Tutorial 2: Beat Mangling in Ableton Live

This tutorial uses Live’s Warping and Clip Envelopes to mash and mangle audio clips. By exploiting these functions, we can achieve effects such as step-sequenced granular stretching, shuffling beats into new time signatures, transient distortion and even creating completely new synths by effecting, slicing and re-arranging...

All the sounds you will hear are the raw output of the clips, no other effects are used!

First up is some background information on Warping and Clip Envelopes, highlighting the features of each we will be playing with, and then swiftly on to the instructions.

Clips Envelopes

Ableton’s clip envelopes allow for (relative) automation within clips. By using these envelopes you can do a range of interesting stuff from triggering sends to modulating clip parameters (such as transpose, panning, volume, etc.).

Firstly though, what does relative mean? Well, clip envelopes are designed to be self-contained or in other words, independent of the overall arrangement. As a result, parameters in the clip envelopes are relative to the overall settings. For example, if the clip volume is set to -6db, the clip volume envelope will go from 100% (-6db) to 0% (-inf).

Parameters in the clip envelopes are relative to the overall settings.

Editing Envelopes

The Clip Envelopes editor is opened by clicking the circular 'E' button under the Clip section. When opened, the editor’s controls appear at the right of the Clip's parameters. First to note are two drop-down menus that determine which envelope is displayed. The top menu selects a target object, such as the Clip itself, the mixer, or any device on the channel. The second lets you pick a parameter of the target object. 

Beneath these are 3 buttons which act as short-cuts to the volume, transpose and panning envelopes. 

The Clip Envelopes editor is opened by clicking the circular 'E' button

Now we can begin editing envelopes, which brings us to the next point - the Draw Mode. Pressing ctrl (win) / cmd (mac) + b switches between Breakpoint and Draw Mode. Draw Mode allows you to create stepped edits to an adjustable step size (right click on the envelope to adjust) - great for rhythmic material! Breakpoint Mode then allows us to create movement within these steps. Double-click to create a breakpoint and then click and drag it for dips, ramps, sweeps and spikes.

Link / Unlink

Finally, one of the most interesting features of the clip envelopes, the ability to detach it from the clip’s loop settings and set it to a different loop length (or none at all). This allows us  to add fills and movement to otherwise monotonous loops, to create polyrhythmic effects and even to turn static signals into percussion.

Warp Modes

Live's Warp settings offer 5 different modes of time-stretching. Repitch is pitch-dependent while Beats, Tones, Texture and Complex (Pro) all employ granular synthesis to hold the pitch while shifting the tempo of the clip. They do this by breaking the file up into tiny snippets of audio and then reassembling them using various algorithms (More on granular synthesis in the last tutorial here). 

As stated in Live's owner's manual, “The Warp modes differ by the selection of grains, as well as by the details of overlapping and crossfading between grains.”

Using any of the granular modes to drastically change the tempo of the audio degrades the quality of the sound - but this is not necessarily a bad thing! It is this 'flaw' that we will exploit to turn a simple drum-loop into a number of completely different sounds. 

Effects are most apparent when the audio is substantially transposed up (~12 semi-tones) or slowed down. For this reason, when you are picking through source material, look for audio that is at a higher tempo than the project and remember that pitching clips up enhances the effect (so stuff with mostly low frequency content will end up being in the mid-range).

The Warp controls are displayed to the right of the Clip View pane. When Warp is switched off, the sample plays at it original tempo, irrespective of the project’s. Switching it on activates the controls: sample tempo, warp mode and settings (depending on the mode).

How to...

As Warp-Mode-trickery will dictate the effect on the source audio, it makes sense to divide the tutorial up accordingly. The modes we will explore in this tutorial are Repitch, Beats, Tone and Texture.

Below is the original recording, download it if you wish, or substitute it for something similar of your own.

Repitch mode does exactly as the names suggests; it is Live's "DJ stretching method", like using variable-speed turntables to sync two records. While this might not sound particularly interesting, its often a good starting place when mangling beats - stuff often sounds really interesting slowed-down, as all the frequencies are pulled down into a lower range.

Grab yourself a clip, mine is a simple 80BPM drumloop. First, lets double up the clip's tempo and scan through to see if we can grab some interesting sounds. Its handy to have a drum rack open on the neighbouring channel to save each slice as we go.

Double up the tempo of the clip (to 160 BPM) and then, with a small loop size, move through the clip until you find something you like. Now duplicate the clip and keep searching - you should end up with rows of sounds. Select all the new clips, right click and select 'Crop Clip'. Next, freeze, then flatten the audio channel. You can now drag and drop each of the clips into a Drumrack. Now you can further tweek each sound to your liking by fine-tuning the Drumrack's parameters.

Collect all your sounds in a Drumrack for tweaking and programming later

As reversing audio drastically changes its transient content, its often worth repeating the search backwards. In this case, I doubled up the sample's tempo again (to 320 BPM) and then reversed, scanned through and snatched a few more sounds. Here's the results after a quick bit of programming...

Beats is the first of the granular time-stretching modes. It uses a type of resynthesis that preserves transients (attacks or note onsets) and so is best suited to rhythmic material. Lets look at the preserve settings - accessed via the drop-down menu under the Warp Mode menu.

Here we have a couple of options. You can choose which divides in the sample you want to preserve: transients or specific beat divisions. Beneath this are loop settings for the transients: off, loop-forward and loop back-and-forth. Finally, beside this is a number box which dictates the duration of the volume envelope; at 100 there will be no fade out, at 0 the transients will fade out very quickly - in other words, this implements a rhythmic gating effect!

Choose which divides in the sample you want to preserve: transients or specific beat divisions

Lets try it out. I've have a variation of my drumloop rendered out at 130BPM so I am going to switch the project to that tempo. So, while preserving transients (as opposed to beat divisions) and with the loop set to off, try reducing the duration of the volume envelope (I haven't touched the sample's tempo yet). Hear the gate effect?

In the Live manual the suggest to use "large transient values in conjunction with pitch transposition for interesting rhythmic artefacts". Change the loop mode to back-and-forth and pitch up the sample 12db - interesting indeed - sounds like a stutter effect. Taking it one step further we can now edit the clip's transpose envelope.

Open the clip editor (click the circular 'E' button under the Clip section) and hit the transpose short cut key. Now using a combination of Draw Mode and Breakpoints, create an envelope to your taste.

Transpose envelope

Another interesting thing about Beats Mode is that it offers one function none of the other Warp Modes do - Sample Offset modulation. This allows us to scramble our beats by modulating the play position of the sample. Positive values snatch a sample ahead in time and negative, from behind.

I grabbed a small segment of my loop, transposed it up 12 semitones and set the transient loop mode to back-and-forth. Open up the Sample Offset envelope. This time, let's unlink the envelop from the clip's loop settings and set it to a different loop. My clip's loop length is 0.1.2 so I will set the envelope length to 1.0.0. Things can easily get messy here, so I usually just use the draw-mode but see what works best for you.

Sample offset envelope

Now that the beats are scrambled and stuttering, you can add in a transpose envelope as before and totally mash it up. Afterwards, freeze, flatten and chop it up to your taste.

So now lets see what happens when we preserve time-divisions rather than transients. I will re-use the same clip, rendered at 130 BPM but I will slow the projects tempo down to 100 BPM. So transpose your sample up roughly 12 semitones and select to preserve 1/16 or 1/32 beat divisions with looping set to back-and-forth. What you are hearing now is called 'Transient Distortion' - pretty cool in my opinion!

Now change the preserve settings to 1/2 or 1/4 beats. What happens here is that Live assumes the beginning of every 1/2 or 1/4 beat should be repeated for the whole length of it so you get some really interesting fills.

Try tweeking the transpose settings... The rhythm of the fills changes with each semi-tone! Why? Well, the more you transpose up, the more note data in each grain and the faster it's played. What results sounds like a trill, but one that is different at each pitch setting. Those of you feeling adventurous, try automating the transpose envelope or layering up a few instances of the same clip, transposed differently.

Tones Mode is aimed at material with a more or less clear pitch structure. The only parameter we have  control over is the average grain size (the actual grain size is determined is a signal-dependent manner). For normal use, a small grain size works best but larger grain sizes produce audible repetitions which sounds pretty tasty when used with beats.

So, I will take the same 130 BPM sample again with the project tempo set to 130 BPM too. Transpose your clip up around 12 semi-tones, leave the grain size as it is for the moment. Now reduce the master tempo slowly and listen as the grains separate.

When you're right down at 20 BPM, try fiddling with the grain size as the clip is playing and listen to the effect it makes. Now you'll have a rough idea as to how the grain size envelope should look. Open it up and program it to your taste. Next, open the transpose envelope and use the Breakpoint Mode to plot in some sweeps. Loads of interesting sounds there! Now you can freeze, chop, chuck them in a Drumrack and program out some new granular beats.

Grab the original clip again, use a small grain size and set the transpose to around 12 semi-tones. Now, using a small loop, look for something bright and rich that you can use as a synth sound. Got it? Next, set the transpose envelope to reduce from -12 to +12 over a length of 1.2.0.

Copy the clip and paste it to the arrangement view and drag it out so you can hear the full envelope. Now consolidate it and copy it back to the session view.

Now we can slice to a new midi track and by using every 1/16th note as a slice, we create a 24 semi-tone scale. Now we have a buzzy, detuned synth! Try tweeking the instrument's macro controls and writing some weird melodies - fun times.

Last, but certainly not least is the Texture Mode. This is geared towards sound textures with ambiguous pitch content such as noise, atmospherics, etc. We notice the same grain size parameter as before except this time, unlike tones, it is independent of the signal. Beneath the grain size is the fluctuation parameter. This is the amount of randomness introduced into the processing of the sample.

So, as you've probably guessed, we'll be pitching up our sample roughly 12 semi-tones again and as in the last exercise, leave the other parameters alone and slowly reduce the tempo from that of the clip down to 20 BPM, listening carefully to the effect it makes.

Now once at 20 BPM, mess with the grain size. Push up the grain size and listen to how the grains separate further and further. Even more interesting, listen to how the grains are smeared together at the lowest size. Keeping it there, now knock the flux down to 0 and notice the clear tones we get. Pushing it up makes the signal noisier.

The drastically different sounds produced by these settings calls for some step-sequenced automation. Open up the envelopes and work them into something you like (not forgetting about the volume, panning and transpose envelopes!).

As before you can now freeze, and slice all your new sounds into a Drumrack for precise processing and reprogramming.

Now try repeating the steps discussed in Tones Mode and make yourself another synth!

Be Considerate.

So there you have it, a huge variety of ways to mash, mangle, stretch and slice a clip into countless new sounds. The key is patience! While it may sound good to double up the tempo in a clip and throw in any random setting, it will sound infinitely better if you think carefully about what you're doing; firstly consider what you want the end result to be, then choose the source material wisely, pick which warp mode to use and finally cut out your favourite pieces from the results and load them into a drum rack for dedicated processing and programming.

All of the above examples are meant as a starting point, allowing you to harvest interesting sounds before working them into the context of your track. I hope you have found it helpful and if anything remains unclear, please feel free to ask questions in the comment box below!