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Warping Tunes for Live Sets with Ableton Live


Ableton is fast becoming the tool of choice for the digital DJ and has just about every tool you could ask for when putting together a live show or DJ set. One of the most important parts of getting things right on the night is syncing individual beats or entire tracks and if you want to get things 100% locked down the best strategy is to warp your files before the show.

Warp markers are small flags that Ableton uses to cut audio into small portions, these portions can then be shifted back and forth as the tempo of your project is changed. This basically means that the audio takes on an elastic nature and can be played back at any tempo without suffering from the degradation and anomalies related to traditional time stretching.

There are undoubtedly a few ways to do this but this is the method I have found to be the quickest and most accurate when working with entire tracks. I had to warp around 200 tunes between Detroit airport and the MGM Grand a while back for a load of shows in the US, and this method proved to be the one that got me through the list the quickest. Of course it is advisable to do this well before the gig, rather than on the road but when it came to it the process didn’t let me down.

Although there is no audio during the tutorial the Ableton project is available for download in the Play Pack, including the tune used for warping. Please note the markers maybe slightly different from those shown in the screenshots, as the project was recreated using a high quality mp3 for download purposes, but the technique remains the same.

Step 1

Before you start it’s a good idea to inspect the files you will be working with in Ableton. Open the track in your favorite external audio editor so that you get a good a view of the whole thing. You’re really looking for clipping, areas of excessive noise, phase issues, etc. When you’re working through a large list of tracks you may only get a chance to listen to a small portion of each song, so this is an ideal way of getting a quick ‘second opinion’ on the file’s integrity.

You might also want to trim any silence from the start and end of the tracks. I would often go as far as removing long intros from tunes, as in reality these won’t get used in most DJ sets and you will probably start warping from the first major transient event, which in a lot of electronic music is the first kick drum. Of course if you intend to use the intro as part of your set leave it in there.

If you feel that a track needs a boost in volume, you can always apply some brick-wall limiting here but be careful. If you go overboard you can destroy the tune’s dynamic signature. You may find this technique useful when a song is recorded from vinyl or other analogue medium and perceived volume has been lost in the process.

Step 2

Once you are happy with the condition of the files you wish to use in your set, open Ableton Live and a suitable set to import your audio into. Here I am using a very simple set with two ‘decks’ or tracks and a basic crossfader set up. This configuration allows you to not only audition your music for warping but you can also try a quick mix if needed.

You can use an even simpler set up if you prefer as all you really need is one track to audition the track while you perform the warping technique.

Step 3

Next locate the track you want to process on your drive and import it into the first available slot on the nearest track in your set. You may be able to see that here I have used an AIFF file, this is because the track is one of my own. You may not have access to larger files (as opposed to MP3s) but it is always advisable to use the highest quality files you can. As you will only be playing back around 3 or 4 files at any one time during a DJ set, using larger files shouldn’t impose too much strain on the average computer and the extra quality will be a bonus on any system.

Step 4

Once imported you can double click on the clip and the waveform will appear in the lower area of Live’s interface. You will notice at this point that Ableton has already calculated its own warp markers and that warp mode is switched on. You can turn this auto warping for longer files on and off in Ableton’s preferences.

You will also notice that the warping mode that’s used by default is 1/16th and ‘Beats’. This is perfect for most electronic material, that is predominantly drum based but you might want to try experimenting with other modes here if you are using tracks that are more instrumental in nature.

Unless you are very lucky the markers that Ableton initially places are usually not in the correct place and will need altering. If you want to get a good overview of your track here and need inspect or edit specific parts, then you can turn off warp mode and you should see a clear representation of your track. It should look almost identical to the file you loaded at the start.

Step 5

The first and most important step to achieving a good warp is finding the first transient in the track you want to use. In this case (and in most cases) it is the initial kick drum and it was residing just after a small intro.

Once this transient is located, move the first warp marker (labelled ‘1’) so that it is dead on the start of the sound. Zoom right in here if you need to and make sure you spend enough time getting this part right.

Step 6

Now when you zoom out and view the entire track you should be able to see that even this small adjustment has brought things into line. Obviously the warping process isn’t finished yet but even this small amount of work will have brought you much closer to a track that is easily synced in your sets.

You may be lucky with some productions and find that this is all you need to do and if this is the case on moving through the next steps you’ll find you don’t have to perform any more alterations. This is always great when it happens but more often than not, there is more work to be done.

Step 7

Now zoom into a region right at the end of the track where the drum track is still playing. It is likely that you will see warp markers that are slightly off. Grab any one of these markers and move it to the start of the transient, preferably onto the same sound or beat that you used at the start of the process.

Now on zooming back into an area at the start of your track you should see that these markers are still in the right place. If this is the case it’s likely that your tune has a very uniform timing and a tight clock was used in its creation and most importantly no cut and paste edits were made in post production. Your tune should now be ready to go and you can move on to the next one, comfortable in the knowledge you will be able to mix this one into your set in a live situation.

Of course not every tune will play ball and fall into place this easily. If you find that the warp markers are still out all over the track then take a deep breath, count to ten and move on to the next step.

Step 8

Looking at the whole waveform you can see that at this point we have only used one ‘locked’ warp marker at the very start of the track. This is represented by the marker being highlighted yellow or green. If markers are falling out of place in different places throughout the tune, it’s likely there is a discrepancy in the timing caused by some of the issues mentioned in the previous step.

The only way we can rectify this is by taking a more dynamic approach to placing warp markers. Start by zooming in on an area where you know the markers are off and create a locked marker by double clicking on it, until it is highlighted. Now place this new marker in the correct position.

Repeat this process, placing these markers at key areas of the track. Splitting the track into sections of more or less the same size in your mind and placing markers at these points should help get things working. You will find that as you progress things will fall into line and that on zooming into new areas the markers are closer and closer to their correct position.

The amount of times you have to repeat this process will depend entirely on the timing of the track. From experience some tracks using heavy shuffle, strange timings or that have recorded from vinyl or manually edited may need some time spending on them before they behave.

Step 9

Once you’re happy you can save the overview and markers for that specific track by hitting the save button in the parameter area, just left of the warp mode box. It is good to be aware of the fact that this data is stored in an accompanying .asd file that will live next to the original. Now when Ableton loads this file into any project this data will come with it, allowing you to import the track into your set live with all the markers preserved.

Download the Play Pack for this tutorial (17.29MB)


  • Ableton Live Source Files
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