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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Request Line is Open!

Remember listening to the radio, especially when you were a teenager, and the DJ announced (in that stereotypical Rock ‘n Roll DJ voice):

Alrightahhh. It’s the all-request hour! Go ahead and call in – we’re taking your requests! Is there a song I can play for YOU?

Well, consider this your chance to submit your requests. OK, more like suggestions. We came to realize a long time ago that input and suggestions from lots of folks often introduces us to great songs and artists we may never have heard of if we just stayed within our own iTunes libraries or favorite radio stations.

Sooooo…

We’re heading into a series with Clay and Andy called “How To Be Great”, and we’re looking for songs, both fast and slow. The bottom line to the series is that humility is the basis of greatness in God’s eyes. Christ coming to Earth as man and his death on the cross was the ultimate act of sacrifice and humility.

Check out Mark 10:45 – For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

So, does that spark thoughts of any songs you know? Please click “comments to add your suggestions for good songs we might consider doing!

Sunday Summary – Music: February 17, 2008

Life’s not always grand, and that goes for the music at North Point. While some of you may think it to be the promised land, some weeks there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears that go behind making each week as good as possible. While there was no blood this week, there was a bunch of sweat. And maybe a few tears.

We’ve got two stages doing the same music at the same time, and because some of us music and production staff float from side to side, we’re constantly making an assumption of one side’s experience (spiritual, musical and production – video direction, sound, camera shots, lighting, etc.). So one side is being judged not only on it’s own merits, but in direct real-time comparison with the other.

This said, this week the West was doomed from the get go. “Fee “, or as we know them: Steve Fee, Matt Adkins, Heath Baltzglier, Brandon Coker and their/our good buddy Alex Nifong were on East. Now this, my friends is the definition of a well-oiled machine. They’d played the selected tunes a bajillion times, and they’re fully conscious of each other musically AND socially.

Socially you ask? Yes – they know each others’ personalities to a “T”. They know what to say and how to say it to achieve the best possible musical and worship experience. They are, after all, an official band, and Alex might as well be their honorary 5th member. Plus, Steve is one of the absolute best Worship Leaders I’ve ever witnessed when it comes to not only creating an exciting worship experience, but engaging a crowd as though just you and him were sitting in comfy chairs at Starbucks, chatting away. And the other 3,000 people are feeling the same way. Staggering.

Needless to say, East was guuuuuuud. Put those boys up there and press Autopilot.

The West, however, was a different story altogether. Quite the opposite in most regards. Now let me preface this with this: “By the time we reached the first service, things were gelling.” But it was not an easy path. Just because something looks good on paper, doesn’t mean it will go like you think…

There was not one specific thing that lead to our frustration during Wed and Sun AM rehearsals, but rather the “Perfect Storm” of issues: New (shy) rhythm electric guitarist, no keys player (synths, B3, pads, etc), no acoustic guitar, a poorly designed keyboard boom stand, and a set Pro Tools loop.

Eddie Kirkland was leading, and when it was all said and done, did a fantastic job (as usual, of course) and lead from piano (Roland X8 on a little rolling cart), and the current set did not allow for a large Keys riser, so we nixed the keys, other that Eddie’s piano. This, however, started a chain of events relating to everyone on stage having to re-adjust their familiar parts and traditional in-ear mixes. Add to that an in-experienced and slightly timid rhythm guitarist, and the band was literally having to re-learn the songs.

Plus, once the rhythm player was finally comfortable, Danny Grady (bless him!) had to readjust and refine new lead parts. All with no acoustic providing rhythm or B3/pads filling holes.

This all goes back to communication, specifically between guitarists. Danny was being polite (especially noting the rhythm player’s timidity), and the rhythm player was trying to find his way. And Ashley on drums and Earl on bass were having to adjust to the “piano and 1.5 electrics” verses our usual “1 acoustic, 2 electrics and full keyboards“.

Add to that the confusion of “who was playing what this time” for the Front Of House sound engineer, and it made for a, shall we say, interesting Wednesday night and Sunday morning rehearsals. To be honest, I was actually glad the West band only had to worry about and rehearse 2 worship tunes. That’s not an insult, but rather a realization that it was good to focus on fewer songs and making them the best musical and worship experiences possible.

But we were able to top off the service with Eddie and Steve (on their respective sides) singing and playing piano (Roland X8) with a live string quartet for the closer. No band, just piano, vocal and quartet. Very beautiful, and a nice sonic change of pace.

WORSHIP:

Faithful” by Alex Nifong. This is on our new CD with Kristian Stanfill singing it, but last time Fee was here we decided to bump up the tempo from 113 to 119. Yep, that’s a big jump. Brandon Coker added a cool drum groove on the top, very reminiscent of the verser of All American Rejects’ “Move Along”. Very cool, and the tempo and groove change has added a lot of life to that song. And people even sang it!

Lift High” by Eddie Kirkland and Steve Fee, also on our CD. Yeah, I know it’s predictable to have the two guys who wrote it also lead it, but hey – who’s gonna give it more passion than them? I love this song, and if the world was fair it would tie for “Awesomest Song Of The Year” along side Todd Fields’ “Breathe On Me” at the annual Awesomely Awesome Awards. “We Shine” would be 3rd.

CLOSER:

Word Of God Speak” by Mercy Me (Bart Millard or whatever…). This is such a simple, pretty song, but can evoke a great emotion in the end choruses. The live strings added a great presence, and the media boys added a cool video of some of the actual string players on location against a brick wall and hardwood floors with some great sweeping jib shots. It was a rich, sepia based texture. Very nice!

Steve and the boys in East:

IMG_0100.jpg

Eddie and strings in rehearsal:

IMG_0086.jpg IMG_0088.jpg

What I learned this week: DO NOT put new player on when messing around with standard instrumentation!!

What caused YOU to worship this week?

Greatest Valentines Card

Jennie had this card for me this morning. Fantastic!!

“To my Husband on Valentine’s Day, I downloaded some romantic song remixes that reminded me of us…

Nobody Does It Better (but don’t go getting all conceited)

Another Saturday Night (and we ain’t goin’ nowhere)

Hey, You (get off of that couch)

Can You Feel The Love (handles) Tonight?

Dirty Laundry (goes in the hamper)

It Had To Be You (’cause that smell didn’t come from me)

and How Sweet It Is To Be Wed To You. Awwww.

I LOVE my wife! Who do YOU love?

Married Life Live, February creative…

Married Life Live is an event at North Point that I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of for about 3 years now. I started out in the band, which was a huge honor, and through an odd set of circumstances a year ago was asked to be the band-leader. Pretty cool, since it’s an event that the best of the best (and me;))are booked for.

Check out the site if you want to know more…

Well we had a creative meeting today. One of the items on the docket was an initial list of songs to choose from. Of course they’re narrowed down based on available singers, topic, content (or lack thereof!), style, familiarity, whether we’ve done them before (which becomes a big issue after a few years!) – stuff like that.

Anyway, EVERYONE has opinions about the music, and all the opinions are different. I guess that’s good for all the people CREATING music, since there’s bound to someone out there that likes their music, but it makes for some tense moments when selecting content for a live event.

SO HERE’S YOUR CHANCE TO PARTICIPATE!! Here’s our working list. What 6 (or less) songs would YOU want to hear? Or, rather what songs do you think should be performed to make it a cutting edge, impressive, yet comfortable event?

The Way You Look Tonight – Standard
L-O-V-E – Nat King Cole – Standard
I’ve Got You Under My Skin – Standard
Try A Little Tenderness – Standard
Love Song – Sara Baraeilles
Taking Chances – Celine Dion
Our Song – Taylor Swift
The Way You Love Me – Faith Hill
Sweet Love – Anita Baker
No One – Alicia Keys
Giving You The Best – Anita Baker
Crazy Little Thing Called Love – Queen
Maybe I’m Amazed – Paul McCartney (Wings)
Hate How Much I Love You – Rihanna & Ne-yo
Superstitious – Steve Wonder
Tattoo – Jordon Sparks
Say You Love Me – Fleetwood Mac

We’ll eventually narrow it down to 6 or 7 tunes, spread out evenly between our 3 lead singers (guy, Pop/Rock girl, R&B girl).

What would YOU like to hear?