This week, I’m launching the first of my “Gear Guide” tutorial series with a deeper dive into my Ableton set-up on my YouTube channel. You can watch that after this intro, but to accompany my new videos, I’m going to be posting a typed out version of each tutorial so that you have a resource to look things up outside the video. You can find the typed tutorial below the video in this post!
Before I go into all that though, just a little housekeeping. I realize these tutorials mainly apply to a certain subset of my fans who are musicians, producers, or just really into gear. So I want to be doing these in tandem with my regular blogs that focus on musicianship, technology, creativity, writing, and yes, sometimes politics. This is the first tutorial I’ve ever made, and it was harder to do on the road than I originally anticipated. Since next week is the last week of our Summer tour, the next tutorial will not be coming out until the first full week of September, likely on Thursday. This will give me some time to return to my regular musings next week while we finish up the tour. Starting in the second week of September, I’ll be trying to keep up with both simultaneously on a weekly basis.
So without further ado, here you go!
Gear Guide: Ableton Live Tutorial
For the first part of this series, I’m going to take you through the secondary brain of the instrument (myself being the primary), and that’s my laptop. I run Ableton with a variety of plug-ins, so let’s dive right in.
So my first step after opening Ableton is to select the correct instance I’ll be using. As of this Summer, Digisaurus’ show operates as a solo show with just myself, as a duo with either drums or bass, or as a trio with both drums and bass. For this tutorial, I’ll open up my solo master file. The other alternate files have either the bass or drums track muted depending on what our line up is.
Master Live File Layout
When I open it up, we come to this layout on the clip view in Ableton. It contains a masterful jargon of different channels, clips and scenes, so hold on to your pants as I attempt to explain
Before I jump into the different channels, it's important for you to know that all of them are routed in and our of my main mixer, the Behringer XR18, right now. This unit is mounted in my rack, and on top of having all my in’s and outs for analog instruments and mic’s, and it hooks up via USB to my computer to act as my main interface for ins and outs my Ableton.
Backing Tracks (Red Channels)
Creating Tracks: Channels 1-7 contain clips (the clips are all the small boxes above fader, bus knobs and audio in and out assignments) that I use as backing tracks for a song in our set. For each song, I have another Ableton file with all the songs stems from it's recording in it. I then create a mix of what I want, and export these as stereo tracks. So for example, in my master song file for “Make a Move,” I’ll export all my drum tracks to a single stereo drum file. I then use that as my clip under the “Drums” channel for “Make a Move.”
All the clips I export are in stereo. For the level of touring I’m on, I probably could have gotten away with Mono. But most of the original stems were in stereo, and I had a lot of cancellation issues when I did tried to create mono mixes.
My goal is to never have to adjust anything in Ableton during the show, including the faders. So I try to create the best mix I can of a song in my master song file before exporting my backing track clips. After I’ve got all the clips for all the songs made, I then spend some time in a room with large PA speakers adjusting the gain on each clip so that the levels are as close as possible song to song. Again, this prevents me from having to adjust any faders between songs. I also apply a EQ/Compression mastering plugin on each Ableton channel to keep things as level as possible and prevent any big jumps during a show
Channels & Routing: I have the following channels set up for my backing tracks: Drums, Percussion, Bass, Guitar, Backing Vox, High Synth, and Bass Synth. From there, I have these being sent to three different stereo mixes on my Behringer mixer. I have them grouped as the following:
Backing Tracks Stereo Mix 1: Drums/Percussion
Backing Tracks Stereo Mix 2: Bass/Bass Synth
Backing Tracks Stereo Mix 3: Guitar/Backing Vox/High Synth
I decided on these channels and stereo mixes based on what works for me and a sound guy to mix a show while allowing for maximum flexibility when I have other instrumentalists. For example, if I have a drummer, I can just mute the drum track in Ableton, and then still have a stereo mix of the percussion available on my mixer to mix during the show. During soundcheck, I’ll play my tracks over over the Front of House speakers and walk around the venue with my I-Pad to make any overall EQ or Compression adjustments on the Behringer mixer based on the room we’re playing in.
Triggering a Song: All the stem clips for a song are aligned in what’s called a “scene.” Each scene has a button all the way to the right on the master channel that will trigger all the clips in that scene to play when hit.
In the picture above, my mouse is hovering over the scene button for “Charlie’s Got Me Running.” When I click, all the clips in that scene are now playing, as evident from the green “play” buttons on each clip.
As you can see, on the “Charlie’s Got Me Running” and “Make a Move” scenes, I have some additional clips below my full song scene. In this instance they are looped clips, so if I were to hit the “Charlie’s Got Me Running Intro Loop” scene, you would just hear a drum/bass loop play until I stopped it. In the case of this song, I use this time to record guitar loops and try out new things until we’re ready to kick in to the full song. If you watch my live solo rendition of “Charlie’s Got Me Running” from a couple of weeks ago, you’ll see this in full action..
Instruments (Green Channels)
On top of my backing track channels, I have Instrument channels I use to mess around with and play live during our set. These are laid out as follows:
MJ Channel: This channel has warped loop clips of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop till you Get enough” that I can trigger between songs. You’ll see these scenes labeled as “trans” for transition tracks. The clips are warped to match the speed of the next song, and I can keep the party going on beat between a song when I need to tune, drink some water, or fix a malfunctioning piece of equipment on the fly.
I run my guitar directly through my Behringer XR18 mixer into Ableton. From there, I’m utilizing Guitar Rig Player (free version of Guitar Rig Pro by Komplete) as a plug in on the guitar channel for all my tones and effects. I also use an audio effect rack to store different settings on each song. By using MIDI clips, I can automate effects and tone to kick in when I want them, and thus I don’t have to deal with any pedals. I’ll go into further detail on setting that up in another tutorial somewhere down the line.
Sample Pad (Instrument)
This channel contains a drum rack instrument where I’ve dropped different samples in. I use a Novation launchpad to trigger my samples. At the top, I’ve got some sounds from NASA’s soundcloud account that I use on “Charlie’s Got Me Running,” and down here I’ve got some chopped up vocal samples that I play on Charlie and Blood on your Face.
This channel is just set up to give me visual feedback on my launchpad, which is just getting the buttons to light up. For some reason the MIDI From and MIDI to has to be set to these channels to make them work, and I haven’t found a way around that yet.
In Ear Tracks (Darker Blue)
These two channels are just turned up on my second mix bus on my Behringer mixer, which is routed to my in-ear transmitter. Only people on in-ears on stage here these tracks.
The Count In channel contain clips of me saying “1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4” to cue us when a song is for a song to start. And the Click is just blank MIDI clips on a song so I can hear the click for a song. Say we’re getting ready to play a tune, but we’re not ready for me to trigger the full scene just yet. Someone’s not ready or we want to jam into it, etc. I would instead trigger the line before, for example "Two Steps Click," line just so I can hear the click and keep things on beat. You have to have some sort of clip on a scene for the click to play though, otherwise the scene won't play and there is no click..
Lights (Lighter Blue)
And lastly we have the lights channel. I run my lights through a DMX/USB converter box called a DMXIS. If you run lights, think of this as just the place where you plug your DMX cables into the lighting board. Then I open up the DMXIS plug-in in Ableton, and it acts a virtual lighting board board.
I’ve macro assigned each channel on the lighting board to a MIDI channel on the Lights channel, and created a light show for each song that’s triggered by a MIDI clip on each song. For example, in the image above, you're seeing the envelope for MIDI channel 7 on the lights channel, which corresponds to the master dimmer for Profile Panel 1 on the lighting board. In the image, you can see how the channel is being automated as we play the song “Make a Move.
This is pretty complicated stuff, so I’ll also do a further tutorial on this down the line. For now, I’ll just say it took me about 4 hours to create a light show for a song utilizing our current set up.
So that’s it! That’s my Ableton Live workflow. In a couple of weeks I’ll show you more about my Behringer XR18 I-Pad mixer and what I’ve got going on there. Thanks for reading and again, you can find the full video version of this tutorial at the top of this post. Let me know if this has been helpful to you or if you have any suggestions in the comments below. And if there’s anything you’d like to see more of, please don’t hesitate to ask.