Using Ableton Live as a DJ

Posted by James Cullen on

Are you an Ableton producer who's looking to get into DJing?

Are you a DJ who wants a fresh challenge and approach to building your DJ sets?

Ableton Live is a great DAW, with a set of unique features that make it perfect  for Live Performance. We cover these features in our other articles, but in this one we will focus on how it also has the functionality to serve perfectly as a complete DJ tool, or as something to integrate into your traditional DJ sets.

It’s important to note that Live isn’t designed to be a DJ software, so if you’re used to a traditional two deck and a mixer set up, you may struggle with the initial shock of Ableton’s interface. But hopefully we’ll give you the tools to create your very own DJ sets.

So today with Top Music Arts we will take a dive into the details of how you can use Ableton in a DJ performance context.


A note on MIDI controllers.

Hopefully you have one, because a MIDI controller is essential for this. My set up works using Push to trigger clips, and a Novation Launch Control XL for the Volume faders and tone knobs.

It would be possible to do it all through Push (or alternatively a Novation Launch Pad instead of Push), but the knobs and faders of the Launch Control lend themselves perfectly to a DJ set context, as well as being very familiar to those of you that use regular mixers.

Anyway, if you’re all set, read on.


The Difference

If you’re a traditional DJ, and you’re used to using Turntables, CDJs or a MIDI Controller, you’ll be well accustomed to the physics of how to perform a set. You’ll be familiar with beat matching using the jog wheels or pitch sliders of a CDJ or controller, nudging the record on the turntable to keep it in time, adjusting controls on the mixer and so on and so forth.

Don’t let it put you off, but you can essentially say bye bye to those particular elements of a DJ set if you’re using Ableton.

The main difference then, is that instead of loading individual songs onto decks, like you would traditionally, you load songs onto Clips in Ableton. There is no individual tempo for each channel either, every song is warped to the Live Project’s master tempo.

So let’s take a quick look into Warping first, then we’ll move onto building your set.

Warping in Ableton Live

Warping is Ableton’s time stretching feature. You’ll be familiar with the concept, it appears in most DAWs under various names and guises, but the core concept is the same.

The basic function of Warping in Live is to tell the program where the beats are in each track relative to the tempo of the project. It’s important to note that in order for the best results when playing back a full track in Ableton, you’ll want to either use Complex Pro or Re-Pitch warp modes.

Re-Pitch emulates a pitch control like one you’d find on a CDJ or Turntable; it adjusts the tempo and the pitch of the track. Complex Pro, on the other hand, adjusts the tempo of the track without affecting pitch. This comes with the caveat of using a much higher demand on the CPU, though if you’re using a modern laptop, you should be fine. So use these depending on which style of warping you’d like.

As you can see in the image below, the track is Warped at 139bpm, and you can see Warp Markers (the orange tabs on the top bar) assigned to beats 1-4 of the two bars shown.

While warping to a tempo should work first time, if you come across any issues, these Warp Markers allow you to place and stretch the transients to ensure every beat is hitting exactly when it should. You can create a Warp Marker by double clicking in the sample window, and an coloured tab should appear along the top row. This can then be moved by clicking and dragging if you need to.

The basics of warping a track are; drop it into a clip in Session View, select your desired Warp Mode, and then make sure Warp is checked. Live will automatically detect where it thinks Warp Markers should be, so take care to check whether it’s accurate. If not, find the first downbeat of the track, right click, and select ‘Warp from here (straight)’.


Tip: You’ll need to warp your tracks before performing your DJ set, as there is no on the fly adjusting of pitch or tempo in Ableton. It can be a time consuming process initially, but the Warp Markers are saved to your tracks in the project folder, so you’ll only need to do this once, when you first add your tracks into the project.


Building your virtual Decks.

So, now that we’ve covered how to Warp tracks in Ableton, let’s move onto how to build the environment from which you’ll be performing your DJ set. It’s a simple process, with fairly basic audio routing, but once done, it sets you up with a complete DJ performance environment within Live.

Create 6 Audio Tracks. The first four will act as your Decks, where you’ll be loading and playing the tracks from. The last two will be your mixer channels. Label tracks 5 and 6 as FX1 and FX2. We'll come back to those later.

Tracks 1-4 will be your decks. As you can see from the image above, they're labelled and colour coded to correspond with either FX1 or FX2.

Now take a look at the audio routing. The outputs of Deck 1 & Deck 3 route to FX1. Similarly, Deck 2 and Deck 4 route to FX2. It's important to note that you can create more Decks if you want them, just be sure to create an even number, and alternately route the output to the corresponding FX channel.

FX1 and FX2 in this set up play the part of channels 1 and 2 on a Mixer. The basic principle here is, your odd numbered Decks route their audio to FX1, while the even numbered Decks route to FX2. These two channels route their audio directly to the Master Out

Basically, the routing is:

Decks -> FX -> Master

So, if you’ve done it all correctly, you should be able to have tracks playing through FX1, and then separate tracks playing through FX2. These two channels are what the audience of your DJ set will hear, so you’ll be mixing and blending your tracks on the Decks to come out of these FX channels.

Place some warped tracks onto a Clip in each of your 4 Decks. Now experiment with playing them, adjusting the volume levels of the Decks and the FX channels, and getting used to how the audio routing works.

You should be able to figure out how you'd mix between one track to another. Odd tracks mix with Even tracks, so you wouldn't be able to blend Deck 1 and 2 together using your FX channels, but you would be able to blend Deck 1 and 3 together.

Bear this in mind when you're dragging and dropping tracks onto clips. You'll need to remember what tracks you'll want to be mixing with each other, and place them on the correct Decks to do so.


Using Effects.

Where using Ableton Live to DJ really shows its qualities is when you consider FX. You have Ableton’s built in suite of Audio Effects, Performance oriented Channel Strips, as well as third party plug ins. You can take your sets to some weird and wonderful places by getting creative with what effects you use.

Before we dive into anything fancy, you’ll need the following effects on each Deck you’ve built.

An EQ Three allows you individual tweaking of the Low, Mid and High frequencies of each of your tracks. Much like the Mixer controls on a traditional DJ Mixer, but applied to each individual Deck to give you more precise control of the EQ of each and every track you’re playing in your set. You’ll also want to stick a Limiter with a ceiling of 0dB to ensure non of the audio signals peak or distort.


Now, onto the more fun side of things. One of the huge advantages of using Ableton Live to DJ is the integration of both Live native and third party FX and plug ins. The sky’s the limit with what you can achieve.

See the example below. This is the effects load out I have on my FX1 channel. It includes a Beat Repeat and Fade to Grey which is one of Live’s built in Effect Racks.

Both of these are mapped to buttons on the Novation Launch Control, the On/Off control and the Grid of the Beat Repeat are mapped as well as the Fade control on Fade to Grey.

You can assign your own effects that match your style of DJ performance, these are just examples within my set up. There are a whole host of Ableton's built in Audio Effects Racks that are geared specifically towards all sorts of purposes, including Mixing & Mastering, Modulation & Rhythmic, and especially useful here, Performance & DJ.

So there are plenty of options to sink your teeth into if you aren't sure where to start, but you can also use your favourite third party effects to get whatever results you need, and you can create your own Performance oriented Effects Racks to include the exact effect set up you want.

Performance and Creativity

So now that we’ve covered everything you’ll need to know, you should be able to create a DJ set in Live.

You should be able to Warp Tracks, drag them into your set and have spent some time getting used to where the audio routes to, and the mechanics of mixing between your different virtual Decks.

Now you can dive headlong into building your sets. The benefits of using Live to DJ give a whole new aspect to DJing. Below are a few points to consider.

  • On the fly remixes. With Live being a DAW, you can import not only full tracks into your sets, but also loops, synths and even your own productions. You can blend new drum parts over other tracks, or acapellas over instrumentals, for example. In this way, you can create unique remixes in real time, and another great feature is that as soon as you hit play on your set, you can also hit record. So you won’t be suffering from wishing you could recreate that great mix, or remix, because it’s all recorded.
  • The level of depth is up to you. You’re in control with Live. You can build your set as shown above, and leave it at that. Drag a few tracks in, start mixing and that’s all you need to know. But it can also be as complex as you want it to be. You’re not limited to how many tracks you can play at once, and with the fully fledged power of a DAW at your fingertips, you can cut and chop tracks as mentioned above.
  • No need to invest in more software or hardware. If you’re a producer who is interested in DJing, the good news about this is you don’t need to invest in any more software or hardware to achieve that. DJ software can be pricey, and controllers, CDJs and Turntables run up a considerable price tag. As long as you have Live and a MIDI controller, you’re all set.

  • Final Thoughts

    There are plenty of benefits to using Ableton Live for a DJ set. It's definitely got a learning curve, but once you figure out the logistics, you should be rocking dance floors or house parties in no time. If you're a DJ who favours scratching and traditional turntable based techniques, it probably isn't for you, but if you're looking to inject a new element of performance into your sets, or you're getting into DJing for the first time, there's definitely a lot of reasons why it's a good idea.


    Thanks for checking in with us here at Top Music Arts for another article. Stay tuned for more, and check out the rest of our site for great templates, tutorials and resources!


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