Ableton Tutorial: Live Performance and Effects Processing w/ Ben Runyan

In this tutorial Dubspot Instructor Ben Runyan explores live performance and effects processing using the Korg nanoKONTROL and Ableton Live. Our Ableton Live Producer Certificate Program is starting soon in LA, NY, and Online. Enroll Now!

NanoKontrol_2Setting up a Live Performance

To create a compelling performance with Ableton Live, you’re going to want to do more than just hit a button, play your keyboard, and sing over your track. If you can apply some dynamic changes to the structure of your songs, your audience will connect more with your music. Ableton Live’s Session View is the perfect place to organize your track for engaging performance.

Breaking down the elements of your pre-recorded songs and organizing them into loop versions is the first step needed to compartmentalize how the live performance will be set up. Thinking about these elements in a musical sense more often than not will leave you with these major ingredients: drums, bass, lead melodies, percussion loops, vocals and midi elements.

ableton_setupDuring a live performance, you may find your options restrictive when only using audio loops. Introducing MIDI elements gives you little room to add some magic to your sets. A good technique to start off with is exporting at least a 1 bar loop of each element, so it includes tempo information and then import it into a new set. You’re also going to want to break down the sections of the song into scenes. Below are some example scene arrangements.

scenesHaving a scene prepared for jamming relates to what I have covered about injecting random elements into your sets. One effective way to engage with the audience is to dedicate a section of each song for on-the-fly jamming. Having a looping/jamming section allows you to feel out a crowd and respond with what they want. While performing you may ask “Are folks liking a certain section of the song and should I keep the loop going to give the crowd more of what they want?” With a traditional band setup, this is always available and possible because of the human elements behind each instrument. However in an electronic setting, you are dealing with printed audio that is binary. In other words, no matter how many times you loop it, it will still sound the same. The jamming section will allow yourself and your bandmates to play unscripted live parts over the top of your loops, which will ultimately keep the crowd engaged. No two performances will ever be the same.

Navigating Scenes, Tempo, and Song Structure

What’s nice about working with Ableton Live’s scenes is that they naturally recognize tempo input information. For example, if you name a scene “81 BPM” and then trigger that scene, Live will automatically adjust the tempo for each clip in that scene to 81 BPM.

BPM_AbletonThe next step when preparing your project is to create groups for your songs in the order you will play them in your set. Organization will save time and improve workflow so you’re not jumping around scenes between songs, which could lead to awkward silence in a live setting. In addition, you don’t want to look like you are checking your email during your set, which is the stereotype computer-based musicians face.

Next let’s talk about how to process vocals during a live performance. Like we talked about in the previously, a compelling live electronic performance requires getting as far away from the computer as possible. To do this, we will need MIDI controllers that allow us to step away and control the music like an instrument. Let’s delve into this further. First I’ll show you how I often process the vocal channel and control it with a Korg nanoKONTROL.

Vocal Channel Processing

Vocal ReverbIn this particular scenario, we will run vocals directly through Ableton Live and out to an audio interface before reaching the house sound system. The vocal channel itself should remain fairly uncomplicated. You’ll notice an audio effect chain that includes an EQ, Compressor, and a Limiter. Let’s look at what each device is doing and why.

EQ: You’ll notice a notch cut at around 9.5K. Sometimes frequencies in this range sound very shrill. Cutting harsh frequencies or using a de-esser for the “S” sounds on vocal notes will reduce the possibility of those frequencies searing through the house and hurting people’s ears.

Compressor: This approach is pretty straightforward. It’s recommended to place your mouth at least a half a foot away from a mic to be heard properly. Compression will help boost the signal and keep things in check, so you don’t have to place your mouth around the mic for people to hear you. Go easy on the compression ratio and threshold though because feedback when increasing monitor levels.

Limiter: Not entirely necessary, but recommended to protect the speakers and your audience ears on the off chance you release an epic shout into the mic at close range

Vocal DelayDelay Return: Send A is set up as a simple delay/ping pong channel controlled by a Send knob, instead of an insert on the primary vocal channel. This approach will allow us to run the delays in parallel sparingly. If you are a touring band looking to make it big, it’s crucial to have a personal sound engineer that knows exactly what effects to use in a specific part of a song. Utilizing this send effect allows you to trigger the delay, and how much of it, at a specific part of a song as you like. For example, say you have a vocal channel that is fairly dry during the verses but want to add some space and energy level to the performance during the chorus. You could send a controlled amount of delay to lively up specific areas of the vocal and any given time.

Vocal CompressionReverb Return: Send B is set up to deliver some reverb and minor EQing. Sending reverb is my favorite vocal technique. Send B is controlled in the same way as Send A allowing us to parallel process the output signal with reverb. This approach is extremely helpful in many situations. The biggest downside of going through house sound is, again, the dependency on an unfamiliar person with an unfamiliar view of your sound. One purpose of controlling the amount of reverb is keeping your vocals totally dry when speaking in between songs or to keep vocals dry and raw in a verse or breakdown. I tend to keep the decay time quite long around 16 seconds for long vibrato notes, so the sound rings out into the venue. This approach can create gorgeous, ghostly moments that can be pulled right back by turning the Send knob back down. This technique also gives you an edge over others because YOU control these moments.

Tying it all Together with the Korg nanoKONTROL

The Korg nanoKONTROL is my favorite companion to control Ableton Live for a live set because it allows me to utilize the techniques we talked about earlier.

NanoKONTROL2_MappingLet’s look at how I have a few controls set up. Looking at Ableton Live, I have an Auto Filter device on the Master track set up as Lowpass filter. I often use this filter for kick transitions when building up to the chorus. I usually take the filter all the to the brink with the “Q” turned up a bit to create a rise and fall sound. This technique helps bring the crowd thundering into the next section of a song and makes room to hear the sound from other musicians more raw for a moment. In addition, it gives people a peek at how organic your sound is, even if it is through electronic-based instruments. The second knob on the nanoKONTROL controls Send B for the reverb on the VOX. Finally, the third knob controls the delay amount coming from Send A.

With all of your controls set up on Korg NanoKONTROL, you now have MIDI control with small footprint (great for live performances where there isn’t much space) and some creative options for live performance. This process can be duplicated with almost any USB MIDI controller.


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.

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