Up until 10 months ago I had always thought of Ableton Live as something that the really smart musicians were using. Yes, I had seen photos of the interface but was completely puzzled as to what I was looking at as I was coming from about 15+ years of Pro Tools-ing. I watched a couple of videos but it was mostly stuff that didn’t apply to what I wanted to do or was way over my head (BINK BEATS, WHAT SORT OF SORCERER ARE YOU!?). I’d seen the Instagram accounts of people using a Push2 device and got even more confused, intrigued, but confused. And to top it all off, I had a few friends that wouldn’t stop suggesting it to me and would always tell me how much easier it would make my playing.
I had been playing a handful of solo improvised shows in NYC and was feeling good about them, but wanted a way to push the set forward. During the show, I’d spend a couple of minutes building an improvised dronescape and then kind of noodle over it in a meditative way, super fun for me, but maybe only fun for a handful of my nerd friends in the audience. I wanted a way to add other instruments to what I’d just built, a way to make some more sounds, a way to express the multi-instrumentalist I am. And something kept coming to the front of my mind from my friend and master instrumentalist Eric Tait, “Ableton can do that.” I finally decided: I am learning Ableton, dammit. There was no more debating, I was diving in! I was going to read the manual (maybe), watch the videos, check out the tutorials, make tons of mistakes, get dirty, dive in head first to this whole thing until I knew what I was doing. And now, ten-ish months later, here we are, I’m writing an article about how I use Ableton Live in my Ambient setup as Six Missing. Proof that literally anyone can learn this. As I’m writing I realize that I can talk about this at great length, so stay tuned for more in-depth discussions, this here will serve as your crash course introduction into the world of Ableton and how it might be useful for you and your setup. If you’re still with me, let’s dive into how I use it and where I’m at with it now.
For starters I’ll say this, Ableton can do anything you’re about to think of and it will honestly be fairly easy to accomplish. Like I mentioned before, I had spent the last 15 years working in ProTools for music and also for my job as Sound Designer and every studio I ever went to used ProTools and I had never really needed to know anything else. I went into learning Ableton with zero background on how it worked. I waited until the Black Friday deals rolled around (something I suggest waiting for if you can) and bought myself a Push2 with Ableton Live Suite, because go big or go home. The box came, I opened it, and I looked at the Push2 and thought, “awesome, time to figure this out.” I first started with the Ableton site which has a treasure trove of beginner level tutorials on it. But yada yada yada, little by little I started making sounds, figured out how to sequence, learned how to really use the Push2 and celebrated any little win I could. Over the past ten months I’ve learned enough to take it out and play a handful of completely improvised live shows with the entire band running through my Ableton rig. It can be done, y’all.
Enough with the pep talk though, you’re probably thinking. Tell me about your damn rig. Right on, here we go.
My biggest problem with what I was finding online was guys building pre-defined or structured bar loops and playing on top of those. I didn’t want to do that. Half the time I’m building an ambient scape just layering parts on top of each other by how they felt and the emotion I was carrying, I literally let my Boomerang III run in Free mode and wreak havoc. Very much, free-time. In other words, I wanted to be able to play along with my time-less looping in a timed way. Thankfully, I finally figured out a way to do that. It just comes down to signal flow and MIDI mapping a sustain pedal to tap tempo.
Here’s how a typical show/movement will start for me: I’ll start playing into my DD-20 set to a 16-second delay and let that build up a really Frippertronic-style washy bed, then I’ll capture that loop into either my Boomerang III and/or my Ditto x2 and usually pitch that down an octave on one and blend the normal octave loop with the other and then just let those run on their own while I then clear the DD-20 thus freeing it up to be used on a different preset and build a whole heck of other stuff on top of that loop, usually there’s some CountTo5 looping in there and a lot of Thermae as well as my Infinite Jets in Glitch B with knob automation. And note, that this is all subject to change minute to minute. (If any of this doesn’t make sense, take a look at my instagram or the attached photos of my board for a better idea). My desire was to then take that build and play some drums over it, maybe bass, arpeggiated synths, and more. Enter Ableton.
If you think about it in terms of signal flow, Ableton is last in the chain, it’s the grand poobah, the master output. First we start with my guitar which is fed into a 3-input mixer by Red Panda Lab, the other two inputs get used during the live show when I’m also taking in a synth and a mic that all gets processed through my board. After the mixer, the signal flows through my entire board (feel free to watch the video here for more on my pedals and the chain) and leaves the board from my Ditto x2 and enters into the Boomerang III. From the Boomerang III it enters into my Focusrite Scarlett Interface, and arrives into Ableton. The reason I use the Scarlett interface as opposed to the much more portable Apogee Duet is because you can assign which output, either 1&2 or 3&4 to the headphone out, making an instant click track output that I can make cue feeds out of from my mixer, more on that later.
When the guitar arrives in Ableton it hits an audio track that is monitoring the input, this is super important. This audio track has an amp sim on it, my sim of choice right now is Scuffham Amps S-Gear that comes with the Slate Digital All Access Pass. I then have 8 other audio tracks with their input being the input-channel that are only monitoring their output. These tracks are all being “bussed” to a group track which then is being sent out the main output. So what I’ve effectively done is created an 8 input looper. The input track is always going to be heard and is my gatekeeper, then I can peel off whatever is coming through that into clips on any of the other 8 tracks. So I can build endlessly on the front and then dump that into a track in Ableton all at the stomp of a sustain pedal and then clear my board and do it all over again while that first build loops forever, allowing me to pan it, pitch it, filter it, wash it all out in reverb, or turn it into a Simpler and play pieces of the loop as musical notes. It’s so powerful. But I know what you want to know, how do you take an otherwise time-less ambient wash from the board and put it into “time” in Ableton. It’s so easy, tap tempo my friends! Trust your foot!
There are a few ways to do this, but here’s how I did it: On the back of the Push2 there are two ¼” inputs, the one labeled 2 is for a sustain pedal that can activate clip recording. The other labeled 1 is where I plug in another sustain pedal and use an application called MidiPipe to trick Push2 into allowing me to midi map that port. (This is the article that is officially supported by Ableton) Entering into Midi Map mode is as easy as COMMAND+M and then clicking on Tap and then stepping on the footswitch. Viola! Now I have tap tempo to my Ableton rig via a piano sustain pedal.
Once I have the big loop built up before I get it into Ableton I’ll count out in my head what I’m feeling the tempo/rhythm should be, tap it in, and then bam, Ableton is now ready to enter clip recording at that tempo and whatever amount of count-in I set, in which case I can capture my otherwise washy time-less loop and have turned it into an xx bar loop. I use the 2nd sustain pedal plugged into the back of Push2 to trigger recording of clips so I can do this without taking my hands off the guitar or pedals that I’m manipulating. Once that’s into Ableton looping merrily along, I can layer synths, sequence drums, even start to build arrangements by dragging certain clips down to the next scene and can begin improvising in that way too. Thus making my solo improvised set a tad bit more interesting to watch. Now I’m composing on the fly instead of just purely playing. It feels good to my engineer brain to be able to bring certain channels/loops up and down in the mix, pan them in the stereo field (and soon to be immersive 360 field that I’m working on), trigger them on and off – the whole set has become more dynamic now. Also, I’ve given myself a heck lot more to keep track of and have guaranteed myself the need to drive to every gig and be within walking distance of the venue. Super easy in NYC…not.
The final step in my particular case at this point, I then route the output of Ableton to my Scarlett and feed that out to a Zoom L-12 mixer that is simultaneously recording discrete channels of the show, making a monitor/cue feed, and sending mains to the house. The L-12 is awesome and very easy to use. Plus at the end of the show, I have a discrete multi-track recording of the entire thing, ready to be mixed, mastered, and uploaded within a few hours. A stereo input is being used for “Ableton” and a mono input is being used as the 3&4 Output from Ableton that we setup earlier as the click. Then I can create a cue feed to my headphones of click and Ableton, making sure I always stay in time once we get into time. Again, that’s all subject to change as sometimes I/we jam off the grid or without a click, in which case I just click off the click at the press of a button on Push2.
To try to tie all of this overview together (jeez, finally, right?) I had to change how I thought of Ableton as a piece of software and treat it more like an instrument/pedal/endless looper/gift from god. Once I realized that yes it can replace all my pedals and amps, but it can also be an addition to those things, I fell in love with it.
My set is constantly changing and I’m learning something new about Ableton and my gear every day. Aside from using Ableton as a live companion I’ve been using it more for straight up composition as it’s really great to be able to compile an improvised build in Session View and then live perform it and capture it into Arrangement View.
I’m really excited to share this first piece and look forward to hearing from you on how you use Ableton or how you plan on using it in the future! Feel free to take the journey with me over on my instagram (@tjdumser) while I continue learning and exploring and sharing as I go!