Back to basics: Building beats with Push and Live
There are days when Ableton Live 10 looks like a far more complex beast than it was back in 2001, but the good core stuff is still there. Let’s prove the point by making a straightforward beat!
Even if you’re not focused on working with beats in a big way, the truth is that nearly any style of music will require some kind of drum part. The advantage of beginning with a rhythmical framework is that you don’t necessarily require any knowledge of harmony or chords, so you can put that off until later and concentrate on learning some programming and effect basics.
You can go your whole beat-making life drawing in your drum beats, one hit at a time in a very machine-like style and sometimes, that’s exactly the feeling you want – the lack of feeling. But for anything that’s going to feel like ‘real’ drums, triggering from some kind of pads and recording in real-time is going to be much more effective.
I’d choose Push any day of the week for this; the pads are very playable, the display is colourful and easy to understand and there’s the deep integration with Live’s drum racks and the Simpler instrument. You’d have to have a reason to not use Push for Live beats. We’re using the Session Dry drum kit because it’s a standard kit that’s in every version of Live, and because it sounds clean – it’ll be easier to differentiate if we use a more processed electronic-sounding beat in the future.
The Search function (Cmd-F) is a fast way to go straight to what you want in the Browser, but remember to exit by clicking the little ‘x’ at the right of the search bar when you’ve finished, otherwise you won’t see the rest of your browser contents. If you prefer, you can type ‘B’ to enter draw mode when in the MIDI Note Editor, so you can single-click to enter a drum hit, but for what we’re doing, it’s not much different.
Stay on target
Remember that the project tempo (bpm) can be changed at any time, so don’t sweat it too much if you can’t make your mind up at the outset of a project. Record quantisation is a useful way to automatically tidy up our playing as the notes go in. If you look in the Note Editor as you’re recording, you’ll see the notes move onscreen as they’re forced to align with the grid. Don’t panic if you forgot to turn this on, though – if you’ve got a take you need to straighten out, select the range of notes after recording, then choose Cmd-U to apply quantisation, or Shift-CMD-U to bring up the quantisation menu to change the settings. Quantisation is a very old MIDI programming technique and it’s still as useful as ever!
Velocity is a key part of drum programming and recording, although sometimes it’s more important by its absence – there are no rules with this, it totally depends on the effect you want to achieve and the sound you want to emulate – acoustic and electronic drums behave very differently. If you’re working with Live’s Velocity Editor, you can mouse over the horizontal border below the Note Editor, and drag upwards to expand the view.
Should you need to level out velocity across all of the notes, select them, then grab any one of the stems and drag it all the way to the top or bottom, which will flatten them all, then drag to the position you want them all to be at. The Velocity MIDI effect device is another way to deal with this (Live often gives us more than one way to handle things).
You can leave your recorded or drawn MIDI notes as-is within the clip and use the MIDI effect to either even them out, or to introduce more (or even more) variety from note to note. This is one of our most-used MIDI effects, adding it to any track that is attempting to emulate a real instrument, whether it’s drums, bass, piano, or anything else. The other benefit of this effect is that it varies throughout the entire song, as opposed to manually edited velocity changes within a clip, which will only loop over a certain number of bars. Since Drum Buss was added to Live 10, it has become our default drum processor, which is what was supposed to happen!
In one convenient interface you get control over the most-used drum effects. As well as raising that Boom level, move the Transients control left and right from centre to hear it shorten and lengthen the tails of your drum hits.
The best way to start programming beats is to find one you like by somebody else and copy it, getting the individual drum hits in place, then getting the right kit sounds, then adding any necessary audio effects. You can even load the ‘source’ song or loop into the Live project, so you have it handy as a reference.
Building beats with Push and Live: step-by-step
1. No example Live set this time, as we’re starting from scratch (but you’ll need Live 10 to follow all the steps). Start a new project and make sure you’re in Session View – it’s way too early in the process to tie ourselves down to an arrangement structure.
2. Working with beats is one situation where you can really feel the need for some pads or keys, anything that’ll give you a more tactile vibe. For us Live users, the best go-to option is Push – it has the pads, it has the controls.
3. Type Cmd-F to see the Browser’s search bar, and start typing ‘session dry kit’. As you type you’ll see Live sorting through the kits. You’ll end up with SessionDry Kit.adg at the right. Tap the down arrow then enter to highlight and load it.
4. That’s the best method to find a specific kit (where you know the name), but otherwise, you can use the browser in a slower fashion to explore and preview the installed kits. We definitely want a non-electronic kit for this part of the exercise.
5. Go to the drum track and double-click in the topmost empty slot. This automatically creates a one-bar empty clip. Click the play button on the left of the clip to launch it, you’ll see it loop. It is, of course, silent, because it’s empty!
6. By default, you should now see the MIDI Note Editor grid at the bottom of the screen. Double-click the clip if not. See the play head is going ’round. Turn on the metronome at the top of the screen, so you can hear some audio.
PUSH IT If there’s one thing you can depend on, it’s that Ableton’s Push works great for beat making. You have those lovely velocity-sensitive pads ready to play and the encoders and colourful display at the top. From here, you can browse, preview and then load kits, individual samples, effects – everything you need to make your beats work.
7. Okay, let’s set a tempo. BPM choice is a major factor in how people will perceive your music; you will likely be pigeonholed according to your beats more than anything else. Let’s go slow, around 105bpm and see how it goes, but no commitments!
8. There’s a list of the kit sounds arranged vertically at the left of the editor – scroll up and down if you can’t see them all at once. Add a kick-drum part by double-clicking in slots in the relevant row…
9. …Add them at 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, and 1.3.4. – a very straight beat! If you feel more adventurous and you have something with pads, record the remaining parts instead of ‘drawing’ them. Go to Edit/Record Quantization and select Sixteenth-Note Quantization as a starting point.
10. Arm the track by clicking the little button at the bottom of the mixer channel. Click the ‘hollow’ circular Session Record Button at the top as well. Then when you launch the clip, the launch button will turn red, indicating that it’s recording.
11. It doesn’t matter if you start playing immediately, the clip will loop. You can play each sound on a different pass, stacking them as the clip loops, so you only need to play one at a time. If you can’t think of any parts, copy ours.
BROTHERS IN ARMS There are 64-pad kits included with Live, ready to make full use of the Push layout and you can even adjust the Push velocity curves, affecting how it responds to your finger input.
12. Press the spacebar or click the top stop button to stop Live, and turn off the metronome, you don’t need it now you have a beat. Always save the project after you make a recording (even though Live 10 has a very useful backup feature).
13. Go to the Notes box at the left of the MIDI Note Editor. Click the Dupl. Loop button (‘Dupl stands for duplicate) You’re now looking at a 2-bar clip. Draw some variations on your loop in the last section of bar 2.
14. If you recorded your drums from a MIDI controller, take a look at the MIDI Velocity Editor below the Note Editor – those little vertical stems are showing the velocity of each drum hit – crudely put, how hard you hit each one.
15. If any of the hits are too loud or too quiet, you can drag these stems up or down to bring them into line. Don’t straighten everything out though, if you’re tempted, because you’ll lose the organic feel of your recorded beat.
16. Alternately, if you drew all of the hits, you’ll see the stems are level right across the clip, which can sound a bit machine-like. Instead of manually adjusting them, load the MIDI Effects/Velocity/Add Some Random preset, and adjust the Out Low value to taste.
17. We used it last time, and we’re using it again – add Audio Effects/Drum Buss to the end of the chain, after the Session drum rack – audio effects always have to go in after instruments. Set Boom to 25%.
18. The Session Dry kit has a little bit of room sound already, which is part of what makes it sound organic and natural, but let’s add some more. Load Audio Effects/Reverb/Rooms/Drums Room after Reverb, and set the Dry/Wet to around 15%.