DJing in Ableton Live 8: First Impressions

I’m putting together a set for a radio show on Saturday night on KRUI FM, so it was my first time playing with Ableton Live 8 and DJing. What’s it like?

Short answer — not different enough to have a lot to say about it but there’s a few topics worth covering:

Warping Tracks

Live 8’s warping is backwards from previous versions. Instead of grabbing a beat division on the timeline and aligning it to audio, now you grab an audio transient and drag it to the beat. Conceptually I can see why they did this but I can also understand the howls of pain from people used to the old method.

The good news is that it only takes a few minutes to adjust. I did 15 tracks for a mix tonight, and only the first one or two were a PITA. Then I had the hang of it.

The bad news is that Live is still kind of crap at tempo detection. Sometimes it gets it, but more often than not it gets lost and you have to junk everything it did. It doesn’t even get the transients right some of the time, which is theoretically an easier computational problem.

The best method I’ve worked out goes like this:

1. Find an unambiguous downbeat by listening to the track without the metronome to distract you. If there’s a transient at the downbeat, right click and set 1:1 to the downbeat. You can actually start the track earlier than 1:1 marker, so you can look through a track until the kick hits, and then drag the start marker back to the beginning of the widdly intro part.

2. Turn on looping, and set the loop to one measure starting at 1:1. Drag the transient corresponding to the beginning of the next measure to the ‘2’ measure marker. This will give you a reasonable approximation of the track tempo.

3. Turn on the metronome, and start playback. Then use the up arrow key to skip forward to bar 17. Drag the transient closest to the downbeat to the ’17’ measure marker.

4. Skip forward through the file, dragging transients to measure divisions, if it looks like the downbeats are drifting away from the measure start.

When you’re done, turn off looping, and click save, so that the warping follows the audio file around between projects.

This works great if the track was made with a computer, or clocked by an accurate drum machine. If not, you’re going to have go through a measure or two at a time and pin the downbeat transients to the bar markers. This can’t be helped. It’s best to do this by ear — skip forward a measure at a time listening to the track against the metronome and only pin transients to beats when it drifts off. It will save time if you don’t sweat the small drifts in tempo.

EQ8, Instrument Racks, and Phase Cancellation

I’ve been dissatisfied with the EQ3 as a DJ EQ, but haven’t really found anything else that seems to work. I thought tonight I had a good idea of how to do a better EQ, but I was denied — undone by phase cancellation.

My idea was to use an Audio Effect Rack and 3 EQ8s in parallel. Set up a lowpass for the low band, bandpass for the middle, and highpass for the high end. Then automate the volume level of each EQs signal lane. You have to read up on the Audio Effect Racks in the manuals to get what I just said, but trust me on this for the moment.

The idea was this: isolate each band, and then control the level of each band as though your were running each one into a mixer channel. This should have solved the problem with trying to use one EQ8 as a DJ EQ — the bands interact in hard-to-control ways.

This didn’t work because the 3 separate EQ8s aren’t anywhere NEAR being in phase, at least when you try and mix a Low Pass, Bandpass and Highpass together this way. There were all sorts of weird behaviors, like the midrange apparently getting louder when you turned that band DOWN. Long story short, the 3 EQ8s are so far out of phase from each other they cancel out frequencies in weird and undesirable ways.

Oh well.

Macro knob mapping

I don’t know if this is new in Live 8 — I think it is though: If you have nested Audio Effect Racks, and you map an outer knob to control an inner knob, it picks up the name and range from the inner knob. I seem to remember having to rename the outer knob to match the inner one in Live 7. It’s the little things that count!

2 thoughts on “DJing in Ableton Live 8: First Impressions”

  1. Hi there.
    Good article. for EQ and DJ filters, I had the same problem you did. I ended up using 2 autofilters in a rack back to back. (not in parallel). The first one is a high pass filter, and the 2nd one is a low pass filter. I used the mixer onboard bandpass filter, and so did not bother to make a rack for it.

    Cheers,
    Pinaki (DJ Pippins)

  2. heya

    the EQ3 plugin that comes with Ableton sure doesn’t give you a result comparable to a proper hardware DJ EQ as found on most mixers. I can recommend the ‘Simplon’ plugin by FabFilter though. (http://www.fabfilter.com/products/simplon.php). Cheap, no audible colouring when left all the way ‘open’ and very satisfying sound when tweaking the low and high pass frequencies. It still doesn’t work like a DJ EQ but at least you can cut the highs and lows without having to worry about loss of sound quality.

    Ben.

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