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Starting a New Project in Ableton Live: Creating a Simple Beat

Updated on June 16, 2017

In today's music world, there are many options when it comes to picking out the "best" digital audio workstation (DAW). The truth is you just have to try them for yourself in order to see which DAW best suits your needs. My years of making music have led me to try out many different DAW options and has ultimately brought me to Ableton Live. Taking the leap from a simple and effective DAW like Apple's GarageBand to this immensely powerful workstation can be intimidating, and to be quiet honest, very difficult to figure out in one night. I recall opening it for the first time and feeling like I stepped into a whole new world. A new world that needed to be explored, tested, and conquered. This hub will teach you the basics in setting up your new Ableton Live project and hopefully save you from imminent frustration!

Getting Started on Your Ableton Project

When you first open Ableton, your screen should look something like this. This is the "session" view which is organized in a mixer-like fashion. Each column is a different channel which corresponds to different instruments and audio you create for your project. To switch between this view and the "arrangement" view is easy and great for workflow. You can simply click on the icon that has three vertical lines in the upper right side of the window to switch to session view and the horizontal lines to switch to arrangement view. The kicker is, you can effectively create and record in both views. I recommend trying out both to see which best works for you.

Adding Channels

Ableton makes adding elements to your project so simple, it blew my mind when I first learned that there are hotkeys already set up within the program. But first, like my college calculus professor once said, "You need to learn how to do it the long way before learning the shortcut!" The "long way" in this case only takes two clicks. To add a new channel to your project, go to Create and scroll down to Insert Midi Track or Insert Audio Track. The type of track depends on what you intend on recording. If you plan on recording vocals or guitars then insert an audio track. If you have a USB MIDI controller or Novation Launchpad, insert MIDI track.

Now for the shortcut. Hotkeys in Ableton allow you to work very efficiently and becomes second nature with practice. To add a MIDI track, hold command, shift, and press 'T'. Just like that, you have a shiny new MIDI track channel. To add an audio track, hold command and press 'T'. Not too difficult, right?

Adding MIDI Instruments in Ableton

Once you have the desired amount of channels set up to start with, now it's time to have some fun. Adding instruments and creating loops in Ableton is rewarding and allows you to get very creative. I'll start off by talking about the instruments that come with Ableton Live and how to insert MIDI notes without a MIDI controller.

As you can see highlighted in the screenshot above, the second circular icon is where you can access all instruments, midi effects, and audio effects in Ableton Live. It is organized in a way that is similar to browsing through folders on your personal computer. Click the arrow to the left of instruments and it will expand to give you more options in that category.

Now you need to decide what type of instrument you would like to add. For this tutorial, I'll start by expanding the drum rack option and under Kit, double click Kit-707 Studio. The drum rack should then appear on the highlighted MIDI track. Kits are convenient, pre-made drum racks that include all components such as, kick drum, high hats, and snare for that type of kit. Of course with Ableton, the options are endless so don't be scared to use, lets say, an 808 kick and a 606 snare. The drum racks make this easy in creating a kit that is unique.

Once you are satisfied with the kit you have selected, you can start to create your drum beat, and yes, there is a shortcut. Double click in the first row of the channel your kit is on and a creation space should appear at the bottom where the drum rack is.

In doing this, you have essentially created an empty 1 bar loop. In the creation area that appears at the bottom, the components of the kit you have chosen are organized vertically and each is assigned to a MIDI key; if you are using a MIDI controller you can create a beat by arming the channel (the red record button at the bottom of channel) and pressing the keys that correspond to each drum element. Creating a beat can be done in Ableton using absolutely zero MIDI controllers. That's right, it can all be done with the simple click of a mouse or your laptop keyboard.

To create this beat without a MIDI controller, hold command and press 'B'. You should notice that when you hover your mouse over the creation area, it now appears as a pencil rather than the typical mouse arrow. Right click in the creation area and select Fixed Grid: 1/4. Now each column in the creation area represents a quarter note, or every downbeat. To add an element, simply click in the row of the desired sound. I have laid out a simple kick and snare beat for the purpose of this tutorial.

Now you have a base beat to build off of and add other elements like a bassline and synths. Next, under the instruments menu in the left side bar, press the arrow next to Instrument Rack. This will expand into plentiful options for preset synths and pads. The process to adding other MIDI instruments to your track is the exact same as creating a beat with the drum rack. To continue with the tutorial, I will add a simple bass line by expanding Synth Bass, and selecting Bass-Analog Super. Just like with the drum rack, double click in the first spot of the channel that the synth appears in and you will create an empty 1 bar loop. This time the length of the loop will be altered. To the left of the creation area is where this can be done. Under the Notes box at the bottom right it says length and there are 3 white boxes under it. Change the first box from 1 to 2 to make your loop longer. Next, add the desired notes of your bass line.

Practice Makes Perfect

Where you go from here is completely up to you! Add synths, pads, and sound effects using the same steps described when adding drum racks and instrument racks. Once you get the hotkeys down, you will find you will become a beat making machine. Mind you, this tutorial only scratches the surface of the capabilities of this DAW, but is meant to guide beginners in the right direction to creating new and unique beats. Practice these skills to start with and you will continue to grow, learn, and one day master Ableton Live.

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    • Nhung Nguyen profile image

      Nhung Nguyen 2 years ago from Vietnam

      Very detailed article, thank you !

    • profile image

      martinium 3 years ago

      Thanks for this guide. It is very well written and easily understandable. I look forward to reading more of your posts.