I play bass guitar in a three-piece reggae rock pop band called Cabstars. Having decided not to have a horn section or keyboards, but needing something in the mid-range more than just guitar for our live sound, I decided to investigate the use of synthesisers. I first wrote about this in my music blog.
Using Ableton to play Backing tracks (NOT what we wanted!)
Internet research revealed video teach-ins for the use of Ableton Live to play backing tracks, to “enhance the sound”. This one – skip the first minute – shows you how to work like a DJ but also with some live instruments, and only the drummer listening to the click track.
We tried loading the stems of our released tracks into Ableton then muting the stems we play ourselves (drums, vocals, bass and guitar…) and have Ableton play what remained. That should give you the same sound as your album when playing live right….? Yeah – and lots of people do this (to save money on the number of musicians travelling to gigs). But it’s a lot more complicated than that (of course).
But I couldn’t find any detailed videos – or DIY blogs showing you how use Ableton as a playable instrument in a live band. So I hope this is helpful to those of you who are on this same road! I also made a rather lame video, which I need to upgrade as I’ve worked out a simpler way of organising Ableton, plus get a bit better at making videos ;-)… But it does show you the basic set-up, so might help….
We’d thought in terms of using Ableton to play synth loops in particular parts of our songs – to beef up a chorus, for an intro, or a break in the middle. But we didn’t realise that in order to do that, the whole song still has to be played to a click (like a train on a rail track).
Also, unless you play exactly according to the backing track, you have to trigger these loops at exactly the right moment, which runs counter to the excitement of a gig. Triggered just one beat out, destroys that excitement. So you’re still actually only muting the tracks you don’t want to play yourself, so that even if you’re playing everything except the synth (in our case), you’d still be band playing to a backing track – which we didn’t want to be. This took a while for us to understand.
With EDM, and bands playing with a DJ as part of their set-up, they play to the triggering of loops, whereas we’re a reggae rock band, so we don’t…. But if that’s what you’re doing, then there are some great videos showing how it’s done.
McMillan 12-Step “Foot Organ”
The first problem was how to play notes at the same time as playing bass. As I’d seen other bass guitarists doing, I bought a McMillan 12-Step one-octave chromatic scale keyboard foot controller.
This is amazingly robust – their promo video shows a van being driven over one! This links easily to Ableton Live via USB, and to other midi devices via the McMillan Midi Expander. I used it with my Dave Smith Tetra synth, playing pad sounds to fill things out. This worked really well.
The 12-Step can be set to play single notes legato – continuously until changed, or only when pressed, and a wide range of note and chord combinations. It also has other note-playing parameters through varying pressure and rolling to one side or the other – like swells and tone bending. But it was tiring to play while standing. I found it most effective playing pedal tones, or one note per bar.
12-Step can trigger Ableton clips (when in the “Clip” preset, as in the photo above) so it is possible to make up loops like a keyboard player – and use 12-Step to play them using its clip-playing preset. But really, McMillen’s other foot controller the SoftStep2 is better for this. It meshes easily with Ableton and can manage most of Ableton’s looping and other functions. Having both would be very cool.
I decided to use Ableton Live to play synths and audio clips. I already had a Push Controller, which would make it easy to select patches and clips without peering at the laptop, especially on a dark stage.
I tried triggering loops of pre-written chord sequences, as I didn’t like having to play them with them feet – and found it tiring to be repeating them throughout a song. But we didn’t want to have to use a click track. So I bought the Ableton Beat Seeker plugin to see how that performs. I had to write an automation clip so it would do a two bar count-in at the set tempo, then follow our drummer (and stop making a click). Just following the drummer risked Beat Seeker halving or doubling the beat, which didn’t happen if it started off at the correct tempo. But amazingly, after a while with this, we rarely follow the Ableton click intro, and it just works…
But then, having worked out how to use loops, I decided I preferred playing pads and clips. We’re not an EDM type of band, so triggering loops risks very unmusical miscues, whereas pads underpin and fill out what we’re playing.
But BeatSeeker is still useful because it shapes the delays, modulations and other time-based effects within the synth pads. Our drummer Lloyd Johnson uses an Alesis 4 Pad Controller which accepts midi clock from Ableton and Beat Seeker. So my Ableton pads, audio clips and audio effects, and Lloyd’s drum effects now conform exactly to his playing regardless of whether he pulls or pushes the beat (which is a vital function with a good reggae drummer).
Focusrite Saffire 40 Interface
A Thunderbolt soundcard interface was required (for my MacBook Air – running OSX 10.10.5 Yosemite), so I bought the excellent Focusrite Saffire 40 . This can be seen mounted in my bass head’s SKB: a 6u SKB above my bass amp – a cool-running class D 1000 watt Warwick LWA 1000. Two Samson S-Direct Plus DI boxes are velcroed onto the top of the Saffire allowing minimum length unbalanced jack-to-jack lines to provide standard XLR balanced line outputs from the Saffire to a stage box. The 12-Step and Push (inside a padded carry bag) fit neatly into the SKB’s remaining 3u, along with all the cabling.
My first challenge was how to set this up so it could all be played – while being quick to set up and without risk of being knocked over. Some serious research led to adapting drummers’ hardware to suit.
Gibraltar Hardware to create a stable stand
I decided to use a snare drum stand and various other Gibraltar Hardware drum bits form a stand for it all. Velco ensures that the laptop can’t be knocked off. Small stages make it vital to have a really stable stand for these vulnerable bits of kit. It needs to be close to me at the right height so I can play it – plus close to the drummer so that Ableton BeatSeeker can pick up his beat.
I have (of course) modified this still further. I will write another blog giving you details of this – and will notify all followers of this blog as soon as it’s posted.
If you have any comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll respond. Hope this is useful to you!!