Basic drum programming with Ableton Live .
by Jimmy Allison
Austin Ableton Tutor
This tutorial is an introduction to midi drum programming using Ableton Live and Drum Racks. To start off we will be making a basic 1 bar drum loop, and then quickly expand the basic drum loop to dynamic 32 bar drum pattern.
The first thing we need to do is open Ableton Live and load a drum rack into a midi track.
To load a drum rack Open the live browser, select the live devices, open the instrument folder, open the drum racks folder, open the kit folder, and select a drum kit.
Pick any kit you like, I will be using a kit from Ableton’s Session Drums. Insert the drum rack into A midi track by either double kicking on the drum kit in the browser which will drop the drum rack into the selected midi track, or by dragging and dropping into a midi track.
Next we need to create a 1 bar midi clip in an empty clip slot on the midi track. To do this right-click (pc) or cmd click (mac) on the first cell in the midi track that you put the drum rack in. then select insert midi clip. You will also notice the hot key command for the insert midi clip action which you could use, or just double click the cell to create a midi clip.
When inserting a midi clip, clip view should be automatically selected, you can also switch between clip view and device view by pressing shift+tab or you can select either view on the bottom right of the screen. In order to re-size the clip view move your mouse just above clip view, the mouse will turn into an up/down cursor, then click and drag the clip view to be as big as needed.
Now take a look at the note ruler section of the clip, The note ruler is located on the left side of the clip and contains the names of the different pieces of the drum kit. IE: kick, side stick, snare hit… You should notice that your mouse cursor turns into a hand holding a magnifying glass. In the note ruler section clicking and dragging left and right will zoom in and out. Clicking and dragging up and down will move the note rule section up and down.
Now lets set the grid, right-click (pc) cmd click (mac) in the midi note editor section to open your context menu for the midi note editor. Take a minute to look over all your options then select fixed grid 1/16. This will enable us to place notes down on the grid quantized to 1/16th notes.
To get started I want to talk about two ways to enter notes with the mouse, one is draw mode (pencil tool) and the other is using the direct select mode (regular mouse pointer). Draw mode allows you to quickly draw notes into the midi editor and make fast adjustments to velocity. Direct select has more flexibility, and functionality. In this tutorial I will be talking specifically about using the regular mouse pointer to enter midi notes. In later tutorials I provide in-depth instruction on how to use Draw Mode. If you prefer to use Draw mode feel free to use Draw mode for this tutorial but you will need to be able to switch between the direct select tool and pencil tool for some commands. To make sure that draw mode is off. At the top of the screen you will see a pencil icon, if it is yellow click it off, alternatively the hot key is ctrl+b for pc and cmd+b for mac which will toggle pencil tool on and off.
Now lets program a basic break beat. With draw mode off, double-click to insert a note to trigger the kick drum on the 1.0, and the 1.3 now double-click to insert a snare on the 1.2 and the 1.4 The note divisions are listed at the top of clip view.
This is a very basic one two beat.. not very exciting but can be useful in some situations (country and punk rock). From here we can play with the tempo and the feel of the beat by adjusting the global tempo and moving around the notes. Advance the kick drum to 1.3.3 and set the global tempo to 172.. that is a basic Drum and Bass beat. Now slow down the global tempo to 96, instant hip hop.
Try adding in another kick on the 1.1.3 then move it up to the 1.1.4 Feel free to play around and find a basic rhythm and tempo you like. I will be using the Hip Hop pattern shown in this picture at a tempo of 96 bpm.
Lets drop in some closed hi hats on 1/8th notes. Double click to enter Hi hat closed on the 1.0, and 1.1.3. Next, look down at the bottom of the clip view and you will see little vertical lines with circles on top. these lines are the velocity value’s. Move the velocity for the hi hat at 1.1.3 down a little, this will help add some variation to the hi hat pattern. you should notice the note color will get darker or lighter depending on the velocity setting.
Another thing I would like to do is “humanize” the hats so as not to sound like a machine and give my drum loop some groove. We can do this by moving the notes a little off grid, but the grid is locked to 1/16 notes. So lets open up or context menu by right clicking (pc) or cmd clicking (mac) on the midi note editor. select “off”, which you will see just under 1/4.
With the grid off we can move the hi hats freely by clicking and dragging or clicking the note to select and using the arrow keys. “Lay back” the first hi hat a little bit off the one by moving a tiny bit forward in time. Then rush the second hat by moving the note a little bit back in time, but not to much.. we are humanizing to a drummer with good timing here. This method also has an added benefit of allowing the kick drum to have the dominant transient over the hi hat which will bring out kick drum more and give it more punch and definition.
We shall now use the glorious duplicate function of Ableton Live to quickly copy and past the hi hats across the bar. First we need to turn our 1/16th note grid back on. you could open up the context menu by right clicking (pc) or cmd clicking (mac) and selecting 1/16 or you could use A super special hot key. ctrl+4 (pc) or cmd+4 (mac) which will toggle on and off the grid. Now click and drag starting from the 1.2 back to the 1 to select just the hi hat’s You will notice a little yellow line towards the top of the clip view that defines you selected area, and the selected notes will be darker then the rest. Make sure you only have the two hi hat notes selected and the selection start from 1 and ends on 1.2
Now you can open your context menu and select duplicate or just use the hot key ctrl+d (pc) cmd+d (mac). The notes will in essence be copied and pasted to the 1.2 and the 1.2.3 now just select duplicate or use your hot key of ctr+d (pc) or cmd+d (mac) two more times to finish out the bar.
Listen to your beat. Lets lay back the first snare hit a little bit. Click and drag to select both the snare and the hi hat This time instead of turning of the grid click on the snare first then hold down alt (pc) or cmd (mac) as you move both the snare and hi hat notes at the same time. Lay back the notes of the grid just a little bit then release the mouse button before releasing alt (pc) or cmd (mac). this will enable you to move the notes free of the grid without turning the grid off. Another trick is to modify the velocity by holding down alt (pc) or cmd (mac) first then clicking+dragging up and down on the note to increase or decrease the velocity. Now grab just the snare hit on the 1.4 and rush the hit a little by using the same method but leave the hi hat where it is at. your 1 bar drum loop should now look allot like the image below.
We need to touch up one last thing before moving on, notice the kick drum at 1.3.3, it is hitting a little after the hi hat which is taking energy away from the initial punch of the kick. since the kick drum is a very important element in modern music I like to go out of my way to ensure it has a dominance in the mix with out being over bearing. we can accomplish this by either rushing the kick drum so the initial transient hits before the hi hat or laying back the hat to accomplish the same thing.. I am actually going to do both in order to add some more character to my drum loop.
I generally spend most of my time working on this 1 bar loop, my goal is to make a solid drum loop, to hold down the grove, and have enough character to hold interest just as a 1 bar loop. When I feel like I have a banging 1 bar drum loop I start duplicating and tweaking the loop to create a longer drum pattern. So now click on the loop bracket which is located at the top of clip view to select the entire bar and all the notes. Then use your hot key command to duplicate the bar ctrl+d (pc) cmd+d (mac)
The duplicate function created a copy of bar one, pasted it into bar 2, and moved the loop brackets so they are looping the new section. Click on blank space with in the midi note editor to deselect all the notes.
now we are just going to modify the second bar just a little bit. All I am going to do is move the second kick drum from 2.1.4 to 2.1.3 to add a slight variation. With that slight variation added We will now drag the loop start back to the one so that we have a 2 bar drum loop
Wash, Rinse, and Repeat! make sure that you have the 2 bar drum loop selected then use the duplicate function again. ctrl+d (pc) cmd+d (mac). I highly recommend learning your short cut key commands, but if nothing else add the duplicate command to your arsenal of short cuts asap. You can use the duplicate command all over Live and it is a huge workflow enhancement. We now have the last 2 bars selected of a 4 bar loop, make sure to deselect the midi notes then edit the last bar a little bit. Silence is one of the most expressive things in music so all I am going to do is remove the last closed hi hat. After you have made a minor edit to the last bar drag the loop start back to the 1 and listen to your 4 bar loop. Please feel free to make any further edits that you are feeling.
I bet you can guess whats next, yup duplicate again. now edit the last bar. for bar 8 I want to do a small snare fill.
I find the adaptive grid very useful for programming flams and rolls. The adaptive grid creates more grid lines the if you zoom in and less if you zoom out, in fact its the grid I use most. Open up your context menu for the midi note editor by right clicking (pc) or cmd+click (mac) and select narrow under adaptive grid.
Now we can quickly zoom in and out to create a nice little snare fill and the end of bar 8. For my loop basically added a flam to the snare hit at 8.4 by adding a snare hit just before 8.4 and lowered the velocity to create the flame effect. then I added another snare at 8.4.3 with a similar flam. Flams are like subtle accents that drummers use to add excitement and anticipation. Another handy thing that helps when programming drum parts as the loop gets longer. Rather then wait for the loop to cycle you can scroll your mouse just below the loop bracket and it will turn into a speaker. when you click play scrub the play marker to the nearest interval based on your global quantization. (IE: my global quantization is set to 1 bar so if i click before the 8.3 the loop will play from bar 8 but if i click after bar 8.3 it will play the next bar)
When your happy with your snare fill on bar 8 move your loop start back to the one then press space bar to stop the clock to give your ears a rest. Ableton is great because you can start a session, keep the music rolling, and tweak on your track all day. This can become a problem though. your mind may lose track of the one which could throw off your thinking. so I like to refresh by stopping the clock and resetting my mind to sync back up. In doing so I find that the double snare hits at bar 8 is a little much so I removed both the flam and the snare hit from the end of the bar. Since this is more of a Hip Hop beat I want it simple, fluid and open.
Most of the time I stop at 8 bars then go work on my bass line, but for this tutorial we will continue on to 32 bars. so select all 8 bars by clicking the loop bracket at the top of clip view then use the duplicate command ctr+d (pc) cmd+d (mac). deselect the midi notes and zoom into bar 16. The loop is getting pretty long. so I want to set my start marker to bar 16. This will allow me to use my space bar to stop playback and then start from bar 16. so I can now quickly here the edits I make in bar 16. A quick way to set your start marker is to set your start point within the Note Box on the left of clip view. Look to the bottom left of your screen. (next to info view if you have it open) you will see some boxes and 3 little circles, make sure that the circle with the notes is yellow which will enable you to see your note box.
Now set your start position to 16, 1, 1. Again this will enable us to quickly start the loop from bar 16 so we can hear our edits on bar 16 as we make them.
I basically moved my kick drum to the 16.3, deleted my hi hats after 16.3 and added some snare hits with varying velocities to create a bata pop kind of sound. If you need help understanding how to program fills do what all good drummers do, learn some rudiments. I recommend checking out Vic firths page, it is an awesome resource to learn and understand drumming.
Finally lets move that start marker back to the 1. Since we are talking about the note box, and our loop is starting to get pretty long. Take a look at the position and length under loop in the note box. You can just quickly type in your parameters for your loop bracket here. set position to 1 and length to 16.
now Listen to your full 16 bar loop from the beginning. Listening to mine again, I’m not to into that fill I programmed on bar 16, I don’t think it sits well with the rest of the loop. So I made a few changes. I removed the hi hat on 16.3 and changed the kick drum on 16.3 to a snare and adjusting the timing and velocity of all the snares in the fill. These edits should help the loop flow better.
Finally duplicate 1 more time by clicking on the loop bracket to select all 16 bars and use the duplicate function ctr+d (pc) cmd+d (mac). Again, to add variation to my 32 bar drum loop, I will just edit bar 32 by zooming in and tweaking the fill on bar 32.
when your finished tweaking bar 32, set start to 1, position to 1, and length to 32. listen to your Drum pattern and feel free to make any tweaks that you see fit with in the patter. when your finished don’t forget to save your work. From here you can actually duplicate the midi clip and tweak the new clip to create another pattern that will go with this clip you just created. don’t forget practice makes perfect so go make a bunch of drum patterns in different styles and of different lengths to get a good feel. In no time you will be able to crank out dynamic drum patterns in a matter of minutes.
Thank you for reading this tutorial and fell free to leave a comment, ask questions, or make a request for future tutorials. I also offer private lessons, class, and workshops.
Don’t forget to check out my band Lux Divon.
Austin Ableton Tutor