Solo Performance with Ableton Live

December 22, 2018


           ‘’It is better to make a piece of music than to perform one, better to perform one than to listen to one, better to listen to one than to misuse it as a means of distraction, entertainment, or acquisition of culture.'’
                                                                                                                       - John Cage (1912-1992)


           Performance by definition is ‘’an act of presenting a play, concert, or other form of entertainment’’ [OXFORD].  

   Currently, at the time of the peak point in the development of music technology, there are more and more artists using electronic devices and computers to create amazing performances supported by sound-interactive visuals and lighting.  This essay aims to explore the methods of a selected artists who create with a music technology and actively perform live solo, to investigate their approach and equipment. Due to the wide variety of music and electronic devices available today on the music market, this essay will cover the topics of use the Ableton Live for processing an acoustic instruments, and a MIDI controllers supporting the operation of this software for live music performances.  The first part describes performances of Rihards Fedotovs (considered as one the best finger-drummer in the world). Working for many years as a solo artist, he has developed a unique style of combining different devices and integrating sound with visual effects using advanced software. Next, a three artists who prepare their performances in a similar way will be presented, with fewer details, to compare their variety approach on use of the software and equipment.  

Electronic music performance, which in and of itself is a difficult thing in a way, because when you come from organic world of playing, it is easy to navigate how to perform, and then electronic music world where in a modular sense, everything has infinite possibilities. In order to determine how to prepare your performance and what elements it will contain, you can ask one question - while you perform, what do you want to be doing? Among many techniques of performing live music most often noticed are, sampling different sounds, launching different clips, creating an arrangement on the fly, playing instruments (acoustic and / or MIDI), vocal processing or sequencing. All of these techniques, however, require something like a 'backbone', that is software or hardware. One of the leading in the music technology market, Ableton AG (founded in 1999 (Germany, Berlin), first commercial software release 2001), in almost 20 years of its activity developed Ableton Live (current version 10) and MIDI devices supporting the system which allows for countless ways to perform live music. One of the biggest advantage of Ableton software is the possibility to switch between Clip View and Session View (Live 9 version)

“Session view”:

 “Arrangement view”:

 To explain how to perform with the use of “Session view”, Rihards Fedotovs performance will be a great example.  As a child he learned to play on xylophone, in later years on drums so if we take into account the technique of playing on these instruments, it is essentially hitting a different elements in a specific order and tempo.  In order to perform a same technique using electronic devices a source of sound is needed (Digital Audio Workstation or hardware instrument) and something to trigger it (like MIDI controller). To further understand how it works, used by Richard the Ableton “Push” is a great example of a device which allows to play grooves with one shots and launch different clips.  Released for sale in 2013 (currently Push 2), this MIDI device allows to control all the parameters of software without the need to use a computer keyboard and mouse. It has 64 pressure sensitive pads, 11 knobs which makes it an advance instrument. There are many ways to assign pads to trigger a sounds, however, one of the more often used is a "Drum Rack".

This instrument is capable of playing one shots as well as longer audio samples.  Thanks to the full control of the parameters of each sound (filters, warp modes, volume, pitch and all sorts of envelopes) in a very precise way it is possible to determine what kind of sound we want to get when triggering this sample [WWW].

( Ableton Push with access to “Drum Rack” )  


There are also devices with similar applications, for example Novation Instruments Launchpad (midi controller) which allow you to assign most of the Ableton Live parameters, however, it does not have a screen and knobs.  Also, AKAI Professional company worked together with Ableton on Push, and besides, it produced a series of MPD devices specifically for Ableton Live.







Another effective way to trigger one shots is use of electronic drums or drum pads.  In contrast to the above MIDI controllers, these devices often have a built-in sound library and the ability to upload custom one or can trigger a sounds from Ableton directly.








Another use for combining a “Session view” with any midi controller with pads is to use it for launching different clips as a loop (counted in bars). Each clip gives a control over basic parameters like a launch mode, volume, transpose, speed change, different Warp modes (for correcting or adjusting beat positioning, it is very useful for sampling different sounds) and giving access to automation or adjustments of all available envelopes. There is also a really useful feature “Follow Action” where you can set for example, that after 2 bars, Clip will automatically change and play the one below or above it.  After setting those values, Ableton Live effects can be used for further audio processing. This DAW has a 34 audio effects and 7 midi effects (coming for free with Live 10 Suite), they can work as a chain or parallel - the rules of a signal flow is same as for real mixer.

 Artists like Rachel K Collier (1989, Wales) creates a backbeat in this way and later adding other layers of song elements from external sound sources often looping them in Ableton Live.  One of her setup for performance called “Paper Tiger” [WWW] contained Ableton Push 2 for launching clips (triggering, duplicating, slicing and looping techniques).  Some of the reverb and delay type of effects are sended to Akai LPD8 so she can adjust their parameters (level, dry/wet signal, time settings) on the fly.  To play melodies and bass lines she uses variety of analog synthesizers, in this example Arturia Minibrute SE bass synth, King Korg and some pre-recorded vocal samples triggered by MiniLab MK2.  For vocal parts a lot of artists use a brand Shure, this song in studio conditions she performed using Shure SM7B microphone. Her performance live is outstanding in terms of vocal, and understanding of software and hardware, well-integrated Ableton session allows her to move smoothly and effective between loops and effects.  Because the arrangement of the song can be changed during a show, Rachel often uses improvisation elements, which shows that Ableton allows artist a lot of flexibility and control over a sound and song structure.

Another important part of the performance used by Richard F., Mr. Bill and Rachel C., is a device available from 2009 which made a big impact on the use of a software, called MaxForLive.  In collaboration with Cycling ‘74, Ableton created a platform for use of MAX/MSP within Ableton Live. Without going into to much details about this powerful device, it is an application programming interface (API) [CIPRIANI, A], which allows users to create a custom Max patches inside Ableton Live (there are many audio and midi effects, instruments and devices that can be edited and re-routed).  The combination of these two systems give to Ableton users possibility to create their own applications for use in live shows. One of the applications that supports the MaxForLive operation is Mira.




It is another invention of Cycling ‘74, and it is a great way to control a MaxForLive patches on other devices like tablets or even smartphone.  In practice, you could mirror a Max patches from Ableton to control a Reverb. Using a classic knobs and faders on stage is effective but using applications like Mira instead,can be more efficient because artist have access to all parameters controlled from the touch screen (you can also program gestures, and other movements possible only on this type of screens).

Some of the methods for performance solo with the use of “Session view” have been discussed, but there is another option to prepare the session, and that is with "Arrangement view".  The main difference between the two is that in the first example, user can mix many loops with each other. Second view offers more linear way of playing back, where user can structure a whole song, automate modulations, silence some parts at specific time, change a tempo or any effect.  In practice some artists with a musical instrument background or is a singer, they may play some parts like drums, lead synthesizers and generally backing track and perform the best what they can. Preparing a session that way has an advantage over “Session view” in terms of visibility of the whole song structure and if well organised gives the artist the opportunity to focus on the performance while the session, when switched on, predictably moves in time.

There are also many artists who perform using looping method.  Currently on the music market there is high demand of so called loop stations.  It is a hardware device with inputs for microphone and variety inputs and outputs for sound signal.  One of the highly rated by users is Boss RC-505 which is simple to use and offers many software feature with sophisticated system of routing (connection with Ableton is also possible by using MIDI -in and -out ports).  Every looping machine has a button which after pressing can record a signal from a microphone and stop any time, then loop this fragment in a specific time (usually counted in bars). The RC-505 offers 5 separate channels and a very large base of effects.  It is possible to use even up to 3 effects at the time, the small screen shows available for modulation parameters and knobs make it ease to adjust them. Effects and sound may be also layered and automated on top of each other, also thanks to the faders on each track artists can mix on the fly. 



RC-505 gives the opportunity to be used as the only device needed for the performance because its USB audio/MIDI interface . In hands of skilled artist like Saro can be enough to entertain fans for even 1 hour long.   

Ableton live 10 also offers the device called “Looper”.  It does not have effects such as reverb, but it is a great tool for controlling the loop length of the existing audio sample or for looping audio recorded live. One of the examples of artists using Ableton live "Looper" is the composer and cellist Zoe Keating (1972, USA).


Her solo performance consists of playing previously composed cello music, and adds further layers in the form of a loop. As shown above her live setup contains a macbook some audio interface, microphone and a pedal to trigger on/off “Looper”. There are also some effects set on chain and parallel. It is fair to state that Ableton in this case in a great way complementing an art and make it ease for an artist to set. All previously mentioned devices and techniques of performing must be connected in some way. In case of connecting many different instruments (keyboards, microphone) with a computer, audio interface and Ableton Live, the software works as a World Clock (using SMPTE time code), also can be set as a Slave and receive and send a signal to a mixer. When set as a Master, Ableton can receive and send a signal from many MIDI devices connected to the software. MIDI clock is used to set a general tempo, and any controller mentioned before, can be used to produce, mix, record and reproduce a sound within the Ableton Live [M. RUSS].

If devices like Ableton Push or NI Launchpad (Natively Supported) are automatically recognized by a software, same for audio interfaces. User can also do it by Manual Setup (default mapping) [J. PERRINE]

The solo performances of electronic music artists are still something new, as only in the past 5-10 years technology such as the connection of Software Ableton with hardware Push is available.  Ableton also has a large impact on the needs of new products and cooperates with world leaders of electronic music devices manufacturers (Novation Instruments , AKAI), also together with software developer Cycling ‘74, created a integrated version of MAX/MSP environment, called MaxForLive.  Thanks to improvements, this software offers an environment for creating music in the studio as well as for preparing songs for live performances.




ABLETON LIVE PUSH 2 PERFORMANCE (2017) Paper Tiger [WWW] available from  [Accessed 21-12-2018]

BERLIN, ABLETON AG (2018) Live 10 manual. [WWW] available from:  [Accessed 21-12-2018]


CIPRIANI, A. and GIRI, M. (2009) Electronic Music and Sound Design. Rome, Italy: ConTempoNet

DESANTIS, D. (2015) Making Music: 74 Strategies for Electronic Music Producers. Berlin, Germany: Ableton AG

PERRINE, J. (2012) Sound Design, Mixing & Mastering with Ableton Live. Milwaukee, USA: Hal Leonard Books.


PYRAMIND (2017) Mr. Bill | Ableton Live Workshop (San Fransisco). [WWW] available from:  [Accessed 21-12-2018]

RUSS, M (2008) Sound Synthesis and Sampling. 3rd edition. Oxon, UK: Focal Press.

The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) Vol. 3, Oxford: Clarendon Press.




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