Transitioning to Ableton Live from any DAW, Part 2

Can't get your head around Ableton Live? Don't be put off! G. W. Childs highlights the similarities in Part 2 of this Transition to Ableton from any DAW series.  

In the last article, we went over the similarities between Ableton and other DAWs. This was important, because through similarities we can increase our understanding of those things that are alien to us. 

Now that we understand where the similarities lie, let's take a look at what can blow your mind once you start using Ableton. And, trust me, I know what you're thinking, “It would take a lot to blow my mind, I have years of experience...” I thought this too! However, I think that once you reach the end of this article, you'll feel completely different, and hopefully, really eager to take a big swig of the Ol' Ableton Kool-aid. 


Automation is an integral, and basic part of any modern DAW worth its grain in salt. We've all grown very accustomed to the neon lines that flow gently through waveforms, indicating not only the audio output dips, and curves, but also stereo panning, and more. 

Ableton has all of this in its Arrangement view, but it also has a very curious form of automation that clings to the audio clips in Ableton in a way like I've never seen in a DAW. Where in other DAWs, automation will occur at specific points in your arrangement, Ableton has automation that actually stays with each clip, and loops with each repetition of the clip specified. Let me show you...

The clip that I currently have here is a simple break beat that I'm using for a song that I'm working on. I would like to have the last beat of this loop pan left every time this loop plays. 

Breakbeat loop

In order for me to do this in Logic, or Pro Tools, I would either have to copy the loop out several times, set up the automation point, and then re-copy the automation. I could also bounce the loop out with the automation already applied. With Ableton, I have a very simple option already at my finger tips. I'll press the E button in the Clip View for Envelope. Envelopes are available for every audio and MIDI clip within Ableton, and can make the simplest of grooves, much more complex, and interesting. 

E button in Clip View

Once I'm in the Envelope Mode of the Clip Inspector, my waveform will have a pink hue over it. This hue is actually an indicator of full volume, as volume is always the default clip mode available. I'll choose Pan as the envelope I'd like to work with, which shows a thin, pink line in the middle of the waveform now. This pink line indicates, of course, center pan.

Pan envelope line

In this mode, I'll drag the center line over to the left for the very last beat of my drum loop...

Pan line is left on the last beat of the drum loop

Now that I've done this, the clip will play back with the last beat on the left every time. No matter where I put the loop in the song, it will always play back this way... And, it's highly accurate! Listen...

And, consider this: This is just a minor use of a clip envelope. Imagine what it would be like if I went through and did a multi point automation envelope of not only pitch, but of volume and pitch? Check it out!

Volume enveloppe

Hopefully, this has your wheels spinning now. Y'see Ableton lets you change loops in realtime through these envelopes. In fact, you can create entirely different loops, from other loops. Sure, there will be resemblance in sound, texture, etc, but it doesn't take away from the fact that you can easily create several variations off of one recording.

Now that we've talked about clip envelopes, why don't we talk about one of the coolest ways of triggering clips, and one of the most unique features of Live, period.

Session View

Okay, so in the last article, I explained that for someone coming from another DAW it is generally better to start with the Arrangement view, as it's the most similar to other DAWs. I explained that it's generally better to look at the Session view later, when you're feeling more comfortable. I stand by all of this, and if you want to come back to this section after you've got your feet wet with Ableton a little more extensively, I fully understand... I'll wait...

Okay, now that you're back, let's talk about the Session view. There really isn't much out there outside of Ableton Live that hosts a feature like this. FL Studio can get kind of close, but it's still not the simplistically, stylish way that that Ableton does it. Let's make sense of it together. 

Ableton's Session view

You have several clip slots above each mixer channel. These slots form a grid that corresponds with the Master section on the right. You'll notice that in the clips slots that correspond with the Master all have small arrows in them. These arrows are play buttons that play every slot within the row going across all other tracks. These rows are actually known as 'Scenes' in  Ableton Live. If you push a Master track play button, you will trigger every clip within the scene that Master Track slot corresponds with. 

Master track play buttons

But, what do you actually do with these rows, or scenes? Scenes make up triggerable portions of your song. For example: Scene 1 corresponding with the top row Master 1 slot can be your intro, scene 2 can be your verse, scene 3 your Chorus, and so on. 

Intro, Verse Chorus scenes

Why would you want to trigger these parts in the first place? This is where Ableton is absolutely fascinating. You can actually record yourself triggering each part of the song, the recorded parts are actually laid out as a full arrangement in the Arrangement window as this takes place. 

You can record your arrangements in real time!!! You actually get to play conductor, trigger your sections, and then go back and listen to how you carefully orchestrated and cued each section of your clip orchestra. To this day, I still get this amazing feeling when I hit the stop button, press the Tab button, and see my whole arrangement laid out based exactly on what buttons I've pressed over the last 3-5 minutes. 

All I can say is, try it for yourself!


Hopefully, this small series has given you a glimpse into how powerful this seemingly, simple application really is. There's more than one reason the Ableton community is growing.  But, one of the biggest is the way that the developers behind Ableton looked past convention, and created something that works way outside of the box, but is flexible enough to allow you to work in it, if you want. 

Ableton is also a great way to get that jaded feeling towards music that we all get sometimes out of the way. It's such a different approach, that it's almost like learning music all over again.

Sound Designer, Musician, Author... G.W. Childs has worn many hats. Beginning in the U.S. Army back in 1991, at the age of 18, G.W. began learning electronics, communications and then ultimately audio and video editing from the Department of Defense. Upon leaving the military G.W. went on to work for many exciting companies like Lu... Read More


Don't want to be a wet blanket, but as a long time Logic user and someone coming out of a few decades of crafting songs as unfolding pieces of music rather than sequences (in Live terms, clips and scenes) strung together, I struggled with Live and eventually gave up on it. It feels more agile than Logic, yes, has some creatively 'unleashing' aspects to it - as you say - but you have to be the sort of musician who works in chunks or loves the spontaneity of performance. I didn't fit either of these profiles. Much as I admire Live's innovation, it was wired differently to my own brain.

Thanks for the article, very interesting read, and very timely. I think it's something a lot of 'traditional' DAW jocks are looking at.
Gary Hiebner
I thought Envelopes were a bit confusing in the beginning, but have grown to prefer using them than to use the automation via the Arrangement window.

You can create envelopes quite easily in the Session view. And then drag these clips into the Arrangement window and they retain the envelopes. As opposed to having to copy automation settings around in the Arrangement view.

Ableton is a different beats, but once you get your head around its inner workings I find that some things can get done more smoothy.

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