We've all wished we could go back & fix the mistakes we've made - the relationship we ended on a stubborn & moody day, the money we sent to that desperate Indian prince that reached out to us through email, the books we lent to that friend who won't text us back. Without time travel we can merely wallow in a regretful pool, but this need not be the case with modern digital audio workstations - you can reach back into your project's history through the magic of software & recover from misguided or accidental decisions you've made in the life of your track. Today we're going to look at a few ways to do this in Ableton Live.


Undo/redo & copy/paste are ubiquitous across all productivity software & this is no doubt because they are impossibly useful, even if we often take them for granted as mundanities. In combination & with care, however, they can perform downright miracles. 

You probably already know that when you dig through your undo history, any changes make while you're back there will erase all the steps that had come after. As Doc Brown explained to Marty in Back to the Future Part II, making a significant alteration to the past will skew your reality into a new timeline & you will lose access to the one you came from. 

back to the future doc brown

In live, you need to keep this in mind when you're traveling back to the past via undo - don't mess with anything that will cut off access to the timeline as you know it. The cool thing is the copy command will not disrupt your undo history, so you can take elements from earlier in your project that you may have deleted or altered in some undesired way & bring them back to the future. 

undo & redo fix mistakes ableton live

In this example, I removed some audio, worked on some midi drums, & then realized I wanted that deleted sample. Usually, this presents a depressing crossroads - get back the audio & remake the drums or try to re-record the audio. Not to worry, however, with non-destructive copying. here's what you do:

  • undo back to when the clip/device/value existed in its desired state - don't touch anything
  • carefully select & copy what it is you want - be extraordinarily careful not to even nudge these when you select them or change any value else you'll lose everything you did afterwards 
  • redo back to the present - you can hold down the shortcut if you have a lot of steps to go through
  • paste to where you need it

Keep in mind this works for anything - audio effect, midi clip, whatever. There are other variations on this technique as well - you can save the audio/device to your browser, for example, for access when you return to the "present". The most important thing is to never do anything that disrupts your undo history.

recovery in browser

The first way humans learned to communicate across time was through written text & careful record keeping. Without the musty histories stored in Minis Tirith, the important information Gandalf sought in Lord of the Rings would have been lost to legend. By saving all important documents, whether they be historical scrolls or recorded audio, we make them available for use to future generations.

gandalf reading gif

The same is certainly true in live as well. Ableton contracted a tiny elf to tuck copies of all audio made in your projects into little compartments in the back-end of your computer, kept safely there regardless of what happens to them in the program. 

current projects file backup ableton live browser tutorial

The easiest way to find these is by navigating to the 'current project' folder in the browser sidebar. Inside 'samples' you'll find the audio you created in their appropriate category: recorded, cropped, consolidated. No matter if you delete, effect, or slice up the clips, the original audio will be preserved here. If you've messed up & need to backtrack, pull those preserved ponies out from the stables. Better yet, if you named your tracks from the beginning you'll find the files all neatly labeled by the track they were created in. 


Of course, the most full-proof way to make sure you can always backtrack & undo mistakes is by the tried-&-true method of versioning; you never know what kinds of ill-advised paths you'll travel down & need to correct for. George Lucas famously ruined Star Wars with the Special Editions & in many cases he actually destructively altered the original celluloid to edit scenes. If he ever realized his mistake & wanted Han to shoot first again, he could no longer work from the original film. Don't make the same mistake - make sure to always save & work from new copies every time you make important changes.

han shoots first han shoots second star wars

If you want to give yourself the flexibility of versioning, there's really no trick to it - just get in the habit of using "save as" or "save a copy" frequently as you work on your project. 

versioning save as save a copy ableton live

If you take a look at the .als file of a project, they are actually tiny, <1mb in most cases. That's because most of the data is in lossless audio, stored separately, & it is not duplicated when you create a new save of your project. This means you don't have to worry about taking up a lot of space with different versions so there's really no excuse not to just save, save, save.

What music production tricks have you learned from film? Let me know on Twitter.