Ableton Push: Composition & Sound Design
Learning to use Push entails more than simply understanding its functionality. Liam O’Mullane shares his essential techniques for kicking out some jams. Since its release, Push has slowly become an integral part of our studio set-up. Although it does have a few weaknesses in terms of complete software control for more in-depth mixing features, its […]
Learning to use Push entails more than simply understanding its functionality. Liam O’Mullane shares his essential techniques for kicking out some jams.
Since its release, Push has slowly become an integral part of our studio set-up. Although it does have a few weaknesses in terms of complete software control for more in-depth mixing features, its strengths win us over when it comes to song composition. We write electronic music of varying genres and Push’s hardware-led approach takes us back to a workflow we miss from older times.
Working without a computer screen is liberating, and the added focus you have on judging ideas and sounds by ear, as opposed to visual cues, cannot be underestimated.
More recently our challenge has been to use Push exclusively from start to finish with zero direct interaction with our computer. As you’ll find out, although this does include a certain amount of library, template, plug-in preparation and workflow alteration in some cases, the freedom of writing and arranging with such an instrument connects you to the music at a deeper level than you may have experienced before as an electronic musician.
So join us as we share our experience of using Push for composing, arranging and designing sounds.
Drumming up some ideas
You can begin a song with any instrument, and in this particular workshop we’re beginning with the drums. Your genre of choice will dictate how in-depth you get with the sound design aspect, but we’ll usually focus on patterns and groove before getting too deep into the sonic aspects of it all.
Plus you don’t always know what sound to go for until other instruments are in place because it’s at that point you’ll get an idea of the mix space each sound dictates and you can make the appropriate decisions.
Some drum patterns can begin from playing with pads, especially if you’re keeping your options open for genre; other times you might immediately dial in the tempo and then step sequence the core drum hits to get a beat started. With the latter there’s no need to enable the metronome as your first beats will provide the backbone rhythm for you to place everything else around.
If you’re playing with ideas from the pads, however, explore this for a while so you know what pattern you want to record while also feeling the tempo you want to work at. Then press the Tap Tempo button for a few bars so Live can sync the tempo, then enable the Metronome and record your ideas.
From here you have various other ways to work with your drum ideas as you add and edit them. Our preferred method is to add new sounds and explore their position to get a groove going. Although you can, of course, apply swing quantization to ideas you play in, we get much more surprising results when using the swing amount as a performance control while playing-in new parts using Push’s Repeat mode.
This doesn’t have to be a continuous running rhythm, just the odd two or three hits here and there with a varying swing amount can really get feet tapping. This works great for any incidental or sporadic percussion work.
Nudge is another favourite option for us but don’t be tricked into thinking it’s just for moving one sound at a time – holding down multiple steps in the sequencer will group hits to enable changing their position as a whole by turning the Nudge encoder. When there are a few good drum ideas going on in one or more clips we like to use Mute to audition more stripped-down versions of the patterns.
You can then Duplicate your clips and replicate these new combinations by using Delete and touching the unwanted drum pad. This approach should get you some very dynamic-sounding patterns and a good collection of clips to create variation throughout your song. The sound of individual hits isn’t a priority at this stage, as we can hot-swap pads and replace them with other samples or drum synths later down the line. Max for Live’s Drum Synth devices are a handy tool for sculpting and they easily integrate with Push.
Capturing external sounds
1: Push isn’t reserved for working as a standalone, in fact with the right starting template you can record external performers to integrate into your jams from a variety of soundcard inputs. Whether you want to record instrument ideas, sing a vocal line or grab some percussion to add some human dynamics on the fly, start with an Audio Track with the appropriate audio interface input selected in the Audio From menu.
2: In order to record audio with minimal background bleed you’ll need to set up your interface to monitor the backing track via headphones while you mute your main speaker playback. There are a few ways to set this up but the simplest and quickest way is by setting up a Return Track in Live that is always muted. This can be used to feed a headphone-specific balance of sounds via the individual Sends.
3: When it comes to recording, you simply Solo the Return Track, Arm Session Recording on the track you want to record to, and set up your headphone balance with the sends so as not to disturb your current mix. You can of course run this Return Track directly to another headphone output on your interface if available, or even multiple Return tracks for independent headphones mixes for different musicians.