Four Unique Features of Ableton Live

I’m going to start this article off with a disclaimer. I love Ableton Live. I really do. While Live may not have some of the deeper settings available on other DAWs, with the release of Live 9, I have every tool I need for 99% of projects.

So, I might be a bit biased when I talk about Live. That being said, I still think there are some really unique features and workflow options that no other DAW has. I’m going to share four of my favorite features of Live, and by the end, hopefully you’ll have some ideas of how you can use integrate Live as another tool in your music software tool belt.

1. Racks

Racks are one of Live’s signature features. The best way to describe a rack in Ableton is to imagine a chain of a synthesizer, EQ, delay, reverb, and a flanger.  Now take all of those and group them into one device. We can still go in and change whatever settings we want, or add/remove effects, but we now have them all wrapped up into one nice little package, with 8 knobs that we can assign to control virtually any parameter(s) inside the rack. Ableton offers instrument, drum, audio effect, and MIDI effect racks. However, drum and instrument racks can hold any combination of instruments, audio effects, and MIDI effects.

A drum rack gives you a traditional drum pad-style grid where you can fill each slot with a drum sample, a synth, or even another rack. This allows you to have a drum track with a sampled kick, and a snare that’s being generated by a synthesizer, with each component processed individually with EQ and compression, and then running together into another compressor on the end, all in one tidy package. (More on drum synthesis and creation in a later article). While this is possible in other DAWs with routing, Live provides a really easy and intuitive way to speed it up in your workflow. With the macros available on any rack, you can easily assign different parameters for easy control. One knob could bring up a reverb decay time, turn down the modulation on a phaser, and face in an auto pan. This really comes in handy when you find combinations of effects that work well together, and you can save the rack as a single preset to bring up at any time.

If you have a basic setup of EQ, compression, and saturation that you use while mixing, you can save the effects in a rack, and set up your most commonly used parameters to macros. You can always go in and fine-tune the settings later, but this is a great way to speed up your workflow. Once you dive deeper into chain selectors, racks within racks, and parallel racks, the power and flexibility of racks really begins to shine.

(While we’re talking about racks here, this would be a good time to lead you to some awesome free racks over on the Slam Academy Facebook page!)

2. MIDI and Key Mapping

I’m going to be using the word “easy” quite a bit throughout this article, but it’s really the best way to describe many of Live’s features. MIDI mapping and key mapping are ridiculously easy. You select the mapping button, click whatever parameter you want to map, and press a key or send a MIDI message. It’s really that easy. This allows you to make virtually any parameter in Live accessible from a MIDI controller, or create custom key commands quickly. This is entirely possible to do in other DAW’s, but I have yet to see another program that offers this as intuitively and quickly as Live.

3. Audio-to-MIDI

When Live 9 was announced in the fall of 2012, Audio-to-MIDI was one of the big features that grabbed everyone’s attention. The idea is that Live has 3 different algorithms: Drum, Melody, and Harmony. Using these, you can convert audio files into MIDI files to edit, change sounds — whatever you want.

Drum is for rhythmic material, and will detect which drum is being hit as well as the rhythm. Melody is for monophonic melodic material, and Harmony is used on polyphonic melodic material. Unfortunately there are some limitations. Throw a complicated drum groove at it, or dense polyphonic material like a full track, and you may end up with a strange mess of notes that will vaguely sound like the original material. Most of the time Live will add notes, rather than miss notes, which makes editing easier.

However, if you’re using simpler material or willing to do some editing, this feature is incredibly powerful. I’ve started to keep a microphone plugged in and waiting for me when I’m working on music now. If I have an idea, I’ll just quickly bang it out on my desk, or hum it into the microphone, and use the audio-to-MIDI function. For engineers, this could also be a cool alternative to using drum replacement programs. Just select your kick track, run it through “Drum-to-MIDI” and you’ll have a MIDI track that you can use to trigger whatever samples you want. Or, easily double a lead guitar line with a synthesizer. Neat!

4. Max for Live

I have to give most of the credit here to the great people at Cycling 74, the creators of Max/MSP. With the introduction of Max for Live, Ableton became infinitely more customizable. If you’re not familiar with Max/MSP, it is a visual programming language designed for music and multimedia. Max has been a favorite program for many electronic musicians over the past 20 years. Max for Live is basically a form of Max that runs inside Live, either as an instrument, MIDI effect, or audio effect, and also allows you to utilize the Live API to control Live. One of the favorite Max for Live applications is an external LFO, allowing you to modulate any parameter you want. You can create your own synthesizers, audio effects, or anything. Virtually anything you can think of can be done, or found in the ever-growing Max for Live community.

There you have it. Four things that make Ableton Live my favorite tool for music creation. There are hundreds of other features that make Live unique in the DAW world, but these are the four that I use the most often and make my life easier.

Christian Flanders

Christian Flanders

I'm a film, TV, and video game composer based in St. Paul, MN. I also help out at an awesome music school in Minneapolis, Slam Academy. More at http://christianflanders.com and http://slamacademy.com
  • Adam Muntner

    Live’s internal MIDI and audio routing are fantastic. Want to group a bunch of channels into a bus and send it to a channel in another bus rather than to the stereo mains? no problem. want to have a VST or Max stepsequencer on one channel drive a half dozen synths on different tracks, some with midi delays, arpeggiators and/or chord generators, or note-limiters on them? not a problem. want to send to a channel return from seep inside a rack rather than on the channel? Oops, you can’t do that. But you can, if you put a compressor in sidechain monitor mode in the return channel and then pick it from inside the rack.

    Resampling into a clip from another channel or group is so easy and nice when working entirely in the box.

    The racks are amazing, as you said. You described the instrument and effects racks, but the Midi racks are no joke either. you can even create complex things like fun step sequencers in racks without ever touching Max.

    The most unique thing about Live, though, is the distinction between “clips” and “arrangement” views, especially now that there’s real clip automation of all parameters.

    • Christian Flanders

      Totally. I had to pick and choose what stuff I wanted to talk about or else this article could have easily turned into a book. However, you can make return tracks inside of drum racks, and then route whatever sounds in the drum rack you want to a reverb, for example. When you’re viewing the chain list, a little “s” and “r” will pop up on the bottom left side of the drum rack allowing you to make little self contained sends and returns. Pretty handy.

    • Adam Muntner

      For drum racks, yes, but for instrument and effects racks, nope.

      We had a convo on this on the Ableton forum earlier this year: https://forum.ableton.com/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=188114

      I put up a screenshot showing what you describe for drum racks, but there’s no I/O, send, and return control for instrument and effects racks. That’s where the compressor sidechain trick comes in to play.

    • Christian Flanders

      Gotcha. Yeah that’s a weird issue.

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