The Best Ableton Live Audio Effects – And how to use them
Ableton Live has several wonderful plug-ins that you’d expect to find in any DAW. It’s compressor, EQ-8,
and glue compressor are regarded as some of the best in the market. Ableton Live also has, however,
several unique plugins that are unlike what many of its competitors offer and each one is capable of
being used to sculpt your sound in compelling ways. These three effects strike a blend between being
unique and useful, with some playing both roles very well. The goal of this article is to outline what they
are and what they do, and give you some guidance in getting started with the effect. Enjoy!
Auto-Pan is a wonderful tool, and one of my favorite
stock plugins once I learned how powerful it is. At its most
basic, it is a simple plugin that helps you add stereo motion to
our tracks by causing the output signal to be modulated from
left to right. We can set several parameters, from choosing
how far to modulate it (100% means the signal goes full left,
then full right), the rate we modulate at (Hz and tempo-synced
options), phase options, and the shape of the wave and how
much “hardening” is applied to it.
A common misconception is that this plugin is actually “moving” the signal in the stereo field. In
fact, all it’s really doing is a bit of volume automation. When the signal moves left, the plugin is just
increasing the Left channel’s volume and decreasing the Right channel’s volume, for example. Knowing
that it simply performs volume automation, however, means that we can use it for other effects as well.
The key setting is the “phase” setting. When the phase is set to 180 degrees there is a full wave cycle
between the L/R channels, meaning that the two channels have opposing amplitudes (in this case,
opposite volumes). So when the L channel is peaking, the R channel is at its lowest. If we set the phase
control to 0 degrees, there is no difference between the channels and they are automated as one unit.
This allows us to create vocal stutters. As we increase the phase separation, some stereo effect will
return bit by bit. Attempt to play with different waveforms to get more of a feeling for this, and try
playing with the shape control (as this further modifies the wave applied in interesting fashions).
Auto Pan can also be used to automate between two completely separate audio tracks- like
bouncing between two different breakbeat samples, for example. We can do this by setting our first
Auto Pan plugin to create a stuttering effect on our first track. Generally, we should keep the
automation sharper and more noticeable so that things don’t clash in the next step. Then, simply copy
your Auto Pan instance on the first track to the second. The only change you’ll make is clicking the
“Normal” button in the lower left. This will invert the signal on the second track. It’s like we set our
phase to 180 degrees and made one track the Left channel and the other the Right. Now, it will seem
that we are rhythmically cutting between the two tracks. It’s a great way to add some backing rhythmic
complexity to your tracks, or increase the groove considerably!
Grain Delay is definitely one of
the best Ableton Live audio effects-
and also one of the hardest to get
used to at first. Differing from
conventional delays, it slices the
incoming audio into a number of grains and then modulates the grains individually.
It appears to be a hard-to-use effect, but the effect is one that becomes far easier to understand and
use when given a bit of information and some time to experiment. The hardest thing to initially grasp can
be the XY modulation matrix, or the box that dominates most of the plugins presence on a channel. On this grid,
you can assign parameters to an axis by clicking a parameter. So clicking frequency on the left and spray
along the bottom makes the X (left/right) direction of the matrix control spray, and the Y (up/down)
control the frequency parameter. When not highlighted, the parameters can still be adjusted freely but
are independent of the movements of the matrix. Each parameter modulates the grains differently.
Spray adds random changes to delay time between individual grains, and at high settings will completely
change the source signal. In my experience, it produces a textured effect that can add some lovely
accent to sustained notes or long vocal samples (at the lower settings, of course). Frequency controls
the sampling rate of the effect, so the lowest value of 1Hz means that its sampling at a rate of 1Hz and
can be increased to sample 150 more grains per unit of time at 150Hz. The parameter labeled “pitch”
simply transposes the grains in pitch according to how it is set- “Random Pitch” is another matter,
however. This parameter does what it says, randomly varying the pitch of individual grains up and down
within a range set by “Random Pitch”. At low values it sounds somewhat like a chorus effect (as its
pretty much doing what a chorus does) but large values are good for waking you up, if you happened to
be falling asleep at your desk. The same warning applies to the feedback parameter, of course. This is
much the same as it is on other delays, controlling how much of the output signal is fed back to the
input and thus lengthening how long the delay lasts. At high values it can cause a runaway feedback
loop though, so be careful and watch out for your ears!
One of my favorite uses for this effect is to lightly apply it on some vocals, as it can really give
them some lovely texture and movement. I’ve found that leaving the pitch settings alone and adding a
touch of spray while keeping the frequency in the 8-15Hz range works well. Now that you know what
each parameter does, the best way to figure this plugin out is to just throw tons of different things
through it- vocals are a start, but drum tracks can be fun too. Pads can produce fascinating grainy
atmospheres, and pluckier synth leads get decimated in the neatest ways. This effect tends to be so
radically different from most other effects in the Ableton Live stock plugin pool that just about
everything you do with it will produce interesting results, even if some are a little less musically pleasing
than others. Do maybe consider wearing headphones and letting the dog outside however– the
feedback setting doesn’t mess around.
The Multiband Dynamics plugin in Ableton Live is a wonderfully capable multiband compressor
that comes stock with Ableton. Most compressors will compress and modify the entire input all at once.
The multiband compressor allows us to individually compress and boost/cut the three core audio bands
(Lows, Mids, Highs). Multiband compression is essential for good mastering, and really helps to bring out
the character of individual instruments and tracks in our music.
When first dropped onto a track, the three bands will be immediately apparent. The High and
Low bands can be turned on and off by hitting the corresponding buttons, whilst the little yellow
buttons to the right of these buttons enables and disables the dynamics processing element for that
channel. S is the usual solo button, and each channel has its own gain-in control. On the bottom, we can
choose to enable Soft Knee compression (meaning the compression is applied gradually near the
threshold) and choose between Peak and RMS modes (RMS is good for less intense audio, Peak is best
for controlling rapid transients or peaks). We can also change what frequencies make up each band,
with the sliders below “Low” and “High”. The mids will just always be whatever doesn’t go to the others.
From there, we can adjust the compression controls more in depth. In the lower right of the display we
can see the “T-B-A” buttons. T is for our time controls, affecting the attack and release settings of the
compression on that channel. The B and A sections both have threshold settings and ratio settings. The
threshold sets the level at which the compression ratio specified is applied. The ratio values here can be
pretty confusing at first, as positive ratios have differing effects on the B and A sections. For the “Below”
compression, a positive value will pull the audio up to the threshold level, and usually boosts it a bit past
this level. If set to extreme values, it may get weird and boost it way past the threshold, so don’t have
the volume up too high! Conversely, the “Above” compression pushes audio back down towards its
threshold value. It works more like a conventional limiter, so to speak.
With these two compression “types”, so to speak, we can exercise really fine control over our
audio across the three main frequency bands. An example scenario (much like the one covered in the
Glitch Hop Start-to-Finish course, if you’d like to see it in action) is to restore a bass sound’s highs and
mids. Often, when we create a bass sound we’ll find that it lacks content anywhere except the lows, or
that the FX-chain we apply considerably dampens these regions. This is perfectly okay if we want that
sort of sound, but sometimes we want those crispy highs and warm mids. By tweaking our compression
values to pull up the mids and highs, and limit the lows a bit, we can bring these regions up among the
low end and restore the sounds we miss to our audio.
I found out the hard way that applying compression after reverb will make your mastering
engineer quite cross. I can’t recommend it! However, the rule of “If It Sounds Good, It is Good”, trumps
all. And in the case of multiband compression, there is a certain type of sound that really benefits from
post-reverb compression: Snares. If we put a reverb on a Snare, we can face the inverse of the problem
mentioned in the example above. The highs can end up emphasized, and the low-mids and the
important (and delicious) transients can be buried. Multiband compression after a ‘verbed Snare has a
unique, and in my opinion, lovely sound. The reverb lengthens the tail of the sound and fattens it up
overall, and the multiband compression ensures we still get our punch!
Besides restoring any channel into a fairly level output, this plugin can also be used with effect
racks to split the audio into different ranges so that each can be processed separately. This allows us to
add FX best suited to the frequency ranges involved. Low frequencies and reverb usually add to create a
muddy mix, for example, so splitting it off can stop this. It can also be used as a more refined bus
compressor, applied on a group of drum sounds to “glue” together the group, while leaving us able to
adjust the compression and gain for each range independently. Essentially, this plugin can function as a
regular ol’ compressor, but when you think carefully about how to use its band-splitting and
compression to your advantage it can be used for focused loudness optimization and band-applied
effects without compromising definition. It’s a boring name, and it isn’t as exciting as the grain delay,
but I imagine it will quickly become one of your favorites.
I hope this article was helpful to you, and helps you find use for some of the best Ableton Live
audio effects. These usually don’t get as much love or recognition as some of the more standard audio
effects in Ableton Live, but I imagine that once you use them you’ll find a place for them in much of your
work. The Auto-pan tool has become one of my favorites, as the simple effect it applies can really do
wonders for a track. If I hadn’t looked around though, I probably would never have used it! So, get out
there and experiment like mad with the best Ableton Live has to offer.
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