Creating a Multiband Distortion Unit in Ableton Live

Why do musical modders love Ableton Live? Simple, because you create your own effect unit racks. In this tutorial Gary Hiebner shows how to create a multiband distortion unit in Ableton Live.  

With all the latest electronic music genres, sounds are getting more and more processed and saturated. Take for example the Electro House, Dubstep and Moombahton artists. The great thing about these sounds are that they really punch through the mix. I kept finding I had to add distortion effect after distortion effect to my audio to make them compare with the latest releases. Then I came up with the ultimate solution. I built an Ableton Audio Effects Rack that I could easily copy to other instruments and sounds. On this Audio Rack I split up the frequency bands onto separate chains. I then applied varying forms of distortion and saturation to each frequency band. Let me show you how I created this Multiband Distortion Unit Rack. At the end you can find my Ableton Rack. Import this into Ableton and apply it to your tracks as well.

Step 1 –  Choose Your Source of Destruction

Start off by finding a synth sound you like. I have gone for the 'Biig Saw Lead' preset (Instruments > Sampler > Synth Lead). This is a nice sounding Sawtooth synth source. I have tweaked the Filter section, I've have dropped the Res and enabled the Glide function. But you can use any synth sound as your source. Program in a MIDI pattern, and when you're ready, move onto the next step where we'll apply the distortion processing.

Synth Instrument

Step 2 – Building Up the Audio Rack

Add an Audio Rack after the synth. Create three chains. I have labeled them Low, Mid, and High respectively. Each chain will deal with a specific frequency band. On the Low chain, add an EQ Eight. Assign band 1 to a Low Pass, set the Freq to 300 Hz, and the Q to 0.75. This will deal only with the frequencies under 300 Hz.

Low chain

On the High chain do the opposite. Insert an EQ Eight. Assign a High Pass to band 1 with a Freq of 2.0 kHz 

and a Q of 0.71. This chain will only deal with the high frequency range.

High chain

On the Mid chain, create a High pass of 300 Hz and a Low Pass of 2.00 kHz. The frequency range is now split up over these 3 chains. Now for the distortion and processing effects.

Mid chain

Step 3 – Adding Some Processing

With the Frequency bands split up onto separate chains, I can now apply different forms of processing on each frequency band. My goal is to apply varying forms of distortion and saturation on each chain, and the end result will be a souped-up multi-band distortion effect unit.

Let's start with the Low Chain. After the EQ Eight, place an Overdrive plugin. My Center Frequency is 734 Hz with a Bandwidth of 5.10. Dial in a heavy dose of Drive. Mine is at 66% and the Tone is set at 76%. The Dynamics and Dry/Wet controls allow you to dial in how much of this effect you want to apply. I have set both to 50%.

After the Overdrive, I have added some extra drive through the Saturator plugin. I have kept the default preset pretty much the same, all I have done is increase the Drive to 5.71. Watch that your audio doesn't clip. If it does, pull the Output down. I have inserted the Glue Compressor afterwards to tame any peaks plus to add some of its coloring to the sound. I have used the Bass – low extender preset.

Low FX Chain

Next up is to tackle the Mid Chain. I have done the same as I did with the Low Chain. I have inserted an Overdrive, Saturator and Glue Compressor. The Overdrive Center Frequency is 3.12 kHz and the Bandwidth 1.92. The Drive is at 51% and the Tone at 50%. I have used the Bass – punch preset on the Glue Compressor. The other plugin settings are pretty much the same as the Low Chain. These subtle differences on the Overdrive unit, will add a different tonal character to the Mid Chain. 

Mid FX Chain

Onto the last chain, the High chain. First up is the Overdrive. The Center Frequency is set to 1.5 kHz, with a Bandwidth of 0.68, a Drive of 70% and a Tone o 78%. I have pushed the Dynamics and Dry/Wet up to 87% and 60% respectively.

Next up I have inserted a Redux plugin to downsample the sound. The Bit Reduction is at 12, and the Downsample is set to Soft at 3.41. And last is the Saturator. I have used similar settings to the other chains, except with a Drive of 18.9.

 High FX Chain

Take a listen to how these multiband distortion effects sound on your audio material. Tweak them if you need to as your sound may differ from mine.

Step 4 – How to Use It on Other Synths and Sounds

The beauty with this Audio Rack, is that you can now save it to your User Library. Do this by clicking on the disk icon on the Audio Rack, and then it will be saved to your User Library.

Save Preset

You can now easily copy it to other tracks in the same project or use it in other projects. You'll definitely notice how it saturates your sound. As with the current EDM styles, these heavy-processed sounds are punchy, and have presence. When you bypass the Rack, you will notice what a difference it has made to the audio.

I have used the plugins that come with the standard version of Ableton, but you could also use the plugins that come with the Ableton Suite such as Amp and Cabinet, or even some of your 3rd party distortion plugins such as NI's Guitar Rig for further processing.

One more handy tip is to bring up the Macro menu and assign some of the parameters to the Macro buttons. This will make it easier to make adjust the parameters on the Audio Rack. Right-click on one of the Chain Volumes on the Audio Rack, then click Map to Macro. This will now assign this volume to a Macro. I have assigned my Low, Mid, and High chain volumes to Macros. This allows me to quickly adjust the volumes of the frequency bands.

Add To Macro


Heavy processed sounds are all the rage now. So to keep up with the current sounds apply this Audio Rack multiband distortion unit to your audio sources. Once you have done it, you can very easily copy the Rack across to other tracks and projects. Try these processing tricks out in your future Ableton projects.

Here is my Live Pack of my Multiband Distortion Unit. Open this in Live and then drag any synth instrument before the Audio Rack.

Download the Multiband Distortion Unit Live Pack

Take a look at the following tutorials to get further techniques with Ableton:

Live 8 207: Hooked On Racks!

Live 8 205: Live DNA!

Live 8 202: Live's Effects: Plugged In!

Gary Hiebner is an enthusiastic South African Sound Designer and Apple Tech Head! Gary has been involved in the South African music industry for the decade, and in this time has also been involved in the sound design and music production for many advertising agencies and media houses. Gary is a devoted Logic and Ableton user, but he al... Read More


Phil M
Excellent - and thanks for the dl.
Steven L
Another option is to use three EQ Threes (instead of the needlessly more complicated EQ Eight) and just enable each of the three bands on each chain

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