Learning the harp - how to take the first steps
I've been using Ableton Live for about 12 years now. Back then, this DAW was more of an insider tip from the techno scene (and I was a little 14-year-old music nerd). But these days, since the release of the "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" EP by Skrillex, and the worldwide dubstep hype that followed, Ableton Live is experiencing an unstoppable rise to mainstream status. What makes it special is the way the workflow functions, and the sheer endless sound design possibilities. It's extremely flexible and there are very few limits. That's partly because it was software originally designed for performing music. And it's still used a lot for that. But it also created a studio revolution and changed the music world forever. That sounds like a bold statement, and it is. To put it in the words of Robert Henke (the inventor of Ableton Live):
"That we're certainly partly to blame for how music is made today and how music sounds... And how music is performed... That's certainly still fascinating. Of course, you can make pretty boring music with Ableton Live, and there's nothing wrong with that if you enjoy it. But you can [also] do some pretty cool stuff with it. I think it's a fallacy to blame the tool for what people do with it."(translated from German) Source: The Birth of Ableton Live (Interview with Robert Henke) | Arte TRACKS
As you can already read clearly in the subtext here, Ableton Live is actually made for making particularly complex music. And that's exactly why it's extremely popular in the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) scene.
Watch out, it's about to get nerdy. To understand why Ableton Live is so popular in the EDM scene, let's revisit Skrillex's Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites EP. In 2010, no one had ever heard anything like it. Maybe you remember thinking "What the hell is this anyway...? This robot music... How does it even work?". I remember my mom coming into my room and telling me to please turn down that horrible music that sounds like a broken washing machine. I didn't, of course. I preferred to download FM8 and Massive from Native Instruments, because that's what Skrillex was known to use to craft his crazy new sounds. But these synthesizers don't do much for you on their own. They only unfold their full potential in combination with Ableton Live. Of course, as with any Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW, for short), every parameter can be automated. In Ableton Live, however, it's much faster than in Logic, for example. It allows for a very efficient workflow of the software. Users don't have to click through menus, we can touch any parameter with the mouse and it will automatically show the automation line for it immediately. This applies to every parameter in the entire track. Automations can also be copied and edited at lightning speed. Anyone who masters the automation shortcuts in Ableton is a true music wizard. In the time it would take you to search around in the menu in Logic or Pro Tools, you could already have 10 automation tracks ready in Ableton.
So back in 2010 someone like Skrillex could remotely control an infinite number of automations on every conceivable parameter of an FM synthesizer, and do so with precision. And there's the exact secret of dubstep sounds: Extreme automation complexity.
This feature is the reason I will never have another primary DAW again. In Ableton Live, plug-ins can be grouped. Not only that, we can open multiple groups on each individual track. Not just one after the other, because you can also open groups within groups. So there are no limits to creativity.
Theoretically you could have 20 groups and in each of these groups another five. You can build an internal network of mixbusses on each track. This is an incredibly powerful sound design tool that I would never want to do without. I'll show you what I use it for, for example:
Almost a classic bus network with parallel (not serial!) reverb and delay in a single track. This allows us to edit the individual effects independently. Admittedly, this setup can also be solved with any other DAW in the classic way with aux tracks, but it is much clearer and simpler this way.
Of course you can also save the whole rack, so you can also open an unlimited number of ready preset buses with one click—this saves a lot of time!
Now it gets more exciting. Because on this track, in addition to the effects rack already shown, we have 3 parallel units of a synthesizer, all of which subsequently run into our effects rack. In another DAW, it takes (what feels like) forever to create all these synth layers and aux tracks.
And you already have a completely full mixer window. Here I have exactly one track. And it takes less than 10 seconds to create it with only two shortcuts.
Let's move on to a real gamechanger: If you split a multiband compressor in an audio effects rack into three internal tracks, and then solo one band on each track, you have your sound split into three frequency bands, all of which you can then process individually. This allows us to use each plug-in as a multiband effect. For example, here we have a chorus on the mids only. That's really cool for bass sounds that should stay mono in the bass, but be nice and wide in the mids and highs. But of course you can do all kinds of other crazy things with it.
As you can see, there are no limits to creativity here. You can also combine effect racks, multiband racks and synth racks to create your very own racks. There are virtually endless possibilities. And it's all on a single track. Pretty cool, right? And that's just the beginning. The craziest is yet to come.
Imagine you could program your own plug-ins. That would be great, wouldn't it? You could just program everything exactly the way you want it. That's exactly what Max for Life is. An open source programming tool for Ableton Live. With it you can build almost anything you can imagine. A fellow student of mine programmed a synthesizer in his studies, which gets its note information not through midi, but through vocals, and thus harmonizes with the singing.
The coolest thing is that you can download Max for Life plugins from other sources. And as you can imagine, there's even crazier stuff out there. But you can also find extremely practical tools that allow you to get a lot more out of the plugins you're already using.
For example, a simple Low Frequency Oscillator (LFO). You can apply this LFO to any parameter of your plug-ins. You can use it to modulate the reverberation time of your reverb, even if it doesn't have a modulation LFO integrated in the plug-in. Or you can modulate an EQ that actually doesn't have an LFO either. And that's just one of the endless possibilities of Max for Life. There are countless functions with which you can extend your "standard" plug-ins.
Respect, if you've read this far. Then you really are a huge sound design nerd (welcome to the club!). I can understand if it's all a bit much to start with and if it's still a bit confusing. You can just combine everything. Racks within racks within racks, all of which are automated and include Max for Life mods. If you can imagine it, somehow there's a way to implement that in Ableton.
If there's one thing I've learned about Ableton Live, it's that there's always a cool feature you don't know about yet. Even after 10 years, that's still the case. But that shouldn't scare you off, because the actual DAW is totally easy to use. The complexity only comes with time. As Robert Henke said so well, "You can also make boring music with Ableton, that's also fun." You don't always have to exhaust all the crazy possibilities. But the beauty is that you can if you want to. And that's why we EDM producers love this DAW. If you want to create sounds that are new and different - sounds that no one has heard before, then Ableton is the DAW of choice. This DAW actually makes it easier for us, not more complicated, because it's very intuitive. It seems complicated when you're new to it, but once you get to know it a little bit, it becomes child's play and very fast.
Speaking of intuitive usability, there is another extremely helpful feature that I would like to show you. By the way, this can be perfectly combined with Racks, but more about that later.
In the name of Ableton Live is a hint, why this DAW has other features besides the racks, which are unfortunately missing in Pro Tools and others. I am referring to, of course, the second word in the name: "Live." This software, unlike other DAWs, was designed for stage use, among other things. The MIDI mode, which I would like to introduce to you in the following part of the article, is such a function, which was obviously invented for stage use. However, it is extremely useful not only on stage, but also in the studio.
Let's take a quick trip back in time to the 80's to gather a little knowledge you can use to seem smart at your next band rehearsal. MIDI stands for "Musical Instrument Digital Interface" and was introduced in August 1982. So MIDI is pretty much 40 years old now. It was first invented to enable compatibility of synthesizers (and other sound generators) from different manufacturers. Dave Smith and the Roland Cooperation were in charge of this project. In the meantime, however, countless audio devices use the MIDI protocol to transmit simple data. Faders, encoders and drum pads are just a few examples. MIDI is a digital protocol, which transmits only very small amounts of data. These data are for example: The note a keyboard plays, when the key is pressed, when it is released and how hard it is pressed. Or in the case of a drum pad: how hard it is hit, which pad is hit and which note is triggered by it.
Speaking of triggering notes on a drum pad: Yes, you can trigger notes with any drum pad. But the fun really starts when you can assign functions to these respective midi notes. By "misappropriating" them, countless possibilities arise. You can use MIDI "only" for synthesizers, as it was once thought, but when this idea was born, "Back to the Future" wasn't even in theaters yet. In 2022, we have a lot of other possibilities. For example:
As you can see, a complete live show can be automated with MIDI, so that the musicians "only" have to play and all devices adapt automatically. All you need are MIDI interfaces, a laptop, and Ableton Live. But there are also countless tricks for everyday studio use. It doesn't always have to be a DAW controller, many things can also be solved quickly, cheaply and easily with MIDI in Ableton Live, such as:
If you're thinking, "All these functions sound really useful, but it's going to take forever to set them all up," then you've done the math without Ableton Live. I'm going to show you how quick and easy it is.
That's all you need to know. By the way, you can set as many parameters as you want for each pad and encoder. So you can remote control a whole range of plug-ins with just a single knob. This is extremely handy in a live application, of course, because you can remote control many different effects with very few knobs. For example, you could build an "effect vocal chain" for a particular song part that you can turn on and off with just one MIDI pad.
For DJs, the MIDI mode is especially interesting because you can control a whole range of effects with just one potentiometer or encoder. This allows a range of self-built transition effects.
For studio hobbyists, there are also all kinds of creative applications, such as extremely complex automations of synthesizers. Anyone who has dived deeper into sound design knows how annoying a track with 20 automations can be. Since MIDI mode also allows negative modulation, I.e., you can modulate in the opposite direction of a pot's rotation, you can put a whole bunch of parameters on just one pot and then automate it. This saves time and nerves. It also allows you to "play" and record very complex modulations yourself, which gives the sounds a more organic character because they weren't drawn with a mouse, but recorded by a human.
By the way, the racks have so-called macros that work the same way as the MIDI mode. You can also map any number of parameters with a certain effective range to them. And you can control the macros remotely via MIDI.
As you can see, there are few limits to creativity here. This makes Ableton Live particularly interesting for creative applications. Producers who want to create complex sounds love the software just as much as artists and DJs who want to bring unique live sets to the stage. If you have an idea, there's almost always a way to make it happen in Ableton Live. At the moment, there are also few alternatives on the market that give you such complex remote control options and great routing flexibility.
If you're still curious and want to learn more about EDM and Ableton, I recommend this blog post of mine about sound layering. If you have questions about Ableton or want to share some cool rack ideas with other producers, check out the mukken musician search. There you will find like-minded people. If you have any questions about tips and tricks, feel free to write me. I teach music production and work with Ableton Live with my students. I would be happy to hear from you. You can find me here on mukken.com or on Instagram.
Originally published on February 8, 2023, updated on February 20, 2023
Main topic: Sound Layering: How to build really fat EDM synths