Polyrhythmic Programming With Ableton Push

If you're an Ableton Push owner and are feeling bored or constrained by the 4/4 time signature most of your projects are in, then this tutorial is for you. Here's how to program Push polyrhythmically.  

For better or for worse, the bulk of electronic dance music is locked into a steady 4/4 time signature. In this Push tutorial, we'll look at wresting control from the rhythmic tyranny of typical 4/4 patterns while retaining a magnetic 4/4 pulse. The goal: expansive polyrhythms simultaneously surprising and hypnotic.

Rhythm Section

First things first, I'll create a basic 1-bar 4/4 drum pattern using Live's 909 Drum Rack. While the kick and clap are repeating a 2/4 pattern, the syncopated rim shots and ride cymbals make it a four beat pattern. Using Push's repeat mode set to a 1/16th note interval, I was also able to record a closed hi-hat pattern with dynamic velocity that reinforces the 1-bar 4/4 duration by modulating my pressure on the drum pad while overdubbing.

PIC 1: 4/4 Drum Pattern.

Pic 1: 4/4 Drum Pattern.

Listen to the 4/4 Drum Pattern:


Bass Case

With drums locked in, it's time to create a pulsing 2/4 bass line. I'm going for a deeper, subby sound, so I'll use a default Operator patch based on sine waves. Since it's time to input note data, I'll hit the Push's Scales button and select a D Minor scale. Now I'll tap the Push's Note button twice to enter melodic step sequencing mode.

After writing a few notes in, I'll press the Push's Clip button to edit the clip parameters, then hold the Shift button and adjust the Length parameter via the dial above it to a half bar: 0.2.0. Now we have a repeating 2/4 bass line consisting of three notes.

PRO-TIP: Clip loop length is measured in Bars.Quarter Notes.Sixteenth Notes: in 4/4 global time, 1.2.0 would be a loop of 1.5 bars, or six 1/4 notes. If you alter the global time signature—not recommended for this tutorial—the number of 1/4 notes per bar will change accordingly. 

Pic 2: 2/4 bassline sequence.

Pic 2: 2/4 bassline sequence.

Listen to the pattern with bassline:

PRO-TIP: Hold down a note in the Push step sequencer mode to adjust Nudge (timing), Length in Step and Fine adjustment increments, and Velocity, via the corresponding knobs above the display; in this case, I've extended the first bass note to two 1/16th note steps in length.

Three's Company

A common polyrhythm to hear in techno is a 3/4 pattern running over top of a 4/4 rhythm section. To do this, I'll add an instance of Analog to a new MIDI track. The scale will remain set to D Minor.

I'll go back to the step sequencing Note entry mode of Push and enter a chord by pressing multiple note buttons on the same rhythmic interval. Holding down the Shift key in Clip mode, I'll again adjust the Length dial, but this time down to three quarter notes: 0.3.0.

Triggering this along with the drums and bassline results in a looping hypnotic pattern that remains fully synchronized, yet expands the perceived length of the overall pattern since the layer of simple 4/4 and 3/4 patterns don't repeat for 12 beats, or three bars of 4/4.

Pic 3: 3/4 chord sequence.

Pic 3: 3/4 chord sequence.

Hypnosis begins with the chord layer:

High Five

So far the core rhythm section of drums and bass is anchored to a steady 4/4 pattern, while the 3/4 synth chords inflate the overall cycle while actually repeating a shorter duration than the drums. I'll add another polyrhythmic layer to further extend the rhythmic dynamism.

I'll add another instance of Analog to a new MIDI track and set it to a square wave oscillator to differentiate it from the saw wave used on the chords. Returning to the step sequence mode, I'll enter some mid-range notes, being sure to place them on syncopated 16th notes so as not to overlap with the 3/4 chords at any part in their cycle. In this case, I'll set the pattern to a 5/4 length, by holding the Shift key in Clip mode and setting the Length to: 1.1.0.

Listening now to the combination of these four relatively short patterns, a larger dynamic emerges as the interlocking parts take 15 bars before they synchronize back up with their collective starting point.

Pic 4: 5/4 synth sequence.

Pic 4: 5/4 synth sequence.  

Hypnosis expanded to 15 bars:


Fun With Fractions

For my next layer, I want something looping on a three count, but at a shorter interval of 3 over 8. Currently, this is not possible to achieve with Push alone, since loop length can only be adjusted in intervals of bars or 1/4 note beats, excluding smaller 1/16th note increments—but it's achieved easily with a quick visit to Live's clip view.

I've added an instance of Operator to create a noisy bleep sound. Using the Push step sequencer I've added the root note of D3 on the first beat of the bar. Switching over to the MIDI clip editor, I can now adjust the loop brace to the desired length in smaller measurements, or enter it numerically via the loop length field of the Notes settings in the lower left of the clip detail view. The last field, measured in 16th notes, is set to 2, resulting in a count of 0.1.2: no bars, one beat, and two 16th notes—which also totals the same as three 8th notes, or 3/8.

Pic 5: 3/8 bleep pattern.

Pic 5: 3/8 bleep pattern.Pic 5: 3/8 bleep pattern.  

Notice how the 3/8 synth increases the sense of urgency:

Lucky Number Seven

To keep things interesting, I want to introduce an element with a longer cycle of 7/2. Adding the Marimba Wood preset of Operator to a new MIDI-track, I'll go to the step sequence area and then press the bottom 1/4 Scene button to the right of the grid, allowing me to write simple quarter notes into longer phrases; the note grid itself now spans two full bars with this timing selected.

Having added three notes over a period of four bars, using the Shift key, I'll adjust the clip length to three and one-half bars: 3.2.0 – which can also be counted as seven half-notes or fourteen quarter notes. The resulting polyrhythmically layered pattern would now take 210 bars to complete a full alignment cycle.

Pic 6: 7/2 pattern shown in the MIDI editor.

Pic 6: 7/2 pattern shown in the MIDI editor.

Marimbas further stretch the interlocking rhythm puzzle:

PRO-TIP: Since each clip in a Live set can have its own discrete loop length, there's no need to adjust the global time signature—in this case, I've left it at 4/4. When you adjust the global time signature, it adjusts the default clip loop length and time ruler, along with the arrangement view time ruler, so be sure to only change the global time signature when you know it's necessary.

For Good Measure

By layering just a few short patterns of varying loop lengths, it's easy to create sprawling polyrhythms that stray far beyond the familiar boundaries of 4/4 programming. Yet as you can see, the two are not mutually exclusive: a compelling 4/4 pulse can anchor the core of a polyrhythm to keep a dance floor feeling safe enough to explore the other rhythms flowing through.

Start adding automation or even experiment with unlinked clip envelopes to automate parameters at increasingly varied intervals and you can rapidly build Scenes that won't repeat the same way twice for literally hundreds of bars; with a bit of jostling, the off-kilter parts practically arrange themselves as they each pass through the speakers on their own schedule. No combination is off limits here—just put your imagination to work!

Noah Pred is a Canadian techno and house producer, DJ and Certified Ableton Trainer living in Berlin, Germany - where he runs his label, Thoughtless Music. His Juno-nominated full-length album Third Culture, is out now: http://www.thoughtlessmusic.com/releases/tlm086-noah-pred-third-culture/ - and you can check out his new project with... Read More

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