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Posted on May 13, 2011 by Joe Stachowiak There have been 0 comments


If you're new to Ableton Live and are itching to get up an running, then this quick start guide will walk you through the basics, from installing the software to getting started with making beats! Please note that this guide is designed for the beginner, so if you're ready to roll and learn what Ableton Live is all about, then read on and become enlightened!


1. Introduction and Contents
2. Installation
3. Authorisation
4. Configuring Your Audio Interface
5. Using the Built-In Tutorials
6. Loading Loops & Samples
7. Warping & Looping
8. Using Instruments & Presets
9. Making a Basic Beat
10. Configuring a MIDI Controller
11. Using Instrument & Effect Racks
12. Setting-up Group & Return Channels
13. Automation

2. Installation


If you have purchased the latest version of Ableton Live, the first thing you’ll need to think about is installation. Thankfully, unlike some manufacturers, Ableton have really gone to town on making the whole process a breeze.

First of all, you’ll need the specific installer for your chosen Ableton package. If you opted for the boxed version this will come in the form of good old-fashioned DVDs. If you have chosen the downloadable version you will need to head to the Ableton site for the latest version (click here).

It’s important to remember that installing Live will take up quite a bit of space on your drive. The boxed version of Live Suite will take up a hefty 48GB, while the download version only requires 4.6GB.

Live also requires the minimum of a 1.8GHz G4/G5 Mac or 2GHz Pentium 4 PC to run, and Ableton recommends a multicore CPU on both platforms. 4GB of RAM is also recommended for both Mac and Windows users.

With the installer started you will be presented with a friendly shot of information letting you know what will be installed and where. You can of course choose the destination of both the application and the data that will be installed on your machine.

The rest of the process is pretty much completely automated, regardless of whether you are using OSX or Windows. With the installation complete you are ready to start up Ableton and authorise it ready for use!

Ableton Live installation screen.
3. Authorisation


Authorising Ableton is a straightforward process for standard installations, but a little more complicated for Teachers and Students who have bought an Educational licence.

If you have an Educational Licence you will need to verify your educational status before trying to authorise your copy of Ableton Live. This involves sending your ID and proof of educational status to Ableton for verification. Full details can be found by clicking HERE! The process usually only takes 24-48 hours so you shouldn't need to wait too long. Once your educational status has been verified, your copy of Live will be unlocked and you can just follow the instructions below to complete the authorisation process.

On first launching Ableton Live, the application will ask you to authorise your software. This is an automated online process and it will automatically launch your default browser. You will be delivered to Ableton’s site and asked to create an Ableton account (or sign into your account if you already have one).

Once you're logged in, you will have to add your version of Ableton Live as a new product and enter your serial number. This will have been part of your printed documentation, or sent by email if you purchased the downloadable version. With your serial number entered you will be directed back to your Live application.

Live will now contact the Ableton servers and authorise your software for your machine. It’s worth noting that you only get two authorisations, so you can run Live on two machines before you have to email Ableton to request more unlocks.

Once connected Live will install any extra data it needs to run and you should be good to go. Don’t worry if you don’t have an internet connection, there is an offline challenge/response method for authorisation, but it is a little lengthier. Full details on that process can be found by clicking HERE.

Ableton Live authorisation screen.
4. Configuring Your Audio Interface


Once Live is installed and authorised, you're ready to start using the application to produce sound. But before we do this, you must firstly configure Live to work with your chosen hardware audio interface.

The majority of the settings we need access to reside in the Preferences panel. This is accessed through the Live menu at the top-left of the application’s interface. Once inside the Preferences section you will need to click the second tab down, labelled 'Audio'.

It’s in this Audio section that you'll see all the settings needed to set up your audio interface. First ensure that you have installed any drivers that the manufacturer supplied with your device and that it's plugged in and powered up. You should then select your device in the Audio input device and Audio output device sections by using the drop down menus.

You should now be able to hear any sound from Ableton through your device. To optimise the performance of your device, the buffer settings can also be altered in this Preferences pane. Changing these settings will affect the system latency (or delay) you experience.

By setting your buffer to a lower value, you will experience less delay in the audio signal, but CPU usage will be higher. Higher values will give longer delays, but CPU usage will be lower. Try starting with a value of 250 - 300 samples to see how your interface behaves and fine-tune the value from there to find the optimum balance between CPU usage and low latency.

Ableton Live audio interface preferences pane.
5. Using the Built-In Tutorials


If you are new to Ableton Live then there is quite a lot to get your head around and using the excellent built-in lessons is one way to get started. Let’s take a look at where you can find this valuable resource and what’s on offer.

When you first start Ableton, the Help View should be activated and you should see a window to the right of Live’s main interface displaying various content. If you have closed this or you just don’t see it, choose Help view from the View menu.

In the first window of the Help View system you should see the 'Lessons' option just below 'Setup'. There are a few categories to choose from here, but we would suggest that selecting the 'Show All Built In Lessons' option will give you the best overview of what’s available.

Now simply select the lesson that interests you. If you have no experience of Live, you may want to start by choosing the lesson entitled 'A Tour Of Live'. Once inside your chosen lesson, you can navigate using the browser style arrows at the bottom of the page and the scroll bar.

Live will give you the opportunity to load a relevant project with each lesson. All the content needed for the project is bundled with Live and once loaded it will give you a running example of what you are learning in the lesson.

Ableton Live lessons.
6. Loading Loops & Samples


To get sound out of Ableton Live, we need to start loading up some samples and loops. This is a straightforward process, so let’s take a look at how we go about it.

Start by opening the browser on the left of Live’s interface. This should be open by default but you can toggle it by using the arrow symbol in the very top-left of Live’s main window. Once open you will be presented with six icons. The icons numbered 1 to 3 are key here.

These three icons represent file locations and will always display the last area of your drive that you loaded a file from. Once you have located your samples you can simply drag them into Live’s mixer area. Live will automatically create a new audio track (or MIDI track if you dragged in a MIDI file) to accommodate the new sample or loop you have loaded.

With your sample loaded, you should see a new clip in the fresh channel. With this clip selected you will also notice the waveform is displayed in the lower area of Live’s interface (or a piano roll is displayed if it was a MIDI clip). This area represents Live’s sample and loop editor.

In future tutorials we’ll take a look at how to load single hits into Live’s sampler instruments and how we warp and edit loops.
Ableton Live browser.
7. Warping & Looping


One of Live’s strongest assets is its ability to produce so called ‘elastic’ audio. This means you can drop your loops and grooves into just about any project, easily and in real time. In essence, the process enables the loop to play back at any tempo without changing its sound. It’s a great trick, so let's take a look at the basics of the process.

With your newly imported audio loop selected, focus your attention on the Sample Editor in the lower section of Live’s main window. When you imported the loop, Live will have automatically warped the audio for you, placing ‘markers’ at each key moment in the sound.

Generally, Live’s automatic processing is great, but sometimes you might need to tweak it. All you have to do is manually grab the markers and move them around. This in turn will change the position of each ‘slice’ in your newly warped loop.

To the left of the sample display you will notice there is a small, dedicated Warp section. In this area you can see the original BPM of the loop. You can also change the 'warp mode'. If you are working with anything but a simple beat you may want to try adjusting this to suit your audio, as different warp modes are specialised to warp different types of sounds (e.g. drums, strings, whole songs, etc).

To the right of this there is a Loop section. Here you are able to change the loop points of your audio, so to make your loop shorter or longer you can manually change the numbers here, or drag the loop points in the waveform display.

And what is a loop point? As you may well have guessed, loop points control exactly where a piece of audio will loop between. So for example, if you set the first loop point at the start of an audio sample and the end loop point two bars in, when you trigger the audio sample, it will play a two bar loop from the start (over and over again until you press stop). If you are still confused then try it out for yourself as it is much easier to see than to explain!

Ableton Live sample editor with warp markers.
8. Using Instruments & Presets


If you're using the Suite version of Ableton Live, you will have access to a good list of virtual instruments. These include virtual analog, physical modelling and FM based synthesisers.

To get these instruments loaded into Live’s interface you first need to focus on the Browser. On the far-left of Live’s interface there are six icons; one of these is shaped rather like a rectangle and it’s here you can find all the Ableton devices that were installed with your package.

Grab the instrument that you want to load and drag it into the empty space in Live’s Mixer area or in the Arrange window. This will create a new MIDI channel with your instrument of choice installed, ready for use. To test your set-up you can use a MIDI controller keyboard to play a few notes. If you don’t hear anything, ensure that the red Record Arm button is highlighted.

And if you are wondering what the difference is between the Mixer and the Arrange window, try pressing the 'Tab' key with Ableton open and notice how it toggles between two different types of view. The view with all the dials and faders on is the Mixer. The view with the standard timeline and vertically stacked tracks is the Arrange window.

With your new MIDI channel selected you will see your instrument’s interface displayed in the lower section of Live’s main window. Here you can edit its parameters to adjust the sound.

If you would prefer to try some of the factory presets, try using the Hot Swap function. To activate this, use the small Hot Swap icon at the top-right of the instrument's Control Panel. With this highlighted, the browser will reveal all of the presets available for that device. You can now scroll through and try them out at your leisure.
Ableton Live instruments in the browser and loaded instrument.
9. Making a Basic Beat


A good way to get into using Ableton Live is by programming a basic drum beat. Live has plenty of features that are perfect for building beats, using both loops and single hits, but nothing beats the combination of the Drum Rack and Sampler instruments.

Start by dragging the Drum Rack instrument into a space in the Live mixer area. This will create a new MIDI track and the new hub for all your drum sounds. You will see the Drum Rack instrument appear in the lower section of Live’s interface, but at this point it will make no sound.

Now we need to load the Drum Rack with sounds and instruments. This simple process involves selecting a pad on the Rack, then dragging and dropping samples or instruments into the space provided. This will automatically assign your new sound to the chosen pad.

This process can be repeated as many times as you like to build an entire kit. You aren’t just limited to using sampler instruments here; you can actually use synthesisers such as Collision to create interesting and original percussion sounds.

With your kit constructed, double-click the first empty clip slot on your new MIDI channel. You should now see the piano roll and the names of each of your new drum instruments. You can now program your new beat manually or with a MIDI controller keyboard.

To program a beat manually you will need to work within the piano roll. Here you can use the mouse to 'draw' MIDI notes. How do you access the piano roll? Accessing the piano roll can simply be achieved by double-clicking a MIDI part (the coloured rectangular block that holds MIDI data in the Arrange view). So, if you are editing an existing bit of MIDI, then you can simply double-click this rectangular block. However, if none already exist, then you will need to find the pencil button at the top of Ableton Live (next to the transport controls (play, stop, record, etc.)), select how long you want the MIDI part to be (using the neighbouring drop-down menu) and click where you want it to be created in the Arrange view. This should open up the piano roll (the screen with the vertical piano graphics down the left) automatically down at the bottom of Ableton Live. You will then need to create individual MIDI notes.

To manually create MIDI notes you simply need to click with the mouse at the point you want to create them (within the piano roll), and then drag to control the length of the note. The vertical position of the MIDI note (shown as a red rectangle) controls the pitch of the note (the higher up the note is, the higher the pitch), the horizontal position controls the position of the note in time and you can use the timeline in the piano roll to place your notes exactly where you want them in relation to the song, and the length of the MIDI note controls the sustain of the sound (how long it will play for). It is however worth noting that in some situations, the length of the note will be irrelevant. For example, if you are triggering a sound that does not have any sustain characteristics (e.g. a drum hit), then there will be nothing for the MIDI note event to sustain.

To record MIDI data, then you will either need to use a connected MIDI keyboard/controller, or the QWERTY keyboard feature of Ableton Live. To access the QWERTY keyboard, simply select the keyboard button at the top-right of the Ableton Live window (to the left of the 'KEY' button). This allows you to use your computer keyboard to trigger MIDI notes. Try pressing the buttons A-L, as well as some keys from the top row of letters on your keyboard. This feature is handy for auditioning ideas if you are away from the studio, but it does have the disadvantage that you cannot create notes of different velocities without manually editing the notes.

Once you have decided how you want to create a MIDI recording, simply select the 'Record' and 'Play' buttons, wait for the count-in (if there is one set), and then start playing your MIDI controller. You should see the MIDI notes being created in real-time as you play them, and you can even record other pieces of MIDI data such as pitch bends - you can also create these manually although that is for a more advanced tutorial.

Once you have created your MIDI recording, press 'Stop' and you should then be able to listen back to what you have recorded. You can then access the piano roll and make any manual edits to your recording (e.g. add/delete notes, length/shorten notes, reposition notes, etc.) There are also a number of other more advanced things that you can do with a MIDI recording (e.g. change note velocity and automatically change the position of all notes (quantise)), but again, these are for a more advanced tutorial.

Ableton Live effects processor.
10. Configuring a MIDI Controller


Once you are familiar with the basics of Ableton Live, you may find you want to experiment with the more advanced features the application has to offer. One way of really increasing Live’s potential is to adjust its many parameters using an external MIDI controller.

To use a MIDI controller with Live you’ll firstly need to ensure that the hardware is recognised and activated. This is done from within the MIDI/Sync section of the main Preferences window.

Some control surfaces can be selected manually from the drop-down menus. If your hardware is in this list, select it and then enter the MIDI inputs and outputs it is using. Your controller should now be ready to use and in some cases will immediately display data from your current Live project.

Some hardware will automatically show up below this area and can be activated by ensuring the Track and Remote functions are highlighted. Whichever method you use, you should now find that Ableton receives a MIDI message when your controller is used.

To map specific parameters to the controls of your hardware you’ll need to activate the MIDI Map mode. This is done by hitting the MIDI button in the top right-hand corner of the main interface. Once activated any parameter that can be mapped to the control surface will be highlighted in purple/blue.

To complete the mapping process, select the parameter you want to work with using your mouse and immediately afterwards move the corresponding control on your MIDI hardware. This will establish the link and it will be stored for the current project. It's possible to map several parameters to one controller function simply by repeating the above process.

Ableton Live MIDI Map Mode activated.
11. Using Instrument and Effects Racks


Ableton Suite has an impressive collection of instruments and effects, but to truly unlock their power you’ll need to introduce yourself to two of Live's most innovative devices: the Effects and Instruments Racks.

To use either of these devices you’ll need to drag and drop them from the browser panel (on the left) into either an existing track or any available blank space in the mixer. Once installed, all you’ll see is a small box with a message telling you to drop further devices and effects units into them.

Essentially these are just containers and allow the user to add as many devices as they need. Start by adding instruments to the Instrument Rack. Once they’ve been dropped in to place, a chain will be constructed. Each instrument will be displayed in a list and once selected, its interface will be deployed in the right-hand side of the rack.

Once you have constructed a chain of instruments you can perform an internal mix using level controls supplied by the rack. Each instrument can also be isolated, muted and panned individually.

Using the Effects Rack system is a very similar process and uses the same drag and drop methodology. The only real difference here is that the Effects Rack displays every device in the rack.

Both systems also feature a macro editing system. This can be accessed via the icon in the top-left corner of each rack (underneath the bypass button). These global controls can be set to control any parameter from any of the rack’s enclosed instruments.

Ableton Live Instrument/Effects racks.
12. Setting-up Group & Return Channels


When mixing your finished projects in Ableton Live you may find that you need to process a number of elements at once, or perhaps you need to set up a Send and Return effect configuration. Let’s take a look at how to perform these essential mix processes.

To group a number of instruments together start by creating a new Return Channel. Do this by right-clicking (Ctrl-click on a Mac) anywhere in the mixer and selecting 'Create Return Channel'. This will act as your group buss so you can feed your chosen channels to this channel. Individually select all the channels you want to group and select the 'Sends Only' output mode for each. The output mode is set in the drop-down menu below the 'Audio To' label on each channel.

You will now not hear any sound as the sounds will only be routed when you activate the appropriate Sends on each channel. With all your chosen channels selected, increase the send level to your new Return Channel by using the Send Level knobs on each channel. You should start to hear some audio being fed through the Return Channel.

To show you that the channels are being sent to a Group in this way, Ableton will show you their levels in blue. This is very helpful when viewing a busy mix. Processors and effects can now be applied to your Return Channel in the usual way, so that you are only using one set of plug-ins to effect multiple channels.

The process for setting up Effects Returns is very similar. Simply create a new Return Channel, then insert a reverb or delay by dropping a new effects unit into the Return Channel's display area, and finally send the required amount of level from any individual channel in your mix. The only real difference here is that the channel will be sent to both the Send and the Master output.

Ableton Live sends.
13. Automation


One of the most useful tools in Digital Audio Workstation applications is their ability to automate parameters in real time, and Ableton Live is no exception when it comes to automation tools and features. Let’s delve into the basics of getting your first automation recordings in place...

Ableton allows you to record automation in the same way as any other action in the application. Simply hit Record and you are armed and ready. With your project playing back in Record mode, try moving some key parameters such as Pan, Level and Send amounts. You can even mute channels and adjust plug-in parameters.

Once you have finished recording, move to the Arrangement view and use the small arrows on each track to expose the data that has been captured. You should see a highlighted list of any parameter that has been altered.

Once you have selected the recorded parameter, you will see a graphical representation of the automation itself. This can be edited by grabbing the ‘handles’ that appear throughout the line. You can also select large sections of automation, which can then be cut, copied and pasted like any other part.

By ‘unfolding’ more highlighted automation data you can display several streams of automation at one time. This is a great way to get an overview of what's happening with one-track automation. Once you have finished editing you can fold the data away again to keep things tidy.

You can even create and edit automation data manually using your mouse, so you can create perfect ramps and sample-accurate changes!

Ableton Live automation.

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