Ableton for beginners

We’re going back to basics here, as I remember how baffling Ableton was to begin with. Also, getting a little perspective can be useful for even the most seasoned producer.

First of all, you’ll need Ableton, a free trail is available to download on the Ableton Website. Use this to get a feel for the software, Ableton isn’t cheap, so it’s best to try before you buy.

When you are starting off with a new piece of software, it helps to know why it was created in the first place. If you are an Ableton beginner, bare in mind that what sets Ableton Live apart is it’s looping, jamming and live performance capabilities (the clue is in the name). If you want to record a band really well, then use Pro Tools, sequencing MIDI and audio? Try Logic or Cubase. If you want to perform electronic music live or produce in a free and natural way, then you can’t go wrong with Ableton.

I remember first looking at Ableton and being totally baffled by it’s minimalist design, different views and unconventional channel strips. Although there may be some unfamiliar concepts, Ableton can be used as a traditional sequencer, don’t be intimidated by everything else it is capable of. One of the first thing to note it that hovering over almost anything will give you some advice and information in the bottom left of the screen for that item. This help area is incredibly useful when getting to know your way around Ableton and I highly recommend before loading any audio, just going through the interface getting a feel for where things are.

The 2 Ableton “Views”

Ableton has 2 personalities in the form of 2 “views“. These are a traditional linear sequencer called the “arrangement view” and the loop based performance view called the “Session view“. The arrangement view doesn’t need too much of an introduction for those already using DAWs. It contains a horizontal timeline onto which you can record audio and MIDI information. In-line channel controls are located on the right of the screen. Remember that when a channel, audio file or MIDI file is selected, the corresponding instrument, effects or files are shown in the bottom “detail” area. When a channel strip is selected you’ll see all the effects assigned to that channel.

To toggle between these 2 views quickly, you can use the buttons in the top right. (the horizontal lines is the arrangement view, and the vertical the session view:

TIP: In the session view, hit record and everything you play will be recorded into the arrangement view. In the arrangement view, anything you record can be copied as clips into the session view.

The Session View

The session view is probably a new concept for many of you, and seems to be where the most confusion lies when starting out. At first glance, the session view looks very much like a standard mixer. It contains vertical channel strips with the normal volume, pan and I/O controls. If you use Logic Studio then then top half of each strip looks like where you’d plug in effects and instruments. This however is not a mixer view. The upper section of each channel is actually where you drag audio and MIDI files. In Ableton we call these “clips”, each rectangular box is called a “clip slot“. So what does that mean? It means that instead of sequencing your samples and midi files you’re cueing them up, ready to be played at any time. Imagine each channel is linked to a DJ Deck with audio cued up ready to be played.

Clips are a fundamental element of Ableton, they are how the Session view functions as a performance instrument. Each one can triggered, lined up to play with other clips, be set to Loop, single shot, or perform other more complex actions. Although that doesn’t cover their full potential, its a good place to start.

The session view lets you group, control and trigger each clip. When a clip is dragged into a clip slot, a play button is shown next to it. When you click on any clip the contents of the clip are visible in the detail area (bottom of the screen). If its an audio file, you’ll see the waveform along with some option to control the sample. These include non destructive and real-time pitch, time stretch, reverse, loop and clip length controls. If it’s a MIDI track, you can see a matrix style MIDI editor, and similar controls on the left. More options are available here by clicking the L and E circular buttons in the clip menu, but we’ll leave those for now.

On the far right of the screen is the “Master” channel. You cannot place clips here, but you will notice each slot is taken up with a play button and a number. These refer to each “scene“.


A scene is a horizontal row of clips as illustrated below:

Hitting the play button next to the 1 in the master channel will trigger all clips in that row to play at once. If you add clips to more row, you are creating more scenes.

At a basic level then, you could think of each scene as a section of a song, scene 1 could be an intro, scene 2 a verse and scene 3 a chorus. If the clips in that scene are set to loop, each section will play for as long as you like.

As each clip also has it’s own play button, each clip can be triggered individually. So you can build up playing loops and stopping them (Hit the square at the bottom of the channel, or any empty slot on that channel to stop a clip). So each clip can be as long as you like, be triggered at any point, looped or not, I hope the power of this view is starting to sink in.

Control surfaces

You may have seen MIDI control surfaces like the Novation Launchpad. On that particular controller, each square button can represent a clip. So with this you have instant access to every clip you drag into the view, triggering them with the touch of a button. You can also control other functions like the mixer. With further controls like rotary knobs, faders, keyboards and drum pads, it’s obvious why Ableton has become the preferred choice for so many live electronic musicians.

With our free Ableton tutorials you can get into the details of making music on Ableton, go check them out. We’ll be continuing this series, so don’t worry if you’re still a bit baffled, it won’t be until you get stuck into Ableton that the concepts start to make sense.

Happy Music Making!