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August 23, 2021

How to create vocal chops with Ableton




When you start slicing and dicing vocal tracks, you never know what you’ll come up with. In this excerpt from Start to Finish: Ill Factor - Episode 4 - Working With The Arrangement, ill Factor shows how he creates vocal chops. He explains that sometimes in the process of creating them, he stumbles across a sound that becomes an iconic part of the song.

Vocal Chop Chop

The source material, in this case, are the rough vocal ideas Jared Evan recorded in Episode 3. After identifying a section of the vocal track that he wants to use, ill Factor employs a shortcut to open the vocal in Simpler to create a vocal chop on Ableton, one of Live’s sampler instruments.

It works like this: First, he clicks on the vocal clip he wants to use. Then, he clicks in an empty MIDI track. That changes the bottom of the screen into into a drop zone—officially named the Clip/Device Drop Area. He then drags the audio clip into the drop zone and a Simpler instrument appears with the vocal clip loaded.

By default, Simpler opens in Classic Mode, which acts like a typical sampler. That is, notes to the left of the original pitch will playback slower—and thus lower in pitch—and to the right faster and higher. Ill Factor switches Simpler into Slicing Mode, which cuts up the imported sample by its transients.

In this mode, you can adjust the Sensitivity percentage. The lower it is, the fewer transients get detected and thus the longer the spaces are between slices. Longer spaces mean that slices will be longer, letting you hear more of the vocal phrase. If you want, you can manually set the slice boundaries by dragging the dividers ans enhance your vocal chops on Ableton.

In Slicing Mode, Simpler automatically cuts up the sample at its transients.

Depending on the length of the sample, the slices can be pretty small in the display and hard to see clearly. You can easily zoom in on them by hovering the cursor over the sampled waveform until you see a magnifying glass icon. Then drag it down to zoom in and up to zoom out.

Warp Factor for Vocal Chop

Ill Factor turns Warping for the sample. That allows him to apply one of Live’s Warp algorithms. He chooses Complex Pro, which, with its Formant field set to 100% helps avoid the “Mickey Mouse” and “monster” effects when pitching up and down. He transposes it up an octave, so having the Warping on is important for keeping Jared’s voice quality from being altered too much.

Simpler’s Warp algorithms (circled).

Next, he adds Live’s Delay effect to give it some ambience. He sets the delay time to eighth-notes. He then adds Live’s Reverb module with a decay time of 2.89 seconds and the Dry/Wet at 67%—which is quite wet.

He then uses his MIDI keyboard to trigger sliced notes along with the track. He doesn’t initially put Live in record, but thanks to the software’s MIDI Capture feature, his performance is saved and available to use.

Listening back to what he played, he picks a note that he and Jared like the sound of and moves it to a new spot. He adds an Autofilter set on the Low Pass setting. He sets it to filter out high end above 1.35kHz, which means he’s removing a lot of high frequencies.

During the next playback he lowers that even further, to 1.04kHz, and also sets the filter inside of Simpler to its OSR setting. That’s a variable filter with resonance and a hard-clipping diode. He turns up its Drive control, which boosts the signal and adds saturation and he lengthens the decay time on the reverb to over 7 seconds.

Ill Factor’s device chain for the vocal chop in the excerpt.

He listens to the part he recorded in the intro section and copies it to make it repeat. He then listens to it later and ends up moving it to where it becomes part of the transition from verse to pre-chorus.

Using Simpler or another sampler with a transient-slicing mode to make vocal chops is relatively easy. A lot depends on the source material, and you often have to experiment with the Sensitivity slider to find slices that create good sounding chops.

Beef it Up and enhance your Vocal Chop

As ill Factor shows in the excerpt, it’s not just the sound of the vocal and the slicing that makes for a good sounding vocal chop. A big part of creating the sound is the effects you add afterward. Ill Factor used reverb, delay and auto-filter, but there are plenty of others that sound good, as well.

For example, a compressor can help smooth the volume levels between the slices. A saturation or preamp plug-in can beef up the sound nicely, as well.

Here’s an example where vocal chops are created using the same method ill Factor used. In the arrangement, the chops are used in a rhythmic pattern framing the lead vocal for vocal chop. Processing in the chain after Simpler includes compression, EQ, tube drive, delay and reverb.

The tracks and device chain for Example 1.

Vocal chop it’s a Classic

Simpler’s Classic Mode offers another way to create vocal chops. It's not like Slice Mode, where notes are triggering different slices. In Classic Mode they trigger the same sample, which gets transposed over the keyboard.

Classic Mode uses a single, user-defined sample.

You’ll need to manually choose the start and end points for the sample. Experiment with different notes until you find one that works for your chop. It will probably be better if the note sustains smoothly without wavering. But as always, a lot depends on the sound you’re going for.

Here’s an example of a vocal chop created in Classic Mode. In this case, the chop is used like an instrument to play a melodic line. Effects for this one include compression, limiting, EQ, overdrive, reverb and delay.