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May 7, 2012
We’re back once again with some Ableton Live tips and tricks. Over the past few articles I’ve gone over the drum step sequencer that I’ve built in Live and explained how the many different Live components used within it interact.
There are plenty of ‘how-to’ articles and videos out there that cover the basics of Live, but my goal through the exploration of the step sequencer was to showcase how these basic elements can be used in context. Live is an extremely flexible and versatile program that the user can really customize it to suit their individual needs, as long as they can get creative enough …
We’ve covered most of the key components of the step sequencer thus far and in this article I’m going to wrap up some of the loose ends. Hopefully you have received a bit of knowledge and inspiration from these articles.
Sound Selection and Layering
Tomes could be written about the choice of sounds used in music production, especially electronic music production. I’m not going to go in-depth about acoustic theory or sound design here, but I will give you a bit of insight about my sound selection process.
There are several different places that I have sourced all of the drum sounds from. Live’s built-in library has some great components and the step sequencer draws heavily on them. I also source sounds from various sample packs and other third party recordings that I find on the internet. There are many people that create there own sound sets through field recordings, hardware sampling, synthesis and several other techniques. With a little bit of digging, you can find some great sounds in the random corners of the internet that not many other people will be using. Another technique is to simply create the sounds myself, through both field recording and resampling within Live.
Since the majority of the sounds that I use were not created by me (as is the case with many EDM producers and DJs), I need to find a way to make them sound unique. This can be accomplished through layering different samples in unique combinations to create distinctive sounds. Again, there are many articles and video tutorials available that have step-by-step guides on layering drum sounds, but there a few basic principles that apply.
The most important thing you can do when selecting sounds to layer is to LISTEN TO THEM. Active listening is actually a skill that needs to be developed and picking sounds for your productions is a great way to practice. Before you randomly throw a few sounds together, try to think about what kind of sound you want for this particular component. Listen to each layer individually and evaluate whether or not they fit in with what you want. A little bit of pre-screening can save you a lot of time down the road.
One of the best tools you can use when layering sound is a spectrum analysis tool. Live has it’s own version, simply called ‘Spectrum’ that works very well (located in the ‘audio effects’ folder of the Live library). This tool gives you a visual representation of your sound and where on the frequency spectrum it is sitting. When layering multiple sounds it can be very easy to build up unwanted frequencies, so you can use this tool to find areas in your frequency spectrum that may be problematic for your overall mix.
Once you have selected the right sounds and have analyzed the frequency spectrum it is time to apply some EQ technique. There are two components to this process; removing unwanted frequency build-up and levelling out dynamic build-up. Every sound and sample you use has it’s own unique frequency signature spanning a segment of the audio spectrum. Part of this spectrum is the core of the sound while other parts are residual sounds and harmonics that aren’t a predominate part of that sounds character. Of these two parts, the latter is where problems can occur when dealing with multiple layers. For example, snare drums and clap sounds can occupy a very wide range of frequencies. While the ‘sweet spot’ in your audio spectrum for a snare drum might be a low-mid area, there will be many harmonics that extend into the kick drum’s low frequency area. In a traditional drum kit recording scenario this is not necessarily a bad thing (assuming everything is tuned and recorded properly), but when you are using multiple samples from different sources this can become a problem. The range of conflicting lower harmonics can very easily turn your mix muddy and take away the emphasis of the kick-snare relationship. This can be fixed by simply placing a high-pass filter on your snare sounds at the appropriate frequency. In Live, you could do this either in each individual Simpler instrument or place an EQ at the end of the Instrument Rack chain with the appropriate settings. This same principle can be applied to all of your sounds in their respective frequency spectrums.
The second important component to this is ensuring the dynamics of each individual sound are controlled. When you layer multiple sounds of similar frequency together you get more than sound character blending, you get a dynamic build up. While you may experience some phase cancellation issues, the overall effect of layering multiple sounds together is that the master output is louder. I employ several different techniques to balance the dynamics of the step sequencer and you can use any of these in multiple combinations to achieve the same effect. First, simply adjusting the gain on individual Instrument Rack chains is a good way to reduce volume output as well as balance the sounds against each other. You can also adjust the volume within each individual Simpler instrument. The key is to maintain a healthy signal through all of the various chains and effects that the sound travels through. All of the racks in Live have VU meters for every individual chain, so you can visually see the dynamic level of your signals at each point in the instrument chain. In addition, you can also use EQs and compressors/limiters at the ends of your chains to reduce the overall volume output.
With so many different layers interacting it is very easy for the sounds to sound disjointed. This is were a bit of compression comes into play. Applying the right compressor to your sound chains can have a dramatic effect on the cohesiveness of your sounds. In the step sequencer I use compressors at the end of each sound chain (kick, snare, hi hat, percussion) with customized settings. An entire book could be written about the use of compressors, so I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here, but it really comes down to listening. I use a wide range of sounds within each individual drum component, so finding compression settings that worked for all of them was really a matter of trial-and-error.
Audio Routing, Return Tracks, and Final Processing
Once all of the sounds have been blended, analyzed, EQ’d and compressed they need to be sent to the master output. For the step sequencer I actually route all of the audio to a return track before it goes to the master output. By default, when you turn an individual track’s ‘send’ amount up it is a blending of the return track output and the master output. If you open your I/O settings, you can choose to send the audio to ‘Sends only’, which routes 100 per cent of the audio to the return tracks. All of the step sequencer’s audio is sent to one of these return tracks, which has a series of audio effects that process the sound before getting sent to the master output. The first effect it goes through is a customized DJ FX rack that I have created for live performance, which I will go into in a future column. The second effect the signal goes through is a limiter. The settings on the limiter are quite soft, it is there simply to prevent any unnecessary clipping. Finally, the drum audio is sent through a long reverb with a fairly dry setting. This is to add a final layer of glue to all of the sounds before they are sent to the speakers.
Here’s a video going over the layering and processing of sounds …
As always, an audio clip for you to use …
The creation of the step sequencer was a great exercise for me as it allowed me to explore many of Live’s features and to push the limits of it’s capabilities. While I have showcased most of the core features of the step sequencer, it is constantly evolving. Every time I play a show or start a new production there are always areas of it that end up getting tweaked. The more I use it, the more ideas for performance and production it generates. I hope that this exploration of a piece of my personal setup has shown you a bit about Live’s ability to work for you and how you can endlessly customize your setup to help your workflow. Starting next week I will be exploring some new areas of Ableton Live, so come back and check it out!
- Brayton Key