10 newbie mistakes when writing in Ableton

10 Newbie mistakes in Ableton

Here are some common newbie mistakes people make when writing in Ableton. This isn’t all Ableton specific as some tips apply to music production in general. It also isn’t in any specific order and doesn’t necessarily assume to be the Top 10 of newbie mistakes. These are just some mistakes I’ve seen people make over the years and are certainly some mistakes I have made as well. If you are new to Ableton or cumputer music production, these should be of some assistance.

1. Assuming Ableton’s auto-warping will warp your songs perfectly :

This is a fairly common but huge mistake when working with Ableton. Although Ableton is excellent at warping loops without much trouble (as long as the loop is already seamless), a full song is a different animal altogether.

I suppose it can be pretty misleading to see an option called “Auto-warp” and wonder why your songs aren’t syncing up to tempo perfectly. While the auto-warp function does do a lot of the work for you, it’s your job to fine tune it so that every thing is 100% on. Learning this process  is the single most important thing you need to master if you want to unleash 95% of Ableton’s true capabilities.

Here’s are a few videos to get you started.

For Ableton 8:

For previous versions of Ableton:

2. Recording parts on the same track in both arrange and session window:

A common mistake for people who are new to Ableton is assuming that the session window (the window with all the boxes for clips and scenes. Also home to the mixer) and the arrangement window (the window the most resembles other audio recording software) are separate entities.

For example you will have a clip on audio 1 in your session window but audio 1 in your arrange window is empty.  If you are new to Ableton it is easy to assume that it’s fine to record on that track in the arrange window but that would be a big mistake. You will quickly find that one of your parts is no longer playing.This is simply because you have put 2 parts on the same track at the same time.

Once you understand how the session and arrange windows are intertwined, it will make complete sense what is happening. The simple rule to follow is:

1 instrument per track.

Think of each clip in a track (audio or midi) as representing what 1 instrument will be doing in different sections of your song. For example, one clip might be for the intro, the next for the verses, another for your bridge and another still for a chorus.

If you have ever programmed a drum machine, clips are similar to patterns on your drum machine. When you want to chain those patterns together to make your complete song, you would do that in the arrange window.

If you are recording something start to finish (like a full vocal take), you would also want to record in the arrange window. The important thing to remember is that at the end of the day, everything will need to go into the arrange window before you mixdown (render) your song. If you are arranging your instruments from loops or recording separate parts of your song to arrange later (like with drums) you would most benefit from starting in the session window and then chaining those parts together in the arrange window.

*As a sidenote, some would argue that you can do everything in the arrange window, and I wouldn’t disagree, but i’d suggest you learn the basics of both windows and then decide what works best for you.

Here is a video that might make the concept a little easier for you:

3. Too many loops or parts fighting for the same frequencies:

If you are building your songs with loops and samples, a common mistake is to think that the more loops you add, the more full and complex your song will sound. You are only half right though. It’s true that more layers can give your song more complexity and depth, but the downside is it can easily make your composition sound muddy, off pitch or just plain not right. Keep an eye on your fighting frequencies when choosing your loops. A good way to finding these conflicting frequencies is to use a spectrum analyser. Ableton 8 has one built right in, but if you are using an older version of Ableton, you can use one of this free plugin.

BS – Spectrum Vst

4. Not removing needless frequencies – Keeping on the subject of your EQ’s and frequencies, it’s really important to keep in mind what is the most important part of a an instrument and cut out the frequencies that aren’t needed. You won’t want 2 or 3 parts all playing a deep, heavy kick drum. You’ll need to choose which one has the best lows, and remove the low end from the other loops. Same with your hi frequencies. You’ll want to make sure your hihats are coming through clean by removing the highs from your othertracks. For snare and percussion in your mid frequencies, you may need to attenuate certain frequencies so that each part has it’s own space and doesn’t sound muddy. In most cases, you’ll find that popular music doesn’t have too much going on in any given frequency. Everything is balanced and that is what you want. The goal of this blog isn’t to tell you exactly how to dial in all of your EQ’s but rather to point you to where you should look if your songs aren’t sounding as good as you had hoped.

This video might give you the basic idea:

You can also read this Blog

5. Not arranging your songs in multiples of 4 :

Now I know that there are many other time signatures than 4/4 time but I just want to give  some basic tips here for people struggling with producing songs.  If you are struggling, it’s probably best that you learn to write in 4/4 timing before getting into complex time signatures.

That said, it’s very important in popular music and club music that you create your parts on multiple of 4 bars. For example, if you have a verse that goes 7 bars instead of 8 and then you jump into a chorus, it’s most likely going to sound all wrong. This multiple of 4 predictability in music seems very natural. Don’t try to get too tricky until you’ve successfully got this down. Once you know how things are “supposed” to sound, you can tweak the timing to create more tension successfully.

6. Doing your songwriting and sound design in the same session:

I’ve written a whole blog on this subject if you want to get deeper into this, but basically, you don’t want to be fumbling around trying to get THAT sound when you have a melody or bassline in your head. In the time it takes to create this amazing sound in your head, you will likely have lost the original idea that inspired you. It’s best to work fast with a template of sounds or presets that you have found to work for you and touch things up after the rough idea is saved.

7. Adding parts to compensate for bad sounding parts:

Each part in your song should be able to stand on it’s own. It shouldn’t sound crappy when you solo it. Of course I know that sometimes it takes a couple layers to get that certain Bass sound. It’s totally ok and even encouraged to layer your sounds but at the end of the day those sounds need to all stand together as 1 Bass or 1 Stab sound or whatever.

If you find yourself adding melody on top of melody in an attempt to make something sound “right”, you might be better off redoing your melody.

Make sure your drums, bass, pads, melodies and vocals all sound great on their own. You aren’t going to make good tracks by burying so-so parts deep in your mix. If you can break your song down to 6-8 elements, it will keep you focused on if you are adding too much stuff. You may end up with 40+ tracks in your song, but you definitely don’t want all those elements playing at the same time.

If you have 3 different melodies, you should only have one out front at any given time. Even complex songs should come across sounding fairly simple and there should be empty space between the parts. Put on a CD and listen to how many elements are going on at any given time. Notice how each sound has it’s space to come across clearly.

The less you have going on in your song, the bigger each sound is able to be. That’s why with a 3 piece band like Nirvana, each instrument can sound so big.

Regardless of the style of music, we are all limited to a certain frequency range. When you have parts fighting for the same frequency, both parts are bound to have to sacrifice something in order to fit into the mix.

Another way to look at building a song is to ask “What frequency am I going to fill in now?”, then you want to use a spectrum analyzer to find what works in that range. If you have 2 parts you like but they are taking up the same frequencies, perhaps you can take one up or down and octave so it has it’s own range. Once you have filled up your full spectrum you can see how strong each element is before adding any extra layers.

8. Too many options:

Having too many choices with instruments and plugin’s without having made yourself a “go to” collection can become a huge time and energy waster. It’s far better to have a few “go to” plugin’s and instruments that you know really well than it is to have 100’s that you aren’t familiar with. Using unfamiliar software can really slow you down and give you below par results.

Find 4 or 5 synths (or even less), 2 compressors, 2 or 3 reverbs, a couple delays etc.. Then take some time to find out what each one is really good at and build some “go to” presets. This will make things much easy and you’ll be getting the sound you are looking for much more quickly.

It’s fine to have lots of plugins in your arsenal but it’s best to find out what each one does before you start your songwriting process. Believe me when I say that I am writing this for myself as much as for you!

Before the days of free plugin’s and fast computers, we pretty much had to make due with whatever equipment we had. Given those limitations, it’s easiest to get to the process of making music instead of trying to fiddle with every toy in the toy store.

Another thing that you’ll find is that when you get comfortable using certain equipment, those limitations become your sound and gives you some consistency. Get your “go to” collection started asap.

9. Not making a template:

Templates are a saving grace when it comes to songwriting. When you have a setup that works with your favorite effects settings or your send/returns, drumkits, synths etc take the time to save it as a template songfile or to drag it to your presets for later use. This will save you loads of time trying to figure out how to get that certain sound you had before.

Fumbling through presets and setup takes time and can easily distract you from your goal: To get your ideas down while you are inspired.

Templates give you a basic setup with all your “go to” stuff included. You can even make different templates for different styles of music. Having several options will allow you to be ready to go regardless of what creative mood you are in.

10. Using low quality samples:

Using low quality samples with the intention to “fix it in the mix” is another big mistake. Now I’m all for lo-if and I’ve been known to use less than optimal quality sounds to great effect, but you need to make sure it works for your track and that you aren’t building your track off a bunch of lo quality sounds.

If you have to doctor it up with tons of effects and eq to make it sound decent, you should probably use a higher quality sound that has most of the tone you are looking for from the get go. For example, a kick drum that doesn’t have good low end from the start is never going to sound deep,punchy and professional.

Using a lower quality sound might not seem like it will make a noticeable difference, but just wait until you have a whole song full of these sounds and the overall quality will become pretty apparent to you.

Using mp3 quality is something I wouldn’t recommend. Generally speaking 16bit 44.1 should be the minimum you accept. If your computer can handle 24 bit recording at 96kbps you will likely hear a difference, just keep an eye on your hard drive usage. I personally stick to 16bit for most of my work and I get good results.

I hope this has been helpful for you.  Feel free to email me your newbie mistakes and I’ll consider updating this Blog to perhaps 15 newbie mistakes.

Happy music making,

Jason

P.S. – Don’t forget to comment & tweet (down below) & “like” (up above).
All your feedback & support is appreciated!

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12 Responses to “10 newbie mistakes when writing in Ableton”

  1. December 9th, 2010 at 11:06 am

    Vertecs says:

    Hi Jason,

    I said it on twitter and I say it here again:
    Great advice, mate! Not just newbies should read
    Your post.

    Vertecs

  2. January 25th, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    Funkdeluxe says:

    Great tips i have trouble with trying to use to many plugins, synths must cut down on that and be more creative with my favorites get those templates going and stay with it.As you say back in the day it was very restrictive with what people could use not like to today when its a bit overwhelming with the choice you have, newer dosn’t always mean better.Great site great tips keep it up.

  3. February 2nd, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Los 10 principales errores del principiante con Ableton Live | DJLogic says:

    […] del original de Jason Ward, del blog musicsoftwaretraining.com. Podéis leer el original aquí, […]

  4. February 16th, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    Daniel says:

    Great read

    Thanks for your fine work Jason

    Regards

    Daniel

  5. March 30th, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Phil says:

    Great tips – these should be “in the manual” as they say. You’re on a roll this week!

    Thanks. Phil

  6. June 10th, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    micah says:

    very much obliged. haven’t written anything in years, and the game has changed. this, plus the ableton tutorial videos, are really helping.

  7. November 12th, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Aj says:

    Excellent advice. You know your stuff. Well done.

  8. November 25th, 2011 at 2:58 am

    DB says:

    Some good tips here and picked up a few things from this post.

    Thanks

  9. January 13th, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    I need a plan to make music smarter. « Operation form good habits. says:

    […] – looking at this post, point #6 sticks out at me. Perhaps for my projects I should focus on just making sounds first, and […]

  10. January 9th, 2013 at 3:15 am

    Timaeus says:

    I used to be a newbie… lol, that’s obvious. Here are some things I used to do and now no longer do, thank goodness:
    – Not use a mixer (exactly. newbie.)
    – Lower the dry mix on a reverb below 0dB. Never do that unless you simply want the sound to be slightly pushed back behind other more important sounds. Use reverb intelligently.
    – Use compression on everything. Honestly, I used to use a terrible quality dynamic compressor, and it made my mixes sound dull. Now I use really good quality compressors, and they work great.

  11. June 17th, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Buff Primer says:

    Hey! Pack it in! With these concise and useful tips, all sorts of people are going to make great sounding tracks! Like there isn’t enough competition already!!! Everybody, ignore him – just use loads of plugins on mp3 samples with no eq cuts, you’ll be fine. Don’t forget the final step is bang any old crap through Izotope Ozone to make it super LOUD!!! ;0)

  12. September 16th, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    Jay English says:

    Great tips. The best one is the logging of sounds you like. I have Massive and it has a huge selection of sounds. It is easy to be wandering around listening to this and that and getting nothing done (BTDT). Have library of go to sounds now and still set aside one day a week to engineer a new batch but never, ever stop writing to go sample sounds – big time suck. Really good tips fro any producer.

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