aptly named, this category covers bread-and-butter tables, leaning toward analog oscillators, but with a few FM-derived options mixed in.
Collection: Named after colors such as Olive or Sapphire, this is a set of go-to Ableton-flavored tables that are both unusual and flexible.
Complex: These consist of more radical wave-tables with a lot of harmonic complexity.
Distortion: While these tables are derived from various distortion and waveshaping processes, this is also where you’ll find a few options oriented toward a more “West Coast synthesis” approach.
Filter: These tables are based on filter sweeps and work nicely when you want to stack filter types in series (or if you’re new to synthesis and want immediate results without learning the subtleties of multimode filtering).
Formant: This category focuses on vocal-like timbres, with appropriate names like AEIOU and Tuvan.
Harmonics: For experienced wavetable fans, this category is loaded with wavetables that are excellent starting points for layering, additive, and timeless sweeps that evoke the PPG and Synclavier.
Instruments: These tables are based on actual instruments such as piano, marimba, and oboe, among others. The options here really shine when swept with an envelope, as opposed to an LFO.
Noise: While converting noise into wavetables may seem like a strange choice, since they contain no easily translated harmonics, these tables are useful for adding a chaotic element to sounds: Several of the options come to life when modulated with an LFO, often yielding a sound that is much like a tuned flanger that tracks the keyboard. (Note that some of these tables, such as Vinyl Noise, have unusual frequency response characteristics, so keep that in mind as you gain-stage your sounds.)
Retro: Like the name implies, these tables evoke the early years of wavetable synthesis.
Vintage: This collection is packed with really useful tables that are derived from classic and modern analog gear. With a bit of LFO modulation, they deliver impressively realistic results if you’re going for a circuit-based oscillator sound.
At the bottom of each oscillator window is an FX section, which is similar to Massive’s Spectrum and Serum’s Warp options, allowing you to manipulate the wavetable’s shape and spectrum further (see Figure 2). In fact, the FX functions are so crucial to extending the value of the oscillators’ wavetables that I urge readers to devote extra time to modulating these parameters with LFOs and envelopes to understand their sonic range. Here are the three FX modes.
FM: This mode applies an FM modulator to the wavetable, with visual feedback so you can see the results. In this mode, the two adjustable parameters are tuning and amount.
Pro Tip: You can achieve familiar FM effects by starting with the Sines 1 table in the Harmonics category (with a wave position of zero; pure sine), then adjusting the modulation amount parameter with an envelope. The tuning hot spots, where the FM effect retains harmonic coherence (without dissonant artifacts), are -100%, -50%, 0, 50%, and 100%. These correlate with ratios of 0.25:1, 0.5:1, 1:1, 2:1 and 4:1, respectively. Between those values, the Sines 1 sine wave is a fantastic resource for organic bell and mallet textures. Because FM is more controllable with simple carrier waveforms, complex wavetables will yield results that are more unpredictable.
Classic: This mode offers the two most familiar analog waveform modifiers: Sync and pulse width (PW). The sync parameter value is equivalent to adjusting the tuning of a synced oscillator, though the term “pulse width” is a simplification; the process actually compresses the wavetable while adding a zero-amplitude segment on either side of the table, depending on whether the value is positive or negative. For classic PWM effects, start with the square wave in the Basic Shapes wavetable.
Pro Tip: Huston Singletary is a big fan of the pulse width parameter: “One of my favorite techniques for adding vintage animation to our wavetables is to modulate the PW parameter gradually for only one oscillator with a very slow triangle or sine LFO playing against a second oscillator, with Osc 2’s PW base value set to none or its FM amount slightly raised.”
Modern: These two modes are more akin to the shaping tools in Serum and Massive: Warp compresses and stretches the entire waveform in either direction (positive or negative) similarly to Serum’s asymmetrical mode; Fold behaves like a cross between Serum’s Mirror and hard sync. As a result, each of these modes can serve as a more contemporary variation on pulse width and sync, respectively.
Even on its own, Wavetable’s sub-oscillator is flexible as a timbral resource. In addition to Volume, there are parameters for Octave, Transpose, and Tone. Transpose has an 8-octave range (±48 semitones), in addition to a switch that can lower the range two octaves. As a result, it can be used for virtually any non-detuned interval, making it great for adding fifths to leads if the two main oscillators are tied up with timbral duties. It’s also great for bell or electric-piano tones when tuned four octaves higher than the wavetable oscillators and appropriately blended.
The Tone parameter extends its usefulness even further. Setting this parameter to 0% generates a sine wave, while at 100% it’s a 60% pulse that’s nearly square, with a slight saw-like angle for additional even-numbered harmonics (see Figure 3). What’s more, the sub-oscillator tone parameter can be modulated by a wide range of parameters, so it can tangibly contribute to the harmonic motion of your designs.
Pro Tip: When working with animated wavetables that consist mostly of upper harmonics, you can use the sub-oscillator to emphasize the fundamental by setting it to the zero (0) octave. This helps retain the body of the sound, while the upper harmonics swirl above it.
Wavetable inherits the impressive analog filter models introduced in Live 9.5, so there are five different resonant multimode filters available for each of its two filters: Clean (Ableton), OSR (based on the Oxford Oscar), MS2 (MS20), PRD (Moog Prodigy) and SMP (a custom modification of the Sallen-Key topology). The MS2, PRD, SMP, and OSR modes are switchable between lowpass and highpass, with variable Drive for adding grunge.
Pro Tip: Instead of using velocity to control volume, experiment with applying it to filter Drive. You’ll still get a change in amplitude, but with a corresponding increase in warmth and intensity.
The Clean and OSR modes also offer bandpass, notch, and state-variable behavior, allowing them to smoothly morph between a vast range of curves, much like an Oberheim SEM or Dave Smith Instruments OB6. Best of all, the Morph parameter can also be modulated by any of Wavetable’s sources.
Pro Tip: As an alternative to flanging or phasing, try applying a slow triangle or sine wave LFO to the Morph parameter with a very slight amount. It’s a different timbral effect, but nothing else sounds like it.
The dual filters can be configured in Serial, Parallel, or Split modes. The Serial and Parallel options should be familiar to many readers, with Serial placing filter 2 after filter 1’s output. That said, Split mode is noteworthy as it routes each oscillator into its own dedicated filter, allowing for even deeper customization of their individual timbres.
Pro Tip: While you can always layer two sounds using Ableton’s Instrument Racks, challenge yourself to create unique layered effects by selecting contrasting wavetables and routing them into discrete filters via Split mode. For bonus points, give one of the oscillators a sharp plucked envelope and the other a smooth pad envelope. This is handy for emulating LA synthesis techniques.
There are two ways to access Wavetable’s modulation resources: Using individual tabs (synth sources, matrix, and MIDI) or from an expanded view when the upper window is open. Because it is so much easier to access everything when the window is open, we’ll focus on that approach, since it combines both LFO and envelope routing (color-coded blue) and MIDI routing (green, Figure 4).
Nearly every synthesis parameter can be quickly accessed by clicking on the desired parameter while the matrix is visible. From there, it will appear in the matrix's bottom row until you assign a resource to modulate it (Figure 5). If no resource is applied, it disappears when you select a different synth parameter. After a few minutes, assigning parameters—and seeing routings at a glance—becomes intuitive.
The MIDI modulation resources consist of the essentials—velocity, note number (keyboard tracking), pitch bend, aftertouch, and mod wheel (with standard defaults for velocity to amp, pitch bend with ±2 semitones, and mod wheel to wavetable position for oscillator 1). If you prefer to use your own assignments as defaults, just set those up, then right-click on the title bar and select “Save as Default Preset” (Figure 6).
Note: If you do this, make sure the other synthesis parameter defaults are initialized to your preferences, as this will wipe out the original factory settings. It’s always a good idea to save the factory defaults as a user preset before you begin tinkering.
Pro Tip: Not everyone uses pitch bend for soloing. By deleting its default pitch assignment, you can use it for synth resources such as filter frequency cutoff, FM, or even unison amount.
Wavetable’s envelopes allow you to tailor both the time and slope (curve) for each segment, which is great for customizing attack swells or adding impact to percussive decays. Envelopes 2 and 3 have an additional set of parameters for setting the levels of the initial state, peak, and final state.
Pro Tip: One of Huston Singletary’s favorite techniques is to apply velocity to envelope 2 or 3’s peak parameter, which serves to tie that envelope’s modulation amount to the impact of hitting a key or Push pad.
Additionally, each envelope can operate in one of three modes: None, Trigger, or Loop (Figure 7). None is for traditional behavior, Trigger completes the envelope regardless of when you lift your finger, and Loop repeats the envelope (without the sustain segment) until the voice finishes (amp envelope).
Pro Tip: For very sharp attacks, set up a spare envelope to instant attack and a 50-millisecond decay—no sustain or release. Then, apply it to a parameter that governs pitch or timbre (Figure 8). This will add a quick “click” to the beginning of the sound and is great for mallet and drum patches.
In addition to the usual rate, depth, and tempo-syncing, Wavetable’s two LFOs offer a few additional features that give it more range than most. For example, you can continuously vary each of the standard waveforms’ shape in clever ways. Here’s a list of those transformations.
Sine: Expands or contracts the peaks, with expansion veering toward a square-like shape.
Triangle: Adjusts the degree of the angle for down/up sawtooth hybrids.
Sawtooth: Expands or contracts the peaks.
Square: Adjusts pulse width. Great for adjusting rhythmic timing when tempo-synced.
Random: Varies the extremes of the random steps. The LFO also includes a phase offset parameter that allows you to determine the starting point in the waveform, which is most pronounced when the LFO retrigger (per key event) option is toggled on.
Pro Tip: While it’s ideal for vibrato, the LFO depth is bi-polar, so you’ll need to factor in your base parameter values—as well as phase offset values—for rhythmic effects when using square and sawtooth waves, especially relating to pitch. To get a feel for this technique, experiment with square waves for in-key pitch trills or sawtooth waves for timbral pulses.
Pro Tip: Another LFO technique in Huston Singletary’s bag of tricks is fantastic for creating extreme stereo effects: Apply slightly different LFOs to the panning parameter for each of the oscillators, then combine these with a healthy bit of velocity panning modulation, together with the unison effects described below.
Because the most common MIDI controllers are readily available in the matrix, here are a few experiments to give you a feel for adding performance dynamics to your patches.
1. If you have a controller with an x/y joystick (instead of pitch bend and mod wheel), assign the modwheel to change wavetable position and apply pitchbend to adjust the oscillator volumes. With a bit of tinkering you can approximate the real-time aspects of the Prophet VS (vector synthesis) sound.
2. Apply aftertouch to each oscillator’s panning with opposite (positive and negative) amounts. When you add pressure, the sound will instantly widen.
3. Route the mod wheel to unison amount for real-time control of the “size” of your leads and stabs.
4. For live soloing, assign the mod wheel to LFO amount for classic vibrato effects. Then, use after-touch to control the LFO shape parameter (or vice versa). This will give you more nuanced control over your modulation dynamics.
5. Use velocity to control the volume of the sub-oscillator. When tuned very high, this will add a dynamic “glistening” effect. When tuned to lower octaves, you can control the amount of subs with your playing style.
Wavetable’s Unison modes are a real standout and are capable of far more than the usual supersaw detuning. It’s extremely important to note that each of the unison modes will increase the voice count for every note, thus increasing the demands on your CPU, accordingly. For example, if you set unison voices to 8 and play a four-note seventh chord, you’ll be using 32 voices of polyphony. Add some long release times and your CPU will probably hit the wall. (Note: This CPU utilization is the same for all synths with unison options, and not specific to Wavetable.)
Each of Wavetable’s unison modes has unique attributes, so here’s a closer look at the characteristics of each.
Classic: This aptly named mode pans and detunes each voice equally in alternating directions.
Shimmer: Here, the detuning has a touch of smooth random LFO modulation that increases with the parameter value, with Lorenz-like characteristics. The wavetable position is also offset very slightly.
Noise: This mode uses noise to modulate the detuning and wavetable offset.
Pro Tip: Try using Noise mode on one of the formant (voice) wavetables, with a high voice count and medium amount. Here, the noise will add the breath component to choir sounds. On other wavetable types, adding a long release with Noise unison will create a reverb-like effect.
Phase Sync: Very similar to classic mode, but with the wavetable start points synced to note events.
Pro Tip: Phase Sync mode with medium-tohigh voice counts and extremely small amount values results in a flanger-like effect.
Position Spread: This mode shifts the focus to offsetting the wavetable positions combined with extreme panning (and slight detuning)—excellent for wide stereo effects.
Random Note: Randomly changes detuning and wavetable position for each note event.