Ableton Live: Enter the Dragger!

(cue Bruce Lee soundtrack)

So, here it is, as promised! A tutorial on the minimalist way of playing non-stop with Ableton Live. This way of doing things comprises much more than a template with knob/key associations: it requires a certain level of organization of your files that may take some work, but pays off in the end – not only for playing live, but for composing in general.

One necessary note: this is the way I do it and it works really well for me. If you think you have a better way of doing this, be my guest (or your own guest… whatever). These are just suggestions based on real-life situations.

The template session

Making a tutorial without at least one screenshot is a crime punishable by death in certain countries, so let’s get this out of the way as quickly as possible. Here’s what the template session looks like (click to enlarge):

Main session template

Talk about minimalism! In fact, I would also delete that first channel if I could, but Live won’t let me. The send channels are shown here so you can see what’s going on, but I usually keep them hidden to save screen space.

Empty as it seems, there are some interesting tricks under the hood here. First, the sends.

Send A

Send A

Send B

Send B

Nothing really fancy here. Send A is a chain with a hi-pass Autofilter and a BPM-locked delay. Send B is a simple, general purpose Reverb. Both are set to 100% wet, of course.

Nothing else? Yep, nothing else. I hear all you plugin-abusers crying foul and calling me a heretic, but keep in mind this is just like a blank sheet of paper. Delay and Reverb are common enough effects to be always available as send channels, but everything else will work best as inserts and submix channels with effects. All settings are loaded automagically when you drag a set/channel into the empty area. You should worry about effects when you’re preparing the sets that will be dragged in.

Now, the master channel.

Master channel

The BuzMaxi3 plugin you see here is a simple VST brickwall limiter/maximizer with low CPU use which is perfect to keep the output levels sane (best of all, it’s freeware!). Since we have a limiter on the output, it makes no sense to mess with the master level, right? That’s exactly why we have an instance of Utility right before it. When I feel like adjusting the overall level, I use this gain knob instead. You could also add an EQ-8 instance here. If you do that, put it before the gain knob.

There are also some basic key/knob assignments. My controller of choice for playing on-stage is a M-Audio Trigger Finger. I don’t do bank switching while I’m playing (I have too much on my hands already to even think about that!), so I tried to put the most basic functions on four pads – scene up, scene down, play scene and tap tempo – leaving the others free for on-the-fly association. I also use a knob for quick scene navigation and a fader to control that master gain knob on Utility. I’ve limited the maximum value to +6db, but you can go as high as +35db (ouch). Here’s how it looks like (click to enlarge):

Trigger Finger main assignments

You may have noticed that I don’t use Live’s crossfader. That’s a matter of taste, really. You can adapt everything here quite easily to whatever you use. Just try to use spatially sensible key combinations – in other words, try to put the functions in places where you won’t accidentally mess up. For example, I mapped the Stop Clips function to ‘M’ on the keyboard. It’s quite useful, but I don’t want that anywhere near my fingers while I’m playing.

We’re done with the main setup! On to the juicy bits…

The mini-sets

Here is where the actual preparation is done. To make your life easier, start your work on the mini-sets using a copy of the main template. This way you’ll already have the two sends and the main knob settings.

The mini-sets can be anything you want: a song, a collection of beats to make transitions, selected acapellas and so on. The thing you should really focus on is making them lean. Try to use as few channels as possible. If you’re using VSTs to generate sounds and they don’t have to change during your performance, render them. If your drums don’t need to be separated in several channels, mix them down. On the other hand, keep everything you’d like to mess with separated and easy to find. Color-code your clips, change their names, use submix channels, be clever! You must look to your set and know exactly what’s going on (this is also true for big sets). Bear in mind that even if we call them mini-sets, there’s no real limit for their size. You just have to make them easy to work along with other sets in the same session.

Speaking of which, what if we get volume differences between the sets? Good question! Here’s a little trick that works beautifully: send the output of all channels to a submix. If you do this, all of your mini-sets will have a separate master level. You can even put a compressor or maximizer on it if you want (remember that you already have a brickwall limiter in the main channel though).

Here’s what one of my mini-sets looks like (click to enlarge):

Example of a mini-set

Notice that: - All channels send their outputs to MIX, which is set to monitoring. - We’re looking at the first channel, which contains an effect chain with a VST (SupaTrigga) and Live’s own Compressor II. Both will be loaded when this set is dragged into the main session – including their on/off status.

Dragon droppings

So, how does it work? Start Live, load the template set (it’s already my generic template, so I skip this part), set the BPM and start dragging the mini-sets into the area without channels. When you do that, all channels are loaded with the saved effects and settings. If you drag your stuff to channels that already exist the existing settings will be kept, so watch out. Make assignments on the fly (you know the drill, Ctrl-M to assign MIDI, Ctrl-K to assing keys), drag effects, whatever. Play with it. When you’re done with the set you’re on, drag the next one in. You’ll normally want to drag the new set somewhere below the existing one to create new scenes, but nothing prevents you from putting them side by side – you just have to know what you want to do. If there are any channels and scenes you don’t need anymore, delete them. This saves screen space, CPU cycles and HD thrashing. Wash, rinse and repeat as many times as you like.

Quite simple, isn’t it?

Organizing your stuff

Playing with a lot of sets at once demands some organization. You must be able to find what you want quickly. Most of the time you’ll have only a few bars to decide what to play next. You must also know your sets, but that’s quite obvious (isn’t it?).

After trying several different approaches, I decided to organize my sets by BPM.

How I organize my sets

As you can see, I divide everything in theme-related folders (acapellas, blocos, miniblocos etc. – I’m brazilian, so some names are in portuguese). Inside each one of them, I have the Live project folders with the BPM before the name, and inside the projects I have all related sets (usually just one). I save everything self-contained so I can easily move the projects between my computers. I haven’t got to the point of breaking down the mini-set folder just yet (miniblocos in the screenshot), but I might need to do that someday. As everything is self-contained, it won’t be difficult.

I use a similar approach with the MP3s I use when I’m DJing with Live. For every album I create a Live project folder named “Live clips” and put several clips and sets ordered by BPM. It’s quite easy to find stuff this way – a must when you’re working under pressure. :-) Keeping Live stuff inside the album folders assures that Live never loses the association between clips/sets and MP3 files.

MP3 folders with Live sets inside them

I also have a separate samples folder. When it comes to beats I also tend to use a BPM approach, but I divide them according to what they sound – synthetic, crunchy, acoustic etc. For everything else I try to come up with sensible organization methods, but I admit that’s not always possible. In the end, I try to keep the stuff I use more in a way that’s easy to find and the less-used stuff more or less archived. I do this using different HD partitions, one of them called “Freezer”. When I go back to the old stuff, I can’t help but imagine thawing some food to cook a tasty diner. ;-)

Possible problems

There are some situations where the “pure” dragger approach doesn’t work. For instance, key/knob associations are lost when one set is dragged into another. Live probably does that to avoid confusion, but I’d like to see that option on the preferences page (are you reading this Ableton?). This can be a problem if you don’t have an automapping controller (my case, by the way) or if you use tons of knob associations. You can always pre-define some channels with your most used effects and leave the rest to dragging. Submix channels are also quite handy for that.

Other situation where a big, predefined set may be better is when you’re playing with a band. It’s funny, but “real” musicians are often less flexible than you and your computer! They need to know what will happen next so they can play accordingly, and this demands rehearsals and some previsibility. In this case a big, quasi-linear set generallly fits the bill better.

If you use lots of external gear, it might also be a good idea to use more pre-defined sets – MIDI settings and messages can be quite tricky. You can always use another piece of gear to fill the blanks while you’re loading another set anyway.

Final words

Live is extremely flexible and there are infinite ways to use it. If you add MIDI mangling tools to it (Bome’s MIDI Translator for example), you might even think you can move objects in the real world using your controller’s knobs. If that ever happens, seek professional help.

Other than that, I hope this tutorial has helped you. Drag, drop and have fun!

Sun 06 | May/2007 | Tags: Ableton Live,English,Production

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24 Responses to “Ableton Live: Enter the Dragger!”

  1. Robson Waterkemper Says:
    07/May/2007 at 6:49 pm

    Bem legal essa parada hein Fabio. Eu fiz um esquema assim, mas coloquei todas as faixas dentro de um mega-set dividido por 12 canais. E’ que eu giosto de pensar mais antes de fazer um live PA, mas do seu jeito e’ bem mais flexivel. E funciona melhor em um computador mais parrudo ne’? Qual a versao minima de Live para isso funicionar?

    FZero: Acho que esse lance de arrastar funciona desde o Live 4, mas posso estar enganado. Atualmente eu uso o 6.0.7. Minha máquina não é isso tudo… é um note Centrino Pentium M, nada demais. Inclusive eu uso o HD interno do notebook mesmo.
  2. Peter Says:
    08/May/2007 at 9:49 am

    Cara, muito bacana. Muitas perguntas que eu nem sabia que eu tinha acabaram respondidas, de certa forma. É sempre interessante saber como as pessoas usam o Live na prática pois existem tantas variáveis. E como eu uso ele há relativamente pouco tempo (1 ano) a quantidade de possibilidades ainda me assusta um pouco. Tenho usado ele para compor, não toco ao vivo, mas quem sabe um dia ? abraço

  3. Fatlimey Says:
    14/May/2007 at 7:49 pm

    Many thanks. I had a “Doh!” moment when you showed making a Live Set folder inside each album folder. I’ll be doing that from now on!

  4. Fred/lanquarem Says:
    24/May/2007 at 2:55 pm

    Hello. Great article !

    For the time now, I’m neither a dragger, nor a set-freak :

    I belong to a third family : I have a set for each tune, quite complex, optimised for playing live, with all predefined controls. And during my live sessions, I switch between tunes in Live and tunes in Acid to avoid silence during loading times.

    A system that I can easily change with your tips. I bet I’ll become a dragger soon. Thanks a lot !

  5. BO LYDBLIND Says:
    25/May/2007 at 5:12 am

    Hello. Pretty cool stuff.

    I would love to see a video tutorial of how this works. There is still a few things I quite dont get,….but that might just be because I´m danish (or retarded).

    But thanks anyway – I still learned a bit from it!!

    FZero:I thought about that, but I have to learn how to capture my screen as a video (you know, that screencast thingie). I’ll get to it eventually. ;-)
  6. leossauro Says:
    29/May/2007 at 11:36 am

    Olá sou brasileiro, e não sei muito bem ingles! Tem como traduzir por favor esse “topico” sobre o ableton, porque pelo que eu pouco intendi é de muito intereçe para mim! Grato desde já!

    FZero: Eu provavelmente vou fazer isso, mas sem pressa. Enquanto isso, já que você não sabe inglês, que tal estudar português? “Intendi” e “intereçe” doeram no cérebro.
  7. Glass Says:
    13/Jun/2007 at 6:51 pm

    E aí Fábio, eu também costumava ser um set-freak com as versões mais antigas do Ableton, mas agora estou me convetendo ao “draggismo”.

    Seu método é bem eficiente, ainda mais agora com a função “Save Current Set as Template”, dá pra deixar os sends e o master preparados, já com os plugins. Bem legal. Geralmente é o que eu uso mesmo, um reverb e um delay. E um compressor (Blockfish) no master, praqueles efeitos de “pump” e “breathe” tipo Daft Punk e Madonna. Talvez um Ping Pong também (já tentou colocar o feedback no máximo, o tempo no “1″… daí você leva o dry/wet de zero a 100? É o mesmo efeito do “freeze” do Ohmboys)

    Os Mini-Sets também são uma ótima ideia, e realmente é algo que vai diminuir meu tempo de preparação pra quase zero. A ideia de fazer loops na própria pasta também é muito boa, vai ajudar a tornar os DJs sets mais criativos!

    No mais, parabéns pelo trabalho e obrigado pela atenção! Abraço!


  8. Glass Says:
    09/Jul/2007 at 7:04 pm

    Transformei seu tutorial em tópico na comunidade do Orkut:

    Diz lá o que acha :)


    FZero: Valeu! Eu não uso orkut, mas é bom saber que estão comentando.
  9. Chris Says:
    11/Jul/2007 at 12:55 am

    Por acaso encontrei esta BLOG Bem legal cara, estou mais apaixanado para Live cada vez que uso. Obrigado para tomando o tempo fazer, eu aprendi bastante coisas Eu nao tenho laptop poderoso, entao este jeito vale pra mim….

    Chris (Eu sou norte americano quem casou com Brasileira)

  10. Felipe Says:
    08/Oct/2007 at 4:31 pm

    Olá, gostaria de saber sobre a função freeze no live. Qdo transformo uma pista midi em áudio usando o freeze e depois flaten, como faço para preservar a partitura midi que escrevi? Qdo tranforma em áudio, já era, eu perderia o registro midi do que fiz. Tem como? Obrigado

    FZero: Quando você dá freeze, nada é perdido. Para editar de novo, basta dar Unfreeze. Agora, flatten é ooooutro lance e é destrutivo mesmo… se você não quer perder o MIDI, basta não apagar a track congelada. Bem simples. Esse link fala rapidinho sobre o assunto lá no meio do texto.
  11. Art Webb Says:
    02/Nov/2007 at 5:09 am

    Hey thanks for the tutorial love! Ableton is truly what you make of it, and what’s offered here are wonderful methods to choose from.

    It definitely clears up some discrepancies I had about using Live on the fly (dragging). I thought I was doing worse than expected until I saw some similarities in techniques you used. I feel relieved and secure in my practices and methods now. Plus the dragging aspects of mini-sets are great! I’d seen it done before… but you really set it in stone for me.

    Thanks for everything!

    -Art Webb

  12. felipe Says:
    06/Nov/2007 at 8:58 pm

    Obrigado FZero, já me entendi com a parada do freeze. E uma outra coisa que não me deixa sussegado é o seguinte. Quando eu usava o sonar, num mesmo track, eu podia ter vários layers..dividia o track em vários sem q um audio anulasse o som do outro. Assim eu economizava tracks. No caso do live, não consigo fazer isso…por exemplo, gravo uma voz num track com um reverb, no mesmo track quero gravar uma segunda voz com o mesmo reverb, pra não precisar abrir outro canal e por o mesmo reverb lá e comer minha memória. Tem como fazer esses “layers” num mesmo track?! Valeu!!!

    FZero: Resposta curta e direta: não. Mas você já ouviu falar em send (ou “mandada” em português)? É muuuuuito mais inteligente do que colocar um mesmo efeito repetido em vários canais – especialmente quando se trata delay ou reverb. Seria uma boa você estudar um pouco sobre o funcionamento de mesas de som analógicas (ou mesmo fazer um curso como os que existem lá no, já que todos os programas de áudio imitam o funcionamento de uma. Se você sabe o que está fazendo e realmente precisa de um reverb por canal, desconsidere o que eu disse. :-)
  13. links for 2008-01-19 : W. Crouse Says:
    19/Jan/2008 at 5:26 am

    [...] Ableton Live: Enter the Dragger! I always forget where this is when I want to point it out (tags: Music tutorial Ableton LiveSet) [...]

  14. Steve Mills Says:
    24/Jan/2008 at 8:49 pm

    Hey great info, I am starting to get my ableton set up for live DJ work as well as production. Invaluable resource and good to see someone explaining things nice and simply

  15. nitch Says:
    08/Feb/2008 at 4:43 pm

    Great stuff – how d’you get the envelope to the left of the XY of the Autofilter?? to the right I mean

    FZero: Just change the filter type to lowpass.
  16. nitch Says:
    11/Feb/2008 at 12:18 pm

    more importantly..when you drag the sets in the BPM’s don’t come with them, what do you do?

    FZero: Nothing. Live stretches everything to fit. Serioulsy, have you read the manual? Did you watch the movies at If you did, you should know by now that BPM is not an issue with Live.
  17. felipe Says:
    01/Apr/2008 at 1:00 pm

    E ae FZero, beleza? Estou com um probleminha aqui no que diz respeito ao Disk Overload. Estou com uma makina boa, um macbook pro desses novos, entao penso que devo estar configurando algo errado. Mesmo com a CPU em 12%, as vezes tenho uns pipocos e travadas no audio. Até onde eu entendo, isso acontece pela dificuldade do HD carregar alguns samples de forma rapida. Já me acoselharam a rodar os clipes na RAM, mas ai nao sei como configurar os buffers pra isso dar certo. Ainda não saquei completamente onde é melhor deixar o Plug-in buffer size….o audio deixo em 128. Ja passou por algum problema parecido? Valeu, muito obrigado!

    FZero: Eu não uso mac, mas esse é um problema comum. Geralmente quando o HD não acompanha o processamento, a melhor saída é aumentar o buffer de áudio. Tente ir subindo até 512 – acima disso o delay fica perceptível. HDs de notebook não são tão rápidos, você sabe…
  18. Ubirajara Says:
    07/May/2008 at 7:54 pm

    Boa Note! Parabéns pelo seu site e suas respostas, esta meio dificil encontrar soluções para esse super software denominado Live.

    Pergunta: Geralmente monto minhas musicas, em varios canais midi. Ex: no primeiro canal eu coloque o synthetizador virtual, e depois vou abrindo outros canais “midi 2 – chanel 2, midi 3, chanel 3 etc.”, porém não consigo usar o comando “freeze” em nenhum desses canais. Existe alguma limitação a respeito do processo acima citado.


    FZero: Se o MIDI está indo para instrumentos externos (módulos de verdade, oldschool) ou outros programas (via rewire ou MIDI mesmo), o Live não vai ter como fazer freeze. Provavelmente este é o seu caso.
  19. Stratosonico Says:
    11/Jul/2008 at 10:11 pm

    Great stuff man! The most difficult thing i find in ableton is exactaly the decision to “how would be my set?” I got dozens of tunes, all different each other..

    Very useful tips and tracks mand, keep this great job going!


  20. Gerador Zero » Ableton Live: Draggers vs. Set-freaks Says:
    02/Aug/2008 at 2:55 pm

    [...] Quickies / Rapidinhas  |  Ableton Live: Enter the Dragger! [...]

  21. tom Says:
    08/Aug/2008 at 8:23 pm

    any hints on mapping the tri-band EQ?

    you have to have your knob in this shit 270 degree position and you can never return it to 0 because there’s no notch. furthermore, you can’t boost more than 6db in this position..


    FZero: Well, there’s a ot of personal taste decisions on this. If you don’t like the ‘shit 270 degree position’ or the fact that you can’t boost more than 6db, you can always change the assignments to suit your taste and needs. Furthermore, I’m using a slightly different template right now – in fact a number of different templates depending on the situation. I’ve been meaning to write about my DJ template for some time, but I’ve been quite busy lately.

  22. Mop Cortex Says:
    06/Jan/2009 at 8:18 am

    Basic, clear, clever. bravo.

  23. Gryphon Says:
    16/Jan/2009 at 2:04 pm

    Very informative. Myself, I’m in the third “family”, mentioned in one of the earlier comments here. I have several sets, each with lots of knob associations and during the show I load them up sequentially. To cope with downtime, I actually use a second computer (which makes sense, because I’m part of a 2-man act). Our method works very well but I’ll definitely be incorporating some of the stuff you described here.

  24. Frank Says:
    09/Jun/2010 at 9:46 pm

    Very well explained, thanks. :-)