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Audio Production

Quick Tip: Using MIDI Effects in Ableton Live - Part 1

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This tutorial series is going to show you how to use Ableton Live MIDI devices in order to improve your songwriting skills. Many up and coming producers have difficulties with their songwriting skills because they have an idea in their heads but their hand skills are not good enough to put this idea into an interesting and realistic melody. Sometimes I struggle on my MIDI keyboard because I can't form the chords correctly and I miss the right combination of the notes over and over again. And this causes me to lose the flown of my idea.

Fortunately Ableton Live has some excellent features to help correct these problems. In the first part of the tutorial I will show you how to use these devices correctly and next one I will give some advice about how to combine them in order to contribute great melodies from it.


Step 1: Create a MIDI Track

First you have to create a MIDI track and apply an instrument to it. I usually use a piano first, and later on when I have an idea about the timbre I usually change it for the correct instrument. So back to the project - I apply a grand hall acoustic piano from the Ableton instrument racks. If you want to hear a sound when you press a key on your MIDI keyboard, you have to turn on "arm session recording" which is located at the first line in the bottom of the mixer.

If you don't have a MIDI keyboard, use your computer keyboard shortcuts, but in that case the computer keyboard switch must be enabled. You can find it at the top right corner of Ableton's toolbar represented by a small piano figure.


Step 2: Creating Chords Using One Note

So we have the MIDI channel. If you are hitting the notes you can hear the piano timbre. If you are not, go back to Step 1 and repeat it, or check your connection between your computer and your keyboard.

After that, drop the Chord MIDI effect from the Ableton's browser to your MIDI track. This device helps you to create chords while you holding only one note at a time. As you can see there are six slots available. This effect assembles a chord, as the name implies, from each incoming note and up to six others of user-defined pitch. The Shift 1-6 knobs allow selecting the pitch of the notes that contribute to the chord from a range of +/- 36 semitones relative to the original.

But before we start tweaking this feature, it is essential to know how to form a simple major chord. I'm not going to dig deep in the science fo music anatomy - just a small overview about the chords.

If you want to form a chord first you have to choose a scale - in our case C major. The C major scale is called a major scale because it follows a particular pattern of intervals. What is an interval? It is the gap between two notes. Any kind of music you write will use intervals. Every major or minor scale has 7 notes and each note represented by a number. Example in C Major the first note is C, so the number is 1. D is the second so the number 2 etc.

If you want to form a major chord you have to use the first the third and fifth degree of the scale. These intervals will give you the major chord. In C major for example, the C major will built from C-E-G because the intervals are 1-3-5 on the scale. Using this principle we can form a simple major chord with the chord MIDI device.

Important note: The Chord device based on the chromatic scale not on scale patterns. This means that if you have already set the shift knobs to 1-3-5 it will sound awful because the chord toy only uses semitones. Every octave contains 12 semitone but the major scales build up from seven semitones. Each scales type has a predetermined pattern. If you are curious how these patterns looks like or how to build up check out The Harmonized Major Scale – Part 1.

So we have to count the semitones until we reach the scale third and fifth degree. If you counted correctly the settings are the following Shift 1 to +4 semitones and Shift 2 to +7 semitones yields a major chord in which the incoming note is the root. Now this isn't a set in stone rule, it's just a good guideline to start off with.

So now if you hit example a C note it will sound like C major chord. And after you became familiar with the device you can create more complex chords like major 7 chords or diminished chords by using your music knowledge. With this feature you can easily pick up any kind of chords during the production.

C major chord:

C minor chord:


Step 3: Using the Scale Effect

This device can be really handy if you are using at the right context. What does this effect do?

Scale alters incoming note pitch based on a scale mapping. Each incoming note is given an outgoing equivalent on the X-Y scale map of the effect: All incoming Cs, for example, might be converted to outgoing Ds.

Why is this handy? When you are playing notes, for example writing a lead track, you sometimes happen to hit the wrong note which is not part of the scale. In this case it will sound enharmonically according rest of your progression. To prevent this issue use this device. It will transpose that wrong note, flatten or sharpen to the nearest correct note based on the scale. So your work remains in harmonic.

Of course it can be wrong also but you can reduce or eliminate the small misses which are occurs during the performance. And trust me it will happen if you have to be fast on your keyboard.

Ableton gives us various presets of scale patterns like the minor, harmonic minor, melodic minor and major scales. So you don't have to program it by yourself. Just always to be sure to turn the base knob to the right key and using the right presets. This following example is in the C minor key because it is transposed by the scale effect.


Step 4: The Arpeggiator

Ableton gives us an excellent arpeggiator. What does it do? Live's Arpeggiator effect takes the individual MIDI notes from a held chord (or single note), and plays them as a rhythmical pattern. Arpeggiators are a classic element in Eighties synth music. The name originates with the musical concept of the arpeggio, in which the notes comprising a chord are played as a series rather than in unison. Arpeggio is derived from the Italian word arpeggiare, which refers to playing notes on a harp.

I won't explain this device too deeply because it's not part of my tutorial. If you are interested in how this device arppegiates each chord you can read the Live manual, where you will find excellent illustrations. I wrote this brief explanation because we are going to use the Arpeggiator in the next steps.


Step 5: The Pitch and the Note Length

These tools are not as important as the previous ones but they can be quite useful. The Pitch device is a transposition tool that changes the incoming note pitch by +/- 128 semitones. In some situations can be handy when you would like to change an octave between the two instruments quickly. With this effect you don't have to change or rewriting the MIDI notes. There are other methods of usage like transporting your entire track to different key, or blocking incoming MIDI messages depending on the range of the pitch. This can be really handy when you split your keyboard to play different instruments on different ranges of the piano roll.

You can hear that the pitch is transposed by two semitones with this effect.

The note length is kind of an amplitude envelope reshaper. With this you can determine the length of the notes. It can be quite useful in some situations. For example if you are playing 1/16th notes sometimes happen, that you are holding the notes a bit longer than it is necessary. With this tool no matter how long the notes are held it always sounds like a sixteenth.


Step 6: The Random and Velocity Devices

The random and velocity devices are the least useful tools for melody writing in my opinion. Random adds an element of the unknown to the otherwise commonplace pitch parameter. The Chance control defines the likelihood that an incoming note's pitch will be changed by a random value. I don't find this tool useful - it just creates a mess. But it is very good, for example, in drum patterns when you want to imitate some kind of chaotic percussion pattern.

Velocity remaps the 127 MIDI note velocity values. It can function on MIDI Note On or Note Off messages, or both, depending on the setting of the Operation chooser. Again it is a complex device so it just confuses us when we are writing melodies. After you have finished the melody, you can apply it to a synth. It will give you better control over the velocities, but in our case it's just confusing.

Next time I will explain how to combine these devices in various ways. Thanks for reading.

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