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July 9, 2021

How to use Ableton Live 11




If you haven’t yet checked out ill Factor’s production credits, you’re sure to be impressed when you do. He’s worked with artists like Justin Timberlake, Skylar Grey, Jason Durelo, Natasha Bedingfield, Groove Armada, Howie D (Back Street Boys), and Jordan Knight (New Kids On the Block), to name just some.

In this video excerpt from Start To Finish with ill Factor, Jimmy Douglass, Dave Kutch, you can get an inside look at ill Factor’s studio workflow and learn why and how he uses Ableton Live for creative inspiration.

In Session on Ableton

Ill Factor begins the video by explaining the basic architecture of Ableton Live. Ableton's DAW, which is now in version 11 of Ableton live, features two main windows: the Arrangement View and the Session View in Ableton. The Arrangement View is similar to a standard DAW recording window like the Edit window in Pro Tools, the Project window in Cubase or Logic’s Main Window. When you want to record in a conventional, linear fashion, Ableton Live’s Arrangement View will feel pretty familiar, except that the track headers are on the right instead of the left.

Live’s Arrangement View offers linear recording.

Although ill Factor makes use of the Arrangement View some of the time, his “go-to” window in Ableton Live, the one he uses for writing, arranging and inspiration, is the Session View. He says it’s where “a lot of the magic happens.”

You can switch between the Arrangement and Session Views by pressing Tab on your computer keyboard or press the Session View Selector in Ableton. (We’ll talk about how the two Views interact a little later in this article.)

Switch between views with the Tab key or the selector buttons highlighted here.

Ill Factor mentions that when he first saw the Session View, he thought the slots in the channels were for plug-ins, just like in a mixer window. But although the Session View does have mixing functionality, the vertically stacked slots in it are not for plug-ins but for what Ableton refers to as “Clips.”

A Clip can be audio or MIDI, a loop or a one-shot, and of any length (you can also edit a Clip’s length after you record it). What makes the Session View unique is that you can manually trigger Clips in various combinations and try out ideas, arrangements, and instrument sounds from those slots.

Ill Factor refers to the Session view in Ableton as his “blank canvas,” where he can try out ideas and see which ones work towards his vision for the song he’s producing. He says to think of the Clips as “ideas.” 

The Session View makes it easy to experiment with different sounds and track combinations.

Clipping Snippets on Ableton

Creating tracks is easy and fast in the Session view in Ableton. Ill Factor demonstrates this by dragging one of Ableton’s MIDI synths, called Analog, from the Browser Content Pane in the upper left to an open area in the Session View in Ableton. As soon as he releases the mouse, a track with Clip Slots appears with the instrument loaded and the channel armed. (Another way to open it would be to double click on the device’s name in the Content Pane.)

Choose instruments, Clips, samples and more from the Content Pane in the upper left corner of either View.

The GUIs for any instruments or effects you add to a track show up in a dedicated window called the Device View, which lives below the Session (or Arrangement) View. That lower section is also where you can place effects. The signal flow goes from left to right. If you’re using third-party instruments and effects, they too will open in the Device View.

Instruments and effects appear in the Device View, in the lower section of the screen.

Phantom Record on Ableton

Once Ill Factor creates that instrument track, he sits down at his MIDI controller and plays a pattern. He doesn’t put Live into record, so you might think he’ll have to play it again to capture it. But Live has a feature called Capture MIDI, where any MIDI track that’s armed will record anything that’s played on that channel, even when the transport is stopped.

If you play something on your MIDI controller without being in record, you only have to press Command (Control on PC) + Shift + C, and the MIDI part you played appears in a Clip Slot. If it’s the first Clip in a new Set (the term Live uses for a session), Ableton Live will automatically determine its tempo and adjust the project tempo to match it.

Once you have a track configured, whether MIDI or audio, you can record as many Clips for that track as you want. In the video, that’s what ill Factor does, recording a second idea with Analog as the instrument to show how easy it is to create new parts.

After that, he drags in a drum loop from Live’s Clip collection into a Clip Slot. He hits play, and then while it’s playing, opens up MODO Bass, a virtual instrument from IK Multimedia, and records a short bass line.

Ill Factor explains that he likes that Live lets him trigger Clips on the fly while experimenting with different ideas. It’s a powerful feature because he can leave the transport playing and try out various sounds and parts and hear how they work together. Not only does he find it fun, but he says it makes it possible to come up with ideas for various part combinations that he might not have thought of otherwise.

On the Ableton Scene

Both the vertical and horizontal positions of Clips are important in the Session View. On a given track, the Clip slots are arrayed vertically under the track name. Clips that are horizontally aligned are called a Scene. A Scene can have a Clip from each of the channels playing you can use the the triangularly shaped Scene Launch buttons that appear in the Master track to trigger them simultaneously.

So, one way to use the Session View is to make one Scene for a verse, one for a chorus, one for a bridge and so forth, and then trigger them by clicking on the Scene Launch buttons. This can work for live performance or for recording into the Arrangement View.

The Scene Launch buttons (circled here) trigger horizontal rows of clips.

For the latter, hit the Record button at the top of Live’s GUI and start triggering Scenes or Clips. They will be recorded into their corresponding tracks in the Arrangement View. Then, you can edit the various tracks and draw in and edit Automation in Ableton. If you want, you can copy all or some of a track in the Arrangement view and paste it into a Clip Slot in the Session View.

Sum it Up of ill Factor Ableton

The Session View is a unique feature and is incredibly handy, but it’s not the only thing that makes Live such a powerful DAW. You also get a lot of content in the form of instruments, processing plug-ins, loops and samples, providing you with lots of creative fodder. You get the most content in the top-of-the-line version, Ableton Live 11 Suite. You can also import your own loops and samples, and open your favorite VST or Audio-Unit instruments and plugins.

Once you get the hang of Live’s architecture, you’ll find it easy to get around in, and you’ll appreciate the elegance and simplicity of its design. It’s also incredibly stable compared to many DAWs so that you won’t have a lot of downtime from crashes.

One Way to Go

Here’s an example of one way to create a multitrack arrangement in Live. It starts in the Session view, where various clips were auditioned, edited and put together into Scenes. The song was then performed by clicking on the Scene buttons to transition from one to the next. The music features an extended intro where the instrumentation builds over time.

The upcoming music example as laid out in Scenes in the session view.

It starts out with a simple MIDI drum part, which is then copied and layered with a different sound in the next Scene, to make it bigger. In the following Scene an additional kick drum playing a slightly different part gets layered in to fatten the drums further.

Next, a bass part is added that is comprised of two-layered MIDI bass sounds. After that, a clavinet-like synth part starts comping. In the next Scene, a guitar melody (the only audio track in the song), which was recorded as individual four-measure Clips, enters and continues through the next couple of Scenes where the song goes into a B-section and back.

The final Scene features only the clav and the drums. While you listen to the example, you can follow the arrangement in the next screenshot, which shows what the song looks like after being recorded into the Arrangement View.