Powerful tool is not just for live performance
Ableton's Live 3 is billed as a live
performance tool, designed for musicians and DJs to play interactively with
looped and sequenced audio tracks, composing on the fly in real time
performances. But with a full complement of effects and automation functions,
Live 3 is also an excellent studio tool for recording and building arrangements.
In this tutorial, we're going to look at
automation in Live 3.04 on Apple's Panther OS (version 10.3), and see how it can
be used to make mixing and effects controls function as part of the music.
Setting up Automation in Live is incredibly easy, and the procedure is the same
whether you're recording or mixing: Just click the Record button at the top of
the screen and then hit Play. Whatever knobs and dials you move during playback
will be recorded as automated moves.
There are two basic views in Live 3: the mixer-style Session View, and a multitrack waveform space called the Arrangement View. They are accessed by clicking the Session Chooser and Arrangement Chooser buttons at the top right of the interface. To set up a simple panning or volume automation move from the Session View (the mixer), you hit the record button, and play back as usual while moving the volume faders up and down or the panning knob from side to side. When you're finished, deselect the Record button and play back the section where you created the automation. You can monitor the result while watching the knobs move up and down by themselves. If you don't like what you did, hit Undo and try again. (Or, to delete automation data, select an automated control and choose the Edit menu's Delete Automation command.)
You can also do the automation
graphically by creating a Breakpoint Envelope in Live's Arrangement View (a
multitrack waveform view). This is not a real time process during playback
(unless you're really quick), but it's easier for some automations, such as a
complicated series of fader moves. The Breakpoint Envelope is a horizontal line
running through each track. If you double click on this line, it creates a
breakpoint that can be moved up or down to create an automated move. With a
series of breakpoints, you can develop very fine control, to make things like
automated volume arcs.
Or, you could also use Live 3's new Draw Mode feature, which allows you to simply draw the envelopes. In Draw Mode, envelopes can be controlled real time during playback. With a little practice, you can become adept at doing this in real time. Using the Breakpoint Envelope feature, you may get more precise control. But the Draw Mode may allow the creation of more expressive envelopes. You can also move freely between the two functions by hitting the Draw Mode toggle switch in the Control bar at the top of the screen near the Play and Record buttons.
Either way you try it, envelopes can give you automated moves that would be difficult manually, and impossible when applied to multiple tracks simultaneously (and it works in both looped and normal modes). The graphical approach of Envelopes provides a powerful editing and arranging tool. The Envelopes Arrangement View lets you visually adjust the whole track in relation to the rest of the music. This gives you a global perspective on the music that you don't have when automating from the Session View.
Automated tracks in Session View. A Ping Pong delay Breakpoint Envelope is being drawn on track one. Track two has automated panning applied, while Track 3 has automated volume applied. In column at far right, small red squares indicate parameters set for automation. (Click image for larger view.)
There are a few important details along the way. One is that in order to access a track's envelope, you need to unfold the track (revealing the hidden properties), by clicking a small triangle next to the track name. Also, you can view any of the track's mixer or effect controls by clicking in a little drop down window under the track name, which displays this control's envelope superimposed on the waveform. In this window, you can select mixer (any volume or panning envelopes), one of the effects on the track, or none to hide the envelope and show just the waveform. Devices with automated controls are displayed in red (Ping-Pong, Reverb, etc.).A little red LED appears next to faders and in the upper left corner of panning controls that are automated so you can keep track of the automated tracks. Or if you want to improvise an automation idea without overwriting the existing automation setting, you can disable a control's automation temporarily. This causes the automation LED goes off to indicate the automation is inactive, and what
you do overrides the automation. When you do this, another little red light
to come on in the Control Bar, called the Back to Arrangement button, which you
can click to return to the previous automation settings.
This kind of power allows you to create
interesting arrangements. Simply automating dynamics controls so they're louder
in some passages and softer in others creates a more textured sound. A
chain of loops can be set up so one fades one as the next fades in, or
a constant drone can be transformed into a spare series of repeating riffs. The
same with moving pan controls so that the soundfield changes during a
Another valuable aspect of automation is the ability to automate effects, so that they come in or go out at specific points. You can do this to heighten a chorus, or switch to another effect when you want the mood to change. There are 17 effects, including Gate, Compressors I and II, Filters, Delay, Chorus, EQ and Reverb. Among these are four new effects introduced with Live 3: Resonators (Vocoder-style harmonies); EQ Three (EQ with high, mid, and low frequency kills); Compressor II (compressor with side chain EQ); and Utility (enhanced panning, stereo phase, and signal gain control).
By automating individual moves, you can develop multilayered atmospheres in the music that would not be possible if you tried to move all the controls manually at the same time. Ableton calls it "animating" the samples. Used as a compositional tool, Live 3's automation provides a unique way of integrating effects, volume and panning. And because it's so straightforward, automation becomes a natural part of arranging process.
There's really no learning curve, or complicated sequence of events you have to follow with the manual in one hand. Hit Record, Play and start automating.