Ableton Live Operator Tutorial: Techno Fundamentals Pt 1 – More Than A Bassline w/ John Selway

In the first installment of Techno Fundamentals, electronic musician and Dubspot Instructor John Selway explains and shows you how to create interesting, deep, and lush bass sounds with Ableton Live‘s versatile software instrument Operator. In part two John looks at the “one note lead” idea using Ableton Live‘s Analog instrument. Commonly used in techno and other styles of electronic dance music where melody takes a backseat to rhythm, the “one note lead” is a simple yet very effective composition technique.

I first thought to call this series “Techno Basics”, as I am showing some simple ways to get started with making beats and doing sound design for techno. But even just a few basic elements quickly develop into complex textures and open the door to bigger production concepts. Also, I’m keeping an ear to the past, taking techniques and sounds I’ve worked with in the late 80′s and 90′s and bringing them up to date with the modern tools in Ableton Live. I think it’s a great way to learn about techno production, having some perspective on where it all comes from. So “Fundamentals” refers to the musical and production techniques as well as the past of techno and how it relates to current music.

In this first tutorial, I’m introducing the idea that a single element can sound like more than it is, and that small changes can get a big result. Now I’m not specifically referring to “minimal”, but the idea that less is more applies. Making the most out of a few elements is always a great way to go. Lately I’ve been diving into early to mid 90′s techno styles again, the era of techno where I got my start and that I know very well, and which is what gave me the idea to use FM synthesis with Operator as an example for the tutorial. Much early techno uses FM sounds, tracks by Detroit pioneers such as Derrick May (‪Rhythim is Rhythim’s “Sinister‬“) and Juan Aitkins (Model 500′s “The Chase“) feature FM synths prominently – excepting the drums which are almost invariably Roland TR-909, TR-808 or other similar machines of the time. Also in the early to mid-90′s, artists like Cajmere (aka Green Velvet) used the distinctive FM tones almost exclusively for bass and lead sounds in classic tracks such as “Conniption” which the sound in my tutorial is partially inspired by.

Operator is one of my favorite devices in Live, it’s made FM synthesis more approachable and useful for me. My example in the video is to start with the most basic sound that Operator makes, the default with a single sine wave, and show how quickly it can evolve into something complex and dynamic. Also, without going into too much detail about exactly how FM works, it gives some experience into that kind of synthesis just by playing around and hearing the distinctive quality that happens when one oscillator is modulated by another at very high frequency.

A lot of the life in the sound I create in the video comes from the real time control of the Operator parameters. I’m showing how a sound evolves in a musical way, and choosing how and when subtle or extreme changes happen is where the magic is. A simple yet energetic beat and one interesting, dynamic sound, playing together in an undeniable groove, are enough to capture imaginations and move bodies. In the next installment there will be more of a focus on arranging, using the evolving sound to shape and build out a track.

- John Selway, Electronic Music Producer & Dubspot Instructor

Enter your email address to download John Selway's free Ableton Live Pack

The Live pack includes a Drum Rack containing kick and high hat sounds he synthesized with Operator, a snare made with Collision, and a processed sample of his very own real hand clap.

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  • jim
  • 11/4/2011

this is great but wheredo i DL the .alp john mentioned?

  • David Paglia
  • 11/4/2011

Great tutorial, thank you very much!

Question: Following along with the provided set, the bassline has a click/pop sound occurring which I assume is the midi notes not concluding before the next midi note is triggered. I traced back through the video to confirm everything is being followed verbatim and this doesnt sound like its happening in the video. Adjusting the Attack/release (with the midi note positions/lengths per video) doesnt help either. The only way to remove the pops is to keep the midi notes 1/8 long and 1/8 apart which doesnt have the same nice feel.

  • SigEnt
  • 11/4/2011

Fantastic tutorial, really good to find one based on techno (and not dubstep or trance) I have just really started making music with Ableton and I have promised myself I wouldn’t splash out on any more soft synths until I have learnt what Analog and operator can do. I am a massive fan of detroit techno and after following this TUT playing around with operator I can get close to some of those baselines I know and love in Juan and Derrick’s music (that were probably originally programed on the Yamaha DX series of FM synths).

Looking forward to the next part of this tutorial. Until then I think I may need to read up on FM synthesis :)

Cheers, this has been a massive help.

  • wW
  • 11/4/2011

Agree with @SigEnt. Great to see good techno tutorials. Thanks for this one.

  • iss
  • 11/4/2011

ALP file you can it download from???

  • PerfumeV
  • 11/4/2011

I’m using Live 8.1 but when i try open the .alp file it says i can’t open it because the file was made in a newer version of ableton than mine. What can i do?

  • benjamin
  • 11/4/2011


  • xcution
  • 11/4/2011

for some reason when i tried installing the sound pack it wouldn’t allow it. It said it was made with a more recent or incompatible version of Live:(

  • chus
  • 11/4/2011

Agree Great to see good techno tutorials. Thanks for this one more

  • Christopher Clough
  • 11/4/2011

Thanks you for this tutorial, I extremely new to Ableton and this allowed me to understand some of the features with in it.