essential tools & tricks for playing live with ableton live

it's called live for a reason. ableton opens the digital world of loops, midi soft synths, consolidated analog routing, & real-time processing to on-the-fly manipulation, making it the perfect tool to bring your music to life on stage. in this article I'll detail some of my favorite well-used & lesser-known tricks that I consider essential for playing live in a live scenario.

switchable, useable crossfader

even veteran live users have ignored the crossfader - "useful for dj's sure, but we have to manage tens of tracks & no a/b in this world will help with that." other than a few niche uses, this the standard mindset is that the crossfade can largely stay hidden in session view without missing out on much. I felt very much the same way until recently when I found the excellent xfademap maxforlive device. normally, mapping the crossfade assign will only allow your controller to cycle through the assignments (requiring multiple clicks to move between them, far too much a hassle to keep track of in a busy live performance). xfademap works around this, giving you direct access to a track's a/b assignment. here's how I like to take advantage:

midi mapping crossfader
  • duplicate your track & group the original & newly created one
  • make alterations to every clip in the duplicated track to create "associated" clips; could be a sparser arrangement, a transposed version, a double time loop - just some variation.
  • put the xfademap on each track in the group
  • map a button on a midi controller to "A" on the first track & map the same button to "B" on the other
  • mute the B track & also map the mute control to the same button as the above step
  • finally, collapse the group & treat it like a single track - put effect chains on the group & launch your clips together from the group.
midi mapping crossfader ableton live

everything functions as it normally would except with a press of a button your clips become "transformable." for any track you engage this option, the crossfader now lets you move between the original clip & a custom, pre-planned variation. the beauty is you can turn this on & off for any number of tracks & crossfader movements won't affect those that are turned off.

loop based music usually has very limited improvisational opportunities, but using this technique every performance can be unique & fresh yet still locked into your original vision. play around with what your associated clips in B do until it feels like a worthy option. bonus points for incorporating post-fader sends & returns into your B tracks.

non-destructive clip transposition

in my article on midi mappable clip controls, I mentioned the usefulness of controlling clip transposition. in a live scenario, I love to map it to my keyboard's pitchbend so that whatever I do to the clip, it will always reliably snap back to zero when I'm done. this makes quick improvisational transitions a breeze - you can build tension by raising the pitch or drop your loop right into a drop without having to worry about paying it much attention to get it back to normal afterward.

midi map pitchbend to audio clip ableton live

mapping the transposition knob will give you control over whatever clip is currently selected so you'll want to be aware of what that is whenever you use it. 

turn off the instruments you aren't using

when playing live, low latency is critical so CPU usage comes at a premium. if your set contains a lot of devices you switch between, it's important to remember they will draw processing power even if they are set to 100% dry. if you need to conserve memory, try mapping the on/off of CPU-sucking devices to their dry/wet knob via a macro:

macro knob turn off device live

this will bypass the signal as before, but the device will not need to be "on" & drawing power. ableton's native audio devices are generally very processor-friendly, but this trick can be indispensable when handling multiple instruments, especially the external vst variety.

snap to device

this is another classic. using this technique in combination with a good midi controller & a matching control surface will expand its usage, effectively giving you infinite banks/pages for your knobs. it's simple enough, just click the device or group title when in midi map mode to assign a control to it.

midi map device selection ableton live snap to device

when I press the button I midi mapped to the device selection, that device immediately becomes the focus of my control surface, regardless of where I was in my set. in this way, I can label a button on my controller as "drum rack" or "vocal effects" & reliably call up the controls for those things with a single press. I especially like using this with the apc40's endless encoders because they will update their position to the new selection, making swaps between devices completely seamless.

launch but don't stop

scenes are a fantastic tool - it would otherwise be impossible to launch all the clips we want to at one time, whether because our hands don't stretch far enough or we are otherwise preoccupied in the middle of our set. when launching multiple clips, however, we don't always want the currently playing loops to change or stop. this is where removing the stop button becomes handy.

how to remove stop buttons ableton live tutorial

it's a simple option in the context menu that can have powerful effects - you can still start up bunches of clips with a single button press but you selectively allow the important ones to play through. notice my drum loop in scene 5 doesn't stop when I launch scene 6 because the stop button wasn't included in that scene.

fills with follow actions

in loop music in particular, a fill will break up the monotony & perk your audience's ears, cueing them to an upcoming change of some sort. it's very possible that at the end of the fill you'll need to be doing something important - playing an instrument, for example - & you won't be able to be bothered with launching the original loop. in these cases, follow actions are your friend.

create a fill launch clip ableton live

set the follow action to last as long as you want the fill to be & point it in the direction of the loop you want to return to. that's basically all there is to it - you don't need to worry about anything after that because its all taken care of by the automatic process set in the launch section.

there's much more to follow actions & launch modes than I have room to cover here, but it's also worth mentioning using them in combination with removed stops & dummy clips (blank clips) will let you launch fills across multiple tracks with the scene launch buttons. notice how quick this is to set up: select the scene, remove stops (which will remove all of them at once), & edit the follow actions (again, changing all the selections at once). with just a few clicks, you can set up multi-clip fills in your set.

dummy clips remove stop ableton live

thanks for reading, hope you learned a trick or two for your next set! follow me on the twitter or the facebook or something for more tips!