Your Complete Guide to Ableton

As a music producer, the chances are you’ve seen the name Ableton thrown around pretty much everywhere. In the music industry, Ableton is a household name and easily the audio company that’s currently pioneering the music industry.

If you’re looking to expand your producing opportunities, whether you own their leading software or any of their products or not, and want to learn the ins and outs of where Ableton comes from, what it does and how it can help you in your sonic ventures, then you’ve come to the right place.

Today, we’re going to dive into the very heart of what makes Ableton tick, as well as taking a detailed look into some of its leading products, so you know the raw power that millions of musical users around the world have discovered over the last two decades.

A Brief History of Ableton

The History of Ableton

Let’s rewind to when it all began. Ableton was first released way back in 2001 when it was titled Ableton Live 1, the title it still holds to this day, although it’s currently version 10 that’s available to users.

However, while the launch came at the turn of the century, the roots of the platform stretch far off into the early 90s. Here, developers and avid techno fans/producers Gerhard Behles and Robert Henke were based in Berlin, Germany, where the techno scene was rapidly gaining popularity.

Both developers studied computer programming at university where they became friends, as well as creating their own form of dub-techno under the alias Monolake. At the time, they were producing and performing their own music using their own written software, but it was messy at best.

Towards the late-90s, they teamed up with their other programming friend, Bernd Roggendorf, who helped them tidy up their code and bring all into one easy to use, highly-functional suite. Thus, Ableton Live 1 was born.

The software took off fast since it was now available to all kinds of musicians, artists, and producers, from renowned musicians to bedroom producers alike. Since it was based in Germany during the techno era, Ableton contributed massively to the roots of the EDM music scene.

As the software spread, there are even suggestions that the program was responsible for spreading festival culture across Europe thanks to the availability of dance music. Over the next decade, this would rapidly spread across the world.

Fast forward to the present day, and Ableton is changing the game with every release. The platform is more feature-rich than ever before and is easily the most powerful DAW available for Mac and Windows computers.

Its star-studded user list includes the likes of world-famous producers, including Nicky Romero, Calvin Harris, Deadmau5, Skrillex, Netsky, Disclosure and many more.

Why Use Ableton Live?

There are countless reasons as to why you would want Ableton Live in your own production inventory, so much so that it’s hard to know where to begin. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it’s possible to use Ableton Live for two main processes.

Firstly, you can create your tracks by using and creating samples, just as you would with any DAW program. However, what really sets the software apart, and as the name of the platform suggests, you can also use the software to play live sets.

This is all thanks to Ableton’s exclusive technology known as Stems. This technology can be rather complex (there’s a free tutorial here), but it’s simply where you have all the parts of your track, and you can play them live by grouping them together, enabling you to create custom sounds and a set that really brings the crowd to life. There are a ton of new possibilities to be had here.

Of course, Ableton Live is also one of the most compatible programs out there, and easily has the largest number of dedicated MIDI controllers you can find. You can basically plug anything into Ableton Live, and it will work, creating even more variation in what you’re able to create.

When we say that Ableton Live helps you to produce music and tracks like other software, which it does, it interestingly takes a different approach, forcing to rethink the way you go about producing your music, but once the technique is mastered, there is no limit to what you can create.

Many people find that there’s a ‘battle’ between whether musicians would want to use a platform like Reason over Ableton, or why they shouldn’t use another platform, such as Cubase or FL Studio. While Reason may be more effective if you’re using analog instruments when it comes to creating music with
digital sounds, no platform comes close to what Ableton has to offer.

What Does Ableton Have to Offer?

Okay, let’s really jump into the deep end of what the Ableton company is all about. Below, you’ll find a detailed description of some of the leading features that the platform has to offer, so you can see for yourself why it’s the most popular DAW application worldwide.

Don’t forget that Ableton doesn’t just produce their prestigious Live software, but also pride themselves on developing a ton of other audio-related products and services.

Ableton Push

The Ableton Push

If you’re interested in using a MIDI controller with your Ableton Live Suite, it doesn’t get much better than Ableton Push. This is a dedicated MIDI controller developed by the experts at the heart of Ableton and offers one of the best MIDI controller experiences out there.

With Push, you have absolutely everything you make the samples for your tracks, all at your fingertips.

You can create sounds from scratch using the dials located at the top, record samples directly into the device using the multiple integrated ports and create your beats using the incredible 64 touch-sensitive, velocity-sensitive back-lit pads.

All these features come together to give you an effortless experience where you’re not just clicking and playing around with samples to make your track; your song is playing through you.

Macro Racks

Next, we want to focus on the Rack feature that’s available inside the Ableton Live software and by far one of the most important ones you’ll want to be thinking about. These racks are used when you’re working with effects, software plug-ins and instruments within your work environment.

Racks are used in these areas to help you build potentially complex signal processors and dynamic sounds, as well as bringing all the important tools that you need during this task to make sure that everything’s within easy reach.

When you create a rack, there are multiple types to choose from, depending on whether your audio sample is coming from your MIDI controller, is an audio effect, an instrument or a drum sound. When your rack is loaded, you’ll then have access to the macro controls.

There are eight macro controls in total which cover everything from time delays and stereo widths, all the way through to feedback levels, reverb levels and even delay mods. However, what really sets this feature apart is the fact that you link racks together to create a chain.

You can add an infinite number of chains together, which can then be played simultaneously to create your track. Of course, this may sound complex, but it’s not once you’ve played with it. Think of it this way, imagine every one of the four available racks is its own physical device.

When you’re looking at it on your screen, each rack can be treated as an individual unit. This is just a highly effective way of managing them all together since this is what you would be doing with a physical device; except with these, you can have an infinite number.

Looper

The Looper feature is commonly overlooked when it comes to Ableton’s features, but once discovered, it will soon become your best friend. This plugin is typically used to help you create dynamic and unique ideas you may have on the spot, giving you access to quick tools to help you make your sounds quickly.

Of course, this feature is great regardless of whether you’re producing in your studio or performing a live set. In short, you can use a sample, or record a sample, such as a beat from your drumkit using an overhead mic, and then loop it.

You then add other sounds around this looped sound, building up your track piece by piece. Here’s a detailed analysis of how it works and how you can incorporate it into your own projects.

Frequency Shifter Device

You may be wondering, what even is a Frequency Shifter Device (FSD)? How will it help me when I’m producing my tracks? Well, you’re about to find out. The FSD is a relatively small function within the Ableton Live software that provides you with a very simple function.

It can be opened from your toolbar and contains a selection of knobs and dials that can help you to set the amount of frequency shift. There’s also a toggle button that can help you switch between pitch shifting and ring modulation. You can also spread the value of one channel, meaning as you put one channel up, another goes down.

There’s also a collection of LFO controls, six waveform shapes and a few other features that you’ll get to know through trial and error. However, all these features come together to provide with an easy control toolset for when you’re carrying out certain tasks.

These tasks include;
• Phasing and Chorus Effects
• Robotic Voices
• Tuning Your Drums
• Managing Frequency Shift Delays

In short, you’ll be managing the effects of your sounds. If you’re creating a phaser or chorus effect, in particular, this is the feature that you’ll want to use. The sound it creates is not unlike one you’d hear in a sci-fi setting, making it great for production purposes.

Here’s a quick tutorial if you wanted to know more on how to use the Frequency Shifter Device.

LK Live Controller

More and more audio platforms are turning towards implementation and cross-access to their software from mobile devices and tablets, and Ableton is no exception. Enter the LK Live Controller. If you’re not ready to invest in a piece of hardware like the Ableton Push, this is a great first step for you to take.

This powerful software can be installed onto any iOS or Android tablet or smartphone and comes with a range of different features that can help you maximize the level of control, and the possible features you have access to during production.

These features include;

Matrix

Matrix is easily the leading feature of the LK Live controller which enables you to implement your tablet or phone into your Ableton Live sessions. With the app, you’ll be able to launch scenes within your production (clearly labeled), as well as control certain areas of your workspace, including the volume, the pan, and dedicated controls for your loops, overdub, recording functions, Solo and more.

You can even control your other Live devices, such as your EQ and Compressor functions. Using the integrated piano roll, you can also edit and manipulate your MDI clips and samples. The interface is easy to use and adding another possible work environment to your Ableton session will only boost your creativity.

MIDI Pads

If you want to use your device as a MIDI controller, LK Live allows you to do this. Load up the feature, and you’ll have access to 16 MIDI pads in which you can add your own samples or sounds to each pad for beat creation.

You can send these notes to your device using any MIDI input that’s connected to your computer, and you even have velocity control, just like a physical MIDI controller!

MIDI Controller

The actual MIDI controller is slightly different to use the pad-bank setup. With the controller, you’ll be able to access four customizable control banks, complete with eight rotary knobs, as well as faders, toggles, and pads.

You can use all of the 128 controls on every MIDI or Live session workflow, select which MIDI input you want your sounds to come from, and clearly label everything, so you always know what you’re doing.

XY Pad

To add a whole other dimension of control to your device, the XY Pad may be better off being called the XYZ Pad. With this feature, you’ll be able to load up four banks of pads, each with their own XYZ axis.
Of course, this is compatible with both Live and MIDI modes.

Here you’ll be able to modulate your LFOs, control your attack, sustain and the release envelopes of your sounds, all of which is synchronized with the Tempo of your Ableton Live project.

Chorder

As a musician, you may already know the sounds you want to create, but you’re not musically minded in the sense that you know about chords or structures of chords, etc. However, that doesn’t matter when you’re using the Chorder function.

This section of the app holds a huge database of chords presets which you can simply tap on the chord you want to hear it and then select it to use in your project. The layout can be changed anytime depending on what works best for you; you can create your own custom chord structures and save them for future use!

Keyboard

As but not least, we have the Keyboard feature. This is perhaps one of the most used features of the LK Live Controller as it gives you the ability to, well, play the keyboard, all while connected to your Ableton Live session.

This is the ideal MIDI keyboard which you can use while you’re working on your projects, or while you’re out and about and have a spontaneous burst of inspiration, ensuring the ability to create music never leaves your side.

Creative Reverb Techniques

As a producer, whether you’re starting out or highly experienced, the chances are that you’ve heard of the Reverb effect. While you may typically apply your reverb effects after you have created your beats and sounds, but Ableton allows you to get much more creative than that.

In short, there are four main types of reverb effect that you’ll be able to create within Ableton. These are;

Side-Chain Reverb

This is a great effect to apply to your beats that can help you create a kind of ‘pumping effect.’ Of course, this is a powerful effect to add to your kick drum sounds. Here’s a tutorial.

Reverse Reverb

While a Reverse Reverb may be slightly more complex than other reverb techniques, it’s a good technique to know since you’ll never know when it will give your sounds that edge that you’re looking for.

Reversing your reverb once gives your sound a nice echoey feel, but then reversing your reversed sound again is ideal for creating build-ups and faded-in samples. Here’s a more detailed tutorial.

Gated Reverb

During the 80s, Gated Reverbs were extremely popular, but of course, that doesn’t mean that they might not be the effect you’re looking for today. Typically, these effects will be implemented to your percussion sounds, perhaps your snare drum sounds.

When you’ve applied a Gated Reverb, it will give your sound a much sharper end in the second part, like a ‘hiss’ sound which could even resemble a hi-hat. This effect helps to bring a bit more spark into your percussion sounds, as well as to make them sound less plain. Here’s a tutorial on how to do it.

Split Reverb

A split Reverb is perhaps the most time-consuming to produce (only just) but can also be one of the most effective. This is because you’ll take any sound and ‘split’ it into the low, mid and high bands, and then apply the reverb separately to each.

This is a great way to give you much more control over your reverb effects and how they affect your sounds. By splitting your sound up and then combining it back together, you can dramatically change your sound in a dynamic way. You can see how to use this feature in the Ableton manual.

OSCiLLOT and Ableton

It doesn’t matter what genre of music you’re producing; the chances are that synth sounds are going to be a part of it. When you’re going about creating these synth sounds, it’s important that you have the right tools for the job.

OSCiLLOT is one of those tools. This synth pack contains over 100 completely patchable modules, as well as dozens of pre-patched synths. There are also numerous effects that can be enjoyed; including all your favorites such as overdrive and distortion.

What OSCiLLOT prides itself on is the ability to add a seemingly infinite number of creative possibilities to your production process.

The layout of OSCiLLOT may not be like anything you’ve used in the past, so it might take some getting used to, but once you’ve mastered the basics, you’ll already be aware of the true power that this software holds.

Once you start connecting and editing your modules, you’ll soon notice that there are no limits whatsoever when it comes to the instruments, effects, and sounds that you can use with this plug-in.

Through practice and experimentation, you can continue to connect modules together which all come together to create your final sound.

Here’s a sample of the sort of thing you can produce.

Stem Mastering in Ableton Live

If you’re planning to use Ableton Live during your live performances, you’ll need to pay attention to Stem Mastering. While you may be used to mastering your stereo tracks, Stem mastering is a far more effective way to complete this process.

Instead of working with a singular stereo file, Stems allow you to work with multiple parts of your track individually, such as your kick, snare, synth, leads and so on.

This means you’ll have much more control over the way your track sounds since you’ll be mastering the individual parts before combining them into a complete track.

Here’s a quick overview of what you can expect.

Dub Machines

When you set about creating dub-styled sounds, the Dub Machines plugin is exactly what you’ll have been looking for. This pack actually contains two dub machines, known as Magnetic and Diffuse. Both machines are used to add leading effects to your sounds to give them that ‘dubby’ feel that you’ve been looking for.

Each machine comes with an extensive array of controls and deep analog sounds. The capabilities of these plugins are simply out of this world and the developers, Surreal Machines, have really outdone themselves.

While dub is at the core of these plugins, you can use them for all kinds of genre, including house, EDM, dance, hard dance and many more. Below you can see a great video that shows the ins and outs of how both plugins work together side by side and an idea of what you can create with them.

Integrating Hardware Instruments and Effects

Finally, we come to one of the essential features that you’ll be thinking about; integrating your hardware instruments and any effects, or FX, instruments, hardware, and controllers that you may already have in your setup or add in the future.

In short, Ableton Live is the most compatible DAW application currently available on today’s market. The software is powerful enough to manage several controllers at once and allows you to access them easily from within your workspace.

Many controllers today come with plug and play technology, but those needing drivers, or a bit of extra attention will guarantee to have extensive tutorials and help guides in the Ableton forums. You can even connect other audio equipment, such as players and turntables!

Add in your DMX lighting equipment, your DJ decks and mixer, and you’ll have a full audio setup ready for headlining your very own festival!

Ableton Live is compatible with both Mac and Windows computers, and here you’ll find an extensive guide on how to set up your computer and get your software working with all your equipment.

Summary

While this extensive guide covers some of the most dynamic features that Ableton, as a company, has to offer, it only really scratches the surface of what Ableton is capable of. The brand is constantly updating and creating new solutions, so make sure you stay up to date in order to keep yourself ahead of the game.

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