Zen of Live: The Lost Art of Recording

This article is in response to a Reddit thread on the topic of how to produce original and unique content in Live that doesn’t sound like generic MIDI music. While every artist will eventually forge there own styles of production, here are some thoughts on how I try to make my music unique.

With the abundance of affordable music production tools, making music has never been easier. However, as more of us move towards making music “in the box”, there seems to be an inherent loss of the art of recording. I do not mean to say that people aren’t creating great music purely on computers, nor that there aren’t people out there continuing to make great recorded music. But one can not overlook the rising absence of the recording process in today’s digital production experience.

When you go through the process of recording, you and your work are subject to many variables that are absent from the experience of computer music production; all of which help to shape the sound and feeling of the final product. Everything from the more obvious variables of microphone selection, amplifier settings, and outboard gear, all the way down to the cables and power supplies, have an effect on the tone of your sounds. The reason analogue gear is so great is because it is tangible, it’s your piece of gear. How well have you taken care of it? Is it pristine and clear, or is it old, temperamental and full of character? Anyone can get a copy of Ableton, and there is no way to have a rare and unique version of a digital music software.

Now I’m not here to make an argument in favor of analogue or digital. But, once you understand that every variable in the production process works to create the unique character of your music, you can begin to take a more active roll in cultivating your own unique processes to making digital music. Here are some things that I keep in mind when producing in Live.

Don’t Rely on Presets

Presets are great. Many excellent programers put serious effort into creating those presets and they are excellent for learning how an instrument or an effect works. But you have to keep in mind that presets generally aren’t designed in the context of a given piece of music and so it is easy to see why people have a difficult time making cohesive music comprised primarily of random presets.

Presets are a great starting point. They can help you to find inspiration in a creative lull. But it is important to continue to take steps toward crafting the sound to fit the specific project that you are working on.

Know Your Tools

Excluding newer forms of synthesis such as granular and wave table, strictly analogue (or subtractive) synthesis is inherently simple. You are manipulating raw oscillators which have a wide harmonic spectrum, but produce a very static sound. The timbre and harmonics do not change over time, as they do in real world instruments. This is what makes synthesizers so easily identifiable. With this in mind, it is easy to imagine how, if restricted only to basic synthesis without the use of effects, it will be rather difficult to create rich and interesting sounds. It is this lack of richness that leaves you dissatisfied when scrolling through synth presets in Live.

Take a guitar for instance. Imagine if you were trying to make textural and inventive electronic music, but the only tool you had was a guitar. No pedals. Just clean guitar. It would be really difficult to invent new sounds. It is the same with synthesizers. These basic synth presets are in need of further treatment before the can come alive. In Live suite, there are 18 separate native audio effects that can be used to craft the tone of a sound. Allow me to list them:

Amp / Cabinet
Auto Filter
Dynamic Tube
EQ8 / EQ3
Frequency Shifter
Multiband Dynamics
Vinyl Distortion

EQ, distortion, and amp modeling, all of these effects can be used to help create a new unique sound.

Now each effect by itself, if cranked to 11, is capable of creating extreme departures from the sound of the input signal, but this is not always the most aesthetic way to go, and in some cases, it can even begin to sound generic. For example, everyone knows the sound of Live’s Redux (a bit crusher) cranked to 100%. It is very easily identifiable, and thus becomes generic.

I love listening to bands like Radiohead who continue to put out sounds that keep me guessing. So in an attempt to do the same, I like to use combinations of effects, with subtle settings that add up to create a rich sound. Try pairing together different effects that you don’t usually use together? Experiment with different amount settings for each. Do they sound different when you change the order of the effects in the chain? Doing this experimentation is what leads you to discover your own sound and helps you to have a more active and immersive production process.

Some Practical Examples

Never use a default delay. The Ping Pong delay is a very signature Ableton sound when used in it’s default setting. To create more interesting sounding delays, I often use tone effects inserted before the delay. Dynamic Tubes, Saturation, Vinyl Distortion all make for interesting candidates. Experiment with multiple effects.

The Swing parameter on Live’s delay is a good tool for making your delays sound more organic. Both the Simple Delay and the Filter Delay have separate swing parameters for each channel, so you can create some really nice sounding delays by setting each one a little differently.

The same goes for reverbs. Distortion, or short time based effects like flanger or chorus can add a nice character to your reverbs. Why not experiment with using Live’s Resonator to add a nice pitched element to your reverb?

Parallel Processing
You can use Audio Effect Racks to split any signal into multiple chains. Using the mixer section of the effects rack, you can treat and effect each chain differently and then blend in the right amount of signal, creating a secondary sound. You can then run this mixed output through an amp modeler to help glue the combined sounds together so that the end result is perceived as a more unified sound.

Live’s audio clip parameters offer another way to manipulate audio in creative ways through the use of the various warp modes. Try printing one note of your synth sound to audio and experiment with different clip settings. Once you’ve found something interesting, consolidate the clip and load the new sound back into a Sampler.

Samplers were initially designed to use multiple samples of a recorded instrument to produce a more realistic sound. But when you use only one sample, the extreme stretching of the time to raise and lower the pitch can have interesting effects on the timbre of the sound in different registers. Try using this alleged shortcoming as a creative tool to explore new sounds.


Any pad type sound can be turned into a rhythmic sound through the use of a Vocoder, Step Filter or rhythmic gating effect. Similarly, and rhythmic sound can be turned into a pad like texture by using high feedback delays, reverbs, and resonator effects. Again, these sounds can be printed to audio and loaded into a sampler for a completely unique sounding textural patch. The possibilities are endless as long as you maintain a drive to explore, experiment, and discover.

I hope this article has inspired you to take on some sonic exploration. Thanks for choosing AbletonOp.com.

photo by: mockstar

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


HTML tags are not allowed.