Introduction to Creating your Ableton Live Performance Template.
This is the first article in A series of articles on Performing music using Ableton Live. The reason this topic needs to be a series is because it is not a simple answer. Everyone is different and, everyone has different needs. Yes, you could get someone’s template, learn it, get good with it, and be good to go. Using a pre-made template may work for some people and by all means explore. If nothing else you will get ideas on what you like and do not like. You also may find a template that almost suits your needs that you can modify for Performing using Ableton Live. This particular article is not about templates. I will not even really be talking to much about setting up Ableton Live either. I will be talking about the processes of preparing yourself for performing live with Ableton Live.
The first step in the processes of setting up an Ableton Live set for live performance is conceptualization. Visualize yourself on stage. What do you see? Are you solo? Are you in a band? Do you have a light and video show? What are doing? What instruments are you playing? How are you interacting with the music you are presenting to the world? Imagine yourself from the audience perspective. What does the audience see? How are you going to make a lasting impression on the audience? Take your time with this part. Visualizing your live performance is the most important step. Write it all down. Go see shows and pay close attention to what the artists are doing. take note of not only what impresses you but also what impresses the audience. Even though it mat seem like everyone is a producer, musician, or DJ, you are actually a minority. The majority of music fans have little to no idea what is actually happening on stage. They are there to be entertained. Also, consider the kind of music you are playing and the environment of your normal gig. Are hidden away in a DJ booth playing dance music? Are you the center stage focal point of the music? Are you A supporting performing? All of this has relevance to how you perform live and how you set up your rig.
After you spent some time on the visualizing the next step is conceptualizing. We still are not even going to open Ableton Live in this step but gather up all your gear. If you do not have any gear you will need something, anything. The number one rule of performing live is Do Not Touch Your Laptop on Stage!! I have one exception to this rule for the producer/DJ type that generally performs in a DJ booth. I will talk about that soon. Touching your laptop on stage is boring for you and the audience. I have mixed feelings about iPads those can be ok, but no touching the laptop. Use midi controllers to interact with your music. With the exception of some DJ’s do not put the laptop between you and the audience. It blocks the energetic transfer between you and the audience which can cause a lack of connection. If you come from a performance musician or DJ background you probably know what I am talking about. The magic is why we get on stage and why people become your fans. So imagine your live performance rig. Check out all the awesome gear that exists today. Watch videos about the gear. Watch videos of people performing with the gear. Think about what you want to do on stage. What instruments do you want to play? Do you want to finger drum? Do you want to play everything live? Live looping? Do you want to have a mix of playing live instruments and prerecorded loops or backing tracks? Do you want to just play over backing tracks? Play full tracks? DJ? Enhance the sound of your band? So many ways to perform live! Don’t forget about lighting and video, yes Ableton Live can tell other software and hardware what to do.
After you go crazy conceptualizing all the amazing possibilities of performing live. Look over that massive gear wish list that you just created and simplify. You are not an octopus my friend. Yes, the audience may perceive you as being an entity of many limbs but you actually only have 4. The second rule of live performance. Keep It as Simple As Possible! (but don’t talk about it). The biggest problem with Ableton Live when using it on stage is the limitless possibilities. You need a box. So your gear will become your box. You will need to shape your live set to your gear. That is why thinking about what you want to do is so important. You have feet too. Live loopers, controllerists, and instrumentalists can potentially all benefit from a foot controller. Another thing to think about is changing presets on the controller. I personally can not stand changing presets on my controllers while I am performing. I prefer to have dedicated functions that are always in the same place. This will help you to develop muscle memory. In the end, your live rig is an instrument. You will be able to play your live rig like an instrument. When you get good and your live rig you can focus on the music and the energy so you can take the audience on a journey. I like lots go knobs, faders, and buttons. APC 40, Launch Control, Launch Pad, Push, Quneo, and more. So many controllers out there. They all have strengths and weaknesses. Finding that combination is the trick. Personally, when I started doing this in 2007 there just was not that many choices. The trigger finger, Some cool Novation stuff, and my first controller, The Akai MPD 24 had just come out. I was inspired by the MPC so snagged that quick. My rig has evolved a lot over the years so do not be afraid of change. At the same time do not get every new shiny thing that comes along.
I want to side track real quick. Keeping to the “Keep it Simple” ethos I am directing this specifically to the DJ/Producers types. The ones that are always hidden behind a DJ booth where no one can see what you are doing. Your goal is to make music so awesome that the audience does not bother to look at you because they are dancing their asses off. They should not be watching you, filming you, they should be dancing. Personally, it drives me nuts when people are standing in the way filming the DJ’s head from the area that should be reserved for dancing. Here is a little secret, I do not know anything more simple than some headphones and thumb drives. The club probably has a really awesome Pioneer CDJ rig. Bring some CD’s for backup but thumb drive and headphones are magic. Get awesome with a DJ rig and control that dance floor. You want to add some live elements check out some iPad apps. Imaschine 2 is awesome, yes it is limited but it is simple and fun. I know plenty of DJ’s that use Ableton. Yes, Ableton can be an amazing DJ tool, but just because you produce in Ableton Live it does not mean you need to DJ with it. Personally, I love using Vinyl, CDJ’s, and Traktor to DJ. If you are a DJ you need to be able to use it all. At one of my recent shows, I was set up to do a live set in a DJ club. I had 1 deck to scratch Vinyl, Ableton Live, A Traktor Z2, Apc 40, and a Quneo. That is actually one of my scaled back rigs. I dropped my first sample on Vinyl then when I fired my scene no sound. I could see green audio on my master bus. My Audio interface was set up correctly. Volume was up on the mains. I had no idea what the issue was. So I dropped a Portishead record on my turntable. I went back to troubleshooting but I was quickly running out of time. I decided to get the CDJ’s going. I put my thumb drive into the CDJ. Nothing, CDJ did not read. I quickly grabbed my CD case out of my bag and started playing some music. The audience has no idea that I am having issues. I while playing on the CDJ’s I rebooted my laptop then switched back to my live set after a few tracks on the CDJ’s. If all I could do was use my laptop I would have been screwed. Moral of the story always have backups, and Portishead can save your butt!
Ok, so you know what you want to do. You know what gear you want to use. You have a good idea of how you want to perform. Next step, skills. You need skills. Templates and gear do not give you skills. It is time to figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are. Are you an awesome guitarist that wants to become a live looper? Have you ever done any live looping? you are going to need to be awesome at live looping. It is time to develop that skill. Are you a hardware looper transitioning to Live looping in Ableton Live? I hate to break it to you but the workflow looping with Ableton Live is a little different then looping with hardware. You have a lot more options and can do more epic things live looping in Ableton but it will not be exactly the same. You want finger drum like Jeremy Ellis, Divinci, Mad Zach, or any of the other awesome finger drummers out there. Yes, they have how-to videos and templates that you should watch but nothing will replace skills. Mad Zach has one of the best finger drumming tutorials I have seen. Check it out. You need to practice. No matter how awesome anyone is at something at one point they sucked and had no clue what they were doing. The only cure for suck is practice. Practice will always cure suck. So figure out what skill you need and the live those skills, breath those skills, figure out ways to alway be practicing. Even thinking about practicing increases your skills. You can actually finger drum and beatbox everywhere! I used to always practice my two and three finger bass plucking technique. I did it so much I would do it without even knowing. In the processes of developing any need skills, your live set will start to take shape.
Finally, here we are. You know what you want. You have the skills to do it. Now it is time to get that live set dialed in. I want to reinforce Keep It Simple. Most importantly keep your interaction on stage simple. Sometimes that will involve some complex tricks under the hood. that is fine, but keep that as simple as possible. You will also need to keep an eye on that CPU. In future articles, I will talk about the nuts and bolts. I will talk about how to actually set up your live set and I will go into a number of different styles of live performing. So for know get back to practicing. Another thing about practicing, you want to be awesome you must keep practicing as do I.
Check out How To Build a DJ Template with Ableton Live.