5 Tips To Boost Your Performance in Ableton Live

Photo by Accent Creative

I love Ableton .  I’d probably swear by it as a compositional and performance tool.  As far as multi-track recording, I’m sure there are some better ones, but Ableton Live is not really about that – it’s about performing and having the most intuitive interface for expressing your musical ideas.  That’s why I love it so much.

Having been an Ableton Live user for nearly 7 Years (I think I picked up version 1.5), there are a few tips and tricks that I regularly share with friends and fellow performers when we ‘talk shop’ and trade techniques.  While these techniques apply to Abelton, many of the same tips mentioned below can work across music production/performance software platforms.

Here are five of the most common techniques I use for Ableton:

  1. Getting a decent MIDI controller
    Conceptualizing your music and art across multiple sensory domains (in this case sound, vision and touch) allows you to be more expressive with your music.   My first MIDI controller was an Edirol UC-16.   It has 16 knobs and 4 buttons for switching between different stored settings of those knobs after you’ve mapped them to your Ableton set (or whatever MIDI enabled program you use). Getting this allowed me to more directly interface with my music as well as generate new ideas and workflows for composing and performing.
  2. Setting up a default template
    This, by far, has been one of the most important things I have done to improve my creative workflow.  If you ever find yourself doing the same things over and over after you open up a fresh live set – such as adding an Auto Filter on your master channel, assigning a key or knob to the same two parameters of an effect, etc. – then setting up a ‘default’ template, that opens up with all of these common, repetitive settings intact, saves loads of time.  Here’s instructions from a cool site on how to do it.
  3. Using the key-assign feature liberally
    This is also a much under utilized feature of Ableton (at least with the musicians/djs I’ve played with): your computer keyboard.  You can easily assign keys on the keyboard to turn things off and on (great for muting tracks, trigger samples or ‘dub style’ mixing by turning effects off and on rhythmically). Note that this is not to be confused with using your keyboard as a ‘Computer MIDI Keyboard’ – this is another Option in the ‘Option’ menu of Ableton that allows you to pay MIDI powered instruments in Ableton.
  4. Adding high-pass filters on all bass-heavy channels
    As many electronic musicians know (particularly dance oriented electronic musicians;), bass is one of the most important aspects of your music.  It’s what dancers’ bodies respond to best.   Bass is also one of the more difficult things to control for as your bass kicks and bass lines ‘sit’ in the same frequency spectrum – both tend to be ‘low’ sounds.  These result in things sounding muddled and murky.  To control for this, I put an Auto Filter with a ‘high-pass’ filter on all bass-heavy channels – my kicks and my basslines mainly.  What this does is essentially let the high-pass.  If done well, there’s no telling what sorts of faces you can elicit from your audience as you perform. (photo by ConnorTreacy ) 
  5. Putting a fun chain of effects on the master (that you can switch on and off)
    Whether you enjoy pushing squares or twisting knobs, throwing a few effects ‘up front’ on your master out channel can add a lot of dynamism and drama to your mixes.  Popular favorites are low pass filter and high pass filters so you can emphasize highs and lows during dramatic build ups and ‘drops’.  Many DJ’s have mastered this technique to add extra flair to their mixes. I currently enjoy Auto Pan (for extreme, rhythmic gating), EQ 4 (for controlling low and high frequency attenuation), Simply Delay (with high feedback and short timing for ‘metallic’ sounds) as well as Beat Repeat for stuttering and ad-hoc looping.

I compose, improvise and perform with the above tips almost religiously and it’s from those five tips above that all my other interactions with Ableton Live flow.  It’s what has worked for me and I have been able to really fine-tune my live sound over the years because of it.

There are some schools of thought that say sticking to any one paradigm like this in composing means you become outdated.  I come from the school of thought that with computer music production – slower is better.  I have more time to ‘sit’ with a particular technology/software/hardware and REALLY get to know it – no A.D.D. music making for me thank you very much.  It’s what I love.

What techniques would you recommend? What are indispensable pieces of hardware or software that you use?

Feel free to comment below.

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24 responses for 5 Tips To Boost Your Performance in Ableton Live

  1. So funny you posted this article, I just got a MIDI controller keyboard this week and it came bundled with Live. I’m still trying to figure things out and this was a pleasant encouragement. I’d definitely be interested more of these types of posts!

  2. ya, i just picked up ableton live too.. its a bit of a learning curve.. but i'm already having fun a few hours ago. thanks for the tips

  3. I read this thread a couple of days ago, and I must say the template is just a brilliant advice, I don't know why I didnt think of this before, I work with Ableton rewired on Reason, and I use one device on Reason per channel on Live… the amount of time I used plugging each device and assigning the channel on ableton was too long and was starting to get VERY boring!
    thank you!

  4. Morgan Sully says:

    Phillip that's rad man. I have never been quite able to figure out how to do that and actually stopped using Reason (I think it was at 2.0). I guess I've been kind of a purist for Ableton;p But yeah, templates have saved me loads of time having to reprogram everything from scratch. I change it up every couple of months, just so I don't get stale using the same old tricks. Meeting up with other electronic musicians/djs helps keep things fresh too.

    thank you so much for the comment! You got a blog you write at or follow?

  5. 37P037A says:

    Now I know all your tricks. Muah Huh Huh Huh Hah Ha!!!

  6. anachroschism says:

    KILLER list. Ableton can do anything and everyone uses it differently, but I cant imagine any user not seriously benefiting from following these.

    I hadnt made a default template but when I started It became obvious how much time and hassle I was going to save.

  7. Morgan Sully says:

    Hey anachroschism,
    cheers! Yeah, templates really take a load off and improve your workflow.
    Thanks for commenting!

    What kind of music do you make?

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  11. Ian Rey says:

    Not sure how I came across this post from 2008 but I found really helpful. I'm new Ableton user, so I've been mining youtube and blog posts so I can learn how to mix. *Thumbs up, RSS add* =)

  12. Morgan Sully says:

    Hey thank you Ian. I'm definitely a big Ableton fan and it can be a bit
    daunting starting out. Glad you liked the post!

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  14. Theghostmachina says:

    Really good advise here. I've been using Ableton for just over 2 years to make live dance/pop-rock with a guitar and vocoder..

    The only other thing I find myself doing all the time is having two versions of my set(s) (LITE and FULL).

    The FULL version gives me all access to every aspect of my live set. And the LITE is an optimized version of the FULL set, that just gives me general control over the stuff I use live.

    Thanks for your post! It's good to see I've been on the right track..

    The Ghost Machina

  15. Trevster says:

    just an extra tip on making templates – ableton only allows for saving one default template, which can be a bit limiting. i make lots of templates for different purposes – for mixing in the box, out of the box, arrangement studio mixing etc just by saving empty ableton projects with all midi mapping, fx, routing etc, but with no clips. then you can open the empty project template you want and 'save as' when you want to save it as a music project.

  16. Chip says:

    if you use ableton live, you probably can’t go wrong picking up an Akai APC 40

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