There are some powerful sound creation possibilities lurking beneath Live’s built-in devices. Finding inspiration from Live effects is the topic of my second collaboration with Riemann Kollektion.
In the first part of this tutorial series, I told you how to finish tracks faster using some of the latest shortcuts in Ableton Live 10.1. This time, I’ve down a round-up of some of tricks and tips with Echo, Delay, Convolution, and other devices:
Ableton Live is best known for its Session View grid, but the faster you are with Arrangement View, the more fluidly you can compose finished tracks. I put together a quick reference tutorial to help you work faster.
I’m pleased for this project to get to partner with Riemann Kollektion here in Berlin. Virtuoso techno producer and DJ/live act Florian Meindl heads Riemann as a label for sound content, mastering, nerdy apparel, and now various resources for honing your craft. Riemann is really a story in itself – it’s the natural evolution of electronic music business, catering to a world with more producers and DJs. Instead of lamenting the proliferation of music makers and the diminishing value of records, Florian is adapting, by serving that new market, while still remaining focused on the artists and sound of underground techno.
To me, being able to work quickly in a DAW means the power to make the tool disappear. It means shortening the distance between an idea and its execution. And Ableton have made some significant workflow changes in Live 10 and Live 10.1, which mean this is worth revisiting.
My basic strategy is this:
Exploit Scenes in Session View to make your basic song structure
Map parameters so you can not only mix, but tweak devices in real time
Learn the latest keyboard shortcuts to focus the display on your work, without mousing around
Adjust envelopes more directly and draw shapes
Use time operations and bounces to make big changes
I also point to some third-party tools that add additional power and control.
And I’d love your feedback on additional tips to add. (Florian and I will keep updating it.) Plus if there’s another tool you’d like to see covered, let us know – especially if you’ve worked out some tips in your tool of choice.
Tools and technology are often described as obstacles. But sometimes focusing on a tool can refine musical process and composition – as main(void) reveals.
And yes, the goal here is, as always, to cure writers’ block and finish something that you feel really happy with. Let’s first hear the finished item, as it’s got the kind of deliciously calculated, precise electronics that first drew me to Europe. It feels chilly, but still sensual – foreplay for cyborgs, you know, putting the tech in techno:
Working musicians all have to balance different gigs. An emerging role for us is working out how to take day jobs in designing tools and sound design, and use that experience to help us make our creative musical experience better.
In the case of main(void), aka Jan Ola Korte, it meant parlaying his work in 2018 designing sounds for Native Instruments’ TRK-01 into honing his music making process. He writes:
When I was working on the sound design for Native Instruments TRK-01 in 2018, I saved a few presets to use in my own music. These sounds and patterns ended up becoming the foundation of Stoicism, my first solo EP that was released Aug 21 on Spatial Cues. I had a little bit of a writer’s block situation, so I tried to resolve it by working within very restrictive parameters. All five original tracks on Stoicism use TRK-01 as the only sound source, processed through a number of effect plug-ins. Limiting myself in this way created a nicely coherent sound palette. Since I only used TRK-01’s internal sequencers, I arranged the tracks via automation in Ableton Live, which switched up my routine in an inspiring way. In the end, this workflow not only resolved the writer’s block but led to my most comprehensive release so far.
The basic idea of TRK-01 is to do just that – it puts some focused modules dedicated to dance production in a single place. There’s a kick module, bass, sequencer, and effects – but it’s not preset territory, as each module has a number of different engines. That is, the clever twist here is removing cognitive overhead (by simplifying and integrating the interface), without limiting your creative choices (since there is still a full spectrum of very different sounds you can get out of each module).
Even with that being said, you still might not be certain how to turn this into a completed track. Now, each person will find a different pathway there, but seeing how Jan works – a bit like working with a studio mate – can often give you that “ah ha, I could actually learn from this” feeling.
Jan asked if he should do a full narrated look at his working method. Answer: aber ja.
By the way, of course this also means that by keeping this focused, adapting the release to a live gig is far easier. You’ll be able to catch main(void) live at Griessmuhle, alongside some very special DJ friends like DJ Pete, Alinka, and Qzen, plus some great names, in late October in Berlin.
The Sensel Morph’s specialized touch control lets you apply both multi-touch position and force (how hard you press). Some new and recent videos make it clear how to customize that for your different tools.
The Morph isn’t alone in the force + multi-touch position game. The growth of MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) depends on multiple controllers. But the Morph tool is uniquely adaptable, thanks to specialized overlays that let it adopt different layouts. So, as I’ve written before, you can swap between a musical control setup for a live show (say, with the Buchla Thunder overlay), and a different overlay for video editing (and fire up Premiere or Final Cut), and so on.
Peter Nyboer from Sensel is a perfect person to explain all this. Now we get to see his full presentation from Perfect Circuit in LA, right in the comfort of our own home. (The magic of the Internet – behold! It’s like we can be everywhere at once, instantly! Or something.)
Here’s his full talk on the overlays and how the customization software works – that last one being a big point, I know:
If you’re looking for a standalone control device, this isn’t it – it’s really more about being lightweight. But I do find the nice thing about the Morph is that it’s small enough you can put it in your backpack and forget about it – even more so than the iPad, and with greater accuracy and force sensing that the iPad lacks.
Sensel have also been busy with additional tutorials on how to work with the Morph. Bitwig Studio gets interesting because of its native MPE support – and there are custom control surface scripts there. (Bitwig seems well-suited to just this sort of tinkerer application.)
You don’t even need to buy a Bitwig Studio license to get started – there’s an included Studio 8-Track license included with the Morph.
It’s really the Buchla overlay that puts things over the top for me. Buchla himself had it right – this diagonal layout just ideally fits under the hand, especially for something performative.
And yeah, here’s the Buchla looking right at home with a modular setup – just as this controller was intended:
Before modulars became a product, some of the first electronic synthesis experiments made use of test equipment – gear intended to make sound, but not necessarily musically. And now that approach is making a comeback.
Hainbach, the Berlin-based experimental artist, has been helping this time-tested approach to sound reach new audiences.
I actually have never seen a complete, satisfying explanation of the relationship of abstract synthesis, as developed by engineers and composers, to test gear. Maybe it’s not even possible to separate the two. But suffice to say, early in the development of synthesis, you could pick up a piece of gear intended for calibration and testing of telecommunications and audio systems, and use it to make noise.
Why the heck would you do that now, given the availability of so many options for synthesis? Well, for one – until folks like Hainbach and me make a bunch of people search the used market – a lot of this gear is simply being scrapped. Since it’s heavy and bulky, it ranges from cheap to “if you get this out of my garage, you can have it” pricing. And the sound quality of a lot of it is also exceptional. Sold to big industry back in a time when slicing prices of this sort of equipment wasn’t essential, a lot of it feels and sounds great. And just like any other sound design or composition exercise that begins with finding something unexpected, the strange wonderfulness of these devices can inspire.
I got a chance to play a few days with the Waveform Research Centre in Rotterdam’s WORM, a strange and wild collection of these orphaned devices lovingly curated by Dennis Verschoor. And I got sounds unlike anything I was used to. It wasn’t just the devices and their lovely dials that made that possible – it was also the unique approach required when the normal envelope generators and such aren’t available. Human creativity does tend to respond well to obstacles.
Whether or not you go that route, it is worth delving into the history and possibilities – and Hainbach’s video is a great start. It might at the very least change how you approach your next Reaktor patch, SuperCollider code, synth preset, or Eurorack rig.
DP10 for Mac and Windows, unveiled this spring, brought breakthrough features to the long-standing favorite DAW called Digital Performer. So now it’s time to dig in and start using the new stuff.
DP has never been short on updates, but some of them certainly felt iterative. And the software had to make the jump from Mac to Windows, which initially got tricky with Windows’ archaic high-density display support and left the screen hard to see.
DP10 is interesting because it brings some genuinely new ideas. There’s a Clip View that looks an awful lot like Ableton’s Session View, but with some new twists – and in a more traditional DAW, with stuff like proper video and cue support which Live so sorely lacks. There are more ways to manipulate audio and pitch without jumping into a plug-in. There’s a substantially beefed-up waveform editor. If you missed it before, I covered this when it debuted in February:
Or watch Sound on Sound‘s breakdown of the upgrade:
I’m a great fan of written tutorials, but some of this stuff really does benefit from a visual aid. So let’s get started. As it happens, while it’s a bit hidden, you can now download a 30-day demo – enough time to try finishing a project in DP and see if you like it. They’ve got a US$395 upgrade from competing products, so DP fits nicely in a mid-range price point when some competing options have crept up to a grand or more. (Cough, you know who you are.)
First, Thomas Foster will hold your hand and walk you through a total-beginner walkthrough of how to get started with DP10. And unlike MOTU’s own videos, this one is also oriented toward in-the-box electronic production – so it’ll be friendly to a lot of the sorts who read this site.
From the absolute beginning, here’s a look at actually creating something, using the Model12 and the BassLine instruments:
(If you want to get more advanced with BassLine, check the MOTU videos below.)
And also at the 101-level, importing audio and applying audio effects to vocals:
VCA Faders are one of the more unique new features – here’s a walkthrough focused on that:
Lastly, round about March MOTU posted a huge trove of demos and tutorials from seminars at NAMM. It’s maybe doubly interesting for including some industry heavyweights – Family Guy composer Walter Murphy, LA producer/composer David Das, Mike McKnight who programs and plays keyboards for Roger Waters, music tech legend Craig Anderton, and more.
It’s easier to navigate what’s available from MOTU’s blog than in the distracting maze that is YouTube, so have a look here:
Ableton Live 10.1 is here, a free update to Live 10.1 with some new devices, streamlined automation and editing, and new sound features. So what should dig into after the download? Here’s a place to start.
There’s no surprise reveal here since 10.1 has been in public beta and was announced in the winter. Here’s the full run-down of what’s in the release from February (still accurate):
I’ve been working with the beta for some time, to the point of not wanting to go back even to 10.0 (or even getting a bit confused when switching to a friend’s machine that didn’t have 10.1).
So let’s skip ahead to stuff you should check out right away when you download:
Refresh a track in Arrangement View
I will shortly do a separate story just on getting around Arrangement View quickly, but — there’s a lot of fun to be had. (Yes, fun, not just screaming at the screen as you painstakingly move envelopes around.)
Ableton have accordingly updated their Arrangement View tutorials:
(Video is actually a terrible medium for shortcuts, but more on those soon.)
Here are some quick things to try:
Resize the Arrangement Overview (that’s the bit at the top of Arrangement View)
Draw some shapes! Right click, pick some shapes, and you can draw in envelopes. Try this actually two ways: first, select some time and draw in shapes. Next, deselect time, and try drawing with different grid values – you’ll get different corresponding quantization.
Get at fades directly. Press the F key.
Clean up envelopes. Right click on a time selection and choose Simplify Envelope.
Stretch and scale! Select some time in automation, and you’ll see handles so you can move both horizontally (amount/scale) and vertically (in time).
Enter some specific values. Right click, choose Edit value, type in a number, and hit enter.
There’s a lot more. But all of this is an opportunity to duplicate one of your projects and give it a refresh by going nuts with some modulation because – why not.
You know, conventional wisdom says, don’t mess with your existing tracks too much. The hell with that. If I were a painter, I would definitely be the kind constantly scraping away and painting over canvases. You can always save a backup. Sometimes it’s fun to mess around and take something somewhere else entirely.
Go ahead and freeze whatever you want! Track has a sidechain? It’ll freeze. It’ll even still be a source for other sidechains. (There are actually a bunch of things that had to happen for this to work – check Arrangement Editing in release notes if you’re curious. But the beauty is you don’t really have to think about it.)
Here’s a new explanation of how it works:
Try your own wavetables
User wavetables make the Live 10 Wavetable synth far more interesting.
Like arrangement, this probably deserves it’s own story, but here’s a place to get started:
And for extra help exploiting that feature, there are some useful utilities that will assist you in creating wavetables:
While you’re in there, Ableton quietly added a very powerful randomization feature inside Wavetable for glitching out still more:
Added a new “Rand” modulation source to Wavetable’s MIDI tab, which generates a random value when a note starts.
Pinch and zoom
Trackpads and touchscreens (most of them, anyway) now support pinch gestures in Arrangement View, so try that out. It works for me both on a Razer and (of course) Apple laptop; lots of other hardware will work, too. It’s a little thing, but zooming is a big part of getting around an arrangement.
Try Channel EQ as a creative tool or live
There are already a lot of EQs out there. The Channel EQ however has some draw as a potential equivalent for live PA / experimental sets of what the EQ Three has been for DJ sets.
Stop futzing around with sends when you export stems
Okay, see if this is familiar:
You output stems – say for a remix artist or to mix in a different tool – and suddenly everything sounds completely differently than you expected because you used sends and returns and/or master effects.
That’s no longer an issue in 10.1, as there’s now a new export option that addresses this.
So, time to go make some stems, right?
Make some new sounds with Delay
Okay, Delay at first glance may seem like a step backward from the excitement of Space Echo-ish Echo in Live 10. Isn’t it just a combination of Simple Delay and Ping Pong Delay into one Device?
Well, it is that, but it also has an LFO built in that can modulate both delay time and filter frequency.
These modes were there before, but you now surface Repitch, Fade, and Jump modes as buttons.
So put all of this together, and the combination of things that were there that you didn’t notice, with new things that are simple but very powerful, all together in one unit becomes very powerful indeed.
That is, if you’re modulating something like delay time, then changing between Repitch, Fade, and Jump actually gives you a lot of different sonic possibilities. And yes, this is the sort of thing people with modular rigs like to do with wires but… if you’re a Live 10 owner, it’ll cost you nothing to check out right now.
Specifically, maxforcats pointed us to some cool granular-ish sounds when you choose Fade mode and start modulating delay time.
And keep using Echo. The big challenge with an effect like Echo is balancing loudness. As it happens, there’s a little right-click option that solves this for you in Echo:
In the Echo device, the Dry/Wet knob now features a context menu to switch to “Equal-Loudness”. When enabled, a 50/50 mix will sound equally loud for most signals, instead of being attenuated. In the Delay device, the maximum delay time offset is now consistent with the Simple Delay and Ping Pong Delay devices.
Discover Simpler, again
Simpler is weirdly a lot of the time a reason to use Ableton Live for its absurd combination of directness and power – in contrast to mostly overcomplicated software (and harwdare, for that matter).
Now you can mess around with volume envelopes (even synced ones) and loop time, previously only in Sampler – for both powerful sound design and beat-synced ideas:
Added a Loop Mode chooser, Loop Time slider and Beat Sync/Rate slider to the Volume Envelope in Simpler’s Classic Playback Mode. Previously, these controls were exclusively available in Sampler.
Oh, and go map some macros
You’d probably easily miss this, too – it means that now mapping macros works the way you’d expect, in fewer steps:
When mapping a parameter to an empty macro, the macro assumes the full range of the target parameter, and will be set to the current value of the target parameter.
— and while using mice for everything is no fun, macros are also a great intermediary between what you’re doing onscreen and twisting knobs on controller hardware (Push, certainly, but lots of other gear, too).
Speaking of which, that nice compact NI keyboard controller works thanks to this update, too, making it an ideal thing to throw in your bag with a laptop for a mobile Ableton Live work rig.
Max 8 – and by extension the latest Max for Live – offers some serious powers to build your own sonic and visual stuff. So let’s tune in some videos to learn more.
The major revolution in Max 8 – and a reason to look again at Max even if you’ve lapsed for some years – is really MC. It’s “multichannel,” so it has significance in things like multichannel speaker arrays and spatial audio. But even that doesn’t do it justice. By transforming the architecture of how Max treats multiple, well, things, you get a freedom in sketching new sonic and instrumental ideas that’s unprecedented in almost any environment. (SuperCollider’s bus and instance system is capable of some feats, for example, but it isn’t as broad or intuitive as this.)
The best way to have a look at that is via a video from Ableton Loop, where the creators of the tech talk through how it works and why it’s significant.
In this presentation, Cycling ’74’s CEO and founder David Zicarelli and Content Specialist Tom Hall introduce us to MC – a new multi-channel audio programming system in Max 8.
MC unlocks immense sonic complexity with simple patching. David and Tom demonstrate techniques for generating rich and interesting soundscapes that they discovered during MC’s development. The video presentation touches on the psychoacoustics behind our recognition of multiple sources in an audio stream, and demonstrates how to use these insights in both musical and sound design work.
The patches aren’t all ready for download (hmm, some cleanup work being done?), but watch this space.
If that’s got you in the learning mood, there are now a number of great video tutorials up for Max 8 to get you started. (That said, I also recommend the newly expanded documentation in Max 8 for more at-your-own-pace learning, though this is nice for some feature highlights.)
dude837 has an aptly-titled “delicious” tutorial series covering both musical and visual techniques – and the dude abides, skipping directly to the coolest sound stuff and best eye candy.
Yes to all of these:
There’s a more step-by-step set of tutorials by dearjohnreed (including the basics of installation, so really hand-holding from step one):
Suffice to say that also could mean some interesting creations running inside Ableton Live.
It’s not a tutorial, but on the visual side, Vizzie is also a major breakthrough in the software:
That’s a lot of looking at screens, so let’s close out with some musical inspiration – and a reminder of why doing this learning can pay off later. Here’s Second Woman, favorite of mine, at LA’s excellent Bl__K Noise series:
In the original modular synth era, your only way to capture ideas was to record to tape. But that same approach can be liberating even in the digital age – and it’s a perfect match for the open VCV Rack software modular platform.
Competing modular environments like Reaktor, Softube Modular, and Cherry Audio Voltage Modular all run well as plug-ins. That functionality is coming soon to a VCV Rack update, too – see my recent write-up on that. In the meanwhile, VCV Rack is already capable of routing audio into a DAW or multitrack recorder – via the existing (though soon-to-be-deprecated) VST Bridge, or via inter-app routing schemes on each OS, including JACK.
Those are all good solutions, so why would you bother with a module inside the rack?
Well, for one, there’s workflow. There’s something nice about being able to just keep this record module handy and grab a weird sound or nice groove at will, without having to shift to another tool.
Two, the big ongoing disadvantage of software modular is that it’s still pretty CPU intensive – sometimes unpredictably so. Running Rack standalone means you don’t have to worry about overhead from the host, or its audio driver settings, or anything like that.
Big thanks to chaircrusher for this tip and some other ones that informed this article – do go check his music.
Type “recorder” into the search box for modules, and you’ll see different options options from NYSTHI – current at least as of this writing.
2 Channel MasterRecorder is a simple stereo recorder.
2 Channel MasterReocorder 2 adds various features: monitoring outs, autosave, a compressor, and “stereo massaging.”
Multitrack Recorder is an multitrack recorder with 4- or 8-channel modes.
The multitrack is the one I use the most. It allows you to create stems you can then mix in another host, or turn into samples (or, say, load onto a drum machine or the like), making this a great sound design tool and sound starter.
This is creatively liberating for the same reason it’s actually fun to have a multitrack tape recorder in the same studio as a modular, speaking of vintage gear. You can muck about with knobs, find something magical, and record it – and then not worry about going on to do something else later.
The AS mixer, routed into NYSTHI’s multitrack recorder.
Set up your mix. The free included Fundamental modules in Rack will cover the basics, but I would also go download Alfredo Santamaria’s excellent selection , the AS modules, also in the Plugin Manager, and also free. Alfredo has created friendly, easy-to-use 2-, 4-, and 8-channel mixers that pair perfectly with the NYSTHI recorders.
Add the mixer, route your various parts, set level (maybe with some temporary panning), and route the output of the mixer to the Audio device for monitoring. Then use the ‘O’ row to get a post-fader output with the level.
(Alternatively, if you need extra features like sends, there’s the mscHack mixer, though it’s more complex and less attractive.)
Prep that signal. You might also consider a DC Offset and Compressor between your raw sources and the recording. (Thanks to Jim Aikin for that tip.)
Configure the recorder. Right-click on the recorder for an option to set 24-bit audio if you want more headroom, or to pre-select a destination. Set 4- or 8-track mode with the switch. Set CHOOSE FILE if you want to manually select where to record.
There are trigger ins and outs, too, so apart from just pressing the START and STOP buttons, you can either trigger a sequencer or clock directly from the recorder, or visa versa.
Record away! And go to town… when you’re done, you’ll get a stereo WAV file, or a 4- or 8-track WAV file. Yes, that’s one file with all the tracks. So about that…
Splitting up the multitrack file
This module produces a single, multichannel WAV file. Some software will know what to do with that. Reaper, for instance, has excellent multichannel support throughout, so you can just drag and drop into it. Adobe’s Audition CS also opens these files, but it can’t quickly export all the stems.
Software like Ableton Live, meanwhile, will just throw up an error if you try to open the file. (Bad Ableton! No!)
It’s useful to have individual stems anyway. ffmpeg is an insanely powerful cross-platform tool capable of doing all kinds of things with media. It’s completely free and open source, it runs on every platform, and it’s fast and deep. (It converts! It streams! It records!)
Installing is easier than it used to be, thanks to a cleaned-up site and pre-built binaries for Mac and Windows (plus of course the usual easy Linux installs):
That’s worth keeping around, too, since it can also mix and monitor your output. (No Linux version, though.)
Bonus tutorial here – the other thing apart from recording you’ll obviously want with VCV Rack is some hands-on control. Here’s a nice tutorial this week on working with BeatStep Pro from Arturia (also a favorite in the hardware modular world):
I really like this way of working, in that it lets you focus on the modular environment instead of juggling tools. I actually hope we’ll see a Fundamental module for the task in the future. Rack’s modular ecosystem changes fast, so if you find other useful recorders, let us know.