How to use Ableton Live Part 2: Warping, Looping & Editing

Since Ableton Live 1.0 was unleashed, warping, looping and editing audio have become staples for digital musicians. Join Mo Volans as he continues this beginners guide to Ableton Live.  

Playing back looped audio is arguably Ableton Live's main strength. Since version 1.0 people have been using it's 'elastic' audio capabilities to sync their grooves and create real time remixes of existing projects.

Live can use looped audio in so many ways but let's take a look at a few of the highlights. In this tutorial we'll discover how to perform basic warping, use the dedicated Looper tool and transform your grooves into MIDI data.

Step 1 - What Is Warping

Warping is a feature that lies at the very heart of Ableton Live's capabilities and is the reason that many people love the application so much. Essentially warped audio is able to remain in sync with your music regardless of tempo. This audio can be dropped in realtime into any project and be played back perfectly in time. A nice trick.

In part 1 of this series we took a look at importing audio loops that were already edited and we saw that Live is able to loop them with no real problems. It's when your audio is un-edited and at a different tempo where things become tricky and this is where warping comes in.

Ableton's warping system allows you to analyze your audio and generate markers that clamp onto the dynamic events, or transients in your audio. These markers are then effectively used to 'quantize' your audio and sync it with the rest of your project.

This technique gives your audio an elastic quality and the tempo of correctly warped audio will actually change in real time with any changes to your projects BPM. The warp markers can also be edited to allow you to change the groove of your audio and change the way it plays back.

Most of the time Live does a pretty good job of automatically warping audio but sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands and go manual!

Step 2 - Performing Your First Warp

When audio is brought into Live it's generally analyzed immediately and warp information is generated. Occasionally though this automated system is not quite accurate enough and changes have to be made.

To manually edit warp markers double-click on the clip in question and navigate to the lower section of Live's interface. Here you should see a graphical representation of the audio, you should also see the warp markers that have been automatically placed by Live.

These can then be moved manually by selecting them whilst holding down the Shift key. Once selected they can also be moved or deleted with relative ease. By double-clicking above the audio display new markers can be inserted.

Double-clicking on the markers will lock them, when moved in this state the transients surrounding the locked marker will 'stretch'. This is how elastic audio is prepared and using this technique entire sections of your audio can be twisted to fit any time signature or groove.

The best way to approach warping your audio is generally to get your markers in the correct places initially and then perform any stretching or quantization that is needed. The process is non destructive so any mistake that are made can easily be corrected or completely deleted.

Step 3 - Basic Looping

With your warp markers in place and your audio clip playing back in time, it can then be looped. Looping is something that Live takes in its stride with the perfect loop often only a few clicks away.

To the right of the warp section you'll find the loop functions. With the loop button illuminated you are ready to set the loop start and end points. This can be done in a few ways, you can either use the locaters that are situated in the waveform display area or you can set them using bar numbers directly in the loop area.

Whichever method you use, creating tight loops is quick and intuitive. Once you are happy with the new looped audio you have it can be saved, using the dedicated 'Save' button. Alternatively you can crop your loop and shed everything outside of the loop points. This is accessed via a quick right-click and a scroll down the contextual menu.

Our newly warped audio is looped:

Step 4 - Using Clip Based Automation To Transform Your Loop

Loop based clips don't just store warp markers and pre-defined loop points, they can also contain automation data. This can be a great tool for creating interest in your loops and adding a whole new dimension to them.

Remember these alternative clips can be saved as a totally new version of the sound and loaded up completely independently of the original. In theory this means you could have as many different versions of your loop loaded into different slots on one channel.

To embed this data into a clip you'll first need to hit the small 'e' symbol in the lower left of Live's main window. This will reveal the Envelopes section and it's here that you will edit any automation data needed.

There are several parameters to choose from, some clip based and some mixer based but any changes made here can be saved with the clip and therefore will be loaded when used again.

There are shortcuts for the most commonly used parameters. Volume, transposition and pan can all be edited without even delving into any drop down menus.

Data is then drawn manually in the waveform display and is incredibly easy to edit. Again any changes made here are non-destructive and can be changed at any time. Try creating interesting tremolo and auto-pan effects that are perfectly synced with your loops.

Clip based panning data is added to the loop:

Step 5 - The looper Plug-In As An Alternative

If you are into looping in a big way and you like the idea of creating live overdubs then you might want to take a look at one of Live's more recent additions, the 'Looper' plug-in. The Looper resembles tape delay effects that provide an infinite loop that layer upon layer of audio can be recorded onto.

Recording to the Looper is as simple as recording to a tape machine or any track in Ableton. Once a layer is complete you can continue to add new parts until a satisfying groove or texture is created. The result can then be dragged and dropped onto a new audio track as a loop-able clip.

Combine this handy little plug-in with a hardware MIDI controller, such as a foot pedal and you have the guitarist or keyboard player's dream set up for creating great loops.

Step 6 - Using The Loop To MIDI Feature

Another great way to edit and manipulate your loops in Live is to use the 'Slice to MIDI' function. This is the perfect way to get your newly warped loops into a sampler, ready sliced and mapped.

MIDI data will also be generated when using this feature and therefore your loop will playback in exactly the same way as the original audio. Alternatively you can edit , reprogram or completely destroy the original pattern. You may even want to completely do away with the original groove and replay your own using the new slices.

The loop is edited using the newly generated MIDI data:

However you choose to use your new loops, there is no denying that Ableton Live is one of the best DAWs for handling this type of audio. So load up some audio, get warping and try constructing a project with your newly looped material.

Hungry for more? Check out these Ableton Live tutorials.

Mo has been a professional in the music industry for around 15 years. He has released material with the world's leading record labels and also produces music for TV and Film. Mo is also a prolific writer and is a regular contributor to magazines such as Music Tech, Future Music and EQ magazine. There isn't a piece of music software tha... Read More


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