Nowadays there are countless plugins and tools, both commercial and free, meant to achieve various glitch effects. Some of them are really good, but most have a way too recognizable sound and a limited array of features. While most of the time what these tools have to offer is enough, it's always good to know how to make such effects from scratch, not to mention that becoming familiar with your DAWs built-in effects and instruments makes for a huge difference. In this tutorial we're going to glitch the hell out of an simple drum loop, using only the tools Ableton Live has to offer by default.
Please note that while the stuff we'll do alongside this tutorial are pretty easy to follow and understand, you'd still better be familiar with the basics of how to use Ableton Live. If you're not, you should go and check out some of the tutorials covering the basics of this amazing DAW, there are lots of good writings and screencasts concentrating on that. For this tutorial we'll be using version 8 of Live, but basically you can use versions 6 or 7 with little or no difference at all. Prior to version 6 there were no racks in Live, which would make following along a bit difficult.
All right, so let's get started. What we need first, is of course something to work on. This could basically be any kind of audio source, but for the sake of simplicity we'll stick with a drum loop. In fact, the whole technique we'll be using in this tutorial is best suited for beats, but with a little creativity it can be used on any kind of sound, I'll show you some examples of that in the end. To have some material to work on I quickly threw together a tech-house beat, so this is what we're going to try to mess around with.
Okay, so now that we have our loop to work on, let's first start by cutting it up to its transients, and then loading it up into a sampler. To accomplish that, right click on the audio clips title bar, and in the popup menu click on Slice to New MIDI Track, the very last option, right above the color picker.
In the next dialog choose Transient in the first dropdown list, and Slice to single Sampler in the second one.
What this is going to do for us, is that it's going to cut the drum loop up to every little drum hit, create a new MIDI track and load a Sampler instrument with every slice we've got in it. It will also set things up so that specific notes on the keyboard will trigger specific slices in the Sampler, and it will even create a default MIDI clip for us, which simply does the job of replicating the original sound source during playback. At this point you don't have to worry about what's in the background, or be an advanced Sampler user, though it definitely helps if you are somewhat familiar with it.
Now let's make a few adjustments here. While it doesn't really make an audible difference, I like to bring down the values of Initial, Peak, Attack, Decay and Release to the minimum, just to keep things clean. What's important is that Sustain should remain 0.0 dB, so that the sound is audible at a constant and maximum volume, whenever a note is played. After you happy with the overall volume and characteristics of the sound, you might want to consider playing a bit with the Pan<Rnd control. It does exactly what you'd expect, it pans each slice randomly in the stereo field, which can make the sound pretty much interesting just by itself. If you want to go for a constantly panning sound with a lot of stereo movement, just turn it all the way up to 100%.
The next step is to add a little chaos, by re-arranging the order of the slices' playback. As each slice is triggered by a specific MIDI note, all we have to do in order to quickly add some variation to the loop is to insert a Scale device before the Sampler. It can be found in the MIDI effects folder of Live's devices browser.
I won't go into details about this device, because that's not the point of this guide, but to sum what it does in a nutshell: it basically takes all incoming notes and either lets them go through untouched, or plays a different note instead, based on rules defined by the note matrix. The default preset doesn't change anything, it leaves all notes intact. Should you have an exact idea of what to achieve, you could go and program this thing for as long as you like, but for the sake of spontaneity I'll just randomize it by clicking around with the mouse. A simpe randomizer button here would be sweet, wouldn't it? :)
Great, so now we have re-arranged our loop a bit, but we're still missing the point. Even though we have our slices playing back in a different order, the change we made is still just as static as it was before. Essentially, we'd like to have multiple variations of the same effect, and to be able to switch between these variations with a simple turn of a knob.
First and foremost, we'll have to group our Scale effect into an effect rack, so that we can have macro controls, and multiple chains, which act somewhat like layers in digital image processing software. The simplest way of doing that is just to click on our Scale device and then hit Ctrl+G (Command+G on the Mac), where G of course stands for Grouping. After you create the rack, be sure to make the chain list and macro controls panels visible by click the appropriate buttons on the left side of the rack.
Next we're going to create several chains with the same setup, but each acting a little bit different from the others. To do this, simply drop a few more Scale plugins in the empty area of the racks chain list, the one with the label saying Drop MIDI Effects here. Just make sure you don't forget to configure a different note matrix for each Scale, because that's what our goal is.
By the way, you can name every chain the way you want, simply select the chain and hit Ctrl+R (or Command+R on the Mac), then type in the name you want for that particular chain.
So far so good, but the problem is that at the moment we have all the chains playing simultaneously. We don't want it to be like that, we want to have only one specific chain playing at a time. Moreover, we'd like to have some control over which is the one that's audible. Luckily, Live has a powerful, but yet easy to use feature to help us accomplish that: zones. Follow on to the next step to see how zones are going to help us reaching our goal.
Zones are basically nothing but intervals that filter which chains will receive the signal passed in to the rack, while other chains will remain silent. We have three different types of zones: Key zones (which essentially assign chains to various parts of your MIDI keyboard), Vel zones (where Vel of course stands for velocity and these are zones based on velocity levels) and Chain zones (being controlled by a single parameter called a chain selector). We'll stick with Chain zones this time, as all we need is a simple control over the selection of chains. So in order to bring up the Chain Select Editor just click on the little button labeled Chain right above the chain list.
What we see here now, is the zone editor itself. Each chain in the list has it's own zone, represented by a little clip which behaves pretty much the same as a looped audio or MIDI clip (and notice that the zone editor itself looks much like a minified version of Lives arrangement view). That is, we can move it around by clicking in the middle of it and then dragging it to whatever position we feel like we want it to be, or we can change its length by grabbing one of its edges, and then resizing it to fit our needs.
By default, each zone has but a single value, which is 0, and the chain selector (which is the little orange marker on the Chain Select Ruler right above) is also set to 0. Guess what, that's why we hear all the chains in the rack playing simultaneously! So for example if we move the selector to a value of 8 (see picture below), and then we try to play back our sound, we'll hear nothing, which is of course exactly what we are expecting with all the zones being set to 0, and the chain selector to 8.
Ok, now we're going to set up our zones to be able to cycle through the racks chains with a macro control. There's a neat little trick in the zone editor, that will come handy. Let's grab the right edge of one of the zones, and pull it out all the way to the right, to the maximum value of 127.
When it's done, all you have to is simply right-click in the zone editor, and in the popup menu select Distribute Ranges Equally.
It will do exactly what is says, that is divide 127 with the number of chains, give each chain a zone of equal length, and also position them across the available space so that none of the zones will be overlapping each other.
All we've left to do, is to map the selector to a macro control, to be able to control all the variation in our loops arrangement in real time. To do that, click on Map Mode in the header part of the rack to turn the mapping mode on, then click once on the Chain Select Ruler (it will turn kind of pinkish in mapping mode), and then choose a macro knob of your preference, and click the Map button underneath it.
I just mapped it to the very first macro knob. Now click on Map Mode again to turn it off, and here we go: try randomly turning this macro knob around while playing the sound back. I just mapped the macro to a physical knob on my MDI keyboard, and played around with it, check the sample to hear what it sounds like.
Right, so things are getting pretty interesting from now on. To add more life to the sound we're going to run the signal through a bunch of audio effects which Live has to offer. First, let's add even more chaos to our sound by throwing in a Beat Repeat effect (can be found under audio effects). I won't bother going into the details of its programming, so feel free to load up a preset from the library, or just program it to your taste. I raised the Chance to 85%, set the Grid to 16 and added Variation a value of 4. Next we're going to add a little bitcrushing effect using Redux. I set the mode to Soft, and mapped the Downsample control to another knob on my MIDI keyboard here.
Personally I like to add a bit of space with some reverb aswell. What I did is just loaded up a Reverb preset called Ambience, found under Reverb/Room, and then turned the Dry/Wet control down to around 30%. This makes the whole sound come quite alive, but be careful not to abuse reverberation, it can mess things up pretty badly.
Check out what kind of a result playing a bit with the knobs assigned gets us. Remember that by now we have the chain selector and the redux downsample controlled externally, but in case you don't have an external MIDI controller, you can just map both to some macro controls (to be able to map some of the effect parameters to a macro control, you'd have to put them in a rack as well, which is exactly what I'm going to do in the next step anyway).
There are two more effect units we should utilize, a filter, and some distorsion. The filter is undisputedly one of the most radical sound-shaping tools, its effect can vary from being very subtle to drastically changing the timbre of the sound. In this example I choose a bandpass filter and set up another knob to automate it's cutoff and resonance. As for distorsion, I used a device named Erosion, the Hiss preset to be specific. I also added a bit of saturation in the end, but that's just my personal preference.
One clever thing to do though, is to put all of these effects we added after the sampler into a rack, and we can then easily turn them on and off all at once. I minimized each effect device (to minimize the GUI of an effect or an instrument, simply double click on its title bar, and when minimized, do the same to bring it back to how it was) so that you can see them all inside of the rack. Let's hear what our loop sounds like now with the filter and the hiss effects added.
What I like to do, is to add a final touch with some reverb and compression. For this I set up a return channel with a nice, big, spacey reverb on it and a compressor just to tighten things up a little bit. Nothing too drastic here, just to make the sound a bit more alive. Again, keep it subtle here, or you'll end up overflooding the whole signal with reverb.
Finally, for those of you who are looking for a more dramatic effect, messing up the original sound source even more, here's a little tip. Add an Arpeggiator in the very beginning of the signal flow, right before our MIDI effect rack filled with Scale devices. Then automate the arpeggiators Rate control with some knob or macro control. Play around with the settings, and expect some serious glitch to be happening.
Also as promised, here are some samples showing what could you get applying this technique to sound sources other than drum loops (namely a piano sequence, some guitar riffs and a vocal sample).
While the technique we used in this tutorial is just one of the many, its biggest advantage is that it works in a non-destructive way. Try turning off the Arpeggiator, the MIDI effect rack containing all the Scale devices and the other rack with the audio effects in it. That is, leave nothing on except for the Sampler instrument. Guess what, you'll hear the original sound just like it was in the beginning.
Hopefully this tutorial will set you on discovering the countless ways of creating controlled chaos and glitch in Ableton Live. Use it as a foundation to your future experiments and feel free to leave comments explaining your own ideas. Thanks for following along!