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How to DJ with Ableton Live: Part 1

Ableton Live is unique among DAWs because of its focus on performance: something that Garage Band, Cakewalk, Cubase, Reason, and Pro Tools aren’t so great at. And even better, Ableton doesn’t sacrifice anything in the way of production tools because of its focus on performance: au contraire! — I think the live aspect of Live only enhances the way music can be created in the studio. But I’m not here to talk about why Live is great — if you’re reading AbletonOp, you already know that — I’m here to teach you how to DJ with Live.

Creative Commons License photo credit: aleXwire

This is the first part in a series about DJing with Ableton Live, being published over a week or so. We’re going to build up a DJ template and work on effects, organization, performance, and all kinds of things. In today’s lesson, we start building our template in Ableton. You’re going to see how powerful Live is for DJing, and how much more control you’ll have over the music.

Set up your Live set

1. Open Live and create a new set with four audio tracks. Make these tracks wider than the default. Open your sends and returns as well; we’re going to be using these.

2. Set up your returns. You can use whatever effects you want here, but I highly recommend at least using delay and reverb. You can put multiple effects onto one rack, but that is covered in a separate article (worth checking out!). So for now, just drop in a Filter Delay to Send A, and a Reverb into Send B. Turn the Dry signal of the Filter Delay all the way down, and the Dry/Wet knob in the reverb plugin to 100%. There’s no need for dry signal on the send when it’s coming through on a track.

3. Set up your master channel. When DJing, you want as little as possible on your master channel. It’s best to do all your effecting on your tracks and sends anyway. I advise putting a default Limiter on your master, and nothing else.

Effecting the tracks

Each DJ has his (or her) favorite effects to use, but most of them cover the basics. For DJing in Live, I recommend putting the following effects on each track: low and high frequency drops, low pass, high pass, and a one bar looper.

1. Put an audio effect rack on the first track. Inside of it, put the following plugins: EQ Three, Beat Repeat (use the 1 Bar Looper preset), and 2 Auto Filters. Keep one of the Auto Filters as it is, but on the other, click the Highpass filter type button below the grid (the second filter type button). These two Auto Filters are your high and low pass effects.

Note: pEQy found a problem with the above set up. With the looper after the EQ, you can’t drop the low and high frequencies when the looper is activated. So put your looper before the EQ Three, and all is good. In general, you probably want Beat Repeat to be the first effect on any rack.

2. Open the macro controls of the audio effect rack and click “map mode.” Map the following macros:

  • Macro 1: 1 Bar Looper — device on/off
  • Macro 3: Low pass Auto Filter — frequency
  • Macro 4: High pass Auto Filter — frequency
  • Macro 7: EQ Three — low on/off (the “L” button below “Gain Low”
  • Macro 8: EQ Three — high on/off

You’ll want to turn the knobs like this so the sound is uneffected (“dry”) by default:

I also recommend renaming the macros as above.

3. Make sure the Auto Filters are off when the pass macros are in their default state. This involves mapping the Low Pass macro to the Low Pass device on/off button, and the High Pass macro to the High Pass device on/off button. In addition, you’ll want to set the Min/Max values to the following:

4. Save this rack where you can find it, and duplicate it on each track (not your sends or master, though). To easily duplicate a rack or instrument or clip or most other elements in Ableton Live, hold down ALT and click + drag to where you want the copy.

A Note on MIDI Mapping

If you have MIDI controllers and you’re going to be DJing with Live, you’re going to want to MIDI map any parameter you can. I’m not going to cover mapping here, because there are so many controllers and so many ways to set up the MIDI maps. Instead, I’ll tell you what you should map.

You’ll definitely want to map the Volume, Send A, and Send B of each track. You’ll also want to map every parameter of your DJ audio effect rack. I recommend mapping the 1 Bar Looper, the Low On, and the High On macros to buttons, and the Low Pass and High Pass filters to knobs.

Extra Effects

These are the only effects I’m going to cover today, which isn’t a whole lot, but enough to get you through an entire DJ set — and still more than some DJs work with. But look at that: you’ve got three macros left on that audio effect rack!

I’m sure you can fill them up with something interesting. In my sets, I like to use the Redux and Erosion effects during buildups, especially coupled with delay. Phaser and flanger can make your breakdowns more interesting and shifting. Auto Pan can be used to make a gate effect. Using a combination of Live’s effect devices, you can make some of the strangest sounds you’ve ever heard. Be creative and experiment!

That’s all for now. In our next installment, we’ll look at importing and warping songs, setting cue points, organizing your track collection, and actually mixing! Check out Part 2 now!