Ableton Live Tutorial: Harmonic Multiband Distortion + FREE Rack Download w/ Rory PQ

In this tutorial, Dubspot’s Rory PQ explores harmonic distortion and various approaches to creating a more powerful sound using a Multiband Distortion Effect Rack in Ableton Live. Included is a FREE Ableton Live Effect Rack download.

ableton_live_tutorial_multibandOne of the biggest burning questions about music production often tossed about like an ecstatic fan crowd surfing is, “How can I make my sounds fat and loud?” At some point in our music making endeavors we will all want to make an element in a project sound richer to meet the demand of commercial sounding tunes. Well, there are more ways to bring your sounds to life then there are Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavors. One of the most widely used and crucial approaches to creating a bigger sound is applying harmonic distortion.

Good Distortion vs Bad Distortion

There is good distortion and bad distortion. Digital clipping is an example of bad distortion. This occurs when levels exceed a maximum level to the point where the peaks of waveforms are clipped off resulting in unwanted distortion. This type of distortion is not musical, so if your volume meters are pushed into the red it’s recommended to bring the level down.

Harmonic distortion on the other hand is an example of good distortion, and is as wonderful as winning the lottery. Harmonic distortion is very musical because it adds overtones and harmonics to the fundamental frequency of the sound. Pleasant distortion is used to add warmth, harmonics, dynamics, and color to the signal. It works great to ‘glue’ elements together and make sounds more rich and full or gritty and harsh. Even‑order harmonic distortion tends to sound warm and smooth. Odd‑order harmonic distortion tends to sound more harsh, gritty and edgy.

Types of Distortion

There are various forms and flavors of harmonic distortion. The most common types are saturation and overdrive. These types of distortion treatments were discovered using analog gear. Analog distortion was achieved by pushing levels through various components in older analog equipment and tape machines. Recording engineers quickly realized that the pleasant distortion and compression characteristics of saturation could be used as a mixing tool. Today, digital distortion is more commonly used with plugins that emulate high quality distortion models inspired by the vintage characteristics of running sound through tubes, transformers, valves, tape and guitar amps.

Learn more about analog distortion HERE where Dubspot instructor Michael Walsh explores a cassette distortion technique.

Multiband Madness Distortion Rack

All this talk about distortion has inspired me to build a multiband distortion rack to share with all of you. Using Ableton Live and its unique ability to create custom Instrument and Effects racks, we will explore what’s going on under the hood of this rack. In addition, we will cover some creative possibilities and practical uses for applying multiband distortion.

Multiband Madness Rack

Download a free copy of the Multiband Madness rack below and feel free to follow along as we transform mediocre sounds into powerhouse speaker shakers your mom will be proud of. There are two versions of the Multiband Madness rack. The Live Suite version requires Max for Live and the Live Standard version does not require Max for Live.

Download Free Ableton Live Multiband Madness Effect Rack

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Test Drive

Before we look under the hood of this mean distortion machine, lets hear it in action. Below are two identical drum loop samples, one is dry and the other is running through the Multiband Madness rack. Check out the difference in punch and presence.

Dry Drum Loop

Saturated Drum Loop

Waveform Comparison

Under the Hood

Ok, time to get our hands dirty and look under the hood to see how this rack was created and explore its powerful features.

This is a multiband effects rack meaning that the incoming signal is split into different frequency bands that can be processed separately to enhance a sound in much more detail.

Frequency Bands

The incoming signal is split into High, Mid, and Low frequency bands using Live’s Multiband Dynamics device. We could also use EQ’s instead to create the different frequency bands, however the Multiband Dynamics gets more bang! It has three independent frequency bands with adjustable crossover points that sound more transparent, as well as allows for upward and downward compression and expansion. Not only is this rack a multiband distortion rack, it is also a multiband compression rack. The crossover points for each band can be adjusted using the Low-Mid and Mid-High Band Macro controls.

Multiband Dynamics

Following the Multiband Dynamics for each band is Live’s Saturator device for applying harmonic distortion. Saturator is a powerful waveshaping effect that can coat the input signal with soft saturation or drive it into many different flavors of distortion. A bonus feature of this rack is that we are not limited to using Saturator. Live offers six different distortion devices that give use a wide variety of distortion styles. Choose from Saturator, Overdrive, Dynamic Tube, Vinyl Distortion, Erosion, and Redux. You can Hot Swap devices by selecting the Saturator, clicking ‘Q’ on your keyboard and selecting one of Live’s distortion effects or your favorite third-party plugins. The amount of harmonic distortion that is applied to each band can be adjusted using the Low, Mid, and High Drive Macro controls.


At this point we have a decent multiband distortion/compression rack that is very capable of enhancing a sound. Why cruise on a moped when you can rip on a Harley?

Ableton Live’s unique ability to build racks inside of racks with multi-parameter Macro mapping control allows us to create some interesting effects. For fun we added an extra burst of distortion. Following the Saturator on the High and Mid bands is another Effect Rack containing a Max for Live device called Envelope Follower. The Envelope Follower reacts to the amplitude of the input signal to create a series of attack and decay envelopes, which are used to modulate the Drive control on the second Saturator. Adjusting the High and Mid Snap Macros control how much distortion is applied to the transients of the incoming signal. You can control the attack and decay of the distortion bursts by adjusting the Rise and Fall controls located on the Envelope Follower. Please be cautious when adjusting the Snap Macros, the signal can be easily overdriven and cause clipping distortion. A Limiter has been added to help protect your speakers and ears.

Envelope Follower

Gluing the entire rack together is yet another rack dedicated to applying parallel compression that also adds some substantial punch. Parallel compression, also known as New York compression, is a mixing technique used to balance an unprocessed ‘dry’ signal with a heavily compressed version of the same signal. Parallel compression is great because it retains the dynamic range with the ‘dry’ signal while adding power and punch with a heavily compressed signal. Adjusting the NY Comp Macro will control how much parallel compression is applied to the output signal. In addition, you can adjust the Ratio, Attack, and Release Macro controls on the NY Compression rack to dial in your preferred settings.

NY Compression

Sometimes parallel compression can make things sound muddy in the low end or may overpower the lower frequencies of the kick. To remedy this I added a Sidechain Compressor to the Low band to duck the volume and make space for the kick to punch through the mix.

Sidechain Compression

Creative Possibilities and Practical Uses

Multiband distortion works great on any element in a project. It particularly excels at beefing up drums, bass, and leads. What’s great about this rack is that it can be easy tailored to your needs. The rack is not limited to applying harmonic distortion. You can expand its possibilities by dropping additional effects on each band to enhance the sound further and add dimension. For example, you could add reverb to the High band, delay to the Mid band, and a Utility set to Mono on the Low band.

Bonus Tip: You could duplicate any of the frequency band chains and pan them to add harmonic distortion out across the stereo field. In addition, you could create a ‘dry’ chain and run the processed signal of all three bands in parallel with the unprocessed signal.

Stereo Distortion

Final Thoughts

The Multiband Madness rack has the ability to open doors to many creative possibilities. Feel free to comment below and share some creative ways you used the rack in your projects.


warping multiple clips

Ableton Live Producer Certificate Program

The flagship of our music training, with every Ableton Live course offered at the school. After completing this program, you will leave with a portfolio of original tracks, a remix entered in an active contest, a scored commercial to widen your scope, and the Dubspot Producer’s Certificate in Ableton Live.

What’s Included:

  • Ableton Live Level 1: Beats, Sketches, and Ideas
  • Ableton Live Level 2: Analyze, Deconstruct, Recompose, and Assemble
  • Ableton Live Level 3: Synthesis and Original Sound Creation
  • Ableton Live Level 4: Advanced Sound Creation
  • Ableton Live Level 5: Advanced Effect Processing
  • Ableton Live Level 6: Going Global with your Music

This program is about learning Ableton Live by going through the entire process of being an artist, by developing your own sound through a series of sketches and experimentation. You will also learn the ins and outs of this powerful software through a series of exercises designed to help you master the steps involved in producing your own music. After a level of getting familiar with the tools that Ableton has to offer, you will then develop your sonic ideas into full-length tracks. You will be exposed to a variety of approaches to arrangement and composition, storytelling techniques, ways of creating tension and drama in your music. At the end of the day, it is the sum total of your choices as an artist that define your sound, and Levels 2 – 6 will give you the experience of actually completing tracks to add to your portfolio.

Click here for detailed information on this program, including start dates and payment plans.

Or if you have questions, please call 877.DUBSPOT or send us a message.