Ableton was always a piece of software that I had been meaning to get my head around; I’ve seen people do some incredible stuff with it in a live context, and that definitely appealed to the synthesist in me. So when this opportunity to be in a band as a synth player came along, I knew that Ableton was the route I needed to take to be able to get the most creative freedom whilst playing live.
For those of you who don’t know, Ableton allows you to do pretty much anything you can think of in a live capacity, but for now (as I’m still learning the full extent of the software, how to play the keyboard and also how to sing properly) I simply use it to trigger various pre-recorded sounds and play my synth parts live over the top.
As it stands, the masses Ableton Live set looks like the picture at the top. It looks fairly complicated, but is actually a lot simpler than it seems. Basically, the set list goes from top to bottom, with the colours denoting different songs. The column on the far right denotes the different songs and their respective sections, with the white cells separating the songs for easier differentiation. One row of cells indicates one section of a song, so each song is split up into its component sections (verse 1, chorus 1, middle eight, etc) and then all the different instruments in the song are split up into various columns going from left to right (percussion, synth pads, fx, etc). The section at the bottom of the screen is the mixer section, where I can control the various levels of all the instruments and my synth parts, although this is rarely needed as all the elements are mixed accordingly before they are placed in this session. There are also a few hidden sections for various other features, such as a panel that tells me where I’m sending all of the tracks and what effects are in use.
The way that I control the software at the moment is that I use pads located on the top right of my keyboard (pictured below) to tell Ableton to play the different sections of the songs, which then triggers the various instrument parts to play. In future, I would like to be able to manipulate these instrument parts on the fly (triggering reverbs, effects and various amounts of fuckery), but for the meantime I’m just concentrating on playing the synths live.
To play live, I use the M-Audio Axiom 49 (pictured above), a 49-key keyboard with 9 faders, 8 endless rotary encoders and 8 drum pads. Now the really difficult part was getting this to work with Ableton the way that I wanted, and it is still a source of great frustration and endless adjustment (which will become the source of inspiration for this forthcoming series of articles). At the moment, 7 of the faders pictured are mapped to the volumes for the various synths I actually play live, with the other two being the volume for the reverb bus and the master output level. Over on the right-hand side, another 7 of the rotary encoders (knobs) are mapped to send a certain amount of each synth to the reverb bus, to make some huge and possibly horrible mess for the louder sections. On the far right, only 4 of the drum pads are being used at the moment to navigate my way through the backing track and trigger each section. I chose to use the drum pads for these over the usual transport buttons located under the encoders (play, stop, fast-forward, etc) as these were going to be buttons I needed to push very regularly and whilst playing the synths and singing at the same time, so I opted for the biggest buttons on the keyboard. This is a very primitive setup at the moment, and I hope to expand it’s potential in the future as I learn more about both the keyboard and Ableton itself.
Now onto the various amounts of routing. At the moment I use an Edirol FA-66 audio interface (pictured above) to output all of my sound. This hooks up to my laptop and Ableton to give me a total of 4 outputs, all of which are currently being used. The first output is for the backing track, which consists of the instruments in the songs that I don’t play live and just trigger from the software. The second output is purely devoted to the synths that I do play live. The reason for splitting these two up is that it gives the sound engineer at the gig more freedom if he needs to mix it in a certain way. I always try and match the levels of synths with that of the backing track so that they mix well together, but it’s always good to have a flexible set-up on your end as you never really know what the situation is going to be like at a gig venue before getting there.
The third and fourth outputs are dedicated to a monitoring feed for me and John (our drummer), so we can both hear the backing track when we play live in our earphones that we wear onstage. The way this works is that within Ableton I have set up two different auxiliary buses, where I can send various parts of the backing track at different volumes to create two different feeds depending on what each person wants to hear in their earphones. For instance, John mainly wants to hear the click track so he can keep in time, and in turn keep the rest of us in time (as it stands no one else gets a feed from my laptop, so we all rely on keeping to John’s rhythm to keep us in time with the backing track – fortunately he’s a pretty good drummer and has no problem playing along to a click track). This differs with my feed, where I mostly want to hear the synths I’m playing and some of the backing track so I can keep track of where we are in the song.
In order to hear what I’m playing through my on-stage earphones, I use the Samson S-Monitor headphone amp. This accepts the feed I provide from Ableton through a normal jack cable, and has the added bonus of being able to provide me with a feed of my vocals as well if I plug the microphone on stage into it. This allows me to make sure I’m singing in tune by being able to hear the backing track and my own vocals clearly, giving me plenty of peace of mind. Saying this, I have encountered a problem when playing live where it is fairly hard to hear myself through the earphones, and I usually just end up being able to hear Johns drums coming through my microphone and subsequently into my monitoring feed. This is most likely as a result of always being placed next to our drummer when playing live rather than a shortcoming with the hardware (being a five-piece band playing in small venues means there’s never a lot of space on stage, and as the member that has to move around the least, I’m often placed out of the way in the back, which of course is by the drum kit).
In the future, I hope to expand this setup so that every member of the band can get their own personalised monitoring feed from my laptop. Being able to hear all the elements is critical to our band members during a live show, as there are times when we are solely relying on the backing track to keep us in key when singing, and also for audio cues for the next sections. This wouldn’t normally be a problem in the right kind of venue, but being a small band playing at small venues can mean there is often a less than idealistic monitoring setup, so occasionally one of us will barely be able to hear an important part that could drastically effect the outcome of the live show.
Oh and BTW, all masses. music available on iTunes and Apple Music:
And all the other usual places: