Making Melodies with Ableton Push

Ableton Push was one of our top 10 MIDI Controllers of 2013, and with good reason! And, it's more than another step-sequencing rhythm controller. Matt Vanacoro explores the melodic side of Push here.  

Have you step-sequenced until your fingers ached with your brand new Ableton Push? Are you ready to find out what else this revolutionary new instrument and controller has to offer? Well, look no further! Let’s explore some of the many options Push has to offer us on the melodic front. We’ll examine what types of sounds lend themselves to ‘lead’ lines with Push, as well as how to utilize the unique layout and control options of Push to help you really capture the sound of another instrument.

My Ableton Push Story

When I first got my Push set up I was incredibly excited. I couldn’t wait to record my first few tracks with Push, send them out to my colleagues and hear what they thought. I even cleared out 4 hours in my schedule that day to really get into Push and have something to show for it.

I got home, engaged in the sweet, typical unboxing ritual (thanked the Audio Gods and then stashed the receipt so my wife wouldn’t know how much I spent on it) and dug in. Four hours later, I had absolutely nothing to share with anyone… and it was awesome.

Browsing Your Live Library

You see, I had never really spent too much time browsing through my Ableton Live library before. I’m a man with a ton of software. I buy a lot of soft synths, I test out a lot of virtual instruments—I just never really thought that Ableton Live would have sounds that could compete with my monstrous 2-hard drive spanning sample library. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I have Push to thank.

Ableton Push allows us to cycle through our library of sounds, presets and effects in an INCREDIBLY fun and efficient way. You don’t have to add a bunch of new MIDI tracks, you don’t have to drag and drop instruments in. All you have to do is select a MIDI track, hit ‘browse’ on the Push and you’ve got an amazingly intuitive way to cycle through your instrument categories, types and specific presets. I can say with confidence that checking out all of your available sounds in Push is faster than doing it manually on the computer.

Push Instrument Browser : Ableton Push has a very intuitive browser that will help you get to know ALL of the instruments in your library.

Push Instrument Browser: Ableton Push has a very intuitive browser that will help you get to know ALL of the instruments in your library.

After discovering this method of browsing / adding instruments, I can honestly say that I spent the next three hours simply browsing through my Live 9 library and reveling in a huge amount of high-quality sounds that I already owned but had never used. Using Push is the best way to get to know what you have in Live 9 and you’ll soon be calling up sounds that you never checked out before.

Synth Leads—Being a Control Freak is OK

In order to get the most out of your lead sound in live, you’re going to want to get your hands dirty. Let’s get in there and control all the cool things that make analog synths sound awesome. Filter cutoff and resonance is a good place to start. Live will automatically map common synth controls to the eight rotary knobs at the top, but when playing live or recording with a lead synth, you don’t really need access to a lot of that stuff. What you want is access to the things that manipulate your sound the most, and the easiest way to get that with Push is through macro controls.

Macro Maniac

Browse through your Live library and pick out a synth lead sound. For this example, I’ve chosen the ‘Dual Osc5 Sync Bright Lead’ which is located inside ‘Analog’ under the ‘Synth Lead’ category. After choosing that sound and loading it up, you’ll notice that Live automatically maps a bunch of things to your Push. This is nice, but having control of exactly what you choose is even nicer. We’ll need to make a device group in order to get macro control of the parameters we want.

Right-click on the title bar of the Dual Osc5 instrument and select ‘group’. This will create a device group with only one device in it, your synth lead.

Group Command : You can also use a keyboard shortcut for future grouping if you wish!

Group Command: You can also use the Command-G keyboard shortcut for future grouping if you wish!

Next, we’ll show the macro controls by clicking on the corresponding button. Once you click on it, the empty and unassigned macro knobs will show up and we can begin mapping things to them.

Macro Controls : Click here to open the macro controls and start mapping away.

Macro Controls: Click here to open the macro controls and start mapping away.

Finally, right-click on any control located inside the device and choose ‘map to macro xx’ with xx being the macro knob that you think should control that parameter. You can assign multiple parameters to a single knob for maximum tweakage! After assigning the controls, right-click on the macro knob and rename it. Whatever name you choose will show up on your Push, so feel free to use whatever name you wish that will help you remember what that parameter does (don’t be afraid to give yourself a knob that turns up the ‘awesomeness’ of a synth!)

Shredding Without a Guitar

One of the most fun things you can do with Push is restrict yourself to working with a certain scale. Doing this allows you to glide up and down the Push with your fingers and never hit a ‘wrong’ note. It’s up to you to phrase things well and construct a cool solo, but you can play with various shapes and patterns on the Push and never worry about hitting a note that isn’t in the scale.

Try this on for size: Create a MIDI track with a guitar. Then, add the Amp plug-in that is included with Live 9 (you DID get the ‘Suite’ version, didn’t you?). The Amp plug-in is made by Softube and is an awesome amp simulator. After a few minutes of tweaking, you’ll have a convincing electric guitar sound and a virtual amp of choice. My favorite is actually the clean sound, but I also love to put it on ‘heavy’ and let it rip.

After you have your sound configured, press the ‘Scales’ button on your Push and you will have access to the Scales menu. Scroll down a bit with the orange buttons on the left and find ‘MnrPntt’ which stands for ‘Minor Pentatonic’, the guitarist’s favorite scale. Obviously, a guitarist can play in any scale, but when beginning our experimentation into playing ‘like a guitarist’ with Push - minor pentatonic is a great place to start! You can use your right hand to play simple 3-finger patterns while your left hand is working the pitch strip simulating simple 1/2 step bends or even huge whammy bar effects. 

Scales Menu : Ableton has given us a TON of different scales to choose from. You’ll find scales from just about every style and culture.

Scales Menu : Ableton has given us a TON of different scales to choose from. You’ll find scales from just about every style and culture.

Toot Your Own Horn

Let’s try one more experiment. Using the browser, select the category ‘instrument rack’, go to the sub-category ‘winds’ and choose the ‘Alto Sax Solo Legato’. This is a great sounding sax, and the control options combined with the unique layout of the Push will allow you to really get a convincing sax sound.

Pick a jazzy sounding scale like Dorian or Lydian. Play around a bit, keeping in mind that the blue colored pads are the roots of the scale that you’ve chosen. You’ll notice that the pressure sensitive pads give you quite a bit of variety in the tones you can get out of the virtual sax. You’ll hear various articulations and velocity layers. 

Now that you don’t have to worry about notes out of key, use your left hand and some of that spare brain power to exert some control over your tone. The macro knobs at the top of your Push will allow you to adjust the ‘color’ of your instrument on the fly, just as if you were a real sax player adjusting the intensity and color of their tone through embouchure. You can also add vibrato with the macro controls on specific notes or bend the pitch like a true blues player using the pitch ribbon on the left side.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Hopefully, you can see how deep your control options are with Push. You can spend quite a bit of time tweaking, getting inspired by sounds and control of instruments that you never knew you had on your computer! We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible with Push, so stay tuned and we’ll keep moving forward together!

Matt Vanacoro is one of New York’s premier musicans. Matt has collaborated as a keyboardist in studio and on stage with artists such as Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), Mark Wood (Trans-Siberian Orchestra), Mark Rivera (Billy Joel Band), Aaron Carter, Amy Regan, Jay Azzolina, Marcus Ratzenboeck (Tantric), KeKe Palmer, C-Note, Jordan Knig... Read More

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