► CommunityBlogMusic EDnet BlogApril 2017Debunking the strange side of Ableton - by Johann Dreyer

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Debunking the strange side of Ableton - by Johann Dreyer

When doing music technology presentations one of the most common questions, asked by secondary school teachers, is about implementing Ableton into their curriculum. Particularly, which five things to show their students to get them started with the program. So here they are!

For anyone who has worked with conventional DAW’s, the first sight of a new Ableton session could be confusing, daunting or perhaps even scary! I know for me personally it was a case of opening the program, staring at the session view screen for about 3 minutes, and then closing the program, instantly moving it to the too hard basket. Fast forward 3 months and I gave it another go, this time I lasted about 5 minutes trying to generate sound; but again, a “no go”!!

Then a close friend, who is a certified Ableton trainer, explained some basics that led me to create this “secret” code that cracks Ableton for beginners.

Step 1 – Read Chapter 4 of the manual (Live Concepts): this will familiarize you with all the aspects (concepts) and elements that make Ableton tick. It’s not too detailed, just enough to put everything into perspective.

Step 2 – Learn the 4 main environments (fancy word for screen) and the shortcuts that navigate between them.

Step 3 – Drag instruments and effects into tracks. Notice how some are not ‘allowed’ in certain tracks.

Step 4 – Start programming MIDI.

Step 5 – Build your first “Instrument rack”. (Some call this wizard status)


"...some basics that led me to create this “secret”
code that cracks Ableton for beginners."

These 5 steps could be explained and illustrated in great detail, but can also be covered in 2-4 sessions depending on the speed of delivery and the allocated time slots. I have found that for most high school students engaged in a 3-day short course, by day 2 they will be able to create tracks, program MIDI and insert effects on those tracks.

I have found that once these basic tasks are illustrated, then implemented and understood by the students, the program starts to unfold into one of the most intuitive and fun music production toolkits on the market. The endless possibilities and workflow become very obvious very quickly. Let’s have a look at these 5 steps and see how they will help you and your students to get started.

Step 1 – Reading Chapter 4 – Live Concepts.

Fig 1: Chapter 4 in the manual

When you’re in the Ableton program, you can access the manual by clicking the “Help” drop down in the toolbar. Go to “Read the Live Manual”, and then Chapter 4. This chapter covers the very basic functions like finding sounds, instruments, buttons and/or functions. It will teach you about the basic concepts of Ableton, and even about mapping parameters to external hardware and exporting audio.

Another great function that compliments this process is the “Info View” (Fig.2) window that is accessible at the bottom left hand of the screen. When your cursor hovers over a button or area, there will be a description of the functionality of that item. This function can be accessed with [?] shortcut or by clicking on the disclosure triangle at the very bottom.

Fig 2: Info View

Step 2: The Live Environments.

This normally gets a bit confusing but with a bit of practice using the shortcut keys, you will master the Ableton visual universe. Ableton has 2 main arrangement views and a dual focus view that you can have displayed in any combination and change easily with your [tab] and [shift]+[tab] buttons.

[tab] – switches between Session (Fig.3) and Arrangement (Fig.4) view, these are the top 2 views that show the vertical clips or the traditional time line. This is arrangement focused information.

[shift]+[tab] – switches between the instrument or effect and the audio or midi component of the track depending on which track is selected.

(NOTE: If you click on a midi clip the piano roll will appear, if you click on an audio clip the waveform editor will appear)

Fig 3: Session View

In session view the tracks are represented in a vertical fashion with several “clips”, followed by the audio routing, monitoring, sends, panning and finally the fader module (rec/solo/track on/off included in fader module).

Think of this view as your sketch pad, playing with different ideas, sequences and arrangements. Each cell can be a different variation of the same instrument, noting that only one cell in a vertical line can play at any given time.

To the right in the Master Section we have a play button with numbers, this is known as the Master Scenes, and this button will launch all clips in the horizontal lines. Any number of clips can play together within the horizontal aspect (they don’t have to be in line).

Fig 4: Arrange View

The arrange view is the more traditional timeline view with tracks in a horizontal fashion. Both time (min:sec) and bars and beats metering is available at the top and bottom of the arrangement screen respectively. You can import or record audio or midi in either view! The same goes for mixing and effects processing, whatever works better for your personal workflow!

Step 3 – Loading Instruments and Effects.

Loading instruments and effects is as easy as dragging and dropping them into a track, but keep an eye on the cursor! For example when you attempt to drop an instrument onto an audio track you will see the global “No Entry” sign. Ableton will allow you to drop the incorrect item onto a track but will then
change the track to suit. In Short:

Audio Tracks: Only audio effects and audio can be dropped onto them.
Midi Tracks: Only instruments, audio effects and midi effects can be dropped onto them.

When one starts “dropping” these instruments and effects into a track they appear in the bottom part of the screen. The signal runs from left to right and will be processed accordingly. Ableton will automatically put the instrument at the start of this “chain” but how you process the signal post instrument is what makes Ableton fun!

Fig 5: Instruments and effects are processed from left to right

Step 4 – Programming MIDI.

The simplest way to start programming midi is to double click in a MIDI track clip while in Session view…

Fig 6: Clip pane and MIDI Piano Roll

The MIDI clip will appear and you will see the piano roll that will enable you to start penciling in the sequence you wish to play. You can either double click with your mouse or use the [b] short cut to use the pencil tool.

Fig 7: MIDI Piano Roll with note entry

When you hit play on the clip, the midi sequence will start playing back and looping. The velocity and quantization can be modified to give your midi a more natural feel.

NOTE: When you drag a Drum Rack into the MIDI clip the piano notes will be replaced with drum sounds from the chosen Drum Rack.

Step 5 – Building Instrument Racks:

As noted in Step 3 you can place any and as many effects and dynamic processors as you wish into the signal path of your track. This is the moment that wizard status can be achieved!

You are able to group effects together and then chain different groups together, as well as map macros to hardware controllers or have them automated by other effects. This is where the real power of Ableton shines through and deserves a more detailed explanation than this article can afford.

Where to now?

There are a lot of really good resources that students can tap into for inspiration and tips:

YouTube: “Pointblank” and “Dubspot” always have a great range of intro videos and genre specific tips and tricks.

Lynda.com: One of the online courses on offer is the Ableton Essential Training that covers over 8 hours of tutoring broken into very manageable sections touching on everything Ableton and music production.

Online Magazines: “Attack Mag”, “Music Radar”, “Music Technology” and “Electronic Music” are all great resources with free plugins and step-by-step tutorials.

Face to Face: SAE Creative Institute (Adelaide) offers a 10-week short course in Ableton. There are also other institutes throughout Australia that offer a broad range of Ableton and production based courses.

It is also worth mentioning that there are Certified trainers all over the country who offer private tuition and support through the Ableton Live User groups, which is a great networking platform to meet other producers and see how they produce music.


There is a lot of detail that has not been discussed or touched on in this article, and I hope to
delve into more specifics in future articles!

About the author

Johann Dreyer is the Campus Manager at SAE Institute - Adelaide. Teacher, Electronic Music Producer, DJ and Sound designer ... Johann Graduated with a Bachelor in Audio Production, holds a Cert IV in TAE and a Marketing Management Higher Diploma.

Johann has been teaching Music production and Technology based performance at SAE (School of Audio Engineering) for the last 5 years and created the Ableton Live User groups in Byron Bay and the Gold Coast.

He specializes in Ableton and Hardware integration into performance and production.

Johann has released and performs live electronic music with "We Play Machines" and "AfrikanAmerikan" as well as his personal LoCoJo project.

20/04/2017 4:07:42 PM | 0 comments
Filed under: Pad Controllers, Professional development, Software

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