Processing Live Vocals With Ableton Live: This video is really aimed at folks who want to take advantage of Ableton Live‘s powerful effects and use them for live vocal performance, whether you’re a singer for a band or a DJ who wants to process some vocals during a set. This is also for producers who what to know how to route vocals into Live and work with the vocoder effect.
A Little Background: I’ve always been a bass player and have spent countless hours obsessing about my sound. In order to get the sound I wanted, I learned to process my bass through effect pedals. As a producer, I spend a lot of time processing vocals and tweaking the sound. The first shows I did with Comandante Zero, were typical of New York City clubs: the sound engineer sticks a Shure SM-58 in front of your face and the sound of your voice is at the mercy of the guy behind the board. I quickly realized that, if I had full control over my bass sound, why not my vocal sound? At first I bought vocal effects pedals. There are some great pedals out there, however, since we were using Ableton Live to run our set anyway and I use it to effect vocals when I produce, I decided about 2 years ago to figure out a way to route the vocals through Ableton Live in order to streamline my equipment, and also replicate on stage the sounds I was getting in the studio.
Pros And Cons Of Processing Vocals With A Laptop:
The Pros: There are really powerful advantages to processing your vocals through a laptop running Ableton Live. Firstly, you have far greater control over the sound than most pedals. Secondly, if you are playing tracks though a laptop as well, it is really simple to synch the effects to your global tempo, especially delays. Thirdly, you can create vocal arrangements using tools like vocoder or looper that would be perfectly synched to your master tempo.
The Cons: Firstly: You really have to understand the signal path and get it right. In figuring this stuff out, I’ve definitely had some unhappy encounters with feedback etc. The signal path below definitely comes from trial and serious error. Secondly, you may run into latency issues, however, if you keep your buffer low (as I’ll explain below) and avoid external plug-ins that my use too much CPU or destabilize Live you should be OK. Thirdly, there is always the slight danger that your laptop may fail. I would say, get to know your signal chain and gear inside and out and come up with a back-up plan. Live is very stable and in the hundreds of shows I’ve done with it, it hasn’t failed me yet (knock on wood!) however, I still have a back-up plan in case it does.
My Signal Path for Processing Live (And Studio) Vocals:
My signal path for running vocals through a laptop running Ableton is as follows: Mic –> Pre-Amp –> Compressor –> Soundcard / Laptop –> DI Box –> PA.
Let me just say a little about each one:
Mic: I tend to use an SM-58 dynamic mic for live performance. It’s sturdy, relatively cheap and doesn’t require phantom power and I’ve found that dynamics have fewer feedback issues than condensers which is important when really processing the vocals. (I love condenser mics in the studio though). Plug the mic into a pre-amp, ideally using an XLR cable
Pre-Amp: You want to get something that adds some gain to your vocal signal before it hits the laptop. I’ve found that it always works better to have plenty of gain on vocals going into a laptop rather than use your laptop to add gain. In the studio I use a Great River ME-1NV. For live I use a TC Helicon Correct Pedal which provides a pre-amp and compressor in one pedal.
Compressor: A Compressor in your signal chain will smooth out some of the dynamic peaks of the vocal and also give you an opportunity to add a bit of gain if necessary. Ideally, for vocals going in you want to use a gentle ratio 2:1 with a faster attack and slower release. In the studio, I love the Empirical Labs EL-8 for vocals. For live I simply use the TC Helicon’s built in compressor.
Sound Card: The soundcard is what converts your audio to digital so that your laptop can process it. For live performance I use the MOTU UltraLite-MK3. If you’re going to be doing live vocal performance with a laptop, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind about your soundcard: 1. Make sure it’s Firewire rather than USB. 2. Make sure it has more than two outs. 3. Unless you have some serious cash to spend, or have some techs taking care of your stuff, get something in the 300 – 600 range. For live, unlike the studio, pristine audio is not as crucial and stuff happens on gigs. Check out this blog post I wrote to see more on this topic and some options.
DI Box: Once the the signal is processed by Ableton, it goes back out through the laptop and gets converted to audio once again by the sound card. (In my case the MOTU Ultralite-MK3). I like a DI at the end of my signal chain because the MOTU only has 1/4 inch outputs. My Radial DI Box allows you to plug in an unbalanced 1/4 cable and convert it to a balanced XLR cable. Thus you will send an XLR out to the house which will cut down on the noise of an unbalanced cable.
Setting Up Ableton Live to Process Vocals:
1. Go to Live’s Preferences and select the ‘Audio’ tab. Select your audio input and audio output device there. Also, make sure to set your Buffer Size to either 128 or 256 Samples. You want to keep it low to prevent latency.
2. Create an Audio Track in Session View (Use to Command-T key command) and then hit Option-Command-I to access the track’s In/Out Section. (You can also do this by hitting the I-O button on the lower right hand side of Live’s Session View)
3. Bring the fader all the way down! In the ‘Audio From’ tab, choose ‘Ext In’ and the channel you are sending stuff into your sound card. Set the ‘Monitor’ section to ‘In’ and you’ll see the track activate button turn orange. Then in the ‘Audio To’ tab select Ext Out and select the channel the audio will go out of on your sound card. (You can also send it to the master and set up the master to go Ext Out) For live performance, I generally don’t route through the master because I like each track (Vocals, Drums processing, Click, Tracks) etc. to exit on their own channels of the sound card, but that’s just me.
4. Now slowly bring your fader up slowly and you should see the audio registering in the meter and hear yourself coming from the speakers, headphones. If you hear feedback, immediately kill it by pulling the fader down, de-activating the track or pulling down the volume on your PA.
Building A Vocoder:
The vocoder is a cool and fascinating effect. It was originally developed as a telephone communication technology in the 1920′s and 30′s and during World War II it was used to transmit encrypted messages for high level military communications. This vocoder, known as SIGSALY weighed 50 tons and took up a whole room. If you want to read more about how it works, read here.
To set up a Vocoder within Ableton, we need two tracks: an audio track and a MIDI track. Let’s use the audio track that you set up to get your vocals into Live and create a new MIDI track (Shift-Command-T). Here are the steps to set it up:
1. Go to Live’s Device Browser and find the Vocoder in the Audio Effects folder. Drop it into the Audio Track. The track with your voice is known as the ‘Modulator‘ part of the vocoder. Speak into it. It’s default is set to ‘Noise’ which is probably not the sound you want, but you should see signal going into it.
2. Now we’ll create the ‘Carrier‘ track that will provide the harmonic information. In the MIDI track, place an Analog from Live’s Device Browser. Click on the section that says ‘Amp 1′ and you’ll see it turn white. Inside the black display section of Analog, you’ll see a number under the heading ‘Sustain’. Raise this up from 0 to 1.00. You should see the shape of the envelope change so that it looks almost like a rectangle.
3. If you want to control your vocoder with a keyboard, either arm the MIDI track to record or set the Monitor to ‘In’ (As we did with our original audio track). Don’t do both through. Now when you connect a MIDI keyboard, you should hear the Analog play longer tones with its default sawtooth wave.
4. Really Important – Now deactivate the track by clicking the yellow (or orange) square with the number below the track’s pan knob.
5. Go back to your audio track and go to the Vocoder effect in the track. On the menu on the upper left of the instrument, select ‘External’ and in the menu tab below it, select the track that has the Analog. (Your carrier track)
6. Now hit a chord on your keyboard and speak into your mic and you should have a vocoder. Remember that with a vocoder you need both a Modulator and a Carrier. If you speak into the track without holding down a note from the Analog, you won’t hear anything. If you hit a note on the Analog without saying anything, you won’t hear anything either.
Some Settings On Ableton Live’s Vocoder:
A couple of useful knobs and parameters to tweak to get different colors from the vocoder:
1. Bands: Fewer bands = More Old School. More bands = More intelligible. Try it.
2. Range: I tend to set the lower range of the vocoder to about 200 Hz since I don’t want the lower frequencies interfering with my mix.
3. Precise/Retro: Different Colors – try it.
4. Gate: For live performance, this is very useful. It sets a gate so that below a threshold the vocoder won’t pick up noise. I tend to set mine to -40db.
5. Formant: To the left you get more of a ‘Male’ character. To the right more of a ‘Female’ character. Try it.
6. Dry/Wet: How much vocoder versus how much of your natural voice you want.
Using Live’s Vocoder For Live Performance:
The challenge with a vocoder for live performance, as opposed to using it in the studio, is that to get it to work, you need to play chords on a keyboard as you sing. If you’re not a keyboard player, or don’t want to be burdened with the extra gear, it can be a pain. (This is one reason I don’t use my MicroKorg vocoder, which I really like, for live shows since I’m a bass player and don’t have 3 arms). This is one nice thing about using Ableton to process your vocals, because not only can you create a hands-free vocoder, but you have a lot of power to create cool vocal arrangements with it. This is the technique that I use:
1. I take the song that I want to use the vocoder on and place it in Live’s Session View and Warp it.
2. I copy and and paste the clip (using the Command-C and Command-V key commands) into Live’s Session View, so it’s laid out left to right and I can see the entire track and which bars I’m going to be singing on.
3. In arrangement view I create a MIDI clip (Shift-Command-M) the exact length of the song and program the chords that I want to use at the exact points in the song they will come in. For example, if my chorus starts at bar 16, at bar 16 in the MIDI clip, I’ll pencil in or play a B – Flat chord that lasts, say, two bars.
4. Once you’ve finished programming this MIDI clip, copy it and drop it into the same scene as your backing track. Make sure you place it in the ‘Carrier‘ track with the Analog . When you launch the the scene, the MIDI notes in the carrier with be send to the modulator track as you sing into it. Then you will have a hands-free vocoder.
After completing this program, you will leave with 4 completed tracks (EP), a remix entered in an active contest, a scored commercial to widen your scope, and the Dubspot Producer’s Certificate in Ableton Live.
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