Crash Course: Ableton Live in Worship at North Point

Hi Kids!  Welcome to the “Using Ableton Live For Worship” crash course.

DISCLAIMER: This is NOT the be-all-end-all on how to use Ableton – there are a lots of ways.  This is simply a look at how we at North Point use Ableton for Click, Count-Off, Loops and Auxiliary Tracks playback.

Backstory:

Years ago we used to use Pro Tools for live playback of click & auxiliary tracks because of the ability to route to various outputs via external hardware. However we abandoned Pro Tools a few years ago and started using Ableton Live.

Ableton Live has abilities for live playback that are unparalleled in traditional Digital Audio Workstations (DAW).  For the reasons we’ll discuss below, Ableton Live has become our new standard in playback of click & tracks for a live performance setting.

Although I do still use Pro Tools as my primary vehicle for creating loops, tracks, aux programming, composition for film, song editing, etc.  Some other guys are fond of creating in Apple’s Logic, which is also a great program.

But you choose the DAW that is most comfortable for you to use for creation. Then after completing the aux tracks & programming that will be used in live performance, just bounce the tracks to a WAV file, then import them into that week’s Ableton session.

While it is possible to create using the Arrangement view of Ableton, as it is relatively similar to the traditional linear-based DAW (Pro Tools, Logic, etc.), most of us feel it is still inferior in regards to creation.  Although I will admit, Ableton’s Arrangement view has come in handy as a quick edit or pitch-shift tool while sitting in a creative meeting.  There are some features Ableton has in Arrangement view that the other DAWs wish they could do half as well…

BUT, for live performance playback of click, count-off cues and loops, there is no equal to Ableton’s Session view.

FIRST, before we dive in, feel free to download our NPCC Ableton Template, the file I start with each week to build that service’s session.

 

NOTE: There are two different files linked, depending on which version of Ableton you’re using.

 

NPCC Ableton Template – Regular, Full Version

 

NPCC Ableton Template – Ableton Intro (aka “Light” version)

Hopefully the Template will help you make more sense of Ableton and its abilities.

(What are the differences between the REGULAR version and INTRO version, other than cost?  See here: Ableton Version Comparison)

But be warned!  Ableton’s functionality is high, but so is the learning curve!  It does not follow the thought process of most traditional DAWs, and the reigning in Warp feature has caused many to stumble in their faith… 😉

Fortunately there are lots of helpful training videos out there. We’ve learned a lot from YouTube!

And Ableton offers a free 30-Day trial, so go ahead and download it, open the attached Template and follow along with this crash-course tutorial.

http://www.ableton.com/download-live-trial

Ableton Advantage:  Session View is non-linear, which means your click and loop can play for eternity.

Ableton Advantage: In Session View, a song’s tempo can be changed without affecting the other songs in your set-list.  (HUGE bonus versus traditional linear DAWs)

The Session view consists of Scenes, Clips and Tracks.

Scenes are the master “go” control for each song. It’s also where you customize each song’s tempo.

Clips are the actual audio files associated with the song that you have created (loops, aux programming, count-offs, etc.). Clips for each song are arranged HORIZONTALLY in line with the song’s Scene.  (Not vertically, like traditional DAWs!!)

Tracks are the vertical “channel strip” down which the audio signal travels, and can be routed to the Bus or Output of your choosing.  Clips from multiple songs can travel down the same Track.

Under the Master column are the list of Scenes. Ableton’s programmers assume folks will use each session for just one song, and that these Scenes are just parts of one song (Vs, Cho, Brg, etc.).

But the worship & live performing community have discovered that these can be not only parts of one song, but completely different songs altogether.

So in our case, each Scene is a different song in the set – each with its own custom tempo. Triggering the Scene will launch all the associated horizontal Clips.

To change the name and tempo of a song, click on the Scene and type Cmd-R, or “Rename” under the Edit drop-down menu.

BE SURE to include the letters “bpm” one space after the numerical tempo!!  Other wise it will not change tempo.

Ableton Scenes

We then trigger these Scenes (aka Songs) using an external USB pad controller, and assign Scenes, Stop, etc. via Live’s MIDI Mapping feature (Ctrl-M).

There are dozens of USB controllers on the market. We’ve used the Akai LDP8, Akai MDP18, and Korg padKontrol.  Choose the price, size and features that are right for you.

Ableton and Akai MPD18

Controllers can be set up to be used as remotes via the Preferences / MIDI Synch window. Be sure to enable the Remote feature to make Ableton open to receiving messages from the controller.

Ableton Advantage:  Enabling the Warp feature (described later) in conjunction with your desired tempo will speed up or slow down your loops & tracks with little-to-no discernible change in the audio’s quality or pitch.

That is huge!  And it process the audio in real time, so if you want to speed up or slow down your song, just re-type the tempo and everything adjusts – instantly!

Clips:

You can drag-and-drop your audio files into the horizontal clips. You can always add additional Tracks in which to add your files.

Ableton Clips

We do many songs that have no programming at all (nothing but Click), a bunch with just an open-ended loop that cycles infinitely, and a small handful of songs that have dedicated linear programming.

That means we may range from no Track channels used on one song, to 4 or 8 or more on another song!

As a rule, we try to avoid linear programming (aka. Pre-Recorded tracks) on worship songs if at all possible.  Linear programming means you NEED to start at the right time, which can unfortunately stifle a Worship Leader.  Instead of saying something meaningful between songs, they are paralyzed, listening for the count-off.

For this reason, out of all the worship songs we that are in our current repertoire, only 3 songs have actual linear tracks. In those cases they are some programmed strings, etc.  That’s an extremely low percentage! Just 3 worship songs!

Special songs, like Openers or Closers are a bit different, and we’ll add linear programming – but only if the song really, really needs it.  Again – slave to a count-in and aux tracks means more room for error… 😉

If you have multiple Clips traveling down one Track and desire a volume change to normalize the Clip volume levels, do NOT use the Track’s level. Instead, each Clip has a window with a ton of customizable controls, including that particular clip’s volume.

Ableton Clip edit window

Ableton Advantage:  This window also allows you to TRANSPOSE your audio file in real time without negatively affecting the speed of the audio file (when Warp mode is enabled).

Ableton Advantage:  This window also allows you to LOOP an audio file, so it will play, well, forever!  This is perfect for open-ended loops and a custom click track.

NOTE: Always label your programming’s file name to include the original tempo.  eg: “Mighty To Save LOOP 81”

Ableton’s Warp and Loop features can be very difficult to learn, and knowing the audio file’s original tempo will be extremely helpful.  The original tempo should automatically show in the Seg. BPM window, but may occasionally need to be manually corrected.

This is especially important when importing linear files without strong waveform transients, like pads & strings.  Ableton was originally designed as a DJ’ing tool, so it seeks spikes in the waveform – called transients – to determine an audio file’s source tempo.

When this goes awry, it can lead to a horrific warp experience. Trust me – it took us a LONG time to figure that one out!

One ESSENTIAL way to avoid most warp nightmares is to change your Preferences / Record Warp Launch to:

Loop/Warp Short Samples: AUTO

Auto-Warp Long Samples: OFF

Default Warp Mode: COMPLEX  (Live 8 full version only, not available on Live Intro)

Ableton Warp Preferences

Also, whenever possible, import WAV or AIFF files – not MP3 files – for your audio programming.

Unfortunately, when files are encoded to MP3, an extremely small amount of silence is placed at the beginning of the waveform, which drives the Warp function crazy.  To overcome this, you need to zoom into the beginning of the clip’s waveform, find the first transient, then right-click on the marker above the transient and chose “Make this 1.1.1”.

Total pain… Avoid if possible.

Finally, the click track….

NOTE: This Click track is already created in the NPCC TEMPLATE file.  The following is an explanation of what we did and how it works…

One reason we avoided Ableton for a long time was the horribly annoying click sound, and the inability to sub-divide it without falsely manipulating the tempo and time signature.

But then we had a brainstorm.  We loved the MPC Click sound from Pro Tools, and so we sampled one beat of it, and trigger that sampled file using Ableton’s drum machine, Impulse.

First, create and insert a short, silent WAV file into a Clip. Then drag an instance of Impulse on that Clip.

Then drag your desired click sample into one of the blank slots on Impulse.

Ableton Impulse Plug-In

The click audio file is then triggered as a MIDI event, complete with desired velocity, which can adjust the volume & timbre if you desire an accented downbeat.

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Ableton Impulse MIDI Note On Info

Another easy way to do this would be to record two different bars of your desired click sound at an average tempo, about 90 bpm – one bar regular quarter notes, and one with sub-divided 8ths.  Then insert that audio file with Warp activated, and it will warp to the tempo you entered in the song’s master Scene, just as though it was playing back a drum loop.

The only disadvantage to this method is the inability to adjust MIDI velocities, and thus add / eliminate / adjust the downbeat volume.  But that’s totally up to you!

Tracks:

The Tracks can then be routed to your desired output on just about any audio interface.

We first route all tracks to a Master Bus for each hardware output. This is especially helpful for us as we bring the Masters down -20 dB since we are balanced output from our MOTU hardware, and not using DI’s.  Kind of a pain, but an easy solution.

Ableton Tracks

Price = Features:

There are three different levels of Live:  Intro, Regular and Suite.

Suite ($700) includes a massive amount of plug-in instruments and effects, which are probably not needed if you already have other DAW software.

Regular ol’ Live ($450) is what we use. It has a few instruments and effects (again, that we don’t use), but does have the ability for infinite external hardware routing (imperative!) and the ability to Warp in Complex mode, which is most effective for tonal audio files (vocals, pads, strings, etc.)

Live Intro ($100) has most of the needed functionality of the regular version, except that it does not have Complex Warp mode, and is limited to just two outputs (one stereo pair) and only 8 scenes.

Again, hereis the Ableton Version Comparison

We know some drummers that have bought the Intro version to use on their own independent gigs for all of Live’s functionality, and just split the lines coming out of their laptop’s headphone jack. Click is routed to Left, and Loops to Right.

Alrighty – there’s your intro crash course – hope it helps!  Please feel free to ask any more questions as you learn and experiment!

And again, if you’d like the NPCC TEMPLATE, here you go!

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136 thoughts on “Crash Course: Ableton Live in Worship at North Point

  1. Thanks for this post. We’ve been using Live for a year or two and it works great. One issue I can’t figure out how to fix is whenever I use the NPCC click sound I can’t seem to get the track volume loud enough to cut through the band. I can max out the track and pan it to one side and the musicians still complain that they lose the click in the mix. I prefer it to other click sounds but can’t figure out how to make it loud enough. I’d love to see the NPCC template too.

    • The problem is the click sample itself. Both the frequency and transient aren’t “sharp” enough. A lot of guys like it for that very reason… it disappears. If you want something audible at low levels and pokes through the mix, the Live click is marvelous.

    • Hey Collin,

      If you find the click sound “disappearing”, there’s a few things you can do:

      1 – EQ up a little high end, especially around 1k, giving it a little more bite. You may also dial back some low-mids to help that as well.

      2 – Be sure to eliminate anything in your in-ear mix that interferes with the sound. For us, the biggest culprit is the high-end “snap” of the kick drum. That’s especially bad if your drummer’s kick drum ability is, umm, less than precise… 😉

      NOTE: Out of our pool of about a dozen drummers, we do have one guy who swears by the Ableton internal click. When he plays, we route the internal Ableton click out channel 7 by routing the “cue out” to 7. We then mix that as a separate channel on the monitor console. So the whole band gets to enjoy the musicality of the MPC click sample, and just that drummer is subject to the incessant BEEP BOP BOP BOP of the Ableton sound…

  2. One minor correction, and one comment related to that:

    You don’t need a space between the tempo and BPM (eg. 72BPM is the same as 72 BPM). Might be an issue if you’re using Ableton as both software to trigger loops and clicks and software to host virtual instruments for your live keyboard rig. I do this, and have my screen horizontally filled with tracks, so anything I can do to make my scene names shorter is a good thing 🙂

    The related comment: you can also put a time signature in your scene name, in the form of A/B, and you can of course use that together with the BPM, like “Oh Praise Him 115BPM 4/4”

    Great article overall!

    • You’re right on both accounts, Mike! I just prefer having the space, just to be easier on the eyes. Same reason I don’t usually include the 4/4 thing as well. But fortunately it’s just a personal preference.

      • Yeah, 9 times out of 10, the time signature is irrelevant since everything’s in 4/4, but if you try and use a master set with all your songs and you drag scenes around to build your current setlist, you can’t guarantee that you won’t put a 4/4 song without an explicit time signature after a 6/8 song with an explicit time signature. Better safe than sorry 🙂

      • OK Mike, right again. In those rarities, adding the time signature to all tunes is an inevitability.

  3. Another idea that I use that wasn’t mentioned (though perhaps this is what the DEMOS track is for?): I have a track for MP3s, and on the first scene for each song, I drag the original recorded version of the song into a clip. I’ve got it mapped to a separate output, so there’s no danger of accidentally playing the recorded track mid-service, but it’s great for reference in rehearsals.

  4. I would like to receive the template. We have been using pro tools and are very interested in seeing the advantages of abelton live.

  5. Thank you for sharing some details about how your church uses live. I would like the template, thank you!

  6. Hey Reid, Thanks for this post. I’ve been hesitant to use Live because no one i know uses it. I started with click/loop playing out of an iPod in 2005, and now use Reason 6 with multiple outputs. I’d love to try Ableton and use your template (tom@truenorthchurch.net). One question – do you use an external harddrive for the session files? As in, all of the sessions run smoothly off of the internal harddrive?

    thanks again.

    • Hi Tom,

      You’re correct about recording audio to an external drive (and not your system drive) for lots of reasons. However, we’ve found that for tracks playback, the internal drive on a MacBook Pro works just fine. Your processor will bog down long before the disk does.

      There’s no right or wrong answer in this case, but my philosophy in live performance is “the fewer cables to come loose, the better”… 🙂 We’ve all known an external drive to mysteriously unmount at the most inopportune time. Heaven forbid that being in the middle of a live set…

  7. hey Reid,

    Thanks for the post. I’ve hesitated using LIVE for a while because no one else i know is using it. I started with click/loop on an ipod in 2003 and have moved to using Reason 6 live on a MBP. I’d like to get your template and try out Ableton (tom@truenorthchurch.net). One question – do you ever run into issues using the internal harddrive to run all the sessions? As in, when multitracking, using a drive separate from the system drive is almost always necessary – is that the same for playing multiple tracks simultaneously?

    thanks

  8. One question, why don’t you just bounce a click track to a wav file and launch it along side the other track elements? That’s what we’ve been doing. It makes 100% sure that the files are matched up with the click.
    I’ve been testing your approach and I keep having issues where the Impulse-generated click is not synced with the track files, no matter if they are warped or not.

    • Mitch,

      You can certainly do that, and it will absolutely work for nearly all songs. We discovered that on the rare occasion that we did a very fast or very slow song, the warp would effect the click sample (at least enough to be noticed and frustrating). So we’ve opted the “trigger the sample” route.

      But both approaches are great!

  9. Reid … I’d like the NPCC Ableton template. Also … I’m a worship pastor in the Atlanta area. Is there anyone at North Point that offers Ableton lessons? I’d love to get some training from someone that uses it in the worship trenches every week.

    • Come on over!

      I’d be happy to sit down with you, or anyone else for that matter, for a couple hours and show you what we do. Thursday’s are best…

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  12. Loved the information. We have not started using clicks, or loops in our services yet, but want to. I have been searching for loops that are not too busy, but not having much luck. Right now I would like to start using continuous loop that repeats on one side of a laptop out stereo jack, and a click on the other.
    I’m the drummer and have also been looking for something to fire the loops with in real time. What is something reasonably priced, that will work in your experience?

    Would love the template also, please

    Also, if you or anyone else may have any simple loops you could share that would work for today’s worship songs. We do stuff by Chris Tomlin, Planet shakers, Israel, Free Chapel, Steve Fee and such.

    Thanks, and be blessed,
    DJ
    djpound@sbcglobal.net

  13. Thank you for the information, very useful. I would love to get the template. I want to incorporate loops and click tracks in our worship. I have no idea where to start with Ableton so any help/templates would be much appreciated, thanks!

    Cheers,
    Rob.
    mr.robdunham@gmail.com

  14. much more helpful than anything i found on youtube! would love the template also, if possible.
    patrick[at]musicshop.to

  15. I just am just getting started with Ableton. I lead contemporary worship and play the keyboards at New Haven Church in Gainesville, Ga. I would love to have the template. This is all new to me, but excited about what this software can bring to our band.

    Thanks.
    Chris

  16. If you are still handing out ableton templates I would like a copy. Thank you for your willingness to share.

    morrison(dot)ece05(at)gmail(dot)com

  17. Thanks for the info — already using live pretty well. But still using its resident metronome capabilities (although I replaced the stock sound in the resources directory with something friendlier).

    However, would love your template if you get a chance.

    In Him, Scott Rider
    North Valley Fellowship
    Las Vegas

    scott@nvflv.com

  18. Thanks for the article. I am a church planter and always looking for tools that can help us improve our level of excellence. thanks for offering 4he template.

  19. Hi Reid
    Thanks for the info – very helpful. Please could you mail me the template if you get a chance. Thanks and God bless!

  20. This has been the most helpful post on Ableton Live I’ve seen so far! I would to get a copy of your template. Thanks! jason -at- destinycc.com

  21. Thanks for the post, looking into getting started with Ableton at my church! Could you send me a copy of the template also? My email is ccweaver39[at]gmail[dot]com

  22. I’m just now getting into Ableton and learning as much as possible as fast as I can. Thanks for your investment into those of us who need some help. You’re an answer to prayer!

    Please send me a template if you wouldn’t mind.

    nlsnldx@gmail.com

  23. Reid (the license plate man!),

    Thanks so much for the wealth of information here!!

    Yeah, I know this article is from 2012, but we are just now starting to make software changes (we are a month into our brand new auditorium) and wanted your advice! Haha.

    I am in the Music Director at Heritage Church in Texarkana, TX. Our church has used the Northpoint model for several years now and it has made a huge difference in our ability to reach the unchurched in our community!
    Although our staff has attended DRIVE several times, we have never learned the “nuts and bolts” of how you use Ableton in your music production.

    I need to really know your definition of “linear programming” please.
    We are considering jumping to Ableton, but we need to know what we will be gaining in the exchange!

    We use NUENDO and have Track 1 as the Click Track panned to one side and Track 2 as a Loop Track panned to the other. The Loop Track has various percussion or synthy stuff that we are not able to play live.
    Each song is set at a certain location point. So, to begin the first song, I make sure I am at location 1, and I press the spacebar to fire it. For the next song, I jump to location 2, etc.

    The entire song plays as it is—one MP3, and if anything glitches, I just have to fade things out and regroup on the next song.
    BUT it gives us the ability to START each song when we want while I do pad sounds on the synth to flow inbetween so that whoever may be introducing the song can talk freely while I prepare to fire the click.

    SO….

    What is the difference for the way you guys use Ableton? When I look at the pics of the midi controller your drummer uses, I only see 4 numbers on the pads. It appears that all he is doing is starting the song by hitting the appropriate number and letting it play as is—which is what we do.

    Do you have Ableton set up where each song is divided into Verse, Chorus, Bridge, etc. with the ability to loop at any section as needed?

    Thanks for any and all info you can give us Reid!! I can give ya my email if you prefer to respond that way!

    • Theoretically you can set up Ableton’s scenes to be Verses, Choruses, etc. Although we choose not to.

      The vast majority of the time we just use one scene for one song, triggered by one of the controller’s pads.

      The only exceptions are if there’s a vamp at the top of a song (like while the Worship Leader does a quick welcome and/or song set up), and then a second scene & trigger pad is the actual body of the song.

      Of our current repertoire, only a few songs actually have specific programming (strings, extra gang box, perc at specific points, etc.). For a few others we’ll use an open-ended percussive loop to add texture. On a few songs we’ll use an open-ended tonal loop to, again, add texture.

      But right now, at least half of the songs we do for worship have no programming of any kind – just click.

  24. I have a few questions about your open-ended loops. How do you make them? We’ve tried using something of the sort before (just on the fly, say, if a keys player wasn’t available or something). The way I’ve done it is within the impulse synth in ableton, however all it really does is make a drone that doesn’t really fluctuate in it’s sound or anything. I would really love to use an open loop more, but I hate the dullness of the drone, and it’s especially bad when the chords of the song don’t always come back to the key that the drone is in. Thanks for the help! Great post and template, by the way! I use it every week

    • The vast majority of open-ended loops we use are percussive in nature, and not tonal (or drone as you stated). (Yes, we use a few tonal loops, but I can only think of two song in our current repertoire).

      Spectrasonics’ “Stylus RMX” is an incredible source for percussive loops. I’d say most of the loops created are with Stylus. But some others have come from various sources, like Logic’s factory library, Native Instrument’s “Damage” library, etc.

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