What I Learned in 30 Days w/ Ableton Push: Hardware, Workflow, Drum Mode, Note Mode

Dubspot blogger Josh Spoon spent a solid month learning Ableton Push last year and documented his experience on YouTube. In this follow up article, he highlights some of the things he learned from 30 days of Ableton Push. 

Josh Spoon 30 Days of Ableton Push

When Push was announced, I was very skeptical. I already had 4 controllers surrounding me. None of them had lived up to the hype and expectations that I had for them improving my workflow in Ableton Live. Coming from a traditional tactile instrument background, I found that using a mouse to make most of my music has always been a struggle. But after watching many youtube videos and multiple live demos, I was convinced Push really could be the key to my needs.

I figured the only way I was really going to know if Push was right for me would be to learn it inside and out. So I came up with the idea of doing a youtube series called 30 Days of Ableton Push to force myself through the process. I talked about everything I could find out about Ableton Push with 36 videos in 30 days and in this article I’ll share the highlights of what I learned.

Ableton Push Overview

Hardware & Workflow

As a physical object, Push is a work of art. Every time I pull it out of my bag people turn around in amazement. Once it’s plugged in, people who don’t even play music say, “I want to get that.” Push is well crafted; the base is aluminum and rest is made of a soft rubbery material. The utility buttons have a nice give and clicking feedback when you press them minimizing your need to look at the screen and make sure your command was executed.

Push’s hardware has all the bases covered when it comes to the creation phase of a production. Everything you need to work in the session view is on Push. The night I got Push I was on it for an hour and 45 minutes before I realized that my laptop screen had gone to sleep. You can duplicate, create, delete, mute, solo,automate, quantize, set swing on clips and individual notes (feature added to instruments in Live 9.1) allowing you to keep moving from one idea to the next of your composition.

Push works best when you conform your production workflow to the Push workflow. It  is meant to have a one to one relationship with the track, rack or clip you are working on at the moment. This can take a while to get used to because it’s not like the APC40 where you can easily remap buttons and encoders in Push’s native mode (Live Mode). Whether navigating on Push, another controller, or on your mouse, Push will follow your every move. If you select track three on your APC40 but want Push to stay on track 1, you will find that Push will switch to track 3 with you. This can be seen as a good or bad thing depending on what your needs are from a controller. There are some ways to customize Push out of the box in the User Mode but depending on your needs it can be a bit limiting due to the prewired MIDI messages that are sent on the different pads and encoders.

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLliH3RZ5hf8QVOu9BAkK_R_xGJq-PfS2z

The 9 encoders control the mixer, sends, and macros and more. These encoders are smooth continuous encoders and very responsive so watch how much you twist or your effects might scream. Below is a large LCD screen that can show 4 rows of information that show different information depending on your selection to the right of the screen like Track, Device, Volume, and Pan & Send. The LCD screen is really the stand out part of Push without it you’d be lost and constantly looking at the screen. The textual feedback as you twist a knob or make a selection is well thought out as it keeps you up to date with where you are.

Ableton thought of a great way to navigate your tracks and instruments using two rows of thin rectangular buttons called Selection and State Controls, as well as the In and Out buttons, depending on your mode. The buttons are great to quickly select specific tracks, instruments and multiple racks as well as give access to solo and mute when in the Track Selection.

The In an Out buttons help you dig in to your racks or instruments to make changes to your sounds with great ease. The touch script is multi-functional, working as a pitch bend and a drum rack navigator. The great thing about the touch strip pitch bend is that you can start the bend at any point on the touch strip. If your instrument’s pitch bend is set to 7 semitones, you can press down around 4 semitones and bend back down to 0 semitones. The one request for the touch strip from many people including myself would be adding functionality to toggle the touch strip from pitch bend to a mod wheel.

When I first tested the 64 velocity pads I thought, “man they don’t give much.” I was sure my fingers would get tired after fifteen minutes. After a few more tests I found the pad to be similar to a good drum head, they have some give but allow a nice rebound for quick 32-note or 64-note action, if you dare.

Ableton Push Setting Fixed Length

I will say fixed Length is a godsend. Before Push, if I wanted to record a fixed length loop, I would need to double-click in a clip slot to create an empty MIDI clip, set the loop length, then click overdub to start recording. Now, I hold down the Fixed Length button on Push, select the loop length, then press Record and start playing. This is a huge time saver and has helped me focus on music instead of the mechanics of using Live.

Since Push’s pads are an 8×8 grid, you gain command over up to 64 clips at a time as well as customizing your clip’s colors to serve as a guide when launching, keeping you informed and further from the computer screen. Navigating in around Push using the directional navigation is great in Session mode but beware in Note mode up and down will navigate and launch next or previous scene. Don’t get me wrong this is a cool feature but if you are not meaning to you can possibly ruin a gig if playing live.

Next to the navigation are the oh so important Select and Shift buttons. Select is great for selecting specific clips, drum cells and notes to be recorded or modified. When using Select you will get an alert on the LCD screen to notify you of the selection you made. For example your alert will say “808 Snare” keeping you further immersed in your Push experience. Shift acts as a powerful modifier to many buttons on Push. For example Shift and Session gives you an overview of your whole session, with each pad being a group of 8×8 clips.

Note Mode

When Note Mode is selected the 64 pads will give you up to 4 octaves at a time and many variations of playing in a compact space. When using the default In Key mode all the notes not associated to that key are taken out and you can play chords as well as melodies without worrying about hitting the wrong notes. This applies to all keys and modes, so if you don’t know how to play a Bb Blues scale don’t worry Push has you covered.

Ableton Push Note Mode

It levels the playing field for all people to quickly create interesting sounds that would otherwise take a person with a good sense of theory and keyboard skills.

I’ve learned Push is less about notes and more about tonal relationships. You will be surprised on how much your ear for different note relationships can grow when you aren’t so worried about where your finger need to go. On Push I like to think of the pads not as series of notes but as a series of numbers. Instead of C, D, E, F, G, A, B; I found it easy to think 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.  The series can start at the root and continue going right along the row of pads but can also loop up the Push by three pads at a time. So if I want play a root triad, I play the the first, third and fifth in the series of pads.

Ableton Push D-Pad

Playing melodies may also be daunting when looking at Push. The only reference points you have for placing your fingers are the turquoise root notes. But going back to the repeating series from 1-7 of the pads you can begin to see  patterns emerge that can help you create cool melodies and great ways to solo.

I noticed when I played singular notes on Push I was usually keeping my middle finger in what I noticed to be a home position and I would usually move up and down one row to move around the series. After mapping out what numbers in the series I was playing I noticed that all the number in the series were in a 3×3 grid and that it resembled the old Directional pads from games systems like the Sega Genesis and many arcade games. I noticed no matter where you put your fingers down on Push, if you think of that pad as your root note you can begin navigate knowing where you want to go next. If you want to play the fifth note up from the one you are on just go up and over one then you can continue that same pattern up and across the pads.

If you memorize this pattern you can further focus on the relationships between the notes and less on the notes themselves. For all of the people that feel like using Push Note Mode is cheating there is an Out Of Key mode which is great for playing accidentals of the key you are in.

Also Push gives you alternate pad modes for setting up different layouts depending on the style you like to play.

I’ll say lastly, you currently are not able to save the key your Push is in with your live set. Hopefully that feature will be added very soon. A 3rd-party Ableton Live Script called ClyphX 2 featured in my companion article, Dubspot Overview: Ableton Push Software Devices! Mutant Synth Pack, Clyphx 2, Push CCs, PXT Live, PXT-General, is the only way to get this feature for the time being.

Drum Mode

The Drum Mode is very well thought out. You can create killer drums sequences rather easly. I started out playing drums and Push makes focusing on the joy of making rhythms easy. Gone are the days of recording a pass and then going in with a mouse and clicking around to nudge notes or quantized individual notes. All of this can be done on Push further allowing you to focus on the beat and not on making midi clips and dragging out length or pressing play and frantically playing your beat to press a button to stop the loop recording. Now you just set a length and start sequencing. If you’d like to sequence a 2-bar sequence and want to duplicate it and add more percussion on bars 3 and 4 of your clip, you can easily with the set of 16 pads to the right of the drum rack.

Ableton Push Drum Mode

You can even play back only certain bars of your clip like 1 and 2 or 3 and 4 for precise editing. This can come in handy when performing live with Push giving you variation of you drums in one clip.

The step sequencer makes it easy to slowly build great ideas. Push gives you from 1/4 to 32nd note triplet resolution you can build a wide variety of sequences. Sadly Push only sequences well in 4/4, but you can use it in Arrangement View like any other MIDI controller. The great thing about the drum mode though is the ability to mix live drumming and sequenced drumming.

You can sequence your kick to be ridged then manually play your snare and percussion loose then lastly use the note repeat with a bit of swing to sequence the hi-hats. Push also records your velocity on each note repeat creating rich rhythms. This is extremely helpful for people who have difficulty with drums. You can get a more human feel out of your rhythms that way along with the ability to quantize groups or single notes before or after you play allowing you to not worry so much about time because it can easily be corrected.

Live 9.1 Push Updates

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLliH3RZ5hf8QqBoENE8TC4A-Wr6lpPMMo

Ableton is following a similar model as Native Instruments did with Maschine which is constantly updating and working to make their dedicated controller better with new releases. Boy is Ableton Live 9.1 a great update not only for the DAW but for Push as well. Ableton added the ability to step sequence in note mode, set the length of the note in the step and step sequence Live’s parameters to name a few. To see all the new features of Live 9.1, check out the release notes.

Push Live

Ableton Push Live Performance

Using Push live will take some practice. You always need to be mindful of what you are pressing when using Push. I’d say practice switching between the Track and Device View as well as Note and Session View to gain comfortably. As you do this, memorize what is available to you  in each section. You will spend most of your time in those views. Also practice using mute, solo and stop individual as stop all clips (Shift + Stop) because you don’t want to get lost during a gig trying to remember how to stop an intense clip where there is supposed to be a lull in your performance.

It’s worth mentioning again, that in Note mode up and down arrows will launch the next or previous scene and that can ruin the continuity of your set and maybe get you fired from a gig, so be careful.

With the the warnings and advice being said, using Push live opens back up the world I came from as a drummer and Saxophone player, improvisation and variety. Since I’ve gotten my Push I have played almost every solo live set with just preselected instruments and I start building a live set and modifying it as people watch the organic experience. The audience can see what I’m doing and what I’m affecting, there’s no man behind the curtain, everything is laid bare on Push. The feeling is so liberating.

Final Thoughts

Before Push came out, I was thinking about switching to an all analog setup. I love using a computer to make music, but sometimes feel like the technology gets in the way of the creative. I was spending lots of time clicking and navigating when I just wanted to jam. When Push was announced I still was not convinced, I own quite a few controllers and though they serve good purposes I have not been satisfied by the marketing claims. After going to see multiple live Push demos, I thought this might be the controller that can be a bridge between me and Live.

Also I believe Push can be a great beginner tool to teach children music theory in schools. I think if Push was used sort of like training wheels it could be a less daunting learning experience for some children. I have a good background in theory and I’m a decent keyboard player but having an instrument that takes away the fear of hitting a wrong note helps you listen to the relationships between the notes in the key. I’ve started to understand more of why certain sounds go together and how to pair them in different ways.

Push has exceeded my expectations and enhanced my live performance something I think is well worth the $599 price tag. Ableton has said in a lot of their marketing that Push is not a midi controller but an instrument and I agree. Though it’s not a cure all, I find myself creating faster and in a different way then I would try on a regular keyboard or drum pad. Push isn’t suited for everyone but if you are interested, find a local music shop or a friend that has one and find out if Push is something that is for you.


Dubspot blogger Josh Spoon is an Ableton Live veteran, blogger, drummer, music producer and live performer. Josh has a residency with the eclectic Los Angeles electronic music collective Space Circus,performing every first Friday of the month, and just released his first concept EP of grooving low-end originals entitled Man on Mars.


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