Exploring Ableton's Warp Modes

Posted by James Cullen on

Ableton traditionally has been lauded as the go to DAW for electronic dance music producers. As such, this reputation has also given rise to the idea that its audio capabilities aren't as good as other DAWs out there such as Logic Pro. And while this may have been true for earlier versions of Live, it now boasts a powerful collection of audio editing functions which make it a great tool for working with samples and loops, or even changing the way your own recorded audio sounds.

Ableton's built in Audio Editor has a number of Warping options, and warping is something of a specialty of Ableton's. This is what it truly excels at, but there is a lot to get your head around when it comes to the different warping modes present in Live. It's definitely something that you could always do with learning more about, but if you're already knowledgeable on this topic, it will be a good reminder of the core principles, and hopefully you'll pick up some new tips or things you'd forgotten along the way.

So, in this guide we will cover Ableton Live's Warp Modes, as well as an overview of what warping is, and most importantly, what you can do with Live's Warp Modes to help you in your music. Each of them has an area of audio editing that it excels in, so we'll be sure to focus on them and point out some good uses.

So let's get started!


Let's do the Time Warp again....

When you bring audio into Ableton Live, it is usually automatically warped to the project tempo of your session. But what does Warping mean in this context?

Say you're browsing through your sample library, and you find a drum loop called SambaDrums100bpm.wav or something to that effect.

Now, your project might be 130bpm, and have you noticed what happens when you drag a sample into Ableton that has a different tempo from the project?

Live not only automatically adjusts the tempo of the imported audio sample to that of your project, but it can also do a pretty good job at guessing the original tempo of any file you import (which is super useful if you don't have it labelled as in our example).

The two main things you can change with warping audio are its pitch and its tempo or speed. Now, in certain instances of audio editing, such as in some samplers, you can't change one without affecting the other. But Ableton's Warp Modes allow you to change either of them independently of the other. 

So what warping is, is editing the qualities of audio to produce varying results. 

So let's dive into where all of these controls are located, and cover a few of the basic controls before we move on.


So, this is the Sample Editor in Ableton Live, and there's a lot going on. 

In the main window, we. can see a waveform view of the audio loop we are working with, which in my case is a drum loop, and on the left is the Audio Tool Panel. The Warp Mode is indicated by the dropdown in the Audio Tool Panel, which in the above image is the dropdown menu saying Beats.

The first thing I want to focus on is the Yellow Marker above the first beat. These are Warp Markers, which are anchors you can place by double clicking on a transient marker (read on for these). Using these Warp Markers, you can move and stretch the audio between the one you've selected and the previous Warp Marker. These are great for making sure your loop is perfectly anchored to the beats of your track, but you can also do the opposite; dragging audio around can drastically change how it sounds, so you can be super creative with these.

So the next thing I want to focus on is the Transient Markers which are the small grey arrows which are pointing down above the transients. This is a super useful part of Ableton Live, because Live automatically figures out where the beginning of each transient is, and places a marker there for you. It doesn't get it perfect every single time, but it's not far off. On simple loops where there isn't a lot of confusing rhytmic stuff happening, you'll be fine.

Transient is essentially the beginning of a hit or any piece of audio, so in my example of a drum loop, it's the beginning of every individual hit of each sound in the loop.

It's worth noting that different types of audio will have different types of transient markers, purely due to the nature of the audio you're using. These will also be relevant when it comes to the different types of Warp Modes, so we will come back to these.

Now, the controls along the left hand side in the Audio Tool Panel are all relevant when we are using the Warp Modes, so we will cover them here, and highlight specific ones that are particulary important in specific modes. The current display is in Beats Mode, so the controls specific for that are present.

So, the most important control we need to know about for our purposes is the big yellow Warp Switch, which toggles the Warping on or off.

Below that we have the dropdown menu where we can choose the Warp Mode, which selects between different time stretching methods.

Then there is the Preserve Dropdown, which preserves divisions in the sample as boundaries when warping is enabled. Transients gives the most accurate results, but you can achieve interesting effects if you select different beat divisions, regardless of the audio content of hte sample. 

The two controls below the dropdown Preserve Dropdown are the transient Loop Mode control, which allows you to select different modes of looping, and the Transient Envelope, which allows you to add a volume fade envelope to the transients.

Below this we have the BPM indicator, which shows the BPM of the audio samples, as well as controls for doubling or halfing it. There are also Gain and Pitch controls on the right hand side. 

There's a reverse function as well as an Edit button, which allows you to open the sample in a pre-selected external audio editor.

So, they're the basic controls with the Audio Tool Panel loaded into Beats Mode, so we should talk about this first.


Beats Mode

So, the first thing you'll notice about Beats Mode is the focus on the rhythmic elements of your audio. This is most pronounced when slowing your audio down, you can hear this happening in detail when you do this.

Beats Mode is, in case you hadn't guessed, works best for material where rhythm is the focus of the audio, such as drum loops, but also with most pieces of electronic dance music, since the rhythm is inherent in those types of music. The warping process is therefore optimised to make sure transients are preserved in the audio material.

Now, you do have control over how these transients are presserved, which is what the Preserve Dropdown does. Use the Preserve control to preserve divisions in the sample as boundaries when warping. You can either set these boundaries yourself, or Live will use its automatically generated ones.

The Transient Loop Mode chooser sets the looping properties for the clip’s transients, and this is why we mentioned slowing down your audio clip, because this is when you can really hear these modes in action.:

Loop Off — Each segment of audio between transients plays to its end and then stops. Any remaining time between the end of a segment and the next transient will be silent.

Loop Forward — Each segment of audio between transients plays to its end. Playback then jumps back to a zero-crossing near the middle of the segment and continues looping until the time when the next transient occurs.

Loop Back-and-Forth — Each segment of audio between transients plays to its end. Playback then reverses until it reaches a zero-crossing near the middle of the segment, and then proceeds again towards the end of the segment. This pattern continues until the time when the next transient occurs. This mode, in conjunction with the Preserve Transients selection, can often results in very good quality at slower tempos.

The Transient Envelope slider applies a volume fade to each segment of audio. At 100, there is no fade. At 0, each segment decays very quickly. Long envelope times can help to smooth clicks at the end of segments, while short times can be used to apply rhythmic gating effects.

So, the reason Ableton is doing this, is because when you slow down your audio, there is then not enough audio to fill the gaps between transient markers. The above Loop Mode then fills in these gaps in a one of the three ways. This is more noticeable at slower tempos, and at higher ones, there may not be the silence necessary for this Loop mode to kick in.

Now, one of the really cool things you can do with this is by setting the Preserve mode to a beat division rather than Transients. When we are in transient mode, Ableton tries to keep each of them where it's supposed to be in relation to the tempo grid. However, you can set whatever beat divisions you want to preserve, and create some really interested gated rhythmic effects. This is especially pronounced if you turn the Loop off, so when the beat division has played, you get a bit of silence.

Beats Mode is super useful when you're working with rhythmic elements of audio, but there's a lot more you can do with it if you have a mess around with the different settings. So be sure to experiment with the same settings on different bits of audio, and see what kind of results you can get!


Tones & Textures Modes

Both of these modes are really similar, so it's worth discussing them together. They share similarities in that they're working with grains, which are tiny granular slices of the audio. This is the concept behind Granular Synthesis, which can get some really interesting results. 

Almost the opposite to Beats ModeTones allows for precise control over audio content with a more or less clear pitch structure. So we're talking vocals, or any monophonic instruments with nice clarity in their pitch, such as lead or bass lines.

Contrary to Beats Mode, which focuses on transients to ensure the rhytmic structure of your audio is maintained, the Tones and Texture modes focus on the granular level. if you compare the different warp modes on a piece of audio, you will notice the differences depending on the context. Beats mode will sound odd on melodic and tonal audio, while tones or textures may not be the best for rhythmic loops.

So, working in Tones Mode gives only one control; Grain Size.

This provides rough control over the average grain size used, but it's worth noting that the actual grain size is determined depending on the audio you've brought into it. This gives a satisfying level of variation in the grain sizes.

If you're using a nice sample of a vocal or a clear lead line, then smaller grain sizes work best. 

Use a larger grain size to help avoid artifacts which can sometimes occur if the pitch contour of your audio isn't the best. The trade-off here, though, can be audible repetitions. 

 Textures Mode, on the other hand, applies a similar concept and type of warping to audio material with less clarity in its pitch contours. So this is perfect for pads, polyphonic music with lots going on, or even noise. There's also a lot of really cool potential for manipulating a variety of different types of audio creatively.

So, you also have Grain Size present as a control here, but how this differs from Tones Mode is that it doesn't take into account the incoming signal. So you're controlling the actual grain size, rather than an average.

Flux introduces some randomness into the process, with higher values giving more randomness. 

So, both of these modes are really great for sound design concepts. You'd be surprised by how much you can actually get done from a creative stand point just using these warp modes on some audio. 

The granular nature of Tones and Texture makes for some really interesting results, as you can get a lovely range of super glitchy audio with a really low grain size, and an entire range of interesting sounds in between that and the unedited end of the spectrum.


Re-Pitch Mode

Re-Pitch Mode is a simple one, and it works similar to how BPM adjustments work on DJ controllers and turntables, whereby adjusting the BPM of the audio also adjusts the pitch accordingly. So this is how genres like Jungle and Breakbeat came about, by speeding up drum breaks with the pitch increased too. 

This is how traditional non-warping samplers work, which can often be a pain if you're trying to adjust the speed of audio without affecting the pitch and so on.

Now, there are actually no controls with this one, because you don't need to be adjusting any parameters.

One good tip with this mode is to use it as a referencing tool. Often when you adjust the speed of a loop in normal warping, this can introduce some artifacts. So what you can do is briefly switch to Re-Pitch mode, in order to get an idea of where the pitch should be. You can then adjust this if necessary using the Transpose options in your other warp modes.

Complex & Complex Pro Modes

So far we've seen warp modes which favour rhytmic material and melodic material, whether it's monophonic in the case of Tones or polyphonic in the case of Textures.

But as music producers we know that not all audio falls into one of these three categories. Because even drums have tonal qualities, and all melodic or harmonic loops and phrases have rhythmic elements to them as well.

So, this is where Complex and Complex Pro modes come into play. 

Complex Mode is specifically designed to deal with audio signals which combine the characteristics covered by the other warp modes we've already discussed.

So as an example, this is a great way to work with full songs, which as we know will usually contain beats, tones and textures in equal measure.

The caveat to using Complex Mode is that it uses around 10 times more CPU resources than the other warp modes do, but there's a reason for this because it's processing so much more material and trying to do it well.

A good tip is to Freeze a track you're using Complex Mode on, or use it to get audio results you want, and then bounce this out as a new audio loop.

Complex Mode contains no controls, but Complex Pro Mode introduces Formants into the mix. Using Complex mode will automatically adjust the formants of your audio, but if you want some control over this, Complex Pro is where you'll want to be going.

The Formants slider adjusts the extent to which the formants of the audio are compensated when transposing the audio. Formants are collections of frequency harmonics that define the way an instrument or voice sound. 
These are what is responsible for the classic chipmunk effect of pitched up vocals, or the signature sound that pitched down vocals used by the likes of Burial have.
The Formant slider preserves the original formants at 100%, which allows you to make drastic changes in the transposition of your audio while maintaing the original tonal quality. Conversely, reducing the slider negates this effect.
The Envelope slider also has an influence on the spectral characteristics of the audio you're working with. A value of 128 will give you normal results and work well with most audio, while with higher pitched audio you're best off using lower Envelope values, while you're best using higher ones for low pitched audio.
Complex Pro requires even more from your CPU, so it's worth checking your system's CPU capabilities when you're using it.

Using Clip Automation in Complex Mode

So, the cool thing about Complex Mode is that it is constantly analysing your audio to decide what it needs to do in terms of warping. When you're using a mode like Beats, you're only going to be seeing this type of detailed analysis happening on each transient.

Now you can use Complex Mode to create a really cool tape/vinyl start and stop effect on your clips using clip automation.

Check out the image above. I've navigated over the the audio clip's Tool panel in order to write in some clip automation. I've selected Clip in the lefthand dropdown and Transposition in the right hand one.

You can see in the automation lane I've drawn in a ramp up to zero, and at the end there's a ramp down from zero. What this does is then creates a really cool tape start and stop effect in your audio clips. 

If you shift over to Beats mode, you'll hear what I mean about the analysis only happening on each transient, rather than constantly as we have going in Complex Mode



So, that was a nice in depth look at the various audio Warp Modes in Ableton Live

They are seriously powerful tools for working with your audio samples, and allow you to tailor your warping based on the type of audio you're working with, as there is a dedicated mode for each type of audio content. Whether it's rhythmic, tonal or textural, or even a mixture of all of these, you're covered.

Now hopefully you have a fuller understanding of what each of the warp modes do in Ableton Live, and how you can apply them in your own music process.

If you enjoyed this guide, be sure to check out the rest of our blog where we regularly post similar guides, reviews and tutorials on all things music production. 

While you're here, check out our deals on Ableton Live Project Templates too. Our international team of producers recreate chart topping EDM hits in minute detail, so you can download these projects and see exactly how an EDM banger is made. 

Thanks for checking in with us here at Top Music Arts and be sure to come back soon!

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