Let's Warp in Ableton Live

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Warping, or time-stretching, is the practice of fixing (as in pinning, rather than repairing) the timing of a song to a chosen beat grid, or to the timing characteristics of another song. This allows us to alter the ‘natural’ timing of a live recording, to fix (repair) timing mistakes, or to get creative and crazy with timing experiments. But for now, let’s get started with the basics.

When you drag and drop a piece of audio onto an empty clip slot, it becomes a clip. You can double-click on that clip to reveal the Clip View and Sample Editor. Inside the Sample Editor you will see a waveform, and, if your Live Preferences are set to “Auto Warp Long Samples” you will most likely see a bunch of little yellow squares above the waveform called Warp Markers. Should you like to change your preferences (and I’d recommend turning off auto-warping to test your skills once you become more confident), simply choose Preferences from the Live menu at the top left of your screen, or use the shortcut [CMD] [,] (command and comma).

In this case I imported “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie, a track recorded to tape with a real drummer, well before it was commonplace to use computers and software to record or arrange. Thus, its timing is human, real, natural, or however you’d like to describe the fact that it is imperfect, if we are to measure perfect timing by the beat grid. Of course, as we often discover in our classes, ‘perfect’ or precision timing of every drum hit can sound robotic, and often the magical, intangible element of ‘groove’ in a great track is characterised by shifting drums on and off the grid throughout. However, there will be plenty of opportunities later to fix timing while retaining groove, so now for the purpose of demonstration let’s assume we want the important drum hits such as the kick and snare drums to land on the grid. 

Each yellow Warp Marker indicates that a timing change has been made, usually to a transient… that is, a part of the audio that is evidently louder than the parts of the waveform before and after it. Often (but not always) these indicate drum hits, such as that kick and snare drum that we want to get under control. If you zoom in a little you can inspect the transients further. To see what change was made to any area by Live’s Auto-Warping, simply select one warp marker and delete it. You’ll see the transients move forward or backward (probably only slightly) to reflect the timing change that was made.

It’s important to understand that the Warp Markers are not only moving transients around to change the timing, in fact they are fixing a specific part of the audio to a specific point on the clip’s timeline. Once it is anchored to a certain spot, it will never move unless YOU move it. This is useful when you identify some transients that are already where you want them (or if you move them to where you want them), as you can fix them to a point without allowing any other gestures to undo this. To test this out, select a Warp Marker and try to move it past another Warp Marker… impossible. You’ll note that the transients (and in fact all of the audio) in between the two markers will move, but the Warp Marker will not.

While you’re exploring, why not use the Info View to learn more about how it all works. If you hold your mouse cursor over any area you’ll see a description of what it is and how it works at the bottom left of the screen. For example, if you hold the cursor over a Warp Marker, the Info View will read: “A Warp Marker pins a location within the sample to a specific beat time” and it will provide further instructions about how to create, use and remove these. Furthermore, holding the cursor over a transient tells us that “a transient marks an event within the sample timeline, such as the beginning of a sound”.

When you’re ready to get warping, I have outlined some really simple steps that should simplify the process and aid your understanding. It is true that each piece of audio has unique characteristics, and Live’s Auto-Warping may behave differently for each, but if you follow these guidelines on a song with drums, it should all come together. If you’re having lots of trouble, grab a recent piece of dance music to start, as the warping necessary will be minimal compared to something produced prior to computer recording.

STEP 1: FIND THE FIRST BEAT
“Beat” can mean a lot of things, but in this instance we mean it in terms of music theory, where (according to Wikipedia) “the beat is the basic unit of time, the pulse of the beat level”. So, when we think of the song’s repetitive elements and count “1, 2, 3, 4” over and over, it’s the point at which we’d count ‘1’. To make it easy, let’s look for the first instance in the song in which we hear a kick drum, and ignore any intro section. Later, when more confident, feel free to overlook this directive, but for now it keeps thing simple.

STEP 2: “SET 1.1.1 HERE”
Just above the waveform you’ll see a darker grey strip that likely displays a series of Pseudo Warp Markers above the waveform’s transients. Whether there’s a Pseudo Warp Marker above the first beat or not depends on the track, and Live’s analysis of it, but either way we can right-click at this point and choose “Set 1.1.1 here” from the context menu. This simply means that we are telling Live to start everything from this point in the song, including our beat counter. This makes it much easier to match this clip with the timing of anything else later on, and for now it makes it easy to move our way along the waveform and insert Warp Markers where necessary. 

STEP 3A: SELECT ALL WARP MARKERS AND DELETE THEM
First, delete any Warp Markers that occur before the newly set 1.1.1. and then hit [CMD][A] to select all, then simply hit [DELETE]. Why? Because you’re that much closer to becoming a pro at this, and it’s better that you decide how the timing should work rather than relying on Live to get it right for you. After you do this, you’ll notice that there’s still one Warp Marker remaining… the one that you set as 1.1.1. If you turn off Auto-Warping in your preferences, this step would be unnecessary, and instead you would need to turn on the Warp Switch and find the first beat.

STEP 3B: ACTIVATE THE LOOP SWITCH AND SET YOUR LOOP LENGTH TO 1 BAR
Activating the Loop Switch allows us to hone in on any part of the song and make it the focus. In turn we can fix the timing here without worrying about the rest. First I recommend right-clicking inside the Sample Editor and choosing a fixed grid of 1/16, or to make the timing really obvious, choose 1/4. Here I have used 1/8 – look for “Marker Snap” on the image above. For a song written in 4/4 time we can easily determine which parts of the waveform are ‘beats’ and should subsequently correspond to the timing of the grid on our beats ruler. Start at the end of the bar and create a Warp Marker at the fifth beat of the song and drag it to match the end of the loop brace… that is, the outside (on the right hand side) of the loop we have selected. That should leave four beats matched up nicely inside the loop. If not, we may need to adjust each beat, one by one, by creating Warp Markers and dragging the transient to match the grid.

STEP 4: USING THE LOOP BRACE AS A TIME RULER
Now that the first bar is under control, select the loop brace (by clicking on it in the middle – not on the ends where we can change its size) and use the up arrow on your keyboard to jump ahead in the track by exactly one bar (or whatever is the length of the loop). Repeat the process of matching up the next four beats in our song to the loop by selecting the fifth beat (from the beginning of the second bar or the ninth beat over all) and match it the end of the current loop (on the outside). Continue this process as you move through the track… getting easier?

STEP 5: EXTEND THE LENGTH OF YOUR RULER
If it’s all coming together, you can save some time by increasing the length of your loop brace to 4 bars. If things get confusing you can always return to a loop length of one bar, or two. If you fix up the end of the loop, no matter how long it is, you’ll be surprised at how little else you need to do to fix the timing of most songs. The less Warp Markers you create means that more of the original groove is retained from the song. Of course, sometimes it will require some extra timing fixes, and some people will want to make more timing adjustments than others, but this is a good start for everyone.

STEP 6: LISTEN AND LOOK. ADJUST ACCORDINGLY
In my experience, this method works. However, if it’s not working for you at any point, I recommend returning to the start and trying again, Keep it simple, and listen to the outcome of each change, and if it doesn’t sound right, go back a step rather than moving forward, because a small error early can make the timing fixes more difficult over time.

STEP 7: DO IT AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN
Finished warping your first song? Do it again with a second, and third. If you’re really comfortable, line up two songs on the Arrangement View and match them to each other.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this, or any tips and tricks you’d like to share from your experience.

Mike Callander
Ableton Certified Trainer
 

Comments

Jezniak says:

I'm not a big Live user but this has simplified the warping for me. Thanks : )

mike.callander says:

Glad to hear it, Jezniak! These blog posts are often inspired by questions, discussions and exercises from our classroom, so we hope they are practical and helpful. 

Co-founder and Ableton Certified Trainer at School of Synthesis. DJ and live on the weekends.