Introducing… Ableton Live’s Challenge

The RPM challenge is over for another year, and my first experience of composing with Ableton Live has come to an end. So was this the beginning of a beautiful friendship, or a process of elimination?

Off To A Flying Start

I planned to document the process of creating the album via Twitter (the album itself ended up being called “Shadow Of A Sprout”). The first day went pretty much according to plan, and the development of the opening track (“Secret First Move”) can be traced through the tweets of February 1st.

As it turned out, the only differences between this first-day version and the version on the album are some extra compression and EQ, as well as some extensive editing to bring the track from over seven minutes to just over three.

Unfortunately, after day three my computer suffered a graphics card failure, which meant that Twittering was severely impeded. I was without my system for almost a week, and when I got it back again I had to use my studio partition – which I don’t connect to the Internet. So, the Twitter plan went out the window…

Try A Free Sample

Most of the samples used on this album are taken from Computer Music Magazine’s archives – as this was my first foray into sample-based production, I don’t have many other sample libraries to hand. The credit for the vocals on “Secret First Move” goes to Han, whose words were arranged to suit the beat and subsequently provided the title of the track.

Live Within Your Means

Ableton Live is a very cool program, no doubt about it. A lot of effort went into usability design, and it shows – even before you start using it. For example, when you activate your copy of the program, you have to enter a code – but if you copy the code from another source to the clipboard, it automatically enters it in Live, without you having to paste it in. A small touch, but the devil is in the details…
Live View
Live’s session view is probably its most unique feature, and certainly lends itself to live performance. When composing with Live, I found that I used the session view for auditioning clips and finding ones that worked together – essentially, creating scenes.

Once I had all the clips I needed for a particular track, I would then switch over to the arrange view and fit them into the timeline. On several tracks, I played some instrumental overdubs using either Ableton’s built-in Simpler/Operator or Kore 2.

Essential Live Features

Browsing through the Ableton Tutorials, I found plenty of great tips and tricks (I sampled one of the videos in the fourth track, “Harmonic Character”).

One great feature is ‘legato follow’, which automatically switches between clips in a particular track at predefined intervals. There’s an article on how to do this over at SOS. Basically, this is an easy way to add subtle (or not-so-subtle) variety to beats, without having to program the changes in the timeline.
Ableton Live Clips
Although it may be obvious to long-time users of Live, unlinking clips is another technique that I found indispensable. This allows you to define a clip as being, for example, four repetitions of the original sample, and you can apply different transformations to its instance on each bar.

So, you could have the first playback as normal, the second transposed by three semitones, the third at half-volume, and so on. Learn more about it here.

Live For The Future

I did enjoy using Live, and the album was thrown together without too much difficulty – it may not be a classic, but it’s done. I’ll be using Live at a gig for the first time in a couple of weeks, so that will be an interesting experience too, and certainly the program’s forte.

This post is getting on a bit, so I think I’ll leave the album itself for the next post, where I’ll put up links to the mp3s and provide a brief commentary on a track-by-track basis…


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