This course is completely FREE. To view Level II and Level III, as well as watch more advanced Ableton courses in electronic music production, DJing and synthesis, sign up for a membership at Noiselab. Noiselab is the top online school for electronic musicians.
The purpose of this course is to teach you what a DAW (digital audio workstation) is, why Ableton Live is a unique DAW, the difference between the Session View and Arrangement View, how to work with midi instruments and audio material, and much more.
In this course you'll develop a strong understanding of the program's interface and its many preference settings. Understand how to use Live's browser to quickly sample sounds in your tracks without having to spend time inefficiently searching your computer. We'll also discuss the build blocks of Live - clips. All musical elements in Live are contained in either audio or MIDI clips, so it is very important for us to understand what clips are, how they function, and how they can be used to create full compositions. Clips are the key to us creating and capturing our ideas.
You'll also learn about import settings, clip launch quantization, clip envelopes and follow actions. We'll cover the basics of the drum rack, as well as basic MIDI clip editing, draw mode and automation. Then we'll show you how to use MIDI and audio clips together in numerous ways and the usefulness of working with scenes.
This is the first level in a 3-part series. Sign up for a Noiselab membership to access Level II and Level III. Level II will cover basic music theory and composition techniques, and Course 3 will focus on EQ, effects, creative sampling techniques and export settings. After completing these 3 courses you’ll be able to combine all of these elements into making a song.
Ableton Live is one of the most unique DAWs available today, and has become more and more popular as people realize how much it can do compared to other DAWs. But before we can fully appreciate what makes Live unique, we should first clearly define what a DAW is and how one typically functions.
Now that we understand what a typical DAW should do, let's find out what separates Ableton Live from the rest of the pack. It can do a lot more than just record and playback audio, as we will soon see…
One of the many unique features of Ableton Live is its use of two distinct views. The Arrangement View uses a linear timeline and will be most familiar to those of you who have used other DAWs before. However, the true power of the software begins to reveal itself when we understand how to use the Session View.
When inspiration strikes you, it is nice to be able to start grabbing or creating sounds right away. But searching through and endless sea of folders on your computer's file explorer might not be the most inspiring way to go about that. Thankfully, Live’s built-in browser can simplify this process for us, and even allow us to search folders on your computer without leaving Live’s interface.
Before we dive into creating and composing with Live, let’s explore the Preferences. There are a lot of settings that we can adjust, such as the audio interface we use, which MIDI controllers are enabled, and even change the entire color scheme or zoom level of the interface.
All musical elements in Live are contained in either Audio or MIDI clips, so it is very important for us to understand what clips are, how they function, and how they can be used to create full compositions. Clips are essentially the building blocks of Ableton Live, and the key to us creating and capturing our ideas.
We can use Ableton Live like a full fledged studio, but the one thing we don’t have are actual instruments. Thankfully, we have MIDI instruments that can be played with a MIDI controller or our computer keyboard. But first, we should find out what MIDI is and how Live uses the MIDI messages it receives.
Now that we know what clips are, and we know what MIDI is, let's take a look at a MIDI clip and some of the MIDI clips properties. Doing this will gives us a foundation to start playing and recording ideas with our MIDI instruments.
Since MIDI clips and Audio clips serve slightly different purposes (MIDI clips contain notes and velocity, while audio clips contain audio samples), lets quickly compare and contrast the two clips types so we’re familiar with the unique properties of each.
Ableton Live has many tricks up its figurative sleeves, and one of the most fundamental aspects of how it functions is the Warp feature. When audio clips are properly warped, they will adhere to our projects master tempo, regardless of the original tempo of the audio material. This allows us to combine clips of completely different tempos and have them play in sync, but that is just scratching the surface...
If our Preferences are properly set, we can start to import various audio samples and have them automatically warped and looped. This allows us to quickly get several musical elements playing in sync with the project tempo. We just have to make sure that if we want to play multiple clips at a time, they are placed on different audio tracks.
You might have noticed by now that when you launch a clip while the transport is running, it doesn’t immediately start playing. Instead, it waits until the beginning of the next bar. Why is that? It’s because Ableton Live automatically quantizes the launching of clips to 1 bar by default. Let’s explore how this works.
In addition to our audio and MIDI clip properties, we also have Clip Launch properties, which will affect how the clips behaves when launched. This gives us a lot of flexibility when it comes to how we play and combine the clips in our project.
Each clip in Ableton Live has its own individual Clip Envelopes. These clip envelopes allow us to modulate (change) a parameter over time. By utilizing these clip envelopes we can automate anything from a simple volume fade to a stuttering volume gate, or nearly anything else you can imagine. Let’s take a look at how they work.
Typically, when you launch a clip, it will play until it reaches the end of the clip, and if Loop is enabled it will just keep looping the same clip indefinitely. However, we can also tell each clip to play for a specific amount of time and then launch another clip on that same track. This is done by using Follow Action.
If you plan on making any music that uses drums, you’ll probably end up using the Drum Rack sooner or later. The Drum Rack is actually a container device for other devices (instruments and effects), but it is primarily used as an instrument for creating and playing drum kits. Let’s get familiar with Drum Rack instrument.
If you want to play your MIDI instruments in real time but don’t have a MIDI controller, don’t fret. The computer keyboard you use to type on everyday can easily be used as a MIDI keyboard. There are a few limitations, but the convenience of essentially having a MIDI keyboard built into your laptop more than makes up for them.
Sometimes it is preferable to draw notes inside of a MIDI clip instead of playing them in real time. Thankfully this is easily accomplished using the Draw Mode. By using the draw mode we can place notes inside of a clip that snap the our beat grids current resolution.
Once we have some notes in our MIDI clips, it is very easy to move them around, adjust the velocity of individual notes, and quantize them (or slightly unquantize them by nudging them ahead or behind the beat). The beauty of MIDI is how malleable the MIDI information is once it is captured.
Earlier we learned about clip envelopes and how we can use them to change parameters over time. But there will often be times where you would rather record the movement of a knob, fader, or other parameter in real time. Let’s look at how we can record automation into our Session View clips.
MIDI clips and Audio clips can be used together in numerous ways. Often times a Drum Rack will be used to complement an audio clip with a drum loop, or a sub bass synth can add a layer of deep bass to a song made with recordings of live instruments, etc. Let’s look at an example of how audio clips and MIDI clips can be used together.
In the Session View, we have tracks that are laid out vertically, but we know that each track can only play one clip at a time. So if we want to play multiple clips at once, they each need their own track. But what if we place them on the same horizontal row? That would mean all of the clips are in the same Scene, and using scenes can be a powerful way to begin sculpting an arrangement without using the Arrangement View.
When clips are organized in Scenes, not only can we launch of clips at the same time, but we can also assign a specific tempo to each scene. This is especially useful if you want a tempo change in your song, or if you are making a live show set using stems (each scene could have stems from a different song and a different launch tempo).
If we duplicate our clips into different scenes, we can edit the individual clips in different ways so each scene feels like a different part of an arrangement. Here we will look at a few different ways we can approach editing the content of our scenes.
With all of our clips organized in scenes, it would be nice to record all of the scenes in a specific order so we have a solid arrangement that will play from beginning to end. At this point, it is time for us to record the content from the Session View to the Arrangement View. Then, we can export the audio and share it with the world! But before you leave Ableton Live, don’t forget to save your project.
Noiselab is a community of Ableton producers and electronic musicians. All instructors are either Ableton Certified Trainers or successful producers with impressive industry credentials. This course is taught by Thavius Beck - an electronic musician, producer and performer that's worked with countless musicians including Nine Inch Nails, Skylar Grey, Saul Williams, The Mars Volta and many more. Thavius is an Ableton Live Certified Trainer and has instructed hundreds of Live students through teaching courses at several music institutes, giving one-on-one lessons and holding dozens of Ableton Live workshops throughout the country.