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The PowerBook Rockstar

Lecture Notes by Josh Knowles, Frescher-Southern


On October 27th, 2004 (my birthday, coincidentally), I presented a talk at the O'Reilly Mac OS X Conference called "The PowerBook Rockstar." Here's the short description:

"In this session learn how to use a Mac to become a digital music rockstar. We'll go over topics ranging from setting up a virtual studio environment, turning the Mac into a flexible instrument for live music performance, and using the Mac to archive and distribute recordings of sets. (You'll have to figure out what to do with the groupies on your own.)"

I wrote fairly detailed notes in advance about what I would talk about — which I've published here. I haven't spent much time on formatting or grabbing screenshots, so visit the sites of the different software products I mention if you would like some visuals to go along with the words.

My credentials include several years of live performance experience around Texas and the United States as DXM and The Clearing Stages. I also manage Frescher-Southern, an organization in Austin, Texas that puts on live digital music events featuring Austin musicians and talented musicians we bring in from around the world. You can download recent live sets of mine from my webserver.

Hope you find this useful!

Organizing a Workflow

Software Choices

The three main software packages I use are Apple's Logic Pro 7, Native Instruments Komplete 2 synthesizer bundle, and Ableton's Live software.

I use Logic as my main platform for composing. The German company eMagic originally developed Logic back in the 90s and Apple bought the company a couple of years ago. Logic 7 (which I'm using here), the first Apple-developed Logic, hit the market just a few months ago. In addition to hardware and software sequencers, Logic also comes pre-bundled with a bunch of useful synthesizer and effects plug-ins, including a few brand new ones such as a nifty string-vibration modeller and a drum machine plug-in — which I'll get into in a moment.

I am aware that the newest version of Ableton Live (version 4) allows the MIDI sequencing of virtual instruments. So you might wonder why ever work in Logic at all — why not just stay totally within Ableton Live? Well, two reasons: 1) Logic has much, much more flexibility and raw sound power than Ableton Live. For sound creation, Live is much more of a sketch pad — good for quick-and-dirty composition, but not for putting the polish on. Logic is the powerhouse. And 2) Generally speaking, my brain works where I work on complete tracks to be used for CDs or whatever within the powerful Logic environment. Then I slice things up when I want to use a track in Live for live performance. So, back to our story...

Native Instruments Komplete collects all of NI's synth line of products in one box, including their modular synthesis development environment called Reaktor, several flavors of samplers, some unusual effects, and their well-written virtual versions of the Prophet and Yamaha DX7 synths and Hammond B3 organ (called the Pro-53, FM7, and B4, respectively). NI is also a German company that has made a name for itself with its innovative software instruments. In addition to the synths, they also produce some very popular DJ tools.

Ableton Live I use almost exclusively for live performance situations. Made by yet another German company, Ableton have cornered the market (mostly) for live laptop performance tools with their extremely easy-to-use and intuitive user interface and their very reliable, nearly glitch-free implementation. I'll get into this more towards the end of the talk, but Ableton essentially allows you to micro-DJ using audio loops, add realtime effects to these loops, and it gives you a variety of tools to chop up and manipulate your loops in real-time.

Organizing Your Hard Drive

After installing the software packages you wish to use, you should take a few minutes to think through a plan for organizing your laptop. This will greatly help you — especially when you need to get to your loops and samples quickly during a live performance.

I choose to have a folder in which I organize my loops into different groupings. I have a subfolder for loops pertaining to specific tracks or songs (one subfolder per song). I label the folders so that the newest tracks — the ones I'm most likely to use — stay at the top of the list. I have a subfolder for general beats and percussion patterns that I can use whenever. These I also group by the type of sound — sometimes by the source instrument (ie, Electribe or Logic) and sometimes by type of sound. I also have a subfolder for more long-form sound effectsy loops that don't fit quite so much into a traditional beat mold. So you can see I have fast-access to all of these files.

Some of the NI instruments — Battery and Kontakt, mostly — have large sample libraries that you'll want to keep in one place, as well. I'd recommend creating a "Sample Library" folder somewhere that's easily accessible and then not moving that folder unless absolutely necessary. Moving it will cause the software to lodge a string of complaints wondering where the samples have gone to. That's very annoying. (You might see a few of these complaints as I run this demonstration since I keep my NI sample library on an external hard drive that I left at home.)

In your main music library folder you'll also want to come up with a plan for keeping track of your Logic files and the samples that go along with them. I keep all my files in one folder and keep all of the sounds related to a Logic file in a directory with the same name suffixed with "Sounds." My "Back on Ice" Logic file sounds all go in the "Back on Ice Sounds" folder, for example.

Keeping track of all of your files may not seem like a big issue when you're starting off, but trust me — you'll have a much easier time composing if you know where all your work is at. And when you perform with Ableton Live, fast access to all of your loops is an absolute must (or else your set will suck as you waste time looking for things).

Building Loops

Now that we've gone over setting up, we'll get into actually creating loops for live performance purposes using Logic as our primary tool.

Sequencing Using Logic Pro

If we've installed our software properly (not that hard of a task), we should have immediate access to the plug-in instruments and effects that come with Logic as well as all of our third-party plug-ins (such as the Native Instruments plugs, in my case). When we create a new Logic song, we can easily see if we're ready to go by trying to select an instrument or effect to use. We should see all of our plug-ins.

A quick note: I'm not going to get into sequencing external hardware synths and effects right now. If you have some, you can probably figure it out pretty quickly (or have already). Since I don't have any on hand — and since I'm mostly interested right now in getting some simple loops out to play with in Ableton Live — I'm going to just talk about software (virtual) instruments and effects. The quality of these software instruments has gone through the roof in the past few years and I've found that I personally don't feel like I'm sacrificing quality by using them. They're cheap, very flexible, and I can carry around my entire studio in a satchel...

Okay. So we're ready to go with Logic. Now we play around until we have a few loops we're pleased with, keeping in mind that we're trying to make bits and pieces to be used with Ableton Live rather than completed songs within Logic. Most of my tracks have a couple of different (related) sections with basslines and a couple drums tracks and some sorts of melody or foreground sounds. So we'll just put something together quickly here that sounds alright and move on to the next step.

Bouncing Audio Loops to Disk

When we've got a set of sequences that we're happy with, we can bounce each individual track to disk. Bouncing the tracks seperately will allow us more flexibility to tweak the mix and add effects once we get the loops into Ableton Live. Bouncing is a simple process. Just make sure you have the proper measures selected and then go through each of your tracks, soloing each and then bouncing the solo into the proper folder (the proper song folder, as described above). My personal preference is to bounce the tracks relatively dry — with only sparse effects — and to avoid individually normalizing the tracks too much, something which might make the mix sound odd if you drag the loops into Ableton Live and forget to soften the tracks that you've normalized loud.

A problem that sometimes arises bouncing tracks wet with effects (or that involve instruments with long release times) can be that the tail ends of notes and reverb effects (for examples) get cut off at the end of the loop. So when the loop runs in Ableton Live you get an abrupt cut sound as the loop ends and restarts at the end of a measure. I won't get into it here too much, but you might want to double the length of the loop in Logic and bounce twice as much as you want. Then bring the audio file back into Logic and bounce it out as two new audio loops: One that starts dry and one that starts with the leftover effects and release tones from previously played notes. Doing this, you'll have a loop you can start with (dry) and loops that you can use as the loop repeats without getting that jump sound.

So. Once we've bounced all of the tracks we've made in Logic to disk (and organized and named them so we can find them quickly), we're ready to move into Ableton Live and begin putting together a set to play live. In the club. Or just in front of the cat.

Using Loops Live

Setting Up Loops in Ableton Live

Okay. So here we have Ableton Live, the tool we're going to use to turn our bits and pieces made with Logic into our live set. Though the under-the-hood the software works very well, the true genius of Ableton Live is the user interface. (Maybe I'm giving away the fact that I do interface design for work...) The software may look a bit cluttered or complicated upon first blush, but as you play with it you'll come to appreciate how everything you need is so easy to access. This is critical for performing live, as you might imagine.

You can see that we can browse through our various sound files and effects on the left. If you followed my advice above and organized your sound files as you made them, then you should be pretty much ready to go — you can "bookmark" the three most useful folders in you library for fast access. Then we can drag the loops into the mixer and trigger them to play by clicking on them. You can see how we can easily adjust the levels and panning on each track. We can also use sends and do just about everything you might do with a hardware mixer. You can even group tracks and crossfade between them as you might with a DJ mixer. And then we can drag the effects onto the track and manipulate them in the region at the bottom of the screen. Live neatly quantizes the loops and takes much of the "work" out of putting sounds together, leaving the musician to make the creative decisions and let the software just sort of do it.

Creating a Useful Live Workspace

So we're just fiddling around here, but you can see how we might go about setting up a workspace using Live that would help us be more flexible during a performance.

I often enjoy starting with a completely blank slate in Live and building up my set and just taking it in whatever direction I feel like — so I sometimes start "naked" with a completely blank Ableton Live file like we started off with. Oftentimes, though (especially if you want to create a much tighter, more structured playlist for yourself), you might want to set up Ableton Live in advance to help you perform more smoothly.

One easy way to start doing this is to drag out the files for the different tracks you want to play and grouping them in rows, each part in a different mixer channel. When I do this, I go the extra step, as well, and group the different sorts of parts according to column, so all of the basslines are in the same mixer channel column and all of the lead parts go in their own mixer column, etc.

I seperate by columns so I don't accidentally get two basslines (for example) going at the same time. And any effects I might have such as EQs will carry over from one bassline to the next.

I seperate by rows so I can keep track of which clips go together. (Sometimes you can't see enough of the name of the file in the little clip tag to tell you exactly what it is.) Also, the little play arrow on the far right can be used to start playing all of the clips in that row at once. So if you need to start all of the clips related to one track at the same time, you can do that easily without having to click play on each individual clip (a sometimes challenging trick depending on how much time you have to trigger them and how many beers you may have had before the set).

One cool trick we can also use to get fast access to this clips is to assign them to letters on our keyboards. This is very easy... Click "Key" in the upper-right corner. Then click a slot in the field. Then type a letter. You'll see the letter appear in the corner of the slot. So we can make it so that when we hit "a", for example, this clip starts playing when the next loop-cycle starts up. Very cool. We can actually assign letters to any "switch" control in Ableton, including effects. So we could, for example, make a key on the keyboard turn a delay effect on and off.

Using External Controls with Live

I was unfortunately unable to bring my control surface along with me, but I'll try and describe another very cool way to control Ableton Live. I have a Behringer BCR2000 control surface. It's essentially just a device about the size of this laptop with a whole bunch of knobs and buttons on it. Each one of these knobs and buttons sends a MIDI command and we can tie these MIDI commands to any Ableton Live widget the same way we can attach keys on the keyboard to some widgets. So I could make one knob adjust the volume of a track, another the pan, and another the amount of reverb that goes on the track. This is an increbile way to really turn Ableton Live into a very flexible instrument. It's much easier to turn a bunch of knobs and tweak sounds that way than to have to click around on the screen with the mouse. (Sorry I can't actually demonstrate this for you.) Any device that sends MIDI data (MIDI synths, for example) can be used to control Ableton. So if it's got a knob and MIDI, you can use it.

So there you go! Ableton Live in a nutshell. You can see we have the basic set of skills, now, to create a dynamic live performance with Ableton Live.


Digitally Recording Live Sets

We can also use Ableton Live to do a direct digital feed out of Ableton Live and onto our hard drive. Set the monitor input type to "Master Out." Then enable record. Then trigger the record button in the place where you want the recorded clip to go. And you're ready to go. Now, the record and stop function will quantize to the loop, like a normal playing clip will when you start or stop it. So you can actually record loops as you play them and have them be immediately available to use as a playable clip in your performance. You can also just record the entire performance as one long track to your hard drive. After you do this, you'll need to save the Live session somewhere. When you do this, Ableton Live will create a folder in the same place called "[Track Name Here] Sounds". Inside this will be an audio file with the same number as the audio clip in your performance. That's just a raw AIFF file. You can drag it into iTunes and convert it to an MP3. You could take it back into Logic to adjust the levels and EQs how you want. Whatever you want. There it is.

Publishing Your Music

I archive all of my live performances by date and location, and I keep these in iTunes for my own reference and I also put my favorites on my website for friends to download and listen to. By bouncing a live set directly to the disk with Ableton Live and converting it with iTunes, I can sometimes have recordings of live sets up on the web before I even leave the club (if the club has wireless, which many in Austin, at least, do). And I haven't tried this, but since it only takes a few minutes to burn a CD-R through iTunes, if you had covers already made, you could probably actually sell live recordings of your sets at your shows, starting just minutes after you wrapped up. I don't know if that would really work, but it sure sounds cool!

The End!

Anyway! That's my presentation. From concept to Logic to Ableton Live and out the club speakers (and on to iTunes and the web). Any questions?

Make sure to check out Frescher-Southern at frescher.com if you find yourself in Austin and want to hear some good music. I also have a personal website at auscillate.com.