Posted on

How to DJ with Ableton Live: Part 2

Hello all, and welcome to the second installment in our series on DJing with Ableton Live. In this article, we’re going to cover how to organize tracks, how to warp and level your tracks, and how to mix them together. In addition, we’ll be addressing some hardware concerns, the other huge half of DJing.

If you missed Part 1, please go read it now! We’ll be starting right where we left off.

How Ableton is Different

I must draw a fine line between “DJing” and “performing” with Live. To DJ with Ableton is to play tracks one after another, emulating a typical CDJ or turntable DJ. Performance includes DJing, but also includes live mashups, electronica bands, etc. For example, all this is done with Ableton, but I would hardly call it DJing.

So here’s how I “DJ” with Live: I have a collection of tracks kept in a specific folder in the browser to the right, analogous to a CD book or record crate. These tracks are saved as .als files. When I want to play a track, I simply drag it into one of the three decks, and play it. I save multiple cue points into each track, so I can start in the intro, or the breakdown, or with a specific loop I’ve identified somewhere in the middle. I usually have seven cue points per track (I recommend using seven cue points if you have a Launchpad, more on that later).

This is a preview of what you’re going to be doing. You’ll be putting effects on the tracks and transitioning from one to the next, but keep in mind that you’re not a “Live Performance Act” (Live P.A.) just because you’re using a laptop — it’s still only DJing. Now — let’s get started!

Warp Your First Track

Warping has been made incredibly easy and with the addition of Complex warp mode, warped tracks now retain a lot of quality even when messing with the BPM or pitch of a track. I recommend you open up preferences and set your default warp mode to “Complex” (in the Record/Warp/Launch section).

Now, let’s start warping that first track! This is similar to beatmatching on a CDJ or turntable, only you have to do it just once, and most of it is automated. For my example, I’m going to be using a track I wrote called Spacetaxi (which you can download for free). It’s a house track at 126 BPM, and should warp mostly automatically. Download it and drag it into Live.

Line up the warp markers on the first couple of beats. Make sure the first beat is dead-on. Then, right click somewhere in the track after the first few markers you set manually and select “Warp From Here.” The track should warp automatically. On more questionable tracks (less rhythmic) that you are certain have a dependable BPM, you can select “Warp from Here (Straight)” or “Warp ____ BPM from Here.”

The last thing you’ll want to do is decrease the gain of the track by 6-10 dB. Without doing this, your tracks will clip, and your transitions will be smashed together by the limiter on the master channel. You want to keep each track you warp at about the same level — overproduced electro house tracks might need a little more subtraction than light, jazzy downtempo.

That’s really all there is to warping! It’s simple. Just make sure you get it right the first time, before moving on to…

Saving Cue Points

This is my way of dividing a track up into sections. It makes it easy to launch a track from the intro, or right on the breakdown, etc. So, click on the clip in track one and duplicate it five times (Ctrl+D or Cmd+D), to make six identical clips.

Usually, you would listen through an entire song and figure out where you want the cue points to be (or you can tell breakdowns from the waveform). But I made this track, and I know the best places to start: measure 1 (intro), measure 25 (first breakdown), measure 82 (“groove start”), measure 146 (second breakdown), and measure 170 (outro). So on the first five, set the “Start” measure to the corresponding number, and rename the clips accordingly.

The last clip, we’re going to save as a loop. In clip view, turn on the “Loop” button of the last clip. Position should be 1.1.1 and Length should be 2.0.0. Rename this clip “intro loop.”

That’s it for cue points! Now you can start your track from any point within the song, easily. This is a huge asset while DJing live, especially if you like bringing in tracks on the breakdown, or building up a track while another is calming down. And if you set your points generically enough, you can drop any track almost anywhere in your set.

Track Organization

Organization is important, but very easy, so I won’t spend a whole lot of time on it. I organize my tracks like this:

Furthermore, each track is named in the following fashion: BPM – KEY – TITLE (REMIXER) – ARTIST. For example, 126 – B – Spacetaxi (Original Mix) – Enceladus. Figure out whatever naming scheme you want to use, and stick to it. Personally, I think ordering by BPM is best. It sorts the tracks automatically, so tracks you are mixing currently are always next to tracks that you could play next (and in the same genre folder, most of the time).

So, put together your filing system depending on what genres you like to play, and then come up with a naming scheme. Then you’ll be ready to organize your library.

To save your track, select all six clips and drag it over to the folder you want to save it in. It will automatically save it as an .als file, and you can rename it to fit your fancy. Soon, your library will grow and you’ll have plenty of tracks to choose from.

I know all of this warping and cue point management and organization is kind of a pain (usually 3-5 minutes per track), but it will pay off incredibly when playing live. You’ll find no reason to figure out your sets beforehand, and DJing suddenly becomes improvisational. It’s liberating not to carry a set list to a gig, but you don’t even need to memorize what the tracks are like, because they’re categorized. Plus, it’s way easier than crates of vinyl.

Mixing & Transitions

The mixing is the most important part of DJing, yet something I can’t really instruct you on. It’s only a matter of playing with your material and seeing how things fit together. Find tracks that sound similar, that are similar in their drum loops or hooks. Fade these into one another by dropping out the lows of one track and the highs of the other (easily done with your DJ Effects Rack!).

Transitions are easily done with your racks or sends, or by creating drum loops and tying two songs together with those. There are really no rules to mixing and transitioning between songs — just keep the beat steady and everyone will keep on dancing. The most important thing to remember is moderation. Don’t go crazy on the effects; instead, ease them in. Be very gentle with your knobs and faders, DJing is a rather gentle art (unless you’re DJing dubstep, I guess, or glitchier music).

For more on transitions, check out DJ Transitions in Ableton Live.

Hardware Considerations

The hardware set up I use with Live is not optimal; if I had more money, I would definitely have a better setup. Currently, I use my laptop, an Audio 2 DJ soundcard, a Novation Launchpad, and a Behringer BCR2000. I use the Launchpad for launching clips, sampling (one of the User pages), and beat repeat effects (unused buttons on the main clip launch page). I use the BCR2000 for everything else: levels, effects, EQ, etc. The Audio 2 soundcard is a great card for DJs. It’s compact and super easy to use. Cueing tracks with headphones is a cinch: just plug in the card, set the cue output on your master channel (make sure the Input/Output section is open) to channels 3/4, and plug in your headphones. It took me 3 minutes to set up cueing with that thing.

I highly recommend the APC40. That’s what Kendall (the other half of this blog) uses, and he says it’s great. Plus, you can use Hanz’s awesome script, and dramatically enhance your performances by doing things the APC40 was never meant to do.

This is the last article in our series, but that doesn’t mean we won’t cover DJing again. These two articles merely dealt with the very basics of DJing — there’s so much ground we’ve not covered yet. We’ll be writing more about performance and DJing with Ableton Live in the future; we’ll be getting into the really cool stuff then. Until next time, happy mixing!