How To Use Ableton Live Pro – An Ultimate Guide (2021)


Ableton Live 10 is one of the most popular digital audio workstations on the market, especially for the production of electronic dance music. Over the years, it has developed a reputation for being easy to use and enabling efficiency in performing tedious tasks like editing. In this guide to Ableton Live 10, we will look at some of these features and how to make the most of them to produce music.

Instead of simply talking about what each button and slider does, this guide will talk about Ableton Live 10 in the context of producing a song. The topics we’ll cover are:

  • Ableton Live’s user interface
  • Synthesis, sampling and sound design
  • Working with MIDI and audio
  • Audio effects

User Interface

Live’s user interface is known for its simplicity in design. There are no “separate” windows other than Preferences and the Save and Open dialog boxes, ensuring that your experience is as tidy as possible. Let’s start with the Session View, where a lot of the magic happens!

Session View

When you open Live for the first time, you should see something like this:


A blank Live Set with Session View on display

This is called the Session View and is at the heart of what makes Ableton Live so popular. It is designed for you to “jam” or improvise with loops to help your creativity flow in a more natural and performance oriented way. To the left of the Session View is the Browser panel. This is where you will find everything you need to make music. At the top of the Browser, you’ll find a search box, where you can type in relevant keywords like “drums” or “bass”. The Browser will then apply a filter to show only those results.

If you click on Clips, Samples or Packs on the left hand column of the Browser, you will find samples (audio files) that you can drag into the Session View and play around with. If these samples are loops, Live will automatically loop them indefinitely until you decide to stop playback. Below is an example of a live set in Session View.


The stop buttons on empty slots will stop playback for that channel but not for the whole project

When you load a clip into a channel in the Session View, each clip gets its own dedicated play button. In the image above, the clips in the first four channels are playing at the same time. However, each channel can only have one clip playing at any given time. Hence, it’s a good idea to have similar clips on a single channel – drum clips on one channel, bass clips on another channel, etc.

When you trigger another clip in the same channel, Live applies a feature called “global quantization,” which ensures that the timing of the clips remains synchronised with the project tempo. By default, global quantization is set to 1 bar. This means that when you trigger a second clip on a channel during playback, Live will wait for the next bar to finish before switching to the clip you triggered.

Arrangement View

Live’s Arrangement View is the traditional music production environment with the channels arranged horizontally along a timeline. While the Session View is designed for live performance and jamming with your ideas, the Arrangement View is where you will edit and finalise your tunes before exporting them.


The ruler at the top of Arrangement View shows time in musical subdivisions and can be used to zoom in or out by clicking and dragging up or down

The channels in the Arrangement and Session Views are the same but if you have clips in both views, you will only be able to hear them from one or the other. If you want to switch from Session to Arrangement, you will see an orange “Back to Arrangement” button in the top right area of the Arrangement View, above the channels.

Device/Clip View

Below the Session/Arrangement View panel, we have another panel that has two views – the Device View and the Clip View. These views give a detailed view of what’s going on in a selected channel. The Device View shows you what devices or plugins (instruments, audio effects, MIDI effects or VST plugins) are loaded into the selected track and the Clip View shows you what is going on within an audio or MIDI clip.


An audio clip in Clip View


A MIDI clip in Clip View

To switch from one to the other, hit Shift + Tab.

Synthesis, Sampling, and Sound Design in Ableton

In this section, we’re going to take a look at some of the devices that come with Ableton Live 10 Suite and how we can use them to design our own sounds. In terms of electronic music production, there are two kinds of instruments we can use to design our sounds – synthesizers and samplers. Before we get into the devices themselves, we need to first know the concepts of synthesis and sampling.

Synthesis 101

Synthesis is the technique of creating sounds from basic waveforms. There are different kinds of synthesizers but they all have the same underlying architecture. An oscillator generates a waveform, a filter affects the harmonic content of the waveform and an amplifier sends this signal to the speakers. There are also the modulators, which affect the signal in different ways before it reaches the output.


Under the hood of a synthesizer

As stated above, there are different kinds of synthesizers but in this article, we will look at three popular ones that are available in Ableton Live 10 Suite:

  • Subtractive Synthesis
  • Frequency Modulation
  • Wavetable Synthesis

Subtractive Synthesis – “Analog”

Subtractive synthesis is a technique in which a basic waveform is passed through a filter, which subtracts some of the harmonic content to “shape” the sound. Hence the name subtractive synthesis. Ableton Live’s subtractive synthesizer is called “Analog” and is found in the Instruments folder in the Browser. This folder contains all the built-in instrument plugins or software synths.


The Analog device

Analog looks like there is a lot going on but we can spot the underlying architecture quite easily. On the left are the two oscillators, labelled Osc1 and Osc2. To the right of these are the two filters, labelled Fil1 and Fil2. To the right of these are the two amplifiers, labelled Amp1 and Amp2. These three modules represent the path of the audio signal itself.

To the right of the amplifiers are the two Low Frequency Oscillators (LFOs). An LFO is one of the two types of modulators that are present in most synthesizers. The other is the ADSR envelope. ADSR stands for Attack Decay Sustain Release and these envelopes are used to create the articulation of the sound.


The Amplitude Envelope in Analog

Clicking on a module will show you some more details about that module in the central display. In the image above, the Amp module is selected and what we see in the middle are some controls for the amplitude including the amplitude envelope. The curved on the left is a visual representation of the envelope and the top row of values on the right are the values of the four points of the envelope.

Attack represents the amount of time a sound will take to reach full amplitude once a key has been pressed. Decay represents the amount of time the amplitude will take to come back down to the Sustain level, which is where the amplitude will remain as long as the key is pressed. Release represents the amount of time the sound will take to fade to silence once the key has been released.

Analog has similar envelopes for the filters and the pitch of the oscillators. These are called the filter envelopes and pitch envelopes respectively. The filter envelope modulates the cutoff frequency of the filter while the pitch envelope modulates the pitch of the waveform. Experimenting with these envelopes will introduce you to a range of articulations that is seemingly endless!

Frequency Modulation – “Operator”

The concept of Frequency Modulation refers to the modulation of the frequency of a waveform (pitch). If you apply an LFO to the pitch of a waveform, you would be able to hear the pitch “wobbling” up and down. If you increase the rate of the LFO to a value that matches the frequency of the waveform, you would cease to hear the pitch wobbling because it is too fast to register. Instead what you would hear is the introduction of new harmonics. This is Frequency Modulation in a nutshell.


The Operator device

Ableton Live 10’s FM synth is called Operator. On the left are four oscillators (called “operators” in FM synths) labelled A-D. On the right are the LFO, filter, pitch envelope and global controls. And in the middle is a display that shows the selected module in greater detail.

In an FM synth, the frequency modulation is done by the operators themselves because an LFO can’t modulate at such high rates. In this instance, you can see the FM routing in the global module of Operator. Operators A-C are generating audio signals and operator D is modulating their frequencies. Operators A-C are called “carriers” and D is called a “modulator.”

To achieve frequency modulation, you would need to turn up the level of D. This is the equivalent of turning up the amount on an LFO. As you turn the level up, you will hear the FM effect intensify. The Coarse and Fine knobs to the left of the Level knob are there to change the rate of the FM. In the case of carriers, these knobs will change the pitch.

Wavetable Synthesis – “Wavetable”

Wavetable synthesis is identical to subtractive synthesis, except that the oscillators contain multiple waveforms rather than just one. These waveforms can be cycled through during playback using a knob or a slider, giving you tons of variations right off the bat!


The Wavetable device

Ableton Live’s wavetable synth (called Wavetable) is the most intuitive synth in its arsenal. The first module on the left contains two oscillators, the central module contains two filters and the third module on the right contains the modulation controls. Everything in this synth is visually displayed and modulated parameters move along to their modulations so you can see exactly what is happening in your synth patch.

The true power of this synth is in the oscillators. If you look at the top left corner of the oscillator module, you’ll see two dropdown menus. These menus contain the different wavetables that you can use in the synth. The first menu contains folders and the second menu contains the wavetables themselves.

To the right of the wavetable image is the wavetable position slider. This can be moved manually or automated to create variations in your sound over time. At the bottom left is another dropdown menu, which contains some effects that you can apply to the entire wavetable.

Sampling 101

Sampling is a technique that involves the use of audio that has already been created. This could be old songs or movies, or it could be from sample packs. Whatever the case may be, when you use audio files in your project, you are sampling.

In Ableton Live 10, you can sample in two ways. You can drag samples into an audio track and edit them in the Arrangement and Clip Views. Or you can load them into one of Live’s sampling instruments – Simpler or Sampler.

A sampler is basically a synthesizer without an oscillator. Instead of an oscillator, it has a place where you can load a sample and this sample becomes the waveform in the synth. Everything else is pretty much identical to what you’d find in a synth – filters, modulators, global controls, etc.

Simpler

As the name suggests, Simpler is Live’s basic sampling instrument.


The Simpler device

When you load a Simpler onto a MIDI channel, you will see a blank space in the middle of the device that says “Drop Sample Here.” Once you drag and drop a sample into the space, it will load in Simpler as in the image above. Now you can trigger the sample using your keyboard. The note C3 will play the sample at its original pitch.

Directly below the waveform of the sample are some controls that you can use to alter how the sample will be triggered and how it will play. You can change the start point and create a loop. You can have it loop forwards, backwards or both. And you can loop a very small section of it to create a waveform out of any sample!

What makes Simpler unique is Slice Mode. On the left, you’ll see three folder tabs arranged vertically; clicking the bottom one will put Simpler in Slice Mode. In this mode, Simpler will detect “transients” or places where an audio event starts, and slice the audio at those places. This is particularly useful in creating drum kits out of drum loops at the click of a button!


The Simpler device in Slice Mode

Sampler

Live’s more advanced sampling instrument is called Sampler. While it does not have a Slice Mode, it does offer many other capabilities that Simpler does not.


The Sampler device

When you load a Sampler into a MIDI track, you will see an empty sample tab, which you need to fill with a sample. Once you do so, the sample tab works very similarly to Simpler. What sets Sampler apart are the Zone tab, the Pitch/Osc tab and the Modulation tab.

Zone

Sampler’s Zone tab has the capability to store multiple samples in order to create a multisample instrument. The reason this is useful is that when you load a sample and play a note that is significantly far from C3, you will get a heavily altered version, which differs in more than just pitch. Samplers play samples faster when pitched up and slower when pitched down and as you get further away from C3, you will also start to hear changes in timbre. To avoid this, it’s preferable to work with multisample instruments.


The zone editor

When you click on the Zone tab, you will see the Zone Editor pop up above the Sampler device. As you can see in this image, there are seven samples loaded into the Sampler, each with its own key range. From the sample names, you can see that each one has a different root note. Arranging the zones around each of these root notes will give you the cleanest multisample instrument that sounds consistent throughout the keyboard.

Pitch/Osc

This tab contains an FM/AM oscillator. From the section on Operator, we know that FM modulates the pitch of a waveform at the same rate as the pitch of the note being played. Similarly AM, which stands for Amplitude Modulation, does the same thing, but to the amplitude of the signal instead of the pitch. Again, the rate is too high for us to hear the volume wobble up and down but it does add an interesting texture.


The Pitch/Osc tab

Modulation

The modulation tab has three LFO’s that work just like they do in other synths along with an auxiliary envelope that can be assigned to a bunch of parameters on the device.


The Modulation tab

This envelope can be assigned to up to 2 different parameters that can be selected from the two dropdown menus at the bottom left. This envelope, when applied to the loop parameters in the Sample tab, can lead to some very interesting results!

Working with MIDI and Audio

So far, we’ve looked at sound design using virtual instruments. In this section, we’ll look at how MIDI and audio work to generate music. In Live there are three kinds of channels – MIDI, audio and return channels. These channels are what connect the instruments to the master channel and subsequently the final output.

Working with MIDI

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a standard protocol that is used to trigger digital instruments. When a MIDI note is triggered, it sends the following information to a virtual instrument:

  • Note value – the note on the keyboard (C3, F#2, E1, etc.)
  • Note length – the duration between the start of the note and the end
  • Velocity – the force with which the note was triggered

When a note is triggered, the instrument’s envelopes and LFO’s are also triggered. In most cases, modulators are retriggered with every new note but some synths have the option to turn this off so that the modulations continue into overlapping notes.

There are two ways to work with MIDI – you can record your performance or draw the notes.

Recording MIDI

Whether you’re recording MIDI or audio, you need to first “arm” the relevant channel for recording. You can do this by activating the record arm button in the mixer adjacent to the solo button.


Record arm buttons in Arrangement View and Session View (MIDI tracks’ record arm buttons have a musical note in a circle, audio tracks’ buttons have a solid circle)

When you have armed a MIDI track, you can hit the record button up in the transport section and begin playing your keyboard.

Editing MIDI

If you are not a keyboard player, you have the option of drawing in MIDI notes by hand. To do this, you need to create a MIDI clip – in the Session View, double click on one of the slots in the MIDI channel; in the Arrangement View highlight a section in a MIDI channel (by clicking and dragging horizontally), right click on the selection and click “Insert MIDI Clip.”


Clip view of a MIDI clip

When you create a MIDI clip, you will see a grid similar to the one in the Arrangement View with the rows representing the notes of the keyboard. Double clicking on the grid will create a MIDI note in the nearest row and column. You can drag these notes around to experiment with different melodies and harmonies, and you can drag out the ends of the notes to change the lengths.

The vertical lines below each note represent the velocity of the note. Velocity is how hard a key is pressed during a performance. This usually means that the higher the velocity, the higher the volume and vice versa, but in many synths you can map the velocity to modulate many parameters and you can even reverse the effect it has on volume!

Working with Audio

Recording audio works in pretty much the same way as it does with MIDI – arm an audio track and begin your performance. However, you’ll have to make sure your inputs are configured to accept your instrument or mic.

To record audio, you’ll need an audio interface with at least one input. Then you need to make sure that this input is selected in the audio channel before you begin recording. Once you’ve done this, you are ready to record an audio performance!


The I/O section of the mixer in the Session View

In the image above, the first two channels are set up to record audio from the first two inputs of the audio interface that is set up in Live. The Monitor is set to “In” so that the recording output can be heard while the recording is happening.

Editing Audio

Audio editing in the Arrangement View is designed to be as smooth and efficient as possible.

  • You can move and resize clips the same way you can do so to MIDI notes in a MIDI clip.
  • You can apply fades to the start and end of an audio clip as well as crossfades to adjacent clips.
  • If you select a region in an audio clip, there are a few basic shortcuts that you can use to speed up your editing process:
    – Cmd/Ctrl C = Copy
    – Cmd/Ctrl V = Paste
    – Cmd/Ctrl X = Cut
    – Cmd/Ctrl D = Duplicate
    – Cmd/Ctrl E = Split
    – Cmd/Ctrl Z = Undo
    – Cmd Shift Z or Ctrl Y = Redo
    – Cmd/Ctrl J = Consolidate

Audio and MIDI Effects

Live comes equipped with an arsenal of audio effects that do everything from enhance to completely mangle your sounds. In this section, we will look at the most used effects and how they work.

Compressor and Glue Compressor

Compression is a very important part of the mixing and mastering process for most genres of music. It is a technique that reduces the dynamic range of a piece of audio so that it sits better in a mix. Dynamic range is the difference in level between the loudest and softest parts of a piece of audio. So, for example, the dynamic range of a drum loop might be the difference in level between the loudest snare drum and the softest hi hat.


Compression of a drum loop

The two compressors that come with Live are known as downward compressors because compression is achieved by bringing a threshold value downwards onto an incoming audio signal. When the signal crosses this threshold value, the compressor will begin to apply a gain reduction based on your ratio, attack and release settings. So in the above example of the drum loop, only the loudest drum hits will experience a gain reduction while the softest ones will pass through the compressor unaffected.

Equalizers

Live comes with three equalisers to shape the tonal qualities of your sound – EQ Three, Channel EQ and EQ Eight. In this article, we will mainly look at EQ Eight but the concepts covered here will work for most EQ plugins.


The EQ Eight device

The EQ Eight has eight parametric filters that can be used to change a sound’s timbre. The row of buttons at the bottom of the plugin are on/off switches for each of the filters. The dropdown menus above these buttons offer the different filter options. Once you turn a filter on, it is as easy as selecting the filter type and then clicking and dragging the filter point on the spectral graph to where you want to place it.

Distortion

Live has several distortion plugins that can be used to either completely distort a sound or add a little warmth.

Amp

This effect emulates the sound of classic guitar amplifiers that were popular in the 1970s.

Saturator

While Amp is a more “in your face” effect, Saturator is more subtle. It’s waveshaping capability is great for adding some missing warmth, dirt or punch to dull sound.

Overdrive

This effect is based on the designs of classic pedal devices that are popular among rock guitarists. It can be used as a heavy distortion or as a mixing tool that adds some air to your sound.

Reverb and Delay

These effects are used to add “space” to a sound. They work by taking an input signal and delaying it by a time set by you. When you mix the delayed signal with the original signal, you get a classic echo effect that can be used to remove the “dryness” from a synth sound.

Live 10 has one stock reverb and a few delay plugins.

Reverb

This plugin is used to give a dry synth sound a “room” sound – the feeling that the synth was recorded in a room, making it sound more natural.

The controls on the left side of the device affect the early reflections while the controls on the right affect the tail of the sound. These controls help shape the size and tone of the reverb.

Echo

The Echo device is a modulation delay effect that lets you set the delay time on two independent delay lines, while giving you control over envelope and filter modulation.

You can choose between three modes – stereo, ping pong and mid/side. In the first two modes, you can set different delay times for the left and right channels using the knobs on the top left, but in mid/side mode, these knobs change to represent mid and side channels, meaning that one delay will occur in the middle while the other one will occur on the sides.

Mori B

I'm a music producer, a dj and a blogger.

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