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Portable Ableton Live System

Published: Tue October 03, 2006  News Feed

As this is our first newsletter it falls to me to start the ball rolling with an article about some cool kit and how I’ve been using it. Between finishing at the end of the academic year in July and starting work here at Dolphin I have been away to Australia and SE Asia DJing with Ableton Live. I travelled with my trusted Inta-Audio music laptop, M-Audio FW Audiophile soundcard, Novation Remote 25 MIDI controller and loads of MP3s. That’s a lot of kit to be carrying around on planes, boats and ‘Tuk-Tuks’ you might say – but it’s better than carrying a flight-case or two of records I can tell you!

I’ve used this set up for teaching digital DJing and loop-based composition for project work and school DJ ‘club’ too. Ableton Live offers an intuitive and flexible platform for both production and performance – and has caused quite a revolution in the business in recent years. Essentially, ‘Live’ is music production software like any other profession level application but in addition to regular sequencing tasks with MIDI, virtual instruments or sound modules and audio recording it can be used for other duties: The most notable of these include loop based composition [a library of loops to build songs with is included] with substantial editing capabilities and audio file compatibility so you can import sound files from other sources [such as MP3s, which opens up huge possibilities because this is a sound format that your students will almost certainly be familiar with!]. Ableton Live’s performance capabilities are noteworthy as well since it has a great ‘sound engine’, meaning it can cope with sound manipulation during a live performance, and great MIDI control options.

A great example of how this set up can be used with students is to do a DJ style remix using MP3s of their own they’ve imported into ‘Live’. With some simple processing, which can be done beforehand if time and/or students’ ability levels is a restriction, students can quickly select parts from the songs they’ve used and re-order, re-arrange, edit and accompany. ‘Live’ remixes can be exported for making CDs and/or performed live. It’s a great way of getting students to achieve some musical results really quickly – perhaps better in this context than using EJay style loop based composition because the students can bring there own loops and songs rather than be limited to the libraries supplied these alternatives. For students who have physical disabilities Ableton Live offers great MIDI control such that most controls can be easily assigned to a controller – assigning loop ‘triggers’ to MIDI keyboard notes for example, so that these students can enjoy performing just as easily as other students.

I’ve linked such work with the broader curriculum such as with science and the study of the nature of sound or maths and the calculating of percentage changes in tempo to match beats. It’s a great way of getting students engaged in learning that can be of broad ranging value. There are even some vocational courses available so your students could gain qualifications whilst enjoying these activities [check out this link which is the NCFE level 2certificate in music technology/mix DJ skills].

Having the laptop makes transporting this set up to different learning environments or performance settings easy. The sound card you choose should be determined by what you might use the system for: for instance, I use the M-Audio FW Audiophile because it is small and robust and offers two separate outputs that I can connect to a standard DJ mixer which is ideal for my own performance work [it also offers a switch able cue function for flexible monitoring]. However, if you want to record with your mobile Ableton system you might want to go for a soundcard that offers microphone and instrument inputs as well as multiple channel outputs such as the Edirol FA-66. For a MIDI controller you again would want to look at which functions would suit your specific intended purpose. I use the Novation Remote Series because they offer great quality MIDI keyboards and a range of controller functions [sliders, joysticks and knobs galore!]. You could opt for a design suited to performing with Ableton [with a crossfader for DJing and trigger pads such as the Evolution X-Session] or go for a keyboard that includes knobs and sliders [like the Novation products mentioned above]. There are many alternatives for MIDI control though so do some research or give us a call at Dolphin for some advice.

If you are an Ableton Live user already you’ll probably be aware that we’re expecting a major update to the product from Version 5 to Version 6. The updated features include video support, extended MIDI control and multi-processor support to improve performance on multi-processor systems. Ableton Live 6 is due for release in October.

As the Dolphin Music education web site grows we’ll be adding helpful guides about all the topics mentioned in the newsletter. Anything you’d like to see feature among these guide pages let me know! Equally, I’ll be looking forward to your examples of kit you’re using and how you put it to good use.

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