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Ableton Live 8. First Look

Written by Jim Pavloff.

This is my first article, and I have decided to dedicate it to such wonderful musical product, like Ableton Live 8, which is professional enough and is very comfortable audio and midi sequencer. Of course, there are another excellent products, like Steinberg Cubase, Logic or Pro Tools, but I stopped my selection on Ableton, because it's very useful for me, doesn't have any heavy unnecessary functions, and simultaneously has all the means you need to write a dance club music.

At current time the more and more musicians and djs around the world choose Ableton Live, as one of the most stable and maximum functionality programs of the present time. A list of famous people, who use Ableton in their music creation, is very massive. For example, here's only several names: Richie Hawtin, Sasha, Pete Tong, Armin Van Buuren, Daft Punk, John Digweed, Mogwai, Nine Inch Nails, The Prodigy, Meat Beat Manifesto and many others.

In past I used to create my music in Sony Acid software, but because of its not enough professionality I've jumped to Cubase. It had all the professional functions and excellent sound quality, automation, but however it wasn't comfortable enough while working with sound loops. And to say more Cubase wasn't intended especially to meet all the needs of club music writing. And I had to go back to Sony Acid again, and worked with it for a very long time, when finally in 2007 one of my friends has adviced me to switch to Ableton Live.

At the beginning Ableton's interface seemed to me very non-intuitive and comprehensive. But it was only the first look. I have sat down reading documentation and learning tutorials.  After two weeks I have read all the Ableton's documentation with a big interest, and I understood how it was simple and comfortable to make many things in it, which were very comprehensive to do in other programs. In general, I was very happy to choose Ableton for myself. Have to say, that almost exact analog of this program by its functions and parameters is Fruity Loops,  which is also very popular in the world beetween djs and musicians of club scene. But Ableton is still more close to me, that's why I will write mostly about this product in my music dedicated articles on this site.

So, lets go on. In this article I will tell about general main screan of the program and its main workarea sections. You can change the size of each section, dragging it's boundary with the mouse, you can also remove these sections away from the screen using buttons, shown next to these sections. Let's look at each of these sections (they shown with red numbers in the figure).

Fig. 1 - Ableton Live. Main sections

1 - Browser

In this section you can see a list of plugins, instruments, samples that you use. You just choose a needed plugin, instrument of sample from a list, and drag it with the mouse into your project. This window has 6 tabs, you can switch between them clicking a vertically layered round buttons, shown in left top corner of the window. Lets go through theese tabs from top to bottom.

First tab called "Live Devices" (a button with a small rectangle icon on it). All the native built-in Ableton's plugins are located inside this tab. If you click on this tab, three folders will appear inside the browser window, they are:

  • Instruments, where all the built-in synths and drum machine modules are stored. With their help you can create sounds, write bass lines, melodies, drums etc.
  • MIDI Effects, where all the built-in midi tools are stored. They needed when you work with your melodic note parts (don't be confused, you don't need to know the musical notes to be able to write music in Ableton, everything is easier than you think).
  • Audio Effects, where all the built-in audio plugins for sound signal processing are stored. I will write about all these plugins in detail in one of my next articles.

Second tab of the browser called "Plug-In Devices" (a button with a plug icon on it). Here is all the VST plug-ins and VSTi instruments in it, which are installed in your system. For those, who unfamiliar with VST I will tell, in general, that this technology allows to use not only built-in native Ableton's plug-ins and synths, but also other additional VST and VSTi's installed in your system.

Next three tabs with icons 1,2,3 represent ordinary file browsers, and they display any local disk folders' contents. You can choose by yourself,what information to be displayed in here. This can be done by clicking on tab's title. You can choose from the following options:

  • Library - displays contents of internal Ableton library. You can find here ready-to-use note parts for your track, also presets for different built-in modules, sound samples and some other things.
  • Current Project - if you choose this option, you'll see a contents of the folder, where your current ableton project was saved.
  • Desktop - to display contents of your Window's Desktop.
  • Workspace - displays a tree of folders on your local hard disks, just like in ordinary file manager. You can view here contents of any your hard disk. You can open certain folder, where, for example, your samples are stored, and you can then drag them from this folder right into your project. You can also a pre-listen selected sample here right inside this window, and there's no need to open it. That's very useful if you want to listen to some big number of different samples to choose the one you like from them.
  • My Documents - here's everything is clear, I think. Displays contents of your "My Documents" folder.

    I usually organize file browsers in following configuration: 1 - Library, 2 - Workspace, 3 - Current project.

2 - Main work area

In this area your musical composition is shown, and all the audio and midi tracks of it. This window can display information in two main modes. First mode (by default) called Session View, second - Arrangement View. You can switch between these modes by clicking on two buttons, that are shown in the top right corner of the main work area. Also, you can hit [TAB] key on your keyboard to switch between these modes. Lets make a short overview of these modes.

  • Session View mode. In this mode, track are displayed in vertical columns, like on a mixer deck. For each there's volume control, level indicator, mute and solo buttons and other parameters shown in the lower section of the columns. This mode is generally intended for playing live with Ableton. You can create different melodic parts in the slots (small rectangular boxes) for each channel, and you can switch between them in realtime during playback, just by clicking on necessary slot's button "play". I use this mode for familiar and convenient representation of the tracks like on mixer deck during mixing process (ballancing parts volumes in my project). The most right column in this window represents a Master channel. It is audio master-output of your entire musical composition. You can assign different sound processing plug-ins to this Master channel.

  • Arrangement View mode. This is a main mode for writing your musical compositions. Tracks are represented in a traditional horizontal look, one above another. In this mode you can do all the operations with your tracks, samples, to cut, copy, to draw envelopes and automation and many other things.

3 - Section of synths, plug-ins and note editor

When you select a track in main work area, this section will show you the properties of your selected track. It shows you, what synths are assigned to this track, which plug-ins this track is being processed. This section has two tabs, you can switch between them in the bottom right corner next to the section.

First tab displays directly the source material of the track (for audio track it's the waveform of the sample, for midi track it's the note editor, which can be used to edit and write some notes here in this window).

Second tab shows plug-ins and instruments, assigned to your currently selected track.

4 - Hints section

And finally, there's fourth section - hints section. It can be useful to see some helpful hints. If you don't need this section to be shown, you can remove it by clicking the small button in the left bottom corner next to this window, to prevent it to take additional space on your screen.

There's one more section, which is between 1 and 4 sections. This is Groove's section. Grooves are used when you want to add to your note parts some rhythmical micro-shiftings, which are used sometimes in  music. But we will talk about it later. And for now, please collapse this section by clicking a button with two-waves icon next to the section.

Two more words about transport bar, which is shown on the most top row of all Ableton's window. Here you will see a traditional buttons like play, stop, record, you can change the tempo of your track, activate the loop (cycle), metronome etc. I will not go into details here, because these controls are very similar to other musical programs controls. I have to say only about one important  button with three lines and an arrow icon. This button called "Back To Arrangement". When you change something in your project, or will play in live mode from Session view, this button can led red color. If so, then it means, that your current state of played material differs from the state, stored in your Arrangement view, i.e. your track is now sound not as it was recorded, some parameter has been changed by you. Click this button to return all the parameters back to their recorded state.

That's all what you need to know to feel yourself comfortable and familiar in Ableton Live, just like at home. Further are the details, and we will talk about them in my next publications.

Written by Jim Pavloff, 2010


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Very good article. Please if you want, write more articles. It will be very helpful to me, because I make music (or I am trying for almost 9 years) and I want to learn how to use ableton. Thank you very much.

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