by Anders Johanson May 20, 2020 9 min read
If you're reading this article, then you have, in the very least, heard of the music-making software called Ableton Live. You may have even overheard it being called Ableton. To be clear, Ableton is the name of the company that makes Live. There is some noise on the street, claiming that Live can be challenging to learn. We will debunk this claim in the course of this article. Another popular belief is that Live is only for those who want to make electronic music. Yes, countless EDM songs have been produced in Ableton Live. Artists that use the software include Diplo, Flume, Skrillex, Deadmaus, Calvin Harris, Wolfgang Gardner, Dada Life, and many more. So maybe there is some truth to that second rumor. But even then, Live is used in many different genres. Not to mention that plenty of EDM artists use other software for their projects too. Whatever the case may be, let's not dwell any further on the clichés and instead take a closer look at Ableton Live.
First of all, let's start with a definition of what Ableton Live is. Ableton Live is a digital audio workstation (DAW) — the type of software that allows you to make music on your computer. There are quite a few DAWs available and their prices range from free to very expensive. Paid DAWs usually come in different versions. There is often a light version that has fewer features but is a good entry point for beginners. And then there's at least one professional version that comes with full-blown features and an extensive sound library good enough to support a professional musician or a recording studio. Ableton Live comes in three different flavors: Live Intro, Live Standard, and Live Suite. Let's explore these different versions more in-depth.
At this point, you might already know subconsciously which version of Ableton Live is the right for you. If that’s the case, trust your instinct. If you are still undecided, that’s okay too. We will dig a lot deeper into the workflow inside Live in just a moment, so stay tuned. As a side note, for those who love to read the specs, Ableton has a convenient feature comparison chart on their website.
Here's why people might perceive Ableton Live as being difficult to learn — the possibilities inside this DAW are endless. The reality is that Ableton can be as straightforward or as complicated as you want it to be. A professional musician will have a very sophisticated looking project session with custom effects and dozens upon dozens of tracks. That's just a testament to the power of Ableton and its innovative technology to inspire music makers. If you are not on that level yet, it doesn't mean that Ableton is not for you. Whether you are a piano player who wants to record multiple tracks of live audio or an aspiring electronic music producer who needs a ton of synth layers to create that massive wall of sound — everyone can express their creativity in Ableton Live. Over time, as you develop your craft, you'll realize that you've become a hybrid music maker. You won't restrict yourself to one medium and use every tool available, whether it's analog or digital. Not everyone who starts working in Ableton Live is a pro, and the fact that this DAW can turn beginner music makers into modern-day renaissance man speaks volumes about its accessibility and ease of use.
As already mentioned above, the Ableton Live Standard version is available at $449. The Live Intro will cost you $99, and the Suit version will be yours for the princely sum of $749. Before you decide to invest in any of these versions, consider taking advantage of the 90 days trial period offered by Ableton. It will give you enough time to develop a sense of how the software feels. First impressions matter, but don’t get turned off by the slightly outdated look of Ableton’s UI. Your priority should be to learn as much as you can about the workflow of the DAW. If it feels intuitive and you even end up recording some music after a few days, Ableton is probably the right fit for you. If you feel stuck and frustrated, then you should check out other options. Keep in mind that most DAWs share a lot of similar features. The differences are usually more aesthetic than functional, so give yourself some time and don’t give up if something doesn’t click for you right away. Having said that, if you like the way Ableton Live looks and works, you can safely stick with it. Music makers rarely switch to other DAWs down the road if they fall in love with Ableton at first sight.
To demonstrate how beginner-friendly Ableton is, let’s walk through the initial stages of a project. When you launch Live, it creates a new session. It does not ask you to name the session, and this is a great feature. Often you will start your work without the faintest idea of what you would like to accomplish (except for maybe the best track ever). Naming your project before you start is counterintuitive to the creative process, so kudos to Ableton for getting these small details right.
Live opens up in what is called Session View. It looks like an audio mixer, but it is so much more than that. The little rectangles that make it look like an Excel spreadsheet are where you record and playback your musical ideas. Each of these containers can hold anything from a short musical phrase to an entire album's worth of music. This particular feature is what sets Live apart from other DAWs. Ableton was the first to design this feature. It is called Clip Recording, and it has become such a revolutionary way of working that every other DAW now has or is implementing its version of this liberating loop-based way of working.
Below is an example of a typical instrument recording scenario. Make sure that you have set up your audio interface drivers. This step is necessary for every DAW and explaining it would require its own tutorial. Feel free to look it up or read the manual.
Congratulations, you have now started recording your first track in Ableton Live! You might have noticed that you can mix and match the playback of your clips. The magic of Ableton Live’s session view lies in the ability to switch between distinct musical passages with a single mouse click.
By the way, while you were recording clips, you inadvertently created scenes. Every horizontal row of clips is a scene. To play each scene, press the corresponding play button on the Master Fader located on the right-hand side of your screen. Similar to a movie where a scene is one part of a story, the scenes in Ableton Live represent different parts of your song. The first scene could be your song intro. The second scene could be your first verse, and so on. Adding and subtracting scenes allows for a dynamic and exciting song arrangement on the fly. If you are a DJ, a collection of scenes could even be your set for the night.
Let's clear something up to avoid confusion. A physical instrument, like a guitar or a piano, is different from an Ableton Live Instrument. In Ableton's browser, you'll find a category labeled Instruments. These are virtual instruments like synthesizers, pianos, organs, flutes, strings, and anything else you can imagine. You can play these instruments with a MIDI controller or use your computer keyboard like a piano controller if you click on the piano button in the upper right of your screen.
You can play virtual instruments inside MIDI tracks. To create a MIDI track press Cmd/Ctrl+Shift+T. Another way to open an instrument is to drag it from the browser into an empty area on your screen or double-click on it. Depending on your Live version, you’ll have access to different instruments in the browser menu. Every instrument has a set of presets. These are ready-made sounds that you can use in your music. They are categorized so you can quickly zero-in on what you need. To access the presets, click on the arrow next to the instrument’s name and browse through the categories until you find preset names ending with adv.
The Drum Rack is a virtual Instrument that is dedicated to drum sounds. First, you need to populate the empty drum pads with samples that you like. Once you’ve selected the sounds, you can play them using your keyboard, piano, drum, or grid controller. If you want to manually click-in the MIDI notes, you can double-click on a clip inside the Drum Rack track to open the Clip View. Pressing B will activate the draw mode and, as the name suggests, allow you to draw the MIDI notes of the drum groove.
The clip view is handy for any kind of MIDI editing. You can look at it as a virtual piano that makes it possible to trigger specific sounds inside your instrument. You can move the MIDI notes around, quantize them and resize them. The amount of fine-tuning you can do inside the clip view is extensive. Make sure to learn this tool inside out because you will use it a lot in your productions.
By touching on subjects such as recording audio in clips, adding virtual instruments, and programming drums, we’ve already covered the essence of building a track inside Ableton Live. These are the steps that all Ableton users go through in every session, regardless of their experience level. As you can see, working in Live is not that difficult at all.
Naturally, we only scratched the surface of what is possible in Ableton Live. You will feel inclined to poke around the interface and experiment with more advanced features once you are more familiar with this DAW. A great place to learn any program is the manual. Ableton provides quite an extensive guide of their product that is worth checking out. And of course, let’s not forget all the other resources. The Ableton community is very active, and you will find plenty of videos, magazine articles, online courses, and even Ableton Certified Trainers to help you master this outstanding piece of software.
Writer and musician based in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Hannah. Extensive career as both a writer and a musician previously working with brands such as Fox Sports, Yahoo Sports, and Sports Illustrated. As a musician, Anders has played in several bands throughout the last decade, and has experience in touring, booking, band management, engineering, producing, mixing, and composing. Anders has recently composed music for short films and media presentations in universities, and has launched a podcast focusing on giving musicians and artists a place to talk about their work and the process behind their creation.
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