Ableton Live Quickstart Guide – Part 1

This guide is presented as a way for new users of Ableton Live to read less and do more. Get accustomed to the basics quickly, and start making music right away. I’ll present step by step instructions and only the information you need to get started. Here is Part 1:

Enter Ableton’s Session View

The first thing you see when you open a new Set is Live’s “Session View”. Live has automatically created an audio track and a MIDI track for you.

Ableton Live’s Default Session view. Usually seen when creating a new Live set.

Our first step is to trigger an audio “one shot” (a single snare hit in this case).

1.) Locate Live’s File Browser to the left of the screen. Notice to the left of the browser are three buttons that have small folders with numbers on them. Select the first.

2.) If you don’t have Live’s built in Library selected, do so by clicking the light gray box at the top of the File Browser (mine says Library in the screen shot above). Select “Library” from the pull down menu.

3.) Now that you’re inside of Live’s Library, click the small arrow that is left of the folder labeled “Samples”. You should see the folder expand into a three sub-folders labeled “Components”, “Loops” and “Waveforms”. This is how most navigating is done in the File Browser.

4.) Repeat step 3, only this time, open the folders titled “Waveforms” -> “Drums” -> “Snare”. You should now see a list of audio files, starting with Snare-AmbientLoudPunch-Stick-Hit-Hard.aif. Click the audio file and if you have the audition button enabled (located near the bottom left of the File Browser) you can preview the file.

5.) Click and drag Snare-AmbientLoudPunch-Stick-Hit-Hard.aif from the File Browser into the Audio Track. The audio file should now be in the Clip Slot 1 of the Audio Track.

6.) Click the “Play” button on the snare drum clip that is now inserted into Clip Slot 1. If you hear the not-so-subtle “thwack” of the snare drum, congratulations, you’ve learned the basics of triggering clips in Session View! Make sure you hit the stop button on your transport panel. (If you don’t know where that is, read my tutorial on Breaking Down Ableton Live’s Control Bar).

This may seem a bit dull, but the new found knowledge of dragging clips from Live’s File Browser, and triggering it in Session View is one of the most primitive, yet often used aspects of Ableton Live.

Next up, working with loops.

Breaking Down Ableton Live’s Control Bar

Maybe not the most exciting subject in the world, but a great reference for beginners and Ableton veterans alike. Take control of Ableton by learning the Control Bar Interface.

Getting familiar with various aspects of Ableton Live’s interface is the key to efficiency. Ableton’s Control Bar is no exception, this guide was mainly set up as a reference, but may be read top to bottom for a full understanding of all of Live’s controls.

Live’s Control Bar

The small area at the top of Live’s interface is known as the control bar. As it’s name implies it’s meant to control different aspects of Ableton Live. It features a transport panel for controlling playback and recording, a MIDI section, loop settings, a CPU load meter and a hard drive overload indicator (just to name a few).

  1. Metronome And Tempo Settings
    1. Tap Tempo Have a song or audio file, but not sure what tempo it is? Click this button (or better yet map it to a MIDI key) while rhythmically counting “1 and 2 and 3 and 4” to yourself. Every time you count a number click the tap button. If your timekeeping is decent, you’ll find a close approximation of the tempo.
    2. Tempo Use this to adjust the tempo of your overall track. Click and hold this button with your mouse button and drag up to set the tempo higher, and down to set it lower. Alternatively, you can double click this box and enter a number with your keyboard. Make sure you hit enter to commit the tempo.
    3. Nudge Up/Nudge Down This handy tool will allow to shift the tempo of your set ever so slightly. Ideal for synchronizing with live musicians, or other sources.
    4. Time Signature Change the numerator (the first number) and the denominator (second number) of your time signature. The most commonly used time signatures are 4/4 and 3/4. Feel free to get experimental with signatures like 5/4 and 7/8.
    5. Metronome The official timekeeper of Ableton Live. To use it, simply activate it by clicking on it. Next, hit play on the transport panel, and you’ll hear the metronome keeping time for you. You can also right click the metronome to set the amount of count-in bars.
  2. Transport Panel
    1. Follow This option can only be used in Arrangement View. When your Live set is playing in Arrangement view, use this option to have Ableton Live “scroll” or “page” along while the project plays.
    2. Arrangement PositionThis will change the position of your “play head” by bars, beats, and sixteenth notes (from left to right). Also mainly only used in arrangement view, but can also be used to scrub audio loops in session view.
    3. Play/Stop/RecordEither click the play button or hit space bar to begin playback in Live.

      Clicking the stop button (or hitting the space bar during play back) once will stop playback exactly the time you activated it, clicking stop twice will bring you back to the beginning of your arrangement.

      The record button is not just for recording audio, but will record any automation, record clip launches into arrangement view and any property changes to a clip.

    4. Overdub Say you’re recording a MIDI performance on a loop. By default, Ableton Live will automatically overwrite any notes you’ve played once the loop starts over. Live does, however, store all of your takes within the clip.

      If this option is enabled, Live will simply write all of the MIDI notes with each pass. So, for example, if you play three C notes, and on the next pass, you play three G notes, both notes will play back.

    5. Back To Arrangement When playing back clips in Session View, this button will turn red. What this means is that if you have launched 2 out of 5 tracks in Session View and go back to Arrangement View, you’ll notice these tracks have been grayed out.

      What does this mean? Well, even if you have edited the same clips in Arrangement View, none of that matters , since they are being triggered or looped back in Session View. In short, when you’re in Arrangement View, disable this to get accurate playback of your arrangement.

    6. Global Quantization Menu Go into session view, drop a clip in, and trigger it. Now immediately after triggering it, try to re trigger the clip by hitting the play button next to it. Notice how it doesn’t instantly react when clicked? This is due to Live keeping your clips in sync with each other through global quantization.

      For example, if you have your global quantization set to 1 bar, it will take a whole 4 counts before your clip is re launched. For anyone wanting to use Ableton Live as a live performance tool needs to get used to these clip launch settings

    7. Draw Tool A handy tool that allows you to freehand automation information, and also draw and erase MIDI notes in the piano roll window.
  3. Loop Settings
    1. Loop Start/Punch-In PointThis option allows you to change the location of your loop brackets in Arrangement Mode. Just like the Arrangement Position section, this is broken down into bars, beats and sixteenth notes. Great for slightly nudging your loop brackets.
    2. Punch-In/Punch-Out ButtonsEnable the punch-in button to only start recording once the cursor has reached the beginning of the loop brackets you’ve set. Enable the punch-out button to stop recording once it’s reached the end of your loop brackets. This is great for dropping a performances in and out of certain parts.
    3. Enable/Disable LoopsEnable the punch-in button to only start recording once the cursor has reached the beginning of the loop brackets you’ve set. Enable the punch-out button to stop recording once it’s reached the end of your loop brackets. This is great for dropping a performances in and out of certain parts.
    4. Loop/Punch-Region LengthThis option will allow you to set the length of your loop brackets. It is organized in bars, beats and sixteenth notes.
  4. MIDI Settings/Hard Disk And CPU Meter
    1. Computer MIDI Keyboard Activate this button to use your QWERTY keyboard as a MIDI control. Ctrl + Shift+ K is the the short cut for turning it on and off.
    2. Key Map Mode Switch With this toggled on, you can map certain parts of Live (knobs, triggering clips, on/off switches, etc) to your QWERTY keyboard. Once you’ve entered key map mode, parts of Live will turn orange, these are areas that can be double clicked, then have a key assigned to them. Make sure to exit Key Map Mode before continuing.
    3. MIDI Map Mode Switch Pretty much the same thing as Key Map Mode Switch, except this is used map your MIDI controller to certain parts of Live. For example, I have physical knobs on my MIDI keyboard, if I wanted to control the filter cutoff knob on the “Analog” soft synth, I would enter MIDI map mode. When areas of Live have a blue overlay on them, double click the cutoff knob on screen, make an movement with the knob on the MIDI keyboard, and exit MIDI map mode. Note: you need to enable the “remote” section under the MIDI preferences.
    4. CPU Load Meter Depending on how powerful your computer is, you can only have so many things going on in Live at once. Some computers can handle 2 effects and 1 soft synth, while others can handle hundreds. Keep an eye on this meter, and if you get audio drop outs and glitches, you may be pushing your processor too hard.
    5. Hard Disck Overload Indicator Just like your CPU, your hard disk can be overloaded as well. This usually lights up when you have too many files playing at once. Once again, depending on your hardware, some computers can handle more than others.

How To Set Up Audio Preferences In Ableton Live

Once you have chosen what type of audio card you will be using for Ableton Live and installed the drivers, it’s a good idea to make sure that your audio card is interfacing properly with Ableton.

In order to get to the Audio Preferences panel in Ableton Live, you’ll want to first go to “Options -> Preferences” as illustrated by the screen shot below:

After you’ve clicked preferences, you should be presented with this panel:

Now lets break down each section, so you have a better understanding of how to set up your audio preferences in Ableton Live:

Audio Device Section

  1. Driver Type – There are various driver types out there depending on your audio card. The most common you will run across include:
    • MME/DirectX – Window’s built-in driver
    • ASIO – The most common driver used with audio interfaces
    • Core Audio – Apple’s built in audio driver. Very low latency for onboard sound.
  2. Audio Device – This is where you will choose the audio device you would like to use with Ableton Live. In my case, I have installed the ASIO drivers which came bundled with my M-Audio Firewire Solo and chosen that as my primary sound device.
  3. Channel Configuration – Click on the “Input Config” to enable or disable inputs on your audio interface. It is recommended to only enable inputs you will be using, this will help to reduce the load on your CPU.

    The “Output Config” is handled the same way as your “Input Config”, just enable or disable the outputs you would like to route from Ableton to an external source. There are many routing possibilities you can use here; as an example you can set up a separate cue mix for a DJ setup. The same goes for unused outputs taking a hit on your CPU.

  4. Hardware Setup – Clicking on this button will bring up the options menu specific to the audio driver and device you have selected. For example, the M-Audio Firewire Solo has it’s own options panel outside of Ableton Live, this option will open that panel.

How To Choose The Right Audio Card For Ableton Live

So, you want to start making music with Ableton Live, but aren’t really sure which audio card is right for the job? As a first step, it’s a good idea to have a basic understanding of what audio card options are out there.

There are mainly two types as follows:

Your Onboard Sound Card

If you don’t want to pay anything for for a sound card, almost every computer has one built in. The only problem is, these are usually so basic that you are limited to a very simple single audio input (usually one that only works with cheap microphones) and they have issues with latency (essentially audio lag).

Typical soundcard inputs found on your PC. The 1/8″ size of these jacks means you will need an adapter for most pro level microphones. The green usually indicates sound out, while the pink indicates sound in (where your microphone or line in cable goes)

A much more simplified version of an onboard soundcard can be found on a Mac. Pictured is the side view of a Macbook Pro.

People have gotten by using their built in sound card, but I highly recommend shelling out a little money for more of the features you get with an audio interface.

An Entry Level Audio Interface

A good audio interface will give you low latency (no lag), high quality inputs, and an overall higher quality of recorded sound. They are usually in the form of a breakout box (not inside of your computer) for easier access to inputs and outputs.

For most computer musicians, an audio interface with 2 inputs will usually suffice. It’s nice to have these 2 inputs because if you ever want to record external audio in stereo, you have the option.

For an entry level audio interface, I recommend the M-Audio Mobile Pre USB. It’s portable, lightweight, and has two XLR inputs (for microphones) and two line in balanced 1/4″ inputs (for synth, guitar, etc.).

The M-Audio Mobile Pre USB is a typical modern audio interface. It has minimal latency, is portable, and very easy to set up.

Once you’ve chosen the audio interface you feel is right for you, and installed it (after reading the manual that comes with it of course!). You’ll want to get set up Ableton Live to work properly with your new audio interface.

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