Ableton Live & APC40 Live PA set up

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.

(Click image above to see full sized image)

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:

Downtempo Live PA


77 Replies to “Ableton Live & APC40 Live PA set up”

  1. Thanks for this detailed walkthrough! I’m in the process of building a new live set and I really like the idea of simplicity and consistency you’ve used. My biggest hang-up is not wanting it all to be rendered audio loops so I can go deeper with the live tweaking. I’m thinkng of keeping 1 channel of the 8 reserved for midi/vsts, if I can find a processor-friendly way of running all the plugs needed for a whole set. Or maybe creating some parts for a hardware synth and focus my live tweaking there… So many options!

    1. I hear you, I experimented with going the VST route for the same reasons, but ultimately kept running into CPU issues. Or maybe I should say, with the VSTs that I wanted to use, it was just too CPU intensive to do it the way I really wanted.

      Most of my live sets have been, and likely will continue to be, hardware based. I like having the option of using Live to play out some of my studio tracks now and then though too.

  2. I’ve played a bit with the Kapture Max4Live plug and it has some very cool performance implications, but more so if you doing lots of knob twiddling.

    Once I have an ipad, I’m thinking Kiva’s APC40 mapping plus touchAble for clip launching might just be the perfect performance controller setup for me.

  3. Hi,
    i also like the idea of simplicity in it,
    so you don’t need to watch the screen all the time
    and i’m defenitely with you when it comes to the track stop buttons.
    Not well thought to the end of akai!

  4. Straight forward advise Tarekith, thanks for sharing this! I have been messing with finding a consistent method for this too (even bought a label maker to label tracks etc).

    @Crispy: I hear you about having 1 track that is, say, more spontaneous. IE: VST/midi. I think it really depends on finding a VST that can cover a lot of ground for you sonically. That way you can build a patch bank that will cover your entire set, and send program changes via midi clips. The thing to avoid, IMOP, is switching VSTs mid song/set as it opens a Pandora’s box for crackles/pops/crashes.

  5. Ok, so talk to us about how you’re actually performing that set above. I’m guessing you aren’t just hitting the scene buttons and knob twiddling as it would probably bore you and your audience both to death. Also, I’m curious to know why you separate fully half the set into percussion, especially given that your music tends to layers and beds of synth and guitar.

  6. Also if you’re willing to share, which fx specifically are you using for that rack? I’d like to re-create it as a jumping off point for live PA with my new APC.

  7. Thanks everyone, glad you liked the write up on my live set. El Jefe, here’s the rack I use, you can explore as much as you want and modify it for your own uses:

    This rack is one of those things I tend to modify and play with all the time, so it changes every few months. This is just the latest incarnation. I really want to go back and redo the filters in this one, but I’ve just been too focused on getting my hardware live set up and running lately. I’ll be recording a new Live based live set this month though, something for the Frisky Radio anniversary I think.

    As for how do I actually perform the set, well it’s pretty hard to describe really. I almost never fire off a scene, I tend to instead trigger individual clips to bring them in and out of the mix. Sometimes I’ll drop the volume first, trigger the clip, and then slowly raise the volume to make something fadein over time. Or I might use the effect rack to wash a clip out in reverb and stuff, and introduce that sound by slowly removing the effect so things come into focus.

    To transition to the next song, I just slowly swap out clips playing from one scene with the next. So I might drop out the percussion in Scene 1, and then trigger the percussion in Scene 2, then the same for the other sounds. I think you can probably hear this better than I can explain it by listening to the set.

    As for why so many drums when most of my music is synth based, well… not sure I see it that way. For me the drums are my favorite part usually, and many times I actually wish I had more part available for seperating drum sounds. A lot of times in the studio versions, it’s taking away and reintroducing specific drum sounds that helps define the structure of the song and how much excitement a part has. In my Machinedrum based live pa’s, I’ll have 10-12 tracks of drums to play with and mute/unmute for instance.

    For this type of set up though, I’ve found that this set up gives me the most flexibility, without being too complicated to maange and perform. I used to use 16 tracks of sounds for my software sets (6 drums, 10 instruments), but honestly it just required too much effort and time to manage on stage. I’d constantly be buried in my laptop or the controller just trying to keep things moving, which made it hard to a) have fun, and b) watch the crowd, interact, etc.

  8. Tested out that rack, really like it. Gives variation without completely overwhelming the sound in a bad way. Thanks. 🙂

    Also, thanks for the explanations. Most helpful.

  9. Im new to this and this is a simple question. I need to know what kind of sound card to get so that i can cue clips while i dj. what is a good sound card to get and how the hell to i cue songs??? also what is a good power amp. i have speakers that need a power source and no way to play them. thanks for the help. big ups on this great post. one last question. r u putting loops and sounds that you make in the scenes or is it just audio songs looped into 32 bars??

    1. It’s loops and sounds, not whole songs. As for the soundcard question, you’re better off asking or searching on the forums. There’s dozens out there, and lots of reviews on them posted there.

  10. Since I’m successfully getting you to post FX racks, would you mind possibly posting up the FX rack you’re using currently for downtempo DJ sets?


    Like my live pa rack, this one changes all the time, almost every set in fact. I tend to pick the 4 effects I think will work best given the kind of set I’m trying to do. This is the rack I used yesterday to do my mix for the Frisky Radio 5-year anniversary coming up next month. Should be airing on June 19th, I’ll definitely post the details when I get them. One of my best sets ever if I do say so myself (and I just did).

  12. Excellent. You know how I feel about “Untied Knot” (aka “The Manual”) so I’m looking forward to it. 😀

    Thanks for another upload.

  13. Thanks so much for this insight, much appreciated. Been trying to figure out ways to adapt many years of mute/unmuting MPC4000 jams into Ableton style without having to stare at a screen.

    One thing re faders at max… could you not adapt the max value in midi control to 90 for all faders? Not really sure how APC works but was just a thought.

    thanks again!

  14. I think we’re talking about the same thing, yeh, i mean midi mapping as I thought the APC maximum fader value would make hit +6db as per your screen shot? So was just thinking you make the maximum midi values of 90 or so instead of 127 so that at full fader throw, you’d only hit 0db…

    I guess it wouldnt make a massive difference, tbh, just thought it would keep gains at a more standard level, if you see what I mean.

    cheers again for sharing!

  15. Great post.

    I am rather new to Ableton and totally new to the APC40.

    I can not seem to get your PA Rack Presets to show up in Ableton’s Presets and instead have to point it to where I downloaded them. Can you provide specific instructions how to get it to come up in Abeltons’ Audio Effects Presets Menu?


    1. Live doesn’t automatically “install” racks or effects presets, so if you want them to show up in your normal Library, you need to drag and drop them there. You can do this either outside of Live in Windows Explorer or OSX Finder, or just drag the racks from Live into Live’s browser in the location you want to save them to. Either method will work fine.

  16. Thanks for the very detailed and informative explanation of your Live setup. I just purchased an APC40 and am new to performing sets, and was wondering if you ever need an external sound card to cue up subsequent songs – it seems like with the design of the APC40, and with each track having its own send effects and volume faders, cueing songs wouldn’t be necessary. What do you think? Thanks!

    1. For my own live sets I don’t need to cue anything, I know my own songs pretty well and what to expect. When I’m DJing with the APC40 and Live, then yes I use an external soundcard so I can cue things up.

  17. Nice tutorial. The problem I’ve been having is that things seem to come out too loopy. But I’ve been using 8-bar loops or sometimes 16. Makes a lot of sense to go to 32 though 🙂

    Btw… IMO red is for record and blue is for stop.

  18. Hey that was so great, really appreciate any help while im trying to wrap my head around building a live set.
    I have a question, I use a lot of sidechain compression where i usually side chain all the instruments to the bass kick. How are you it supposed to control them to duck only when the bass kick comes in when they are audio files? or must you keep the audio files ducking out where they already have in the original track when you have bounced them?
    i hope that makes sense!

  19. Hi ! I’m new to the apc40, and I wanted to assign my cue knob to global tempo as you mentioned up, but I can’t find how…Could you just explain this step please ?

    Thanks a lot 🙂

    1. In Live’s MIDI preferences, make sure you have “remote” turned on for the APC40’s input and output. Then, enter MIDI Map mode (CMD+M), click on the tempo field in Live, then wiggle the cue knob. Leave MIDI Map mode and you’re done.

  20. I didn’t read all the comments, but I have to mention the Max for Live device, Kapture. You can use it as a clip, if you can spare the space in an 8 channel session. It works great, as much as I’ve used it.
    I’m now playing with Lemur on the iPad. Mu is quite the Abletonlive control suite.

  21. Hi, you mentioned the threat to hard drives from bass vibrations. There’s an easy solution: run your whole set from a USB flash drive. Seriously, even the cheap ones are more than fast enough to stream 12+ tracks of 24/44.1 stereo files. I’m using a Corsair Survivor. Cheers!

  22. …Oops, I think it was in another article you mentioned bass vibration / hard drives. D’Oh! Good stuff anyway, cheers! 🙂

  23. Thanks for posting this! I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to adapt my own stuff for live performance and this was a helpful template with which to get started. For me it’s always been tough having control over your elements without making things cluttered and overwhelming. However making things too simple makes things boring. You seem to have found a good happy medium here!

  24. Hey!

    I just have aquestion, do you just do your own tracks with sample loops? or do you use like some other artists tracks too?


  25. A bit late to the game here, but hopefully, you’ll see it: what kind of quntization settings do you use when performing live?

  26. Ah, OK. I’ve never actually used Live for performance, so, having dabbled a bit with Traktor, the quantization is a bit of a challenge to me (thinking (1 bar) ahead instead of just pressing the relevant button exactly when you want a sound/track/clip to start).

  27. You don’t have to press it one bar ahead, you just need to press it anytime before the next bar starts. For me, that’s usually just a fraction of a second, then the new clip will start perfectly in time.

  28. Thanks for a ton of great information. I’m looking at finally performing live after a decade of working in the studio, and this is the kind of info I needed. I plan on starting simple with 2 launchpads (1 for clips, 1 for max4live stuff), iPad running lemur for effects, and Maschine for live drum parts. I can’t wait until I can get some time to put my set together.

  29. Thanks for sharing , you way is easy which is good for my head .
    I got here trying to find hoe Dj Kiva set his apc40 up using the launch pads as triggers for effects . You seem like the man to ask if you have any insight ?
    Thanks for the effects racks they have changed my live setup a lot

  30. Thanks for all the detailed information. You are very generous. In your workflow do you completely arrange and master tracks before breaking them down for performance or do you mix and match loops that you may be working on to test them out live?

  31. Thanks for all the detailed information. You are very generous. In your workflow do you completely arrange and master tracks before breaking them down for performance or do you mix and match loops that you may be working on to test them out live?
    There was an error with my post being too short. Maybe this will work.

    1. Since my ablton ets are made up of songs I’ve already written in the studio and released, all of sounds for each song I already know work together. Nothing is mastered forth live set though, i like a more raw sound for that.

  32. Hello sir! I really like the simplicity of your setup. However, I do have a question. For buildups, do you use white noise rises or pitch rises? If so, where do you put them in your setup and how are you triggering them? I’m working on a template very similar to this and I can’t seem to find a place to fit them in without going beyond the 8 track columns. Help please!

    1. No, I don’t use samples like that. For the few sounds I want to use in say a drop or build up, I’ll put those on a seperate scene and label them something like “DROP” or “Guitar Build”, etc. So I know that I should only trigger that clip for a build up.

      Otherwise I create all my builds and the like just by manipulating and filtering the regular clips in my set.

  33. Hi !!!!! saludos ! from Argentina !

    I would like to know how you use the eq’s…….you know i put a eq3 to each track but the signal gets modified by the eq3. YOu think that afet the eq3 putting a utility is a good option? Because it happens that if i put -14 on each level (i mean on low, mid, high) in some songs is not so mathematic the levels……(ex: i put eq3 – 14, after a utility + 14) and still get some diference…..

    Saludos hope you answer !!! you know this things are really important !

  34. My last question, the thing of the eq……you save me with that reeeeeally !!!!!!! i got auto filters too in each track, and the chance the signal too, when it goes trhu the autofilter it gets a little bit louder and i think that putting a limiter in the end is not a nice solution.
    Any idea dear god?

  35. Hi Man, your site and music is great you are helping lots of people good man,
    I just wondered if you have the live pa rack you use as i can;t seem to find it in your latest one posted above?

  36. Hey Tarekith, thanks for the excellent walk-through. One thing I was wondering is what you do with regards to basslines- for example if you mixdown the stems so that a bassline is sitting correctly with the track it was written for (or correctly sidechained), and you decide to mix the drums from the next track coming in with the bassline of the track that is playing, how do you make sure nothing clashes in terms of frequencies etc? Or am I looking into it too much and it would be the same as a DJ set?! Also, do you have a mastering chain set up on the master channel? Thanks! 🙂

  37. Hi,

    Thanks for this writeup, very informative. I have an APC 20 and a Korg Nano kontrol that I am going to basically map to have similar functionality as the apc40. I’m wondering if you have suggestions on a good way for having more scenes for each song. I tend to have different versions of drums, synths, etc for each song that I like to hop between, however the apc20 on has 8 tracks and blending the sounds from track to track would be rough when the controller only handles 8 scenes. Is there a way to group scenes? Or would you reccomend getting another launch pad to hop back and forth with? Thanks so much

    – Max

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