A few people over the last couple of weeks have asked me how I use Ableton Live and the Akai APC40 to perform my live pa’s. I’ve covered it briefly on the Ableton forums over the years, but I figured it was time to go into a little more detail.
While I tend to write brand new material for my hardware live sets, my Ableton Live sets are my chance to perform the studio tunes I’ve written and released during the previous couple of years. To make things coincide with the APC layout, and to keep the set from being too complex, I use 8 tracks of audio clips in my Live sets. To make it easier to remember which sounds are on which track live, I use the following layout for all my tracks:
Track 1 – Kick and Snare
Track 2 – Percussion
Track 3 – Cymbals and Hi Hats
Track 4 – Bassline
Track 5 – Lead (synth or guitar)
Track 6 – Synth 1
Track 7 – Synth 2
Track 8 – Pads and Fills
Tracks 6 and 7 are basically for any sounds that don’t fit into the other categories, things like secondary synth lines, supporting guitar parts, weird effects or vocal samples.
So the first thing I do when prepping material for my sets, is to open the original song project file and start combining everything down to these 8 stems. One of the things I’ve learned over the years, is to not try and include everything single sound from the original song in my stems. It makes the overall sound too busy in a live setting, and often it’s better to just focus on the strongest, and most important parts of the song. So a lot of fills, and sounds that only were used occasionally in the original song will get deleted.
Once I decide on what sounds will be part of the 8 stems, the next thing I do is work on making these into 32 bar loops. I grew up performing with grooveboxes, so I’m used to working with loopy material and creating the song structure, builds, and peaks on the fly. I find that 32 bars is the best compromise between the loops being too short and repetitive, or being too long really not giving me a chance to interact with them to create something live. Typically in a live set, I’m only going to loop each clip 3-4 times before moving on to the next song, so it works out well.
In this phase I’m basically trying to condense the song into the strongest 32 bars I can, so that when all 8 stems/clips are playing at once, it’s more or less the peak of the song. Mainly because I find it’s easier to play with the song structure on the fly this way. I have a lot of tools to make complex parts simpler, loud parts quieter, and important sounds less in the forefront if I want. More on that later though.
As part of this process of paring things down to 32 bars, I really try and re-use my programmed fills from the studio version to make things more exciting and less loopy sounding. For instance, in the studio version, I have programmed a kick and snare fill every 16 bars. When combining everything down to the live versions, I’ll pull the best of these fills and put them every 8 bars maybe. The strongest and most exciting fill be placed at the end of the 32 bars as well, so that when the clip loops, it does so in a way that avoids being too monotonous or boring.
The last thing I do before rendering these stems, is to make sure that they actually do loop and repeat smoothly. There’s no clicks or pops, and that no matter which combination of the stems is muted, it sounds natural and flows nicely. I don’t want people to think “oh right, that’s where his song looped and repeats again” if I can help it.
Once that’s done, I render each stem as a 24bit/44.1kHz wav file, and name it with the stem type and the song name, i.e. “Bassline – Disappear.wav”. This just makes it easier to quickly find the audio file if I need to later on.
From here it’s time to organize the live set into one Ableton project in Session View. As I mentioned, I use 8 tracks, and each scene in Live is a different song. Sometimes if a song has a solo that doesn’t fit into my stems, or maybe I have a really long drop I like, I might create a second scene for just those parts. In the screenshot above you can see I did this for the song “Tidal”. It has a very strong solo I recorded in the studio, and I want to make sure I don’t accidentally trigger it until I’ve built up to it appropriately, so it’s on it’s own scene. It’s a way for me to visually know that that clip is special in some way, and to not trigger it as if were a normal stem. When I say visually, I mean both by looking at the laptop screen, or by looking at the APC40’s grid buttons.
So, the next step it to put all my stems on the appropriate tracks and scenes, name all the clips and the scene, and give each song it’s own color (both the clips and scenes). I’m a visual person, so if I DO need to glance at the laptop to see where I am in the set, the colors help me break up the set in a way that I can quickly see what I need to. I also put the song tempo in the scene name. Because my downtempo sets can cover a large range of tempos, this lets me know to change the set tempo to match the original song tempo. I do this by assigning the Cue Volume knob on the APC to Live’s tempo field. Generally if I know the next song is at a faster tempo, I’ll slowly start increasing the tempo during the current song to make the tempo changes less noticeable.
The next thing I do is warp all the clips. The drum clips usually get warped with Beats mode, basslines with Tones, and everything else typically Complex Pro, though admittedly it depends on the sounds too. I’ll use whatever sounds best over a +/-10 BPM range. I double check that each clip is set to loop properly, and that Live guessed the correct location for the start marker (sometimes it offsets this a tiny bit, which throws everything off).
The last step in prepping the clips is to basically do a mixdown of each scene to make sure everything plays back at the right volume, and is consistent song to song. I like to have the faders up all the way on the APC for this, so I can easily slam faders up and down on stage without worrying about boosting too much. So I’ll set the volume fader for each track in Live to max, and use the clip volume controls to adjust the volume of the audio. This is a great way to give the whole set a more cohesive feel as well, since I can redo the mixdowns to be similar song to song. Typically I try to leave about 4-5dB of headroom on the master channel when prepping the set this way. I do put Live’s Limiter on the master channel as well, but only for catching stray peaks that might happen when I perform, mainly from effects usage. Rare that it happens, but better to be safe than sorry.
When it comes to effects in the set, I have 2 return tracks in the set, one for reverb and one for delay. I also have a custom effects rack on each track, and this is made up of 8 of my favorite DJ EFX from the packs I’ve released here:
As you can see the rack has a high pass and low pass filter, some gating effects, some chorus and ambient generating effects, and more delays (I love delays). I use the same rack on every track, again, just to be consistent so I know what I’m tweaking no matter what track I’m adjusting. I can do the whole live set without looking at the laptop, so this type of consistency just helps me avoid any unexpected things happening as I jump around the set looking only at the APC40.
And that is how the Live Project is set up for my Live PA’s.
The APC40 I use to control the set is basically set up to use the default mapping it comes with right out of the box. The grid buttons launch clips, the faders control track volumes, and the solo and mute buttons work as you’d expect. I use the Track Control knobs to control what feeds Send 1 (Delay) and Send 2 (Reverb). Because I only have one Effects Rack on each track, the Device Control knobs control my track effects depending on which Track is currently selected. The only non-standard mapping is the tempo control I mentioned earlier, where the APC’s Cue Level knob is assigned to global tempo.
Also, as you can see above, I have colored the Clip Stop buttons red (with a Sharpie, nothing fancy). This helps remind which buttons are the Track Select buttons, and which will stop my audio at the wrong time. Honestly, this is pretty much my only complaint with the APC40, I still don’t understand why Akai didn’t use red LEDs for the Clip Stop buttons. Red means stop, green means go, duh. 🙂
From here it’s just a matter of performing the set. I use track volumes and muting to define the song structure on the fly, create drops and build ups, and slowly morph from one song to the next. Track effects let me alter my audio loops in different ways, and with my Delay and Reverb sends along with my Weird Wash effect (in the track effects rack), I can turn any sound into a texture or a pad.
Probably my favorite part of this set up, is that I can do a whole set without looking at the laptop, it turns the APC40 into almost a groovebox. I don’t feel like I’m using software and a MIDI controller at all. In the future I’m thinking about using Kapture Pad on my iPhone or iPad as well. That way I can use a lot of effects to mangle the set into weirdness, and with a press of a button (errr…. on the screen) bring it all back to normal instantly. Haven’t had a chance to play with this yet, but it’s definitely something I’m keeping in mind for the next time I do a software based live set.
Anyway, that’s how I do my Ableton Live sets using the Akai APC40. I’m happy to answer any questions if I didn’t explain something clearly enough, just post it in the Comments section below.
Oops, I forgot to post a link to one my sets that I did via the above: