Ableton Tip #1: Workflow enhancements

Getting my workflow in Ableton to be more like hardware:

Born out of my own frustration with some hardware restrictions, and other DAW’s shortcomings, I began working with Ableton. I have to say that Ableton isn’t exactly user friendly or intuitive at first, so I would like to share some of my insight and hopefully it helps keep you from cursing Ableton, computers, technology and anything else you can think of during your first foray into the Ableton world.

This lays out my “composing/ production” template. I really just want to have a workflow like my Korg ESX. Everything laid out intuitively and easy to memorize. For performance, I need to modify a few buttons and such.

One major hurdle that I had to get over was just getting Ableton to “feel” like an instrument, the way that my Korg ESX does at this point. I can’t create or perform on a device unless it feels like an extension of me. After trying to wrap my mind around where to map my keyboard knobs and buttons for a good 3 months I was so ready to call it quits. Just before I bought my APC40 which totally made Ableton feel like an instrument, I had this epiphany which allows you to map your qwerty to Ableton and it as like a Launchpad/APC. Here is what I ended up doing in order to get it working for me:

First, I wanted to streamline my workflow into 8 tracks. One track monitors the Korg ESX input and the others are Ableton synths and whatnot. I used Key Mapping to assign the qwerty keyboard to Record arm, Solo and Mute each of the eight tracks like this…

As you can see, there is a methodology to the layout. The keys are laid out left to write to roughly reflect the buttons on Ableton. This really made it much easier to reach over to my keyboard (a cheaper USB keyboard, so I don’t mind smashing it) and hit a key in order to mute or solo in realtime, plus when you arm a track, your keyboard automatically routes midi to that track’s synth.

Now I had to set up my midi keyboard to automatically control the key parameters of each track. These automatically assign themselves to the 8 knobs on the racks, or to predefined parameters of the selected plugin. In Ableton, if you drop and Instrument Rack, Drum Rack or Effect instead of just the individual instrument or effect, it automatically gives you 8 macro controls to key parameters of that synth or effect. Great. Now, you will either need to own a keyboard (like my old M-Audio Oxygen) which is pre-configured to work with Ableton, or you will need to setup your individual keyboard using User Remote Scripts. This took some time, but basically you need to create one user template on your keyboard itself which you will always use with Ableton. Then you will need to figure out or manually assign what midi CC numbers are being sent by that keyboards knobs. Then you will edit a text file on your computer (called a user remote script. You can find other tutorials about this) which dictates to Ableton “whenever you hear Midi CC “x” from this keyboard, assign it automatically to Macro knob 1 for the selected track”. This works out to be very much like my Korg ESX where first you select which track you want to teak, then the knobs are hardwired to tweak it.

Cool so once I got my midi keyboard working with Ableton, I was also able to assign some buttons on it to key things within Ableton as well. I midi mapped one button to every Play button for every track, plus the Master Track. This means that When I hit record, everything starts playing together. Many people might think this is odd, but I want to create beats more like a drum machine and I typically launch entire scenes instead of mixing and matching clips. I will map other buttons to individual clip launch later if needed, but for now I need a play button like a regular drum machine. Another button on my midi keyboard is midi mapped to the Click. And another button on my midi keyboard is mapped to the Overdub button.

At this point, I should mention that under the Preferences, Record/Warp/Launch tab, I have the “Start Recording on Scene launch” set to ON. Basically, any time that a track is armed and I go to the next empty scene, the clip will automatically begin recording whatever I am playing. This works well sometimes in the beginning of the process, but I find that I also like to have midi clips already in place with the desired length already set. Then I can just jump in and out of Overdub mode with my button on my midi keyboard.

At this point, I pretty much have a working template which works much like my Korg ESX. I can arm tracks, solo or mute them and all my knobs are automatically assigned to the key parameters of the synth or effect on the track. I mostly work with scene launching instead of mixing and matching clips, so my arrow keys are important for moving to the next scene.

One last thing that I did is setup Track 1 as my input monitor track. It listens to my Korg ESX and has some effects which can be warped in realtime to effect the Korg. To do this, I setup an audio track assigned to listen to the Audio Input that the Korg is plugged into. Then The Monitor is set to ON. On the track, I inserted an Audio Effect Rack. Whenever I select track 1, my midi keyboard knobs can control key parameters to effects being applied to the Korg ESX. I also set up the Audio Effect Rack to use chains of various effects, with Macro #1 controlling the Chain selector (which is basically an effect selector knob).

As I work, I create new patches and such for bass and leads, or drums. One important feature that Ableton has is the ability to “Group” tracks. This allows you to gather all the effects and synths into one group which can later be controlled with Macro Knobs, and/or selected using the Chain Selector. Each time I want to change a patch, I set up a Chain selector event in the midi clip which selects the appropriate “Group”. There are other tutorials on this, but what I find helpful is to setup your chain selector to have each Group/Chain be selected by only 1 value. That way I can have as many as 128 different patches per session. Should be enough.

Also, I don’t have a stop button mapped to anything because, why would you want to stop the music?


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