Ableton Live: Draggers vs. Set-freaks

It all happened in a recent post on Create Digital Music: I attempted to describe the two most common approaches on making a non-stop live PA using Ableton Live and ended up creating a jargon! What follows is an expanded version of the original comment without the horrid typos. ;-)

From what I’ve seen, there are basically two types of people using Live – draggers and set-freaks (choose better names if you will).


Ever the minimalists, draggers usually start with an (almost) empty set with sensibly selected send effects and trigger arrangements on clip and scene slots. The actual set is made on the spot, dragging clips, tracks and sets from the file manager into the session during the performance.

All tracks and sounds are scattered in several small-ish ableton sets – let’s call them mini-sets – with relatively few channels and scenes. It’s not ususual to use two or three mini-sets at once while throwing in a weird acapella to catch the audience off-base. Knob and MIDI assignments are also defined in real-time when needed. When a mini-set is no longer needed, the dragger simply deletes the channels/scenes to save CPU cycles and thinks about what to do next. Everything runs seamless and everybody keeps dancing.

I’m a dragger myself. I started doing things this way to leave all possibilities open. I can start a performance at any BPM and mix with any style or mood (this is particularly good when there are lots of projects/DJs playing on the same night). It certainly takes some work to organize files and samples in a way that makes this possible, but it pays off – big time.

The mini-sets must be as lean as possible – preferrably using only Live’s own effects and instruments – but this is one of those cases where the end result is bigger than the sum of parts. Remember: in the end everything is audio, so you don’t need all your sounds generated in real-time off VSTis, or even all of your audio tracks separated in a gazillion of channels. Make your life simpler and downmix everything that doesn’t need to change. Simplify, simplify, simplify! Just make sure you save the über-complex versions for further editing when needed!


Set-freaks do exactly the opposite, preparing one Live set – or two, but rarely more than three – with EVERYTHING they plan to use. All samples, all effects, all instruments, everything. They generally have better machines with tons of memory and fast harddrives (a must).

This approach also works and, as before, the end result is a seamless performance – but using a HUGE session spanning dozens of channels and possibly hundreds of scenes (yep, hundreds). Huge sets like these have some advantages: it’s possible to define more intricate effect chains and controller mappings. The downsides are navigation (scrollbars can be quite annoying in a live situation) and CPU/disk use. Sure, you can deactivate unused clips when you don’t need them, but you will also have to remember bringing them back online.

In general, set-freaks have their setlists pre-rehearsed and rarely wander off from that. There is room for improvisation – of course, after all this is Live! – but there’s definitely a setlist. This approach works very well when you play with a “real” band (I can already hear you preparing your flamethrowers in the back) and other laptop musicians in general. It’s simply easier to follow a script on those occasions – and avoid screwing up horribly. In fact, every time I play the Concert for Harp and Notebook, I switch to set-freak mode.

When I started using Live (v1!) this was really the only way to do it – and it’s still a good solution if your samples are not very organised. I just opted for a more modular approach and a huge reorganizazion of my files, which also helped in many other ways.

See also: Enter the dragger! A blog-tutorial on how to play Live the minimalistic way!

Fri 04 | May/2007 | Tags: Ableton Live,English,Production

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9 Responses to “Ableton Live: Draggers vs. Set-freaks”

  1. Jeff Says:
    05/May/2007 at 2:11 pm

    Nice post. I according to this I’m a set freak, except I end up playing sets more like a dragger, I start out with a bunch loops taken from different ideas, and then always end up mashing them up with other sounds from other ideas.

  2. Fatlimey Says:
    05/May/2007 at 11:13 pm

    Very interested to hear more about how you organize clips and design your mini-sets. Looking forward to that! Thanks for kick-starting this conversation, it’s an important subject for me.

  3. Drum and Bass Magazin - Drums, Basslines, Gute Laune » Blog Archiv » Tutorial: Auflegen mit Ableton Live Says:
    06/May/2007 at 4:32 pm

    [...] gibt zwei Typen von Ableton DJs. Die einen ziehen die Mp3s während des auflegens in das Set, die anderen bereiten den Ablauf vor. [...]

  4. captain crunk Says:
    07/May/2007 at 3:20 pm

    i think i am a hybrid…. i NEVER know which samples i am going to play but i usually have a bunch in the set to start with… i group the strips based on what effects they have on them so i have a glitch strip, a fliter strip, etc… then i drag to the appropriate strip. that way all my effects knobs are mapped to my controller but i can still freestyle the mashups. also, i do all of it in the session view. not the arrange view. check out more on word!

  5. elektrofunk Says:
    12/Oct/2007 at 10:43 am

    i want to be a dragger, but i get glitches when dropping an AU or VST clip into session view. any advise?

    FZero: Yes: render the clips (or freeze + flatten, does the same thing). It’s much lighter on the CPU and HD in a live situation. Don’t forget to keep the original versions for further editing, though.
  6. Create Digital Music » Ableton Live: Are You a Dragger, or a Freak? Says:
    15/Nov/2007 at 11:42 pm

    [...] Ableton Live: Draggers vs. Set-freaks [...]

  7. { { { { - - Sky Noise — ]]] » Document » The Sweet Ableton Live 7 Suite : Review Says:
    18/Feb/2008 at 10:36 pm

    [...] approaches to using Live – ‘Draggers vs. Set-freaks’. host forums, as well as ‘custom Live instruments’ uploaded for [...]

  8. Ref Says:
    02/Apr/2008 at 6:22 pm

    i´m making a hole new thing (ore mabey not )

    i hav.. around 10 numbers in 10 differetn sets my problem is now that i have to much loadtime between the numbers

    any ideers ??


  9. The Extravagant Traveller Says:
    07/Apr/2008 at 11:23 pm

    Having played with both of these approached, I must say “Set-freak” is the way to go. I have about 5 “stems” that I manipulate in real-time (i.e. drums, perc, bass, synths, vox) and hundreds of clips per channel. I use a CC knob to vertically move my “focus” to new sets of clips, which I can immediately trigger with my Monome64 and manipulate with my BCR2000.

    For those of you who are interested in turning your Live setup into an “instrument”, definitely check out what Moldover is up to. He’s got a nice video detailing his custom controller, Live set and Reaktor patches. (