Technology has given artist new tools and ways of imagining their live performance. We can now sync live visuals, trigger samples on the fly, have access to unlimited effect processing, and all of this can be done through a single computer. Ableton Live gives musicians an easy way to envision their live set and add as much simplicity, or complexity as they would like.
In this article I am going to go over some basics of live performance with Ableotn Live. This will help you envision what you want to make out of your live performance, and inspire new ways of looking at things. To start, let’s look at the different type of live performances.
This image shows the major types of Live Sets. I will review what these sets are and their advantages. This will mainly be centered around making these sets with Ableton Live as the backbone.
A disc jockey (sometimes DJ or deejay) is an individual who selects and plays pre-recorded music. They move in-between stereo mastered tracks. Usually through an A/B set up where two tracks are playing and they slowly bring in one on top of another and then switch between tracks.
With a DJ set you have a lot of flexibility. As a music producer you can make tracks and throw them into a live set. You can also mix in other artist tracks just as easy as your own. An advantage here is how easy it is to move from track to track without any practice or prep work. You can also have a laptop and a controller as you’re set up, making it very portable.
A disadvantage is the sense of being in the moment. A really good band can look at the crowd and instantly respond. The audience knows that the music is happening in the moment. When it’s over then it is gone forever. This has a way of captivating people. DJing as a simple way of moving from track to track does not have that level of engagement.
Here is a video I made for my DJing with Ableton Live course with Warp Academy:
More articles and resources on DJing:
Stem-mixing is a method of mixing audio material based on creating groups of audio tracks and processing them separately prior to combining them into a final master mix. In other words you can have your stems to a track and control the mix. This way you can turn off the drums of one song while bringing in the drums of the next. There is more versatile in the actual track playback with Stem mixing than DJing
A basic Stem Mixing set up in Ableton Live would be to have two different sets of 4 tracks. Each of the 4 would have 4 stems for that track. You could also set up the cross fader to move between the two tracks just like a traditional DJ set. This does have a little more setup time. It’s also best for a group that can create stems from their music.
Creatively, this gives you a way to start remixing your own tracks on the fly. You can turn parts on and off and fluidly mix between the different stems. You can also turn off the drums of “track 1” and bring in the bass line of “track 2” in your transition. Below is an example image of what this would look like.
Here is a free download link to this example Stem Mixing Set:
I have taken this approach a step further with my own Ableton Live Sets. I actually mix in a stem of 8. I then just bring in the next track / section. In this way it’s a way of doing live composition. You can check out and grab my Subaqueous Live Set to try it out. Below is a video walk-through / preview of the Live Set.
More articles and resources on stem mixing:
Stem Mastering – Ask Audio
I’ve expanded the idea of stem mixing, and sample triggering into a type of set I call Live Fusion. A Live Fusion set uses Ableton Live’s Session view to build a live set of prerecorded material. Think of it as having a bunch of samples that all sound good together. You can then trigger different samples and build a track on the fly. You do not just have to play the same sequence of samples everytime and can always expand the song by adding more and more elements.
The key to this is the Ableton Live Session view. A great example of this is the endless Launch Pad performances you can find online.
As you watch KidDrifter’s performance you will see he is hitting different lights on the launch pad. Those lights just represent different clips in Ableton Live. He set up a bunch of loops that work together, but is now playing them totally off the cuff. This leads to a fusion between pre recorded material and a Live Performance. The advantage of this set up is you can spend some time in the studio building ideas, and then that same night throw them into Session View and build tracks on the fly. It also takes out your need to perform or create those musical parts on the fly.
More articles and resources on Live Fusion Set:
Organizing Clips into Scenes in Ableton Live – Dennis DeSantis video
Tom Cosm Mega Set – Advance way of using Stem Mixing and Live Fusion type sets.
A lot of singers and instrumentalist are looking for ways to play their track and add their instrument or voice on top of it. This is where backing tracks come in. A backing track Live Set lets you play your different tracks, similar to DJing, but then add your own instrument on top of it. This is great for a small band or singer songwriter that wants to just perform along something they already created.
The video below walks through the basic techniques of backing tracks and click tracks.
More articles and resources on Backing Tracks:
Setting up samples and backing tracks – Park Productions
Looping Live Set
Another powerful way of looking at your Live Set is through looping. I have witnessed a lot of sets that used live looping to create new tracks on the fly. A great example is Kid Beyond. He creates his entire set by layering live loops that he is recording.
You can go about doing this by setting up Live’s Session view and a controller, or using the Looper devices in Ableton Live. This opens up a lot of possibilities. I’ve seen live cello sets where the cellist made intricate orchestral string music by looping there cello. The sky is the limit. Another thing to keep in mind is this type of live set can also be added to the other live sets we have gone over. For instance, you can have a backing track with some live looping elements to it.
More articles and resources on Looping Live Set:
The last type of live set is the live band / live processing set. This type of set is perfect for setting up all your effects, automation, and processing for your band. This type of set up has no loops, no backing tracks, or anything. You can just send your guitar, your drums, your vocals, or anything else into Ableton Live for effects. In this way it becomes one simple hub for your effects.
You can take this a step further and use Ableton Live as a way of triggering presets for your instruments. You can set up Dummy Clips and MIDI to change your synth preset. Be it Analog Program change or using Instrument Racks.
More articles and resources on Live Band Set:
How to use Ableton Live in a band – Ableton.com answers
Pre Programming Your Keyboard Patches to Automatically Change – MultiTracks.com Youtube
Changing Presets using Instrument Racks – Ned Rush youtube
Start Building Your Set
After looking at these different live sets, you can see that there are a lot of options and ways of going about building your set. You can have a DJ set and add some live looping, or a Band with a backing track. All these techniques can be built on to make the exact live set you need for your performance.
Like everything else, practice makes perfect. Try building these different types of sets and see how it works for your music. Practice, refine, review, and repeat.
If you use certain techniques for your live set, or know of different ways of building a set in live, please feel free to share it in the links below. Sharing is caring. Until next time, party on.