Beat Week: Live with Live Tips

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Date: Friday, June 21st, 2002, 10:47
Category: Archive

Ableton’s Live, multichannel software for triggering audio files in realtime with extensive beat-matching / looping features, has become this year’s hottest new music and audio software, on Windows, on the Mac, or native in Mac OS X. I’ve done two good-sized performances with the software now, one a more classical electronic composition and one an evening of DJ-style beat-based music with everything from spooky electronic soundscapes to a kitschy retro Bossa Nova thrown in. Live is an ideal tool for a PowerPage Mobile Musician: I can do entire shows off a PowerBook alone. I’ve stretched Live to the limit; here’s what I’ve found about making the software work. Click ‘read more’ for the full story.


Ableton’s Live, multichannel software for triggering audio files in realtime with extensive beat-matching / looping features, has become this year’s hottest new music and audio software, on Windows, on the Mac, or native in Mac OS X. I’ve done two good-sized performances with the software now, one a more classical electronic composition and one an evening of DJ-style beat-based music with everything from spooky electronic soundscapes to a kitschy retro Bossa Nova thrown in. Live is an ideal tool for a PowerPage Mobile Musician: I can do entire shows off a PowerBook alone. I’ve stretched Live to the limit; here’s what I’ve found about making the software work.

March to a Different Drummer. Live’s beat-matching and time stretching tools work extremely well, often with no external adjustment, when you’re working with sounds containing clear “transients.” Transients are brief, percussive sounds contained in materials like drum loops, and appear as spikes in a waveform. Software like Live uses transients to guess the tempo of a file, and divides the audio file up before altering it to preserve the sound of the transients. Because of a dramatic oversight on the part of Ableton, however, there’s no way to turn the feature off, and this process can badly distort continuous clips that don’t match the session tempo, like vocals.

There’s one way to try to lessen the effect, until Ableton corrects this problem. Double click a sound to open clip view, and look at “Warp.” Try adjusting the transients setting, which affects how often Live subdivides the file. The ideal setting for continuous files is “Bar,” but sometimes that will frustratingly chop up the file incorrectly, so you’ll need to experiment, and in the end may simply wind up writing e-mail to Ableton begging them to fix this!

Warping for Warped Minds. Now the good news: all those “warp” settings that can unintentionally distort an audio file can also intentionally distort an audiofile. (Remember, electronic music evolved out of people misusing equipment, so go to town!) Try playing around with the warp settings, particularly the “Orig. BPM” setting. “:2” and “*2” divide and multiply the original tempo, respectively. Multiplying it will slow down the clip and dividing it will speed it up. But don’t stop there: try adjusting the “transients” setting again. Using higher settings (bar, 1/2, and 1/4, typically) while changing the original tempo creates a unique stuttering effect. It’s the computer equivalent of messing with a turntable. You can also dramatically impact the stuttering by dragging clip loop start and end in the sample view (look for the blue box with the triangles on either end over the waveform display on the right). The effect is wildly unpredictable — minor adjustments to any of these settings can make a big difference, as can the choice of what sound to use — but that’s half the fun!

Send in the Sends. Live includes some great built-in effects, but they’re processor hungry, so resist the temptation to drag effects directly into a track view. Instead, do what the pros do: use effects sends. Two sends are set up for you by default; add more if you need by hitting opt-cmd-T. Drag effects there, and then route signal to them by adjusting the send knob on each track you want to have the effect. This way, instead of having five reverb plug-ins operating simultaneously, requiring five times the CPU cycles, all five of those tracks can use just one reverb plug-in. Double click the send track to give it a more useful name, like “Reverb,” and once you’re satisfied with your settings, hit opt-cmd-S to toggle the sends view and give you some more screen real estate.

Render Early, Render Often. The best way to use Live is in Session Mode, firing off audio files in real time; it’s great for live performance or spontaneous composing and it makes your computer feel like a musical instrument. But unless you’re doing slow ambient music you can find yourself getting a little busy. First, check out the “key” and “MIDI” buttons in the upper right corner of the screen: they let you assign slots in a Session to your computer or MIDI keyboard. I also like using the busing feature with my MOTU 828 FireWire interface to route to 8 external channels and control levels directly (or route them elsewhere) via an external mixer. And be sure to check out “launch mode” settings under “Clip” for more control. But even doing this, you may find yourself with more than your poor hands can keep up with. Record combinations of multiple audio files with complex fader changes and so on into Arrange view, and then use version 1.5’s new render to disk feature (cmd-R) to bounce the results into a new audio file that you can add to the Session view. Then, hit one key, and let the magic happen. Listen to that — eight files triggered just perfectly with a dramatic, perfect fade in and out!

Be Reasonable. Midiman is the US distributor for both Live and Propellerhead’s Reason, and these two products appeal to a similar audience, so it’s no surprise they’re hyping using Reason and Live together. But the truth is, they’re right. Load Live first, then Reason, in OS 9, and Reason will be a ReWire slave, meaning Reason will let Live control your audio interface and clock/transport, routing the audio from Reason into Live. Reason will match tempo with Live and will sync playback and recording with Live, so you can record Reason patches directly into Live, or jam with the two together. Here’s the only trick: you’ll need to create a track in Live for each stereo pair you want to route from Reason, set the input (the top drop-down) to Reason, and then record-enable the track by clicking the bottom button below the pan pot on that trick. Hit record on one of the Session audio file slots — just click the dot next to that slot — and you’ll have an instant Live clip from Reason.

But wait — there’s more! You can also use Live with other ReWire apps as either a slave or master (aka client or host), like Cycling 74’s MAX/MSP, the powerful open-ended visual programming interactive live performance environment that was used to build prototypes for Live, or Native Instrument’s Reaktor, a powerful instrument-building toolkit. Just think about the amount of power you’ll have when these packages are combined! You don’t need to go to work again, do you?

Hey Live users — got some tips of your own, or frustrations you’d like us to solve? Click that feedback link. And be sure to let me know if these tips were helpful to you. -PK

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