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Inside Ableton Live

by | 24 Apr 2014

When our students first explore Ableton Live, there’s always a healthy discussion about “what’s this?” and “what’s that?” and we generally agree that an explanation of terms and a kind of ‘road map’ would be useful at the early stages to assist their navigation of this new territory… so, here it is!

Live’s Session View: How It Works

This is what you see (minus the red and yellow annotations that we added for your reference) when you first open Live. For a larger image please click here:

The Session View is quite unique because it allows you to play, make or record sounds without having to think about any song structure. This view does not follow any linear timeline, meaning that you tell the program when to start or stop any of your sound(s) or instrument(s), and there is no obvious beginning, middle or end of a song. If you launch a loop it will play forever unless you tell it to stop. This is perfect for jamming or experimenting, and because of Live’s intuitive workflow it could easily lead to the fast recording of a song.

MIDI vs. Audio

Before we proceed to look around Ableton Live, it is worth talking about the difference between Audio and MIDI, because you’ll see these terms appear a lot! You can read in more detail at Wikipedia (eg. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_audio and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MIDI) but for now it is useful to simplify our understanding:

MIDI (which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a language that we can use to communicate with instruments, or in the case of our first look at Ableton Live, with software instruments. Soon we will create a set of instructions for our software instruments to tell them when to play a sound, which sound to play or at what pitch to play it, for how long, and with what level of intensity (called Velocity). An Instrument in Live will be situated on a MIDI Track, but the output of that track will be an audio signal.

So, in this case MIDI is a set of instructions sent IN to the Instrument (this can include MIDI Effects), while Audio is a signal sent OUT (and we can also add Audio Effects to the output of an Instrument). MIDI can also be routed to other tracks and instruments, which can in turn output their own audio signals, but for now let’s keep it simple.

Here is a simple analogy that often helps people understand audio and MIDI –

Imagine you are reading words that have been written on a piece of paper. The words are text, and have no audible sound, until you say the words out loud (that is, you give them a voice). In this case the words are MIDI, your mouth is the Instrument, and the sound we hear is Audio.

But… also note that we don’t necessarily need an instrument to play audio, we can also take audio from other sources (eg. itunes or audio files such as .wav or .mp3 from our hard drive) and play it back via an Audio Track.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the main areas (denoted by yellow text) that we should be familiar with to get started:


From the Browser we can drag and drop an Instrument or audio into the liveset. In this case we see that Impulse (one of Live’s Instruments) is highlighted in light blue. To select a different instrument we can simply click once on its name, or we can click the small triangle to its left to ‘unfold’ presets that can be in turn dragged and dropped.

Alternatively we could switch Categories by clicking once on the other options (eg. Audio Effects, Samples, etc.) or we could select from Places, where we can customize our file directory to display folders from anywhere on our hard drive (including external drives).

Info View

This is a student’s (and teacher’s!) best friend when navigating Ableton Live, because you can hold your cursor over any item in Live and read from this box a description of what it is and how it works. To save screen space we can show and hide the Info View by clicking the small triangle at its bottom left.

Status Bar

This keeps us updated on the progress of various program activities. You might see it light up in yellow or orange from time to time with a message.

MIDI Tracks

Instruments operate on MIDI tracks, so we can drag and drop Impulse or any other Instrument onto one of these first two tracks, or anywhere we see the text “Drop Files and Devices Here” (which will create a new MIDI Track for our Instrument). Alternatively we can double-click the Instrument in the Browser to load the Instrument onto the selected Track (in this case, Track 1. We know this because it is highlighted in a lighter shade of grey compared to the other Tracks).

Audio Tracks

On Track 4 in this liveset we should note the following controls highlighted in red:

– Track Title Bar.
Click once to select any Track. Double-clicking on this will show the Device View at the bottom of the screen.

– Clip Slot.
If dragging audio from the browser, it can be dropped onto an empty Clip Slot on an Audio Track, or anywhere we see the text “Drop Files and Devices Here” to create a new Audio Clip on an Audio Track. Inside an Audio Clip we can view the waveform of the audio, and he wave various options for looping, Warping (time stretching) or altering the playback of that audio. On a MIDI track we can double-click on any empty Clip Slot to create a new MIDI Clip. Inside a MIDI Clip we can draw, record and edit MIDI notes. Empty Clip Slots include a Clip Stop button for each Track (though we can remove this if desired). Once we load a Clip it will have its own Launch (play) Button.

– Mixer Section
This section allows us to control the output of our audio signal by sending it to Return Tracks, increasing or decreasing the volume, panning the signal left or right, muting or deactivating the output of the track, listening to that track’s output on its own (solo) or listening to the signal via an output separate from the Master (cue), and finally to arm or ‘make ready’ that track to receive a signal (either audio or MIDI depending on whether we arm an audio or MIDI track) to be monitored (meaning listened to) or recorded. Above the Mixer Section we can also show or hide the In/Out Section (though in this screen it is hidden) to take control of the routing of these signals.

It is also worth noting that the Mixer Section appears to be different on our Audio and MIDI Tracks, but once we load an Instrument onto a MIDI Track its Mixer Section controls will work similarly.

Device View

Each Track has a Clip View and a Device View, and we can toggle between them with the keyboard shortcut SHIFT/TAB. In this case we are looking at the Device View of a MIDI Track. Nothing is loaded onto it, but if we wanted to we could load any Instrument or MIDI Effect from the Browser. Audio Effects cannot be dropped here, unless we load them after an Instrument (see the earlier section on Audio vs. MIDI for more info on why).

Control Bar

At the top of the window is a range of controls where we can change global settings such as tempo, time signature and quantization, plus the Transport (which looks similar to many other Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs)), allowing us to play, stop and record. Live’s Transport also features some unique controls, such as separate record buttons for the Session View (at which we are looking in this screen) and the Arrangement View (where we will eventually map out our song on a timeline). The Control Bar provides several additional controls that don’t need to be listed here now that we’re familiar with the Info View (if you have forgotten about this, remember that we can hold the cursor over any control for a description of what it is and how it works), however on this screen a few important switches are highlighted, as these will allow us to easily program and record MIDI notes.

– Draw Mode
In the Session View, Draw Mode is used in the Clip View to draw MIDI and envelopes, while in the Arrange View for drawing automation curves.

– Computer MIDI Keyboard
When activated, this switch allows us to use our computer’s keyboard (aka QWERTY keyboard) to play notes into MIDI tracks. The key ‘A’ on your computer keyboard will play note ‘C’ from a piano keyboard. Each key to the right of ‘A’ along the middle row will play the white notes from a piano keyboard. In the row above on your computer keyboard, the keys ‘W’, ‘E’, ‘T’, ‘Y’, ‘U’ and ‘O’ will play the black notes from a piano keyboard. You can transpose an octave down and up with the ‘Z’ and ‘X’ keys respectively. You can change the note velocity down and up with the ‘C’ and ‘V’ keys respectively. Not bad when you’re stuck in an airport with just your laptop! The only issue is that some of your Key Mappings can clash with your Computer MIDI Keyboard, in which case you’ll see the Computer MIDI Keyboard Switch light up orange. What is ‘Key Mapping”? Read on! ‘

– Key Map Mode
This switch takes us in and out of Key Map Mode, allowing us to assign control of specific functions inside Live to keys on our keyboard. Test it out by activating the switch and using the mouse to click a button such as SOLO on Track 4 and then press S on your computer keyboard. Once you leave Key Map Mode test it out by pressing S to solo and un-solo Track 4.

– MIDI Map Mode
This works similarly to Key Map Mode, except here we can assign control to an external controller. Clicking the parameter to be assigned and then turning that dial, moving that slider or pressing that button by hand on the controller should get you ‘hands-on’ in no time. For more info on how it works, search for “Assigning MIDI Remote Control” in the Live Manual (which can be accessed via the Help Menu at the top of your Live screen).

Return Tracks

You can send any Track’s signal (using the Send dial, of course!) to a Return Track. Why? Perhaps you’d like to process multiple signals with one Effect, and then this one Effect can be easily altered, deactivated etc… or perhaps you like the sound of all those signals combined through one Effect. Often we’ll use this to create a blend of the original “dry” signal on the Audio or MIDI Track and the effected output, or the “wet” signal on the Return Track. An easy way to understand the use of Returns is to think of them as Effects Tracks.

Master Track

The Master Track is where we can control the total sum of all our signals. Sliding the Master Track’s Volume Fader all the way down to the bottom will leave us with silence, while sliding it all the way up will often result in distortion. We can also add Audio Effects to the Master Track to shape the final sound, with common examples being EQ Eight and Limiter. The Master Track is also home to our Scene Launch buttons, where we can easily launch (play) a whole row of Clips (or stop multiple Clips by selecting a Scene with empty Clip Slots) at once. Note that Scene 1 is currently selected.

View Menu

Here we can show or hide the following: IN/OUT SECTION, SEND SECTION, RETURN TRACKS, MIXER SECTION, TRACK DELAYS, CROSSFADER SECTION. These are also easily shown and hidden using shortcuts that are listed (alongside many others) in Chapter 34 of the Live Manual.

Clip View Selector

This is a visual overview of the Clip’s entire contents. When the Clip View is open this acts as a zoomer/scroller for the active clip. Note also that when an Instrument or Effect is loaded onto a track we will also see a Device View Selector. Click either of these to toggle between the alternate views, or use the SHIFT / TAB keyboard shortcut.

OK? Now it’s time for you to explore Live and make some noise!

I look forward to answering any questions you may have.

Mike Callander
Ableton Certified Trainer