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Ableton Live for Beginners: How to Get Started

Ste Knight 17-04-2020

If you have decided to take your first steps into the world of music production, we’re here to help. With a beginner’s guide to Ableton Live, which outlines the basics you’ll need to get started.

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Ableton Live is an excellent digital audio workstation (DAW for short). In fact, it is considered one of the best digital audio workstations The Best Free DAW Software for Windows There are plenty of great free DAW software programs to choose from. Here are the best free DAW for Windows. Read More , thanks to its simple user interface and intuitive controls. The ability to craft a simple tune, easily, is also a major advantage.

What Options Are Available?

The current release is Ableton Live 10, and it’s available in three tiers, so you can buy based on how many features you think you’ll need. If you are yet to take the plunge, we suggest going for the “Intro” tier option.

This is the cheapest and has less of the advanced features, so there is less to confuse you. You can grab a trial version of the software if you don’t want to make a financial commitment just yet.

Once you’ve installed Ableton Live, you are ready to start making music. However, as a beginner, you’re probably staring at a bunch of gray boxes right now wondering where to begin.

Don’t worry. Here are the basic tips absolute beginners will need to create a super-simple track with some of the supplied audio samples.

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1. Create Your First Project

screenshot of session view

The first thing you will need to do is create your project. The project holds all of the information about your Live Set (basically what Ableton calls your track). It stores details about the samples or loops you use.

Ableton Live uses the project to remember the sample arrangement (where the samples appear in the track). Any effects you use, where they are used, and how they are used, are also project-specific. Any software instruments you use will also be noted in the project file (although you don’t need to know about these for now).

Once you have launched Ableton, you’ll be presented with a demo track. You can play this if you like and see how it sounds, but it isn’t really important at the moment. Next, head to File > New Live Set. You’re almost ready to start. Just save the newly-created Live Set down with a name of your choosing by selecting File > Save Live Set As.

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Here, I’ve selected “MUO Breaks” as my Live Set name, as you can see from the top left-hand corner of the screenshot above. Now you’re ready to start navigating the workspace…

2. Preparing the Workspace

screenshot of arrangement view

If you take a look at your Ableton Live screen, then what you are seeing is the Session View. This is useful for jamming or creating a live performance with Ableton, generally using hardware. Check out our guide to the best USB midi controllers The 9 Best USB MIDI Controllers for Musicians On the lookout for a USB MIDI controller? Here are the best MIDI controllers you can buy right now, regardless of budget. Read More if you are interested in scoping out some of the options available to you.

However, as an absolute beginner, your current skills won’t match up to those required to work in Ableton’s performance mode. That’s fine, you can pick these skills up later when you’re more familiar with the app.

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For now, let’s switch screens to the Arrangement View, which you can find to the left of the app window. The button with three horizontal bars toggles arrangement view. These bars will appear gray until you activate Arrangement View.

You’ll notice the screen layout changes. This is the area in which you can drop some samples and then move them around the workspace, hence “Arrangement Mode”.

The four default colored boxes to the right of the view represent different channels. Each channel provides the overall track with a different sound, so you might have one dedicated to the bassline, one for drum patterns, one for vocals, and so on.

As we are only working with samples for this very simple track, you can go ahead and remove the two channels that are titled “MIDI”. You don’t need those right now. Simply right-click in the colored square and select Delete. Repeat the process for the second unwanted MIDI track.

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With those out of the way, you can turn your attention to the audio channels. Right-click in the blank space below the two remaining colored boxes. Now you can add a third audio channel. Click insert audio track and you’ll notice a third track pops up.

3. Understanding the Workspace

screenshot showing tempo, zoom, beat ruler, track display, and playback controls

There are several elements of the workspace that you will need to use for this tutorial. They have been indicated on the image above for quick identification. Here’s what they do:

  1. This is the Tempo or the speed of your track. BPM or beats per minute is the method of measuring tempo. Click into this box and type “172” then hit enter.
  2. This is Zooming Hotspot hovering your mouse over the zooming hotspot reveals a magnifying glass. Left-clicking in the box and holding down the mouse button allows you to zoom in and out with up/down gestures and you move the zoomed view left and right with corresponding mouse movements.
  3. The Beat-Time Ruler displays the numbers that correspond with each beat (depending on how closely zoomed in you are). You’ll notice how the top features numbers. This counts the bars in your music and indicates where you need to place your samples. The bars are initially displayed in groups of four (which is why the top of the track display reads 1, 5, 9, 13, 17, etc.)
  4. Track Display is where you’ll be dropping your samples.
  5. Track controls for play, pause, stop, and record.

3. Adding Samples

screenshot highlighting track name boxes

You will place your samples in the newly created channels so it is wise to rename them. In the color-coded “Track Name” box titled “1 Audio”, Right-click > Rename as you would with a computer file. Repeat this in the remaining two track-name boxes. I have renamed my three tracks as “Percussion”, “Bass”, and “Vocals”.

Samples are the snippets of sound that you can arrange to create music. These are the building blocks of your finished piece and, fortunately, Ableton Live 10 Suite has plenty to start with.

To the left of the screen, you’ll see the “Collections” pane. Under “Places”, you’ll see “Packs”. That is where you want to head to find the sounds you’ll be using to make your first basic track.

Next, click Packs > Core Library > Samples. This takes you into the library which is nicely broken down into categories for you.

screenshot highlighting the Collections window

Once you have clicked into the sample library, you can have a listen to all of the samples that Ableton Live 10 features as standard. There are some cool samples in there so have a listen and see if any take your fancy. You can preview a sample easily by clicking it once. Now let’s pop some samples into the audio channels.

Percussion

screenshot showing drum pattern in place

Go to Core Library > Samples > Loops > Breaks and Steps and locate the sample titled “Drum and Bass Straight 172 bpm”. Click and drag the sample into the audio channel you renamed earlier to percussion. You will notice how the sample starts at 1 and ends just before 5. This means the sample is four bars long.

Next, stretch the sample out by hovering over the edge of the clip title (the box at the top of the sample with the sample’s name in it) and dragging it out to the right. Drag it to the line with the number 17 above it. Hit play and take a listen. These are the drums for your song!

Bassline

screenshot showing bass samples added to track display

Go to Core Library > Samples > Synth > Dark Thought and locate the sample titled “Dark Thought C1”.

Before dropping the sample, use the zooming hotspot to zoom in until the Beat Time Ruler reveals the numbers consecutively (1, 2, 3, etc). Then, drag your bass sample and drop it in the “Bass” channel at the position corresponding with the number 5 on the beat time ruler. Next, repeat the process for the Beat Ruler markers corresponding with the numbers 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, and 15.

screenshot with more bass added to the track display

Head back to the Dark Thought library and grab “Dark Thought C2”. This sound has a higher-sounding pitch. Drag and drop it to numbers 8, 12, and 16. You can take a listen to what you’ve made so far by hitting the “play” button in track controls.

Vocals

screenshot of track display with vocal added

Following the same processes as above, head to Core Library > Samples > Vocals and place “L10 Demo Voc Reverse” at the beat marker corresponding with the number 13 on the beat time ruler. Now you have a vocal in your track!

You Now Know the Very Basics of Ableton Live

Hit play and have a listen to the first sixteen bars of the song you have just created. Cool, eh? The great thing about Ableton is the ease with which you can learn the basics.

Head to File > Save Live Set and you can have a play around with the music you have created. Try adding in a couple more channels and some more sounds, making the track longer. Then you can have a go at making your own arrangement from scratch.

Once you have mastered these simple steps, you can add to your skills with our in-depth beginner’s guide to Ableton Live Ableton Live: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide Ableton Live is a complicated piece of music software -- but with our beginner's tutorial, you'll be making and recording music in no time. Read More .

Related topics: Digital Audio Workstation, Music Production.

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