Funky Breaks in Ableton Live

[UPDATED: July. 16, 2008 for Live version 7]

There are two schools of thoughts when talking about recording music: 1) Capturing performance and 2) Authoring.

Here’s a test: how easy is it to trigger samples at quantized intervals in your host software? If you answered “very” then you probably have Battery or Live, both favor the capturing performance method. If you said “none’ you probably have ACID Pro.


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What follows is a tutorial on how to make the most of Live’s ability to capture a sample-triggering-performance. I assumes you’re relatively new to the tool but I reach pretty far down to some some cool, but simple techniques. For this project I use a pre-existing drum loop and tear it apart to make a funky-break-d&b-kinda-sorta-thingy.

Setting things up will take a few minutes but you can hear the results of what I used as an example project by clicking on Vincent on the right. You can follow along and see the whole Ableton Live Set (download here (ZIP).

  • Pick a drum loop or create your own, just keep it relatively simple. Ideally you have a clean shot at isolating the main ingredients: bass drum, hi-hat, snare, etc.
  • Create a track by dragging the drum loop into the first slot of an empty track. (Tip: click on the track title and select “Edit/Rename” (Control-R) and rename the track to something useful, like “Drums.”)
  • Set the clip properties: Double click on the clip and the Properties pane should open and show you the default properties. Open the ‘Launch’ section. Set Quantize to 1/32 Legato. This allows for two very important features during the performance:
    • It means you can be a little sloppy and the clip will still get triggered in time with the music and
    • if you interrupt the playing of this clip with another clip and then come back, this clip will continue where it left off instead of being re-triggered. This right here is the magic of how the whole thing works.
  • Setup a Delay Send It will save you a lot of time and clicks to get this step out of the way now. Just trust me. Doing this step means that you can route any part of your drum beat to any plug-in effect. I’m using Filter Delay and you can start with that and change it later to reverb or anything else. The important part is set up the Send track now. (Tip: Before you proceed make sure the menu items “View|Returns”and “View|Sends” are checked.)

    1. Click on the name of the Return track to rename it (Control-R) something useful like “Delay.” Hit return when you’re done.
    2. Double click on the name to bring up the plug-in bus.
    3. Drag the Delay Filter from the explorer pane down to the plug-in bus.
    4. Tweak the Send Knob under the Drums track all the way to the right.
    5. Double click on the Drum clip (not the track heading) to bring up the clip’s properties

    6. Select the little ‘e’ to bring up the ‘Envelopes’ Section
    7. Select ‘Show All Modulations’
    8. Select “Mixer” and “Return A”
    9. There will be a red line at the top of the image of the clip, when you hover over it will turn yellow. Drag the yellow line all the way to the bottom of the picture.
  • Duplicate the clip
    Hold down the control key while you drag the original clip into other slots. Do this several times to make lots of copies of the clip. (Roughly eight should give you enough variations later.)
  • Edit the looping region for each clip.

    Leave the first clip alone so you have a ‘vanilla’ version of the whole loop. Starting with the second clip: double click on each clip to bring up their properties. Start playing the clip so you can hear what you’re doing. Move and resize the Loop/Region markers to isolate a part of the clip.
    Also, don’t forget to move the Loop Offset marker as well to give yourself even more variations.

    Tips: The way my mind works requires that I have at least these different kinds of clips ready to trigger:

    • Looping rhythms: these are short clips that stand on their own when just looping. Typically they are two beats long, occasionally one.
    • Fills: usually involving the effects Send (more below) and/or having things happen on the offbeat. A simple snare on the upbeat is enough to get interesting results later.
    • Isolated instruments: one clip that is just a bass drum, one just a snare, etc. etc. That allows me to throw in an extra boom of the bass drum or clack of the snare rim at random times. These are typically one beat or half a beat long.
    • Glitches: these are very short clips with just one sound, usually bass drum or rim shot. These are used as rolls and other special effects.
    For each clip, considering moving the Delay Send envelope back up for some part (or even all) of the playing loop region. Double clicking on the envelope line at the bottom of the clip allows you to create draggable points along the line. Nothing is cast in stone and you can always come back to this step (including in the middle of your performance) but it’s nice to think ahead and what you may want to use a particular clip for.
  • Assign clips to keys, that is: either your computer’s QWERTY keyboard or a nearby MIDI keyboard (or both if you’re a little whacked). A drum machine/MPC* with MIDI controller outputs is not a bad way to go either. Start by clicking on either the Key (for QWERTY) or MIDI (for MIDI controllers) at the upper right hand corner of Live.
    This will give everything a kind of jaundice tint. That means you’re in ‘assigning stuff’ mode. For each clip: First click on the clip then hit the keyboard key you want assigned to trigger that clip.

    I am easily confused. That’s why I like to organize these kinds of things in ways that are easy for me to remember. In this case I put all the looping
    beats on one line and the fills and other stuff on other lines of the keyboard. (For MIDI keyboard I’ll put all the fills and glitches on black keys and the loops on white.)

    The basic premise behind a performance based on this setup can be summed up this way:

    For the most part you play loops with the top row of keys, occasionally moving back forth, even if it’s
    only for part of a measure.

    Use the rows with fills and glitches as you approach big transitions.

  • Setup Effects Automation Having the drums play with exactly the same sound throughout a piece
    of music is too vanilla so we can add a huge bang for little buck by attaching a hardware fader or knob to a filter (pitch wheels on simply MIDI keyboards work great here).

    1. Start by double clicking on the track heading (not a clip).
    2. Drag the EQ Four effect into the plug-in trough
    3. Select the number ‘4’ and the high-cut-off doohickey by clicking it on each.
    4. Click on MIDI in the top right corner of the application
    5. Click on the virtual Freq knob back in the effect
    6. Twiddle a real knob or slider somewhere in your studio
    7. Click on MIDI again to get out of assigning MIDI mode

OK!!! I think we’re ready to perform some d&b drum breaks. Hit the space bar and start banging on keys and moving sliders around. And be funky.

10 thoughts on “Funky Breaks in Ableton Live

  1. John Pazdan

    ah one ah and ah 2 ah..V vill next do z tute on doing the same thang using Stylus RMX in Acid…yes Herr Stone?

    We like the RMX for this..

  2. Stanley Allen

    This a great article. Your ability to explain and demonstrate is fantastic.
    Should you choose to write more about using Live, or any other software for that matter, I will be the first to subscribe to your website.

  3. Brian Park

    Thank you very much for this great tutorial. I will be sure to check out more of your articles.

  4. outsider jamming

    thanx for your xp…
    I found drum rack are very useful for organize all this sliced pieces

Comments are closed.