If you are a pop or an electronic artist, you might consider performing a show and live gigs to promote yourself! You might be wondering how to perform a set with your backing tracks in the most efficient and professional way, instead of plugging your phone’s headphone output straight to the mixer, which let’s be honest: does not look great! Having worked as a playback engineer for a large variety of shows, my personal advice is to create a neat playback set on Ableton and today I am going to explain to you how! And once you’re done, why not look for a booking agent here on Groover to maximise your live performance opportunities 👇
1. Why Ableton
We live in an era where digital music making has never been so accessible to most people and there are many different options for Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) in which your playback set could be built. Each software has its pros and drawbacks. In the last few years, Pro Tools, which used to be the industry standard for live playback sets (and still is in some instances for large TV shows such as the Grammy’s, the BET Awards etc…), has been replaced by Ableton Live for the great majority of music tours, and live shows.
The reason is very simple: the development team at Ableton has always had live performance as their priority when implementing new features and they have designed a software that is incredibly powerful yet very easy to use that will allow anyone to create a playback set for their concert.
Today I will walk you through how to create and optimise a set for your own concert by using as an example a playback set that I created for the French trap pop artist ARAE.
2. Session View Intro
Ableton Live gives the possibility of working in two main frames: Arrangement View, which is the classic linear timeline with each track stacked and a transport that starts from left to right, linearly, or Session View.
Session View is quite interesting, especially for live playback sets because it allows you to work with individual clips for each song and trigger them in any order you wish, non linearly, mixing and matching options if you wanted to create and improvise, or still in order using Scenes, for a more traditional playback rig.
When looking at your screen in session view, you can identify two main areas, clips and scenes.
Clips are small rectangular boxes contained within your vertical column or track. They are to be considered as each their own unit and present themselves with a small triangle to their left which allows you to launch the individual clip.
Double click on the clip once you imported your instrumental into it and make sure that the box that says “Loop” is deselected. This means that once the audio reaches the end, it will stop instead of looping back infinitely. If you are doing a creative improvised electronic performance, you might need to leave this feature on!
The way in which this is organised signifies that each row is one song. If you look at the right hand side, where the Scene section is, you can see a Macro control in which you can rename the scene to the title of the song. By pressing the triangle on the Scene macro, you will automatically launch every single clip in that row! Yes, it is just that simple!
3. Songs and Scenes in your Playback Set
The first thing to do is to create a number of tracks according to how many Group Stems (not songs!!) you have. For example, if you divided your song into:
You will need to create three tracks. Now you can place the respective group stem in a free Clip slot of each track. Make sure that Clips/Stems from the same song are placed on the same row!
4. Tempo, Time Signature and Click Track
Another reason why Ableton is useful, is because of how easy it is to change parameters to each of your songs in your playback set without affecting the rest.
For example, you will probably have songs with different tempi: no problem! You can simply set the BPM of each song in the main Scene Macro on the right hand side. Right next to it, you can also change the time signature to make sure that everything matches your track.
If you are performing in a larger venue where you will be using in ear monitors, you can also create a click track (either manually with a drum rack which is my preferred method, or also using Ableton’s in built metronome) so that your monitor engineer can send it back to you, and no one in the room will be able to hear it.
5. Follow Action and Advanced Topics
With this article, I wanted to give a brief overview on how to get started in the simplest way. However, Ableton offers plenty of other options and tools that will allow you to create incredibly intricate live playback sets.
There are many functions that you can explore on your own and test and experiment. I’m going to mention just one which I believe is super useful.
In Ableton Live 11, a new feature has been introduced which is called “Scene Follow Action”.
This feature allows you to automate Scenes without you having to manually trigger them. For example, if you have one song that segues right after the previous one, instead of triggering them manually you can automate it on the Scene Follow Action and tell Ableton that once Scene 1 is complete, Scene 2 should play.
Lastly, it is possible for you to use external gear to trigger your scenes. In fact, you could choose to trigger everything using your mouse or your laptop’s keyboard, but Ableton also offers the possibility to MIDI Map every single control to an external keyboard, launchpad, or Ableton Push, so you don’t have to ever touch your computer whilst you are performing!
6. A Full Set: ARAE’s Chromesthesia
Now that you read a quick introduction to how this works, I’ll briefly talk you through an actual example.
As you can see in this overview, each song is divided in three parts, an instrumental, a drum stem and a backing vocal stem. On top of this, we also had a click track and a cue track (which calls the title of the song and vocally counts in: this was done to create an easy sync between audio, video projection and lighting) and a synthesiser group for the talking transitions in between songs.
Taking a look at the right hand side, on the Scenes master, you can notice how some triangles are striped. In particular, all the ones that have the prefix “Click”. This means that Scene Follow action was engaged. I used this to separate the click count-in from the actual instrumental, but I wanted to make sure that the next scene, which is the song, would automatically be launched right as the count-in click finishes.
Finally, you can also see how each song has its own BPM set and, when necessary, a different time signature!
Each talking interlude was measured to be exactly the length of a pre scripted speech from the artist, so that all transitions would be as smooth as possible.
As you can see, Ableton Live offers a lot of possibilities, therefore I highly encourage you to download the trial version and give it a go! And if you need help with building a complex Playback set for your show, you can always contact me!
Within each column (track) you can only launch one clip at a time. But you can launch as many clips at once as you wish if they are placed horizontally next to each other.
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