Without a doubt, Ableton Live's new Audio to MIDI conversion technology is one of the most hotly anticipated features of their latest version, Live 9. It's rare that such a potentially game-changing feature comes along in the relatively stable world of DAWs, and its debut speaks volumes about Ableton's already strong reputation for thinking (and developing) outside the proverbial box. Boasting three different modes – allowing you to convert audio sources to either Drums, Melody, or Harmony – Live can now extract, in real time, MIDI information from audio files. Yes, you read that right. Let's have a look, shall we?
Audio to Drums
We'll start by converting an audio drum loop to a MIDI clip. Those familiar with Live might be wondering how this differs from Slicing to MIDI, which similarly results in a Drum Rack on a new MIDI track. However, in this new method, rather than slicing the original audio into Simpler instances on each pad of a Drum Rack (Pic. 1) with a resulting MIDI clip that merely cascades up through the full sequence (Pic. 2), Converting to Drums extracts the audio to a MIDI clip with the kicks, snares, hi-hats and so on placed on corresponding drum pads where they were rhythmically detected to occur, and places this clip on a new MIDI track with a default Drum Rack – Kit 606.
So how do we make this magic happen? There's a few options available to us, depending on our situation. If we already have the audio drum loop as a clip on an existing Audio Track, we can Control-click (or right-click) the clip itself and select “Convert Drums to New MIDI Track” (Pic. 3) from the context menu that appears; give it a moment and a new MIDI track will appear with the default Drum Rack and resulting MIDI clip. Alternatively, we can drag this audio clip to an empty clip slot on an existing MIDI track and select “Convert Drums to MIDI” from the dialogue that appears (Pic. 4).
Finally, if your audio source is still in the browser, just Control-click (or right-click) the file directly and select the desired option from the browser context menu. Take a look at the original Audio Clip (Pic. 5) and the resulting MIDI Clip (Pic. 6)... not bad! The original timing is retained, and while some adjustments might be in order, I've gotten some incredibly unusual and complicated rhythm patterns going very quickly using this amazing new feature.
PRO-TIP: Try recording a beatboxing session and extracting this to Drums; some trial and error may be necessary to ensure Live is differentiating your “kicks” and “snares” properly, but once you get the hang of it, you'll be writing beats with your mouth in no time!
Audio to Melody
I recorded some wind chimes a few years back that had a very haunting quality. Now I want to convert them to a Melody so I can apply that same haunting note pattern to a different instrument. I can do this by following basically the same steps as converting to Drums: Control-clicking (or right-clicking) the original clip on an audio track or as a sample in the browser and selecting Convert Melody to New MIDI Track from the context menu, or by dragging the clip onto an empty clip slot on an existing MIDI track and choosing Melody from the dialogue that appears. Take a look at the original audio clip (Pic. 7) and the resulting MIDI (Pic. 8). The notes in the resulting MIDI retain their original timing and an expression of detected velocity, and can now be quantized, re-ordered, pitched up or down, adjusted and nudged – and run through Live's flexible MIDI effects. Better still, I can use a completely different instrument to express the original melody (or our modified version of it) with a completely different sound and timbre.
PRO-TIP: Try converting any random audio recording to a Melody MIDI clip – you never know what you might be able to use in there.
Audio to Harmony
For the sake of example, I've used the same source audio, our wind chimes clip, but this time I've extracted it to Harmony – which you should be comfortable doing using the same methods detailed above for both Drums and Melody, selecting Harmony instead of the other options where it appears. Now you'll notice the resulting MIDI clip (Pic. 9) looks considerably different from our Melody case study, which only took the dominant notes and laid them out in a monophonic melodic interpretation. This time, it's taken the full layers of multiple chimes and expressed them as sustained notes and polyphonic chords.
We can now, once again, edit this resulting MIDI data however we see fit – deleting unwanted notes, quantizing, moving chords into a more sensible rhythm – and of course run it through whatever MIDI effects, Instruments or Racks we want in order to achieve our desired (and possibly demented) results. For a second example, I've taken a couple bars of a soul record by Lee Fields' “My World Is Empty Without You” (Pic. 10) and converted them to Harmony; the source audio contains bass guitar, organ, congas and guitar – and they're all represented in the resulting MIDI clip (Pic. 11). I can now isolate and manipulate whichever specific parts of this arrangement I want and quickly warp it beyond any recognition of the original source material by completely changing the MIDI note data and the instruments to play it through.
PRO-TIP: Try converting 2-4 bars of your favorite non-electronically produced song to MIDI and see where it takes you – edit, tweak, run it through different instruments and more.
Live's Audio to MIDI conversion makes it easier than ever to extract MIDI information from a wide range of sources, opening up a veritable Pandora's box of production potential and further cementing Live's status as the go-to creative platform. Want to take your vocalists' chorus hook and use it for the bass line? Easy – done in a couple clicks. Got a remix assignment with a melody or harmony you love, but using a sound you hate? Convert it to MIDI and use your own sound instead! Whether you want a unique starting point to experiment with or an opportunity to dissect the chords of your favorite obscure jazz record, Audio to MIDI unlocks a mind-boggling world of creative possibilities. In fact, a whole new golden era – and a possible redefinition of “sampling” itself – may very well be upon us.