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Structuring Your Live Set with Ableton Live

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Follow Skinnerbox on their journey of discussing playing live electronic music. Part 1: How to play your electronic music live: an introduction

Hello and welcome back to the next chapter of our blog series! Last time we touched the tip of the “playing live electronic music” iceberg, and today we are ready to crush our wooden ships on it. Hope you are too! As the title suggests we will be talking about structuring your live set within Ableton live (sorry folks, we know there are other platforms out there, but we don't really consider any other software to be a serious alternative when it comes to non-linear live electronic performance) with emphasis on controllerism. As this is my (Iftah) part of the job, I'll be writing this article and will deconstruct my live set in order to help you structure yours.I assume that you have some basic knowledge of computer music, if you don't and you still want to read it, the internet is your best friend! there are many resources that can help you start.

Keeping things lucid

My live setup is - on the surface - quite straightforward. I'm using a self-made arduino based controller that I built in 2010 and two monomes. The first is acting as a clip launcher, and the second sequence the drums and do some chopping of the audio material. Under the hood, there is a lot of max for live activity going on but the basics of my set should be relevant to anyone who wants to play live using a computer.

As we mentioned last time we play live improvised music. Therefore naturally I use Ableton in session mode because it allows me to combine infinite numbers of audio clips with different pitches, Time signatures and loop lengths into new music on the fly. Within the set, I have 5 audio channels which are broken into the following categories:

  • Bass which hosts basslines
  • Harmonix which hosts musical fragments, ie lines, pads, or anything with defined melody/ harmony
  • Vocs for vocal lines or anything speech related
  • Disco or percussion and drum loops
  • Debris for everything else which does not fall into these categories.

Additionally, I have 3 drum groups which are broken to Kicks, Hats and Perc (snares, claps, toms, and everything else).

So this gives me a total of 8 tracks. I would strongly advise you to stay around this number, for different reasons: First, most standard midi controllers are 8-rowed, the last thing you wanna do when you play live is switch between pages. Everything you want to control should be hands-on. of course you could possibly get another controller but this (and here comes the second reason) could lead to too much control. On the clip count, however, my set currently accommodates 1626 clips, which is, well, a lot, and took me ten years to gather. You don't need so many to start obviously, but after getting to know your set really well and managing to tame it to your needs, it is great to have a lot of material, especially if you are improvising. Arranging your clips is a personal thing, I believe. While some prefer to arrange them by key, I prefer to have them sorted by style - for example, synthetic sounding, acoustic etc. If you work with a lot of clips like I do, I recommend leaving a couple of empty scenes between each cluster of clips, it helps to get a better overview of your whereabouts.

Limitation as a creative utility

Limitation is actually a great tool because it forces you to be creative. Let's assume you have a live set with 8 tracks, and a midi controller with a row of 8 faders , 24 pots, and some buttons. Obviously you would have several effect units on each track plus several ones on the master track. You most likely will not be able to remote control all the parameters that you would like to because, sooner or later, you will be out of control. You should decide what are the most important ones to be individually controlled and the rest should be “batch controlled” with the “major tom" technique which is very effective. A very simple example - build your own master fx rack from a reverb, hi-pass filter and a side-chain compressor. Let your bass-drum duck the compressor, assign one fader to control the dry/wet of the reverb, the frequency of the filter and the threshold of the compression, adjust the ranges and you have a very nice pumpy shimmer on demand, all controlled by one fader.

Treating your controller as an instrument

You should spend a lot of time tuning your midi controller. Experiment with different mappings and see what works for you. once you feel you got it right, practice! avoid labeling your controller, you should know it by heart. Labeling it will only distract you and will kill your intuition, you don't really gaze the guitar neck while playing it, do you?

In my opinion what makes an electronic instrument to a great instrument is proper range tuning of the different parameters. Roland's jupiter 6 for example, is an amazing analog polyphonic synth, but the filter resonance is just unusable when the fader is set to more than 4. Ableton live gives you the possibility to set the mapped parameter ranges. You should make extensive use of this feature. if you want to use “Simple Delay” as a comb effect for example, there is no point in using the whole delay time range. You would also unlikely want your reverb mix to go 100% or your soft-synth envelope to do 60 seconds attack ramps. Take your time and find out all the sweet-spots.This is a good reason to ignore any auto-mapping functions of your controller and do your own mappings. If possible, avoid using encoders. Encoders are great for studio, but really bad for (most) live situations as they are not very musical in their response.

Making things simple in order to make the complicated things fun

Another very important part of the process, is to figure out what do you want to actually do when you play live. As you have only two hands and a limited amount of hardware control, you will have to make some choices. I myself, for instance, focus on playing different clips, chopping them, live sequencing the drums and do some effect tweaking. One thing I don't want to care about when playing live is the dynamics of the different components. I want everything to sound properly mixed, so I make sure it is in the studio and when playing live, I actually have no control on the different levels of the channels. Instead, I have a non-resonant low pass filter on each channel, and a dedicated fader to control it. When the fader is low-end, the track is also being muted. This allows me to mix my channels in and out and know that the dynamics will work.

The four to the floor button

A very helpful technique is to create yourself some kind of a home button - and with that I mean, a button that will allow you to go back to familiarity after making a mess. Here's an example: I sequence my drums using a max for live patch that I wrote, which is being controlled by the monome. The patch does real time step recording: I can play the drum sounds on the pads and have them looped and quantized. Sometimes I like to do some hefty drum breaks and broken rhythms and then go back to the good old four to the floor, so I have programmed a button that does just that. I naively named it “come to daddy” back in 2010 and it turned out to be one of the most used elements in my set. This method can be applied in many ways, for example, if you work a lot with effects, you can map one button on your controller to turn them all off. This will allow you to radically change your sound and go back to zero with a press of a button. This is actually in my perspective a core element of electronic dance music as it is a lot about building tension and breaking it.

Don't forget to feed the fish

Maintaining your set and collecting new material is a very important thing. I usually spend 1-2 hours a week doing just that. That track you never finished because you couldn't pass the loop barrier? Extract some core elements out of it and put them in your set. Use them in combination with other existing elements. Remix yourself! Saw a great video of an exotic instrument in youtube? Sample and chop it! (Don't forget to check the licensing.) Been to a 48 hour party in the weekend and on the way home you heard a phantom bassline looping with the train sound? Sketch it! Everything belongs there. I treat my set as an eternal playground of ideas, where - unlike our studio productions - experimentation and fun is prior to perfection. It is meant to serve as an asylum for creative exorcism.

This is it for now, we will be back next month with more about live music making!

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