Ableton Live Tutorial: Breathing New Life into Sample Loops w/ Rory PQ + FREE Download

In this tutorial, Dubspot’s Rory PQ shares his method of converting audio to MIDI and breathing new life into sample loops. Included is a FREE Ableton Live project download.


The Great Debate of Sampling

Sampling Debate

There are many divided opinions about creativity when it comes down to using sample libraries during the songwriting process. With the abundance of great sounding music samples and loops, it’s tempting to drop them into your project. On the upside of the debate, using sample loops opens new doors to creativity. They allow you to quickly discover new ideas when sketching out a tune and can also be extremely effective in helping to break through writers block. The downside of the debate is that using samples can be viewed as a lazy shortcut that bypasses the process of creating your unique sounds, as well as discourage innovation and experimentation.

Breathing New Life into Sample Loops

Music making is supposed to be fun so lets toss the debate out the window and explore a few creative processes used to manipulate sample loops that borrow concepts from both sides of the track. Using Ableton Live we will delve into a few helpful techniques used to breathe new life into sample loops by creating unique versions that are completely different than the original. The aim is to expand your working knowledge of Live while discovering new ways to kick start ideas and manipulate existing sounds.

Before we get started, feel free to follow along by downloading the Ableton Live project below, which includes a Deep House sketch with all of the Instrument Racks, Slicing Presets, and sounds used in the following demonstrations. Live 9 Suite or Sampler device required.

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Creative Process

There are many ways to manipulate sampled sounds. Through experimentation and Live’s powerful features, the possibilities are endless. The creative processes demonstrated below explore:

  • Creative ways of using Live’s ‘Slice to MIDI’ feature
  • Sampler’s vast selection of controls to reshape samples
  • Using Drum Rack and Choke Groups to resequence new rhythms
  • Building custom Instrument Racks and Slicing Presets
  • Quantizing Audio
  • Parallel Harmony
  • Discovering many other helpful music making tips along the way to add to your arsenal of techniques

Lets dive right into the creative process. In the first part of our music-mangling journey we will take a Deep House stab loop and completely transform it into something new. Check out the before and after versions below.

Original Deep House Stab Sample

New Deep House Stab

Creating a Custom Slicing Preset

Before we slice and dice our sample, lets first create a custom Slicing Preset that we can choose when using Live’s ‘Slice to New MIDI Track’ feature. By default Live’s ‘Slice to New MIDI Track’ command will slice the audio to a Simpler instrument within a Drum Rack. For this demonstration we will slice our audio to a Sampler instrument inside a Drum Rack instead. The easiest way to do this without having to click on each individual Drum Rack pad and converting Simpler to Sampler is to create a Slicing Preset. This is a huge time saver, and also allows you to create your own custom racks stacked with your favorite Live devices or third-party plugins.

To get things started, let’s adjust how Live behaves when slicing audio.

  • Drag in an empty Drum Rack to a blank MIDI Track
  • Drop an empty Sampler onto the first Drum Rack pad to create a single chain

From here you could add additional MIDI or Audio Effects and then assign Macro’s to any of the controls in the device chain if you wish. To keep things simple, I will just Macro Map the ‘Snap’ button and add an EQ Eight after Sampler.

Drum Rack to Sampler

Next, lets rename the rack to ‘Drum Rack to Sampler’ and save the entire Drum Rack to the Slicing folder in the User Library. This will allow us to choose the rack later on, as well as make it available to use in other projects.

  • In Live’s Browser click User Library from the Places Section
  • In the right pane, select the Defaults folder to expand it
  • Drag the entire Drum Rack up to the Slicing folder

Easy as that! You can create as many different Slicing Presets as you like and choose between them in the Slicing Preset chooser in the Slicing Dialog menu.

Slicing Folder

At this point you may ask “Why Sampler and not Simpler?’ Well, Sampler is a multisampling instrument that offers many advanced synthesis functions and modulation controls that are great for manipulating audio. Simpler is more limited and works best to ‘simply’ playback single samples. Its been said, and I agree, that Sampler may be most powerful and versatile instrument in Live. It’s essentially a synthesizer combined with a sampler driven by many advanced controls. There are many methods to employ Sampler, one being a great tool used for sampling existing sounds and manipulating them into something completely new.

Sampler Controls

Part One | Deep House Stab

Slicing Audio to MIDI with a Twist

Lets move forward and recreate a Deep House stab sample. We will begin by slicing the ‘Orig. Stab Sample’. Currently, the sample has a few Transient Markers that Live placed along the timeline were it detected volume peaks. Often these tiny grey markers are not placed at the desirable mark where we want to make a slice. A helpful tip when using any of the Audio to MIDI features is to place Warp Markers at points along the timeline at desired points to easily isolate the parts you wish to slice or convert.

Transient Markers

Step 1 | Precision with Warp Markers

To apply Warp Markers, simply zoom in and double-click on the timeline at the point you wish to slice. The onset of each stab in this sample is fairly easy to recognize. In the second half of the demonstration we will apply the same technique to a pad sound were the transients are not as recognizable.

Warp Markers

Step 2 | Slice and Dice

Lets jump into the fun stuff and start slicing audio!

  • Right-click the ‘Orig. Stab Sample’ you just applied Warp Markers too
  • From the context menu choose ‘Slice Audio to New MIDI Track’
  • In the Slicing Options dialog box, choose ‘Warp Marker’ from the top drop-down menu
  • Choose the ‘Drum Rack to Sampler’ preset we created earlier from the Slicing Preset menu

Once you’ve made your slicing choices click OK, then sit back for a split second and watch the magic happen.

Note, that we could also choose any other beat division from the top drop-down menu. Any of them will work for this demonstration and will produce different results. However, I’m using Warp Markers because they allow you the freedom to slice anywhere you like.

Convert Audio to MIDI

Step 3 | Sound Design with Sampler

At this point Live has created a new MIDI Track containing the ‘Drum Rack to Sampler’ preset loaded with each of the audio slices on separate pads. Lets begin shaping the timbre of the slices using Sampler by adjusting a few parameters. I encourage experimenting and playing around with the many different parameters to create some new versions of the sound for variety. For this demonstration I’ll show you how I achieved the sound we heard earlier.

Converted Audio

The Filter/Global Tab

Looking at Sampler’s title bar choose the Filter/Global tab. Here we will adjust the Volume Envelope to tighten up the sound by decreasing the Sustain amount and shortening the Decay. To help remove some clicks and pops during playback, increase the Attack amount slightly. I also increased the Release amount so the sound plays out slightly longer after releasing the note. To help add more expression I adjusted the velocity sensitivity by increasing the ‘Vol>Vel’ value to 35%. This will affect the note volumes when adjusting the velocity markers on different notes in the MIDI Note Editor. Lastly, I enabled the ‘Shaper’ and increased the amount to add some saturation. This helps to thicken the sound up a bit and add some additional harmonics. Below are the settings I ended up with.

Global Filter Tab

The Pitch/Osc Tab

Moving over to Pitch/Osc tab we can begin modulating the sound using Sampler’s unique FM feature and a sophisticated looping pitch envelope. Say what? Yep, Sampler has a dedicated modulation oscillator, which can perform frequency or amplitude modulation to samples. Extremely awesome!

The Modulation Oscillator

To apply frequency modulation, begin by enabling the ‘Osc’ button. For this sound I simply increased the Volume amount and Coarse to achieve a metallic like sound that’s a bit more edgy compared to the original sound. There is no magic amount to set these controls too, just adjust them until is sounds good to you. As you can see below, there are heaps of other parameters you can go wild with to create a more complex sound. This is another good place to experiment with the controls.

The Pitch Envelope

Moving down, enable the ‘P.Env’ button to activate the Pitch Envelope. The Pitch Envelope modulates the Modulation Oscillator and the pitch of the sample over time. I increased the Pitch amount to +12 semitones and decreased the Decay and Peak so it didn’t sound like Laser Pistol from Star Trek. The Pitch Envelope is great for adding some extra bite to a sound, which helps it cut through the mix better. This technique is extremely valuable when applying it to percussion sounds.

Pitch Tab

The Sample Tab

Over on the Sample tab you will find a selection of parameters to control the playback characteristics of individual samples. To the right, I set the Interpol to ‘Best’. Interpolation (Interpol) is a global setting that determines the accuracy of transposed samples. Think of it as a quality setting. Be aware that raising the quality level above ‘Normal’ will increase your CPU load.

To add some additional expression and flavor I reversed the sample for ‘Slice 4’ and ‘Slice 10’. To achieve this, select your desired slice from one of the Drum Rack pads and enable the ‘Reverse’ button to the left of the Sample tab.

Sample Tab

Step 4 | Further Processing

To clean the sound up and tie everything together, I added a few Audio Effects:

  • EQ Eight placed after the entire Drum Rack is rolling off some bottom end
  • Compressor is used to control any wild transients and gel the slices together better
  • Sidechain Compressor is set to sidechain from the Kick. This helped to tighten things up a bit

Check out the results below!

Original Stab Sample before processing

New Stab after processing it in Sampler

Sa-weet, that wraps up the sound design part for this sample. Next, we will explore a handy technique to sequence the slices using Drum Racks ‘Choke Group’ feature.

Resequencing the Slices

If we play the clip Live created after converting the audio it will playback chromatically the same pattern as the original sample. That’s fine, however we are on a mission to recreate this sound and make it more unique and original.

Step 1 | Assigning Choke Groups

What are Choke Groups you may ask? They sound kinky and dangerous. Well, Choke Groups is a Drum Rack feature used to silence audio with audio in the same group. Huh? Any chain in a Drum Rack that is in the same choke group will cutoff any others when triggered. This feature is extremely useful for choking open hit-hats by triggering closed hi-hats to simulate a real drum kit.

Assigning Choke Groups is not necessary, you could easily sequence a new pattern in the MIDI Note Editor or from a MIDI controller. However, for this demonstration I wanted to show some additional tips and techniques you could add to your arsenal of music making skills.

Choke Group Tracks

The reason for assigning Choke Groups is because I’m going to ignore traditional music theory and record notes by triggering the Drum Rack pads randomly. The samples we are triggering are polyphonic, meaning they produce many layers of sounds simultaneously. Choking these sounds while jamming away on the keyboard will keep the sounds from bleeding into each other, as well as keep things neat visually. In addition, being spontaneous is a great way to get ideas down fast or break free from being stuck.

Moving forward lets assign a Choke Group to each chain.

  • Looking to the far left of the Drum Rack, click the ‘I-O’ button to expand the ‘Input/Output Section’ for each chain
  • In the Chain List to the right you should see a ‘Choke’ section with chooser drop-down menus on each chain. Click the chooser menu for each chain and assign ‘1’ as the Choke Group.

Choke Group Chains

Step 2 | Jam Out While Recording

Now that everything is setup and ready to go, lets start recording in some random patterns to see if we come up with anything interesting.

  • Start by arming the track with the ‘Drum Rack to Sampler’ preset
  • Click the Record Button in an empty clip slot and began jamming out on the Drum Rack pads with your computers keyboard, mouse, or MIDI controller (Pay no attention to any order, just wale away freely for a few minutes)

You could even take it a step further by adding an Arpeggiator device before the Drum Rack and randomly adjust the Rate, Style, and Gate controls.

Random Recording

Step 3 | Order out of Chaos

Finally, lets listen to what was recorded and begin editing notes, velocities, and patterns as needed.

  • Start by duplicating the clip to preserve the original recording
  • Quantize the clip to 16th notes and set the Loop Brace to ½ duration at first
  • Playback the clip with the kick or beat and move the loop brace along the timeline while listening for different variations that may work in the tune
  • Try adjusting the start point, and move notes around to create a rhythm your happy with
  • Duplicate the clip and repeat the steps to create a few clips with different variations

Final Midi Pattern

Part Two | Deep House Pad

Slicing Audio to MIDI with a Twist… Round 2

The second half of this sample mangling exploration expands on the approaches we covered so far. Using many of the same techniques we will create a different Slicing Preset to dice up a Deep House pad where the transients are more difficult to recognize. In addition, we will look at Parallel Harmony while arranging a new pattern with the slices, along with some bonus tips.

Original Deep House Pad Sample

New Deep House Pad

Step 1 | Creating Another Custom Slicing Preset

Lets create another Slicing Preset that will behave slightly different then the first preset we created.

  • Start by dropping an empty Sampler instrument onto a new MIDI Track
  • Click the Filter/Global tab and change the ‘Voices’ value to ‘1’

Allowing only one voice to play at a time will yield the same result as the Drum Racks Choke Groups by silencing the current sound being played when triggering a new sound on the same track.

Name the preset to ‘Slice to Sampler’ and save it the Slicing folder using the methods we looked at earlier

Slice to Sampler

Step 2 | Quantizing Audio

Looking at the ‘Orig. Pad Sample’ you can see that the waveform is more dense than the stab sample. In addition, it’s a bit more difficult to see the onset of each note or chord change within the audio. We could spend the time and zoom in or use our ears to figure out where to place Warp Markers. However, we are going to try a different method by quantizing the audio and letting Live create Warp Markers for us. This approach is a bit more experiential only because the results are uncertain. That’s not a bad thing, because it opens the door to happy accidents. Meaning we may discover something cool that works by accident. For example, we could find that an odd starting point for a slice or stretched slice sounds more unique.

Before we quantize the pad sample, lets set the quantization grid.

  • Right-click anywhere in the Sample Editor and choose Quantize Settings from the menu
  • Select 1/16 from the menu and adjust the amount to 100%
  • Click OK and let Live do its thing!

Quantize Pad Sample

Step 3 | Slice and Dice Round Two

Time to chop it up! Applying the steps covered earlier, we will slice the audio using Live’s ‘Slice Audio to New MIDI Track’.

  • Right-click the ‘Orig. Pad Sample’ you just applied Warp Markers too
  • From the context menu choose ‘Slice Audio to New MIDI Track’
  • In the Slicing Options dialog box choose ‘Warp Marker’ from the top drop-down menu
  • For the bottom drop-down menu choose the ‘Slice to Sampler’ preset
  • Click OK and watch the magic happen

Notice how all the slices are contained in Sampler’s Zone tab and not on Drum Rack pads.

Convert Pad to MIDI

Step 4 | Parallel Harmony

There is a method to my madness this round. I chose to slice audio to Sampler rather than a Drum Rack to allow me the freedom to apply a harmonic concept called Parallel Harmony. In a nutshell, Parallel Harmony occurs when you move two or more notes playing at the same time up or down preserving the same interval or distance apart. Huh? For example, the pad sample was recorded by playing chords. It’s a recorded sample, so the intervals between each note will not change when you play those chords back at either higher or lower semitones. Although Parallel Harmony does not follow traditional rules of music theory and harmony, it does produce some interesting results. It is a technique used by many artists such as Disclosure and Flume.

Click HERE to learn more about Parallel Harmony from Dubspot contributor Michael Emenau a.k.a. MNO and its use in modern electronic music compositions.

Step 5 | Pad Sound Design with Sampler

For this step I’ll just add screenshots of the different settings I came up with. There are not exact settings, I just played around and experimented with different parameters until I came close to something I was happy with. Don’t forget, you can reverse individual slices and modulate them to your hearts content. In addition, you could apply fades to remove pops and clicks for a smoother playback.

Pad Sound Design

Step 6 | Record a New Melody

For this step you could jam out randomly like we did earlier or be more precise by drawing in notes or playing back the slices with a MIDI keyboard. Your call!

  • Start by arming the track with the ‘Slice to Sampler’ preset
  • Click the Record Button in an empty clip slot and began recording or drawing in some new grooves

Pad Midi Melody

Step 7 | Final Processing

Once you achieve a melody that works with your tune, drop in your favorite sound effects and further process the sound to your liking.

Bonus Step | ‘What if’ Moment went Right!

While working on the New Pad sound I felt that is was a bit thin and lacked some bottom end or body. To thicken up the sound I could of layered it with a sine wave or percussion sound. Then I could tighten things up by adjusting an EQ and balancing volume levels to get it sounding cohesive. However, I had a “What if” moment. Say what? Experimentation can be one of the best tools in your arsenal and I’m always curious to try new things through curiosity. I often say to myself, “What if I try this”.

My “What if” moment was, “What if I group the Sampler, duplicate the chain, lower the octave by -12 semitones for each slice, and then reverse them all.” It worked great, and at the same time discovered a new technique! To get the two sounds playing nicely together I messed about with the filter, attack amount, LFO modulating the volume, and finally I slapped a Note Length MIDI effect on to tighten up the note length. The result was a sweet bottom end that played well with the top end adding an extra characteristic to the sound.

What if Bottom End

That wraps it up music makers. Enjoy the project, save the different racks to your own User Library if you like. I encourage you to experiment with these concepts and have fun!

warping multiple clips

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