I’ve been using Ableton now for 3 weeks now…
Using, of course, is a term which automatically introduces ambiguity to the reader. This is an issue I’v experienced when navigating the web, with regard to finding online solutions for my music creation process. For me in particular, I don’t enjoy learning by video. Now, let me qualify that. If I’m taking an online course, then absolutely, yes, I love it. But, if I’m just trying to find the answer to a single question, or technical hurdle, then watching a video becomes a painful experience of trying to find what I’m looking for, amongst a sea of what I’m not looking for.
When it comes to DAW videos, your mileage may vary. I can say this, as a 3-weeks-old User, with no previous DAW or music production experience – I usually find I’m lost in a mire of terms, and sidetracked into some forest I didn’t even know existed. I find myself going… “Wait… what was it I was trying to figure out how to do???”
In my previous post I detailed my Concept Album. I also mentioned part of the impetus behind the album was its being a catalyst for me to learn the various aspects of production requisite to finishing the project.
So, as I mentioned, I’m 3 weeks into using Ableton. I probably have used it on average for 3 hours per day. I think it’s important to detail some of my early experiences with the software as well. So let’s start from the beginning. Installation is standard. What’s not standard, is the file folder structures. This is important, and not intuitive. If you’re going to add custom sounds, plugins, and the like to Ableton – you’ll need to get intimately familiar with the Preferences area. I spent a great amount of time here.
In my case, I also had to configure a Launchpad Pro and a LaunchControl XL. I also had a fairly challenging audio setup, as I also added a Novation 2×4 Audio hub, and integrated my Logitech Z5500 sound system as well. Figuring out buffer sizes, ASIO audio, and audio settings between your DAW, System, And Audio Interface – takes time. Number 1 advice – make sure they all share the same settings, especially sampling rate and size. If you change one, don’t forget to go through and change the others. I had annoying crackling for the first two weeks. In fact, in my case, I ended up switching from a PC to a MAC setup! So a very significant portion of these first two weeks (at least 80%) was spent configuring. Let me tell you though, the result is amazing. I am using Dual External 4k 27″ RGB monitors. With Ableton in dual screen mode, I have both views up, and my Synthesizer on the middle screen. It’s very smooth to use, and I stay engaged with sound creation, far more than clicking. It just took 2 weeks to get there. The dual monitors wouldn’t work with the PC, but the MAC displayport connections did the trick.
I also spent a great deal of time on research. Reading manuals for both hard and software. I’ve also been reading Dennis Desantis’s Making Music Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers book. Anyone involved in creative production should have this book. It’s applicable to any art form, and written by one of the founders of Ableton. I even had a nice interaction with Dennis Desantis on Twitter:
— Jason Cowling (@JasonWCowling) November 11, 2015
I’ve read significant portions of the Ableton User Manual – though it is a beast of a book, and I find it to be mostly inaccessible.
This is a good time to bring up one of my first, and most confounding problems to date: Understanding the views. By views I mean, within Ableton there is Session, and Arrangement, and Clip, and Note… I cannot really figure out what should be where, when, and why. This makes one of the fundamental goals (making a song) kinda overwhelmingly challenging. I do understand the need for a “Live mode” and I’m perfectly confident All the modes are super important and make sense – but not to me! This challenge has a negative effect for me, it puts me in exploration mode. This is great for creating sounds… but not for recording, arranging, editing, and getting things together in the way I need to – which results in properly finished tracks.
My other challenge with Ableton, is similar to the first. I don’t know whether I should add sounds etc to Audio/midi. I don’t know when to arrange (what) horizontally or vertically, and why I should do that. Again, this makes adding sounds/instruments/wavs/effects etc., together – guess work. I need a better understanding of how to make those decisions. More specifically, I find that once I do more than one sound/instrument etc., at a time, things go wonky.
Now, another central confusion is time. Here I have created a little Drum Set called Jason’s Drums, where I’ve added a few drum hits I like. Now here’s I have used the Draw function to sketch in a basic beat. Which you can hear here: . Now, where I get confused is… how to I ‘set’ the length of this beat. Let’s say for example, I want to just go ahead and repeat this beat endlessly for 5 minutes. What’s the best way to do that? Just bear in mind that I want to go back and ‘edit’ that beat variously throughout… to build a chorus, or just add variances etc., throughout. It seems like the editing part will be fairly straightforward… but not until I can grasp how the arrangement of time works within Ableton… and how to quickly build my loops/sounds to specific times. After I figure these issues, the next fork will be fading/blending.
So these two fundamental issues, at the beginning of week 4 – Views and Musical Time, are my biggest challenges.
I purchased a very inexpensive program from Isotonik for my Novation Launch Control XL called LaunchControl XXL. It’s a really slick script that enables me to map all 24 knobs and the 8 sliders on the LaunchControl XL to whatever program I’m using within Ableton. So with Synthmaster, I have mapped 6 full banks of 32 knobs/sliders to its 6 main modes (FX1/FX2/LFO/…etc). This allows me to do things you simply can’t with the mouse, like moving 3 knobs or more at the same time. The Launchpad Pro, with its pressure sensitive buttons, allows me to really take control of sound with Synthmaster. Conversely, because of my above challenges, I haven’t gotten a good workflow going for capturing the synthesized sounds… and then of course, being able to quickly dice them up, insert and blend them into a track, or record and archive them for future use. So I’ll be occupying myself solving those issues next.
I decided that Synthmaster would be my go-to Synth. Why? Well, the normal range of reviews etc., and they had Educational Pricing – which is helpful. My only wish is for a scalable GUI… Here’s a screen shot:
I feel like once I’ve gotten a reasonable grasp on an Ableton workflow, that I’ll spend even more time creating sounds. I can create sounds all day right now, but without properly capturing, arranging, and saving my work… it’s not practical. So again, these issues will inform my main workflow until solved.
A few other notes of interest from my first 4 weeks as a music producer.
I signed up for the Ableton Beta Tester, and applied for software testing.
Ableton’s new Link
is certainly a novel idea – and will be a great study in Platform Economics going forward. The cross-platform issue is always a dangerous pill. If you can capture the makers out there via a Link, rather than just the architecture… that’s pretty smart. I haven’t had a chance to play with Link or the Dev kit yet.
3D Sound: One of my big interests is going beyond 5.1 and 7.1 etc., and creating true 3d sound via immersive VR environments. There is an amazing VST called OCULUS that is currently FREE.
I also made a few adventures out into the music world in the past weeks. I had a chance to see Toro y Moi, and a few other electronic shows at The Beachland Ballroom. In fact, in keeping with the spirit of this newbie producer post, here’s some awful video I shot at the event:
I even met the sound guy, who was kind enough to offer to teach me on the spot about mixing. That was really exciting because I now have a good contact with decades of experience at live production. He already has helped me make sure I’m prepared for common live issues and the like. I plan to meet more with him to learn more details of dialing in a venue, instruments, etc. The good, and sad thing about the electronica scene, is that short of big EDM… the venues are small, and damn good!
Gear updates: I’ve also spent a big chunk of time in these past several weeks evaluating gear. I do this for several reasons. One reason is keeping abreast of markets. This is a long story, but the short of it is that I enjoy knowing what’s out there, what’s possible, and making sure I make good tech purchases for my needs/budget etc. So far, I’ve been thrilled with my music setup. I did consider studio monitors, but I know and love the sound from the Logitech Z5500 – it’s THX and I can listen to it all day without burning out my ears. With all of my early issues, I did end up switching to the MAC environment… which is a first for me. Given that everything worked to my needs instantly, I’m fine with it. I will say, this is my first SSD and the installation/read times really do rock. With a 44k & 512 Sample I’m getting 10ms of total latency or better, and I can’t tell or hear any latency.
I am strongly considering adding a keyboard, the MKII, to the mix – and I also would Love to have a drumpad that met my requirements. On the drumpads, I looked at all the main players out there, and nothing still gets me excited. Well, there is one product that’s still in it’s Kickstarted phase, but it’s being put out by Abbey Road’s brand new music technology incubator. It’s their first and flagship product, so it has some potential. It’s a virtual instrument promising 3D User Interaction, i.e. you play drums, fingers, guitar, etc… and it recognizes it via motion. It looks cool too. To be sure, both the Keyboard and the Virtual are going to be useful in the studio, but it’s really for the live set that I’m interested, because they add a good bit of motion and visual. I don’t really mind watching a guy work knobs… but I don’t mind watching something else either!
Studio Construction: I painted my main computer desk When I snapped off a couple photos of my studio desk, the old brown grainy wood really presented itself…. yuck. So I decided to use some of our favorite color around here “Heavy Cream” and refinish my office desk. I sanded it down, and painted/sanded 3 coats on. The white really worked out (before and after). I also just cut out some fabric we had laying around, and hung it underneath the back of the studio desk. This was to cover up all the hanging wires. I’m pleased with how it turned out (picture).
I’ve also started to mount my surround speakers, which are currently all clustered together in one corner of the room. Initially I’m just mounting them on the walls in the proper surround spots. Eventually, I’m going to run the cabling down through the walls. I’m just not sure how to do that yet as I have horsehair and lathe plastering in the studio and I’m not sure how to make a cable channel without getting into plasterwork (which I ain’t doing).
I’m also repainting the studio walls. I did some initial touching up, which revealed the walls needed repainted entirely. I’m about 1/3 of the way through that project.
I actually don’t think I’ll be doing any other sound treatments to the studio. I’m fortunate to live in a house that was formerly a church. It’s got 8 inch thick chestnut walls, with the horsehair and lathe plastering. I actually love the acoustics, nice and warm. Since we have a boiler, and argon filled windows… there’s next to no external sound.
Lynda.Com. I didn’t sign up for Lynda for the Ableton course. I’m actually studying Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop independently. However, I have had a chance to run through about 1/3 of the Ableton Course on Lynda. It’s really great, it’s also really jam-packed. I find that I can watch it when I’m in the mood to learn random-everything about Ableton. But again, it just doesn’t present the “big picture” of song creation. This really really needs to come across at the beginning. As it is, all the information gets lost because it’s only accessible or valid in certain workflows.. and again, I can’t discern those as of yet. But I’ll keep coming back to the video, and it’ll make more sense as I solve my knowledge gaps.
YouTube Streaming – I created some videos of me practicing synthesizing sounds with Synthmaster.
I did this because I wanted to learn how to stream to YouTube, and to see what the possibilities were with streaming. My results have been mixed. Streaming requires some encoding mechanism. I actually signed up for XSplitter. This worked decently with the PC and I could run Ableton and steram live in 720p. The audio wasn’t too bad. I couldn’t stream in 1080, which was okay – that’s some serious processor demands. However, when i switched over to the MAC I discovered that XSplitter doesn’t have a MAC version, so it’s back to the drawing board. So far I haven’t found anything that will let me stream without introducing chop to the video, and lag to the mouse. For now, I’m going to just record my video via screen captures, and I will record externally with my Sony FDR-AX100. This will allow me to upload 4k video. It’s actually really tough to shoot the Launchpad Pro. It’s RGB colors are so rich that it’s tough to get them to render as beautiful as they look first hand. On YouTube I also subscribed to a bunch of Channels related to Ableton etc. I did the same on Twitter/Google/SoundCloud.
I also set up a SoundCloud account and uploaded my first sound, which was a quick little drum/synth sound I made up.
I created a logo and Twitter account for my music (Oscelot).
I also followed some of my musical influences. I also created a Twitter List of all the Listed Resident Advisor musicians from Ohio. There were only about 20 active on Twitter, and probably only 30 active Overall. I like them odds!
So there you have it, about 2500 words recollecting my first several weeks in music production. When I look back, it seems like so much! Yet at the same time, I feel like I’m doing nothing half the time!