Back to basics: Working with audio beats in Ableton Live

Last time we created a beat using MIDI programming and a drum rack, but with Live, audio samples are just as flexible. Now we can twist a drum loop to do just about whatever we want.

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Ableton Tutorial Part 18

We’re continuing our journey through the basics of Live. Last time we talked about programming MIDI drum beats, so now it seems like a good time to look at the flip side of that: taking a source audio beat and jazzing it up, before changing it into something totally different.

Hopefully we’ll be able to come back and do some more work with beats later, because there’s so much more to talk about. But for now, we’ll have to settle for some timing adjustment, some talk about groove templates, and another try with the fabulous Drum Buss effect.

Let’s go audio

We’ve provided a Live set (which you can download from here) with beats that you can use, but substitute your own samples if you prefer, it’s not critical for this exercise. If you do, choose one that needs a bit of straightening out in terms of timing, and one that has a cool groove to it, something you might want to ‘borrow’ for a beat of your own.

Quantization, on a good day, is a more-or-less ‘automatic’ way of correcting the timing of a sample, whether it’s a beat or any other type of recorded event; even quite abstract field recordings can benefit from this. Yellow Warp markers are inserted wherever a correction has been made. And if one of the beats or notes is too far off the grid and gets ‘corrected’ the wrong way, it’s very easy to fix: just hold down Shift and drag the Warp marker to where you want it, without being forced to snap to the grid. You can also choose to highlight a specific section of your waveform and quantize just that, it’s not all or nothing.

More human

The flip side of all this correcting business is that sometimes things can be a little too perfect. It’s often a creative call; you can have everything in your project totally on the beat, or aspire to a more human feel, and introduce a little groove to material that didn’t already have it. This applies to both audio and MIDI material. Instead of sampling the audio from a recording, you can sample the rhythmic and dynamic characteristics that perhaps made you like the recording in the first place, and save them for use with a completely different part later.

One thing I found when I started using grooves is that unless the Velocity control in the Groove Pool is raised, you won’t get the full effect of the groove at work, so if it doesn’t sound right to you, that might be why. There is a favourite trick that I use when using Beats Warp Mode: to gate transients right down to a zero value; I’ve used it way too much in remixes and live gigs, and it can also be very effective for creating interesting vocal effects, especially when you use it as one step in a long sequence of processes and effects.

R…repeat after me

If you want a quick fix for some rhythmic variations in a sampled beat, and you don’t want to commit to a permanent edit, like if you want something more interactive and undoable for a live set, Beat Repeat is still very useful. If you just drop the default or one of the presets onto a track, it’s probably going to sound like the cliched ‘beat repeat’ sound, but with a few changes it can sound more unobtrusive and organic if that’s what you want. I’d start by changing the Interval value to two or four bars, so the repeats aren’t coming in every bar, which is a real giveaway. After that I’d set it to Insert Mode, which mutes the original sounds when the repeats play, and then start trading off between the Offset and Grid controls.

The most exciting part of using sampled audio beats inside Live is that thanks to Warping, you’re free to take almost any beat from any source and make it sync with the other parts in your song. Furthermore you can stack them up, so it’s very easy to use two different sampled beats or percussion tracks at once, or combine with a programmed MIDI beat of your own. Thanks to Warping, quantization, effects, and (sometimes) the Slice to New MIDI Track and Convert Drums to MIDI tools, we can listen to any sound and begin to imagine how we’d work with that to to fit in our set. It’s like the early days of sampling, when people were just starting to realise what was possible, and listening to records that they’d never pay attention to otherwise. Except now it’s easier!

Next time we’ll move on from beats and get a bass line going. If you’re an experienced programmer or a real bass player, or if you’re a total newbie to making music, we’ll find ways for everybody to make active and interesting parts.

Working with Audio Beats in Ableton Live: step-by-step

Ableton Tutorial Part 1

1. We’ve provided an example Live 10 project which contains the MIDI beat we created during last month’s tutorial, plus two new audio beats in separate tracks. We’re going to start by working with the clip called – appropriately – Beat 1.

Ableton Tutorial Part 2

2. This beat has a few variations in the timing of the drum hits. In Live, correcting these is simple. Click anywhere on the waveform and type Cmd-U. You’ll see the ‘naughty beats straighten out as yellow Warp markers are added.

Ableton Tutorial Part 3

3. This is both fast and cool. However it’s not perfect, so we can override if necessary. You could type Shift/Cmd-U to view and change the quantisation settings, or Shift-click on any Warp marker and drag it to the correct location.

Ableton Tutorial Part 4

4. Warping does two things: it helps correct the timing of audio material, and it allows us to play material at tempos far removed from the original – that’s where the Warp modes really come into play, and choosing the right one is important.

Ableton Tutorial Part 5

5. Now we’ve got a straightened-out beat, where everything is landing on the grid. But we are never satisfied, so now we want some swing, ringing in a controlled amount of timing and velocity variation to make it sound more human.

Ableton Tutorial Part 6

6. Right-click on the second example audio beat, Beat 2. This one has some groove built in, where some of the hits are ahead of or behind the grid. From the Context Menu choose Extract Groove(s), and you’ll briefly see a progress bar.

PUSH IT Push is Ableton’s hardware controller, designed to control all aspects of the software, right from browsing, auditioning, and loading samples to futzing around with Warp modes and audio effects. Pretty much everything discussed in the walkthrough here can be accomplished directly from it.

Ableton Tutorial Part 7

7. Open the Groove Pool below the Browser by clicking the little Wave button or typing Alt/Cmd-G. You’ll see an item with the same name as our clip, with an array of controls. Drag this item onto the first, corrected, clip.

Ableton Tutorial Part 8

8. Those velocity variations have been applied to Beat 1. Use the Velocity control in the Groove Pool to increase their intensity. Use the Commit button to visualise the effects of the groove as Warp markers and clip automation.

Ableton Tutorial Part 9

9. Go to Browser/Audio Effects and drag the default Drum Buss onto the Beat 1 track. Raise the Crunch to 10%, set transients to 0.15, then raise Boom to 20% and tune it to C1 with the Freq control. Nice crunchy beats!

Ableton Tutorial Part 10

10. There’s no limit to how far we can take our beats. We could take this one a step back towards last time’s MIDI beat, by right-clicking on the clip and choosing either Slice to New MIDI Track or Convert Drums To New MIDI Track.

Ableton Tutorial Part 11

11. But we’ll save that for another time. For now, click on the header of the Beat 2 track and type Cmd-D to duplicate the track and the clip inside it. We’re going to create a new clip based on Beat 1. Double-click on the new one.

Ableton Tutorial Part 12

12. Go to the sample box at the left of the waveform and make sure the clip is set to Beats Warp Mode. Go to the pop-up box with the two arrows below that, and choose the top value, with the single arrow pointing right.

SIMPLY PUSH One of the best uses of Push is when it’s paired with Live’s Simpler instrument; they fit together so well, and when they do, that’s the time when Push feels closest to being a ‘real’ instrument, especially if you are using Push 2, so make sure you try this perfect partnership.

Ableton Tutorial Part 13

13. Now while playing the clip, reduce the value in the box next to the arrows to 0; you’ll hear the hits become percussive and clicky. We’re gating the transients as we do this, so all we hear is the peak at the start of each hit.

Ableton Tutorial Part 14

14. Use the Transpose control to transpose the clip up by 24 semitones (two octaves). Add Audio Effects/Resonators/Berlin to the track, and set Dry/Wet to 35%, and Note to C2. The beat has now become more melodic.

Ableton Tutorial Part 15

15. Variations are important with beats unless you really like repetition. Some people turn up their noses at Beat Repeat, but I like it. Try it on any of these clips. Start with the Interval at 1 bar, Grid at 1/16, and Chance at 50%.

Ableton Tutorial Part 16

16. Experiment. For example drag a beat-clip directly into the Simpler instrument, and then use MIDI notes to trigger the loop, or go further and build an instrument rack containing multiple loops, so you have a load of loops available in one track.

Ableton Tutorial Part 17

17. Experiment again. Drum Buss lets you Audition (solo) the low frequencies – there’s no reason why you can’t leave it like that, so the track becomes a sub frequency sound source. Add effects to that or resample it and mangle it further.

Ableton Tutorial Part 18

18. Still not enough? Use the Double Tempo button (*2) to stretch the beat as far as possible, then crop that at a suitable point and drop it into Simpler, then use it to make a new drum sound, a pad, an instrument, whatever you like.

Check out part one and part two of our back to basics tutorial. For more Live workshops, check here.


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