You are a passionate musician and, lately, you have realized the need to progress in your Home Recording experience by switching to more advanced and professional software. Or you just want to try a new music-making program, different from the one you’re currently using, to test the differences and quality.
Your choice therefore fell on Ableton Live , but you are afraid of not being comfortable with the multiple functions that this software offers and therefore losing a lot of time with complicated operations. You don’t have to worry at all, you are in the right place! Follow this guide carefully and you will soon acquire the right notions on how to use Ableton Live .
I must also tell you that you made an excellent choice. It is, in fact, one of the most famous and versatile programs for recording music. In addition, Ableton offers the possibility of downloading an evaluation version, so you have plenty of time to discover its potential and then opt for the purchase. All you have to do is make yourself comfortable and spend a few minutes of your time reading the next paragraphs. You will see that you will not regret it!
How to use Ableton Live
At the time of writing, Ableton Live comes in two flavors: Ableton Live 10 and Ableton Live 11 . Version 10 is free to download, fully functional, for a 90-day trial period (that’s why I’ll cover this version in detail in the tutorial).
You can also choose to buy it now, opting for one of these three editions: Live 10 Intro (with essential features) for around 79 euros, Live 10 Standard (complete with all features and an extra selection of sounds, software instruments, effects) at around 349 euros and Live 10 Suite (complete with all the features and all the extras available) at around 599 euros.
The purchase of one of these editions entitles you to a free upgrade to Ableton Live 11 , which integrates a number of very interesting features. However, the basic ones remain the same, so I suggest you continue reading both if you want to learn how to use Ableton Live 11 , and if you want to learn how to use Ableton Live 10 .
Before starting, I suggest you check that the hardware and software requirements of your computer are compatible with the specifications indicated by the parent company. The minimum configuration of a Windows PC includes the following requirements.
- Operating system : Windows 7 (Windows 10 recommended).
- Processore: Intel o AMD a 64 bit.
- RAM: 4 GB.
- Video resolution : 1366 x 768 pixels.
- Sound card : compatible with ASIO standards.
- Hard Disk : 3 GB of space for the basic installation (but it is recommended to have at least 76 GB available to download additional audio content).
However, the requirements become higher if you want to upgrade to Ableton Live 11 , for which you need Windows 10 , an Intel i5 or AMD multi-core processor and 8 GB of RAM .
If you have a Mac , the minimum requirements for the Ableton Live 10 version are as follows.
- Operating System : macOS 10.11.6 or later.
- Processor : Intel Core 2 Duo (preferably i5).
- RAM : 4GB (8GB recommended).
- Video resolution : 1280 x 800 pixels.
- Sound card : compatible with CORE AUDIO standards.
- Hard Disk : 3 GB of space for the basic installation (but it is recommended to have at least 76 GB available to download additional audio content).
Even for Ableton Live 11 on Mac the minimum requirements change and we start from a macOS 10.13 operating system , Intel Core i5 processor and 8 GB of RAM .
How to download and install Ableton Live
Now let’s see how to download and install Ableton Live . The procedure is very simple: first connect to the trial version download page, choose your operating system between Windows and macOS and wait for the data to download.
You are now ready to install: if you use Windows , double-click on the Setup.msi executable , then, in the window that opens, press the Next button . Then accept the license agreement, ticking the appropriate box, and click again on Next twice. Now press the Install button and, in the next window, press the Yes button . Once the installation is complete, click Finish and the program will start automatically.
If you have a Mac , this is just as easy. In fact, you must double-click on the .dmg file you just downloaded and, in the window that opens automatically, drag the Ableton Live icon towards the link to the Applications folder . Once done, you can launch the program from the Launchpad or from the Applications folder itself.
When you start the trial version of Ableton for the first time, a window opens with the Start your free trial button : by clicking on it, you will access the registration page of the Ableton site, where you will need to enter the data Email , Password , First Name and Country .
How AbletonLive works
Once you start Ableton Live, you will notice that there are many buttons and different tiles. At first glance, the screen may seem rather articulated and complex, but fear not: in reality, once you learn the basics, everything will be much easier than expected and, in a short time, you will understand how Ableton Live works .
In the center is the main section of the program, where tracks are recorded and where you can adjust the mixers . The first thing you need to know is that there are two viewing modes for this screen, which you can switch between: Session View and Arrangement View . To switch from one view to another, simply press Tab on the keyboard, go to the View menu > Switch Arrangement/Session view , top left.
The Session View is the one that appears when you first start the program and is mostly used for live performances and DJ projects, allowing you to quickly record, play and mix the various tracks.
The Arrangement View , on the other hand, represents the multi-track recording and editing environment and probably, if you have used other programs of this type before, it will seem more familiar to you, with the classic vertical arrangement of tracks and horizontal tempo.
The other sections present in Ableton Live are as follows.
- Control Bar : Located above the main screen and below the menu. From here you can act, for example, on the Stop, Play, Record buttons, but also on the metronome and MIDI settings.
- Browser – located on the left of the main screen. From here you can access all the libraries of sounds, MIDI instruments, plugins and effects.
- Device View and Effects View : these are the windows that dynamically open below the main screen every time you load a sound, plugin or effect from the Browser.
- Info window : it is a small box, located in the lower left corner of the screen, which provides information on the various buttons when you hover over them with the cursor.
- Help window : present on the right of the main screen, it offers some tutorials and an explanation of various procedures. It can be removed to make room for the main screen by clicking on the X at the top left of the box.
Configure audio inputs and outputs
Before we begin to see how Ableton Live works, it is essential to configure audio inputs and outputs . To access the configuration screen from a Windows PC, select the Options > Preferences menu at the top left. If you have a Mac, however, the Preferences item is found in the Live menu (always at the top).
Now, under Audio , in the Audio Devices field , select the driver type. Ableton Live for Windows supports two types of audio drivers: ASIO and MME/DirectX . The MME/DirectX drivers are the default, but provide limited performance. ASIO is the optimal choice for professional audio: therefore I suggest you select it, if available from the drop-down menu. On macOS , however, the choice must necessarily be CoreAudio . If you don’t find this entry, your sound card is probably not compatible with these standards or is not connected correctly.
Only after selecting the type of driver will you be able to define the following items, i.e. Input Audio Device and Output Audio Device , thus selecting the actual sound card from the drop-down menu alongside. If you are interested in deepening your knowledge of sound cards, I suggest you read my buying guide on the best sound cards.
Another important parameter is the one related to the Sampling Frequency . Typically, this value is set at 44,100Hz , and I recommend you keep it that way. Keep in mind that higher values require more CPU usage and if you don’t have a powerful enough processor, you risk compromising the quality of the recordings.
Playing software instruments
Software Instruments are libraries of MIDI sounds that can be played via an external MIDI controller or via the computer keyboard itself. The latter can be activated by clicking on the relative button at the top right, in the Control Bar, marked by the icon of the keys of a floor . In this regard, I would like to point out that every time you pass the mouse cursor over a button, at the bottom left, in the Info Window box , an explanation of its functions appears. Convenient, right?
Ableton Live has a truly remarkable catalog of sounds: playing software instruments with this program is really fun and challenging. To start, go to the Browser section , on the left, and click on the Instruments item . Now, in the side window, you will find them grouped into various categories, for each type of instrument.
By pressing, for example, on the Analog item you will see several analog instruments listed. To try out an analog piano, therefore, select one of those proposed in the Piano&Keys sub-category , with the *.adv or *.adg extension . You will hear a preview of the sound in question: if you like it, drag it to the right on a track labeled MIDI to activate it . After releasing the mouse click, the instrument preset is activated in a special window at the bottom, in the Device View section . From here you can change the parameters of the sound to your liking.
At this point you can start playing, always checking that the track is, as they say in technical jargon, armed . But how do you “arm” a track? It’s very simple: you just need to make sure that the Record Arm button , characterized by a white note inside a black dot , present in the mixer area, is active (red). Generally, the track automatically “arms” when you drag an instrument, but it’s always good to check that this has actually happened.
Also in the left menu you will find, in addition to the Instruments, a very rich catalog of libraries, including Sounds , Drums , Audio Effects , Midi Effects and Plug-ins . To test them, use the same procedure just seen for the software instruments and have fun combining sounds and effects in the same track. You will be fascinated by the multiple possibilities that are offered by this software!
Recording audio , playing an external instrument to the computer, such as a guitar for example, presents no difficulty on Ableton Live . The tracks in question, marked by the word Audio , are automatically set up for acquiring from external sources. Typically, if you don’t have an external sound card, the default source is the microphone built into your computer, and can be modified using the Ext. In button , present in correspondence with the audio track, in the Mixer area of the central screen.
Before starting the recording, always check that the audio track you are using is “armed”, i.e. made available for the acquisition of a sound source. To do this, check that the Record Arm button , present in the mixer to the right of each individual track, is active (it turns red), otherwise click on it. You will notice that the level meter , present right next to the Armature button, will begin to dynamically show the input signal.
Now adjust the metronome , by pressing the button characterized by a white and a black dot , at the top, left of the Control Bar, in order to turn it on (it will turn yellow). Using the arrow on the side of the metronome you can change the settings to set it in time with your performance.
Then there are three buttons in the Mixer that help you determine how you want to monitor the recording as you play: the In , Auto , and Off buttons . I recommend setting Auto if you want to monitor through Live, but keep in mind that you will always experience annoying latency. Press Off instead if you want to listen to it directly from an external sound card.
Now position the progress indicator at the beginning of the audio track by double-clicking the Stop button on the Control Bar. Then press the record button (the one with a black circle to the right of the Stop): if you have also selected the Arrangement View , you will see the characteristic shape of the analog audio appear, gradually as the recording goes on, in the tracks area .
When you’re done, press the Stop button again or, if you’re more comfortable, the space bar on your keyboard. To listen to everything again, go back to the beginning of the song, double-clicking the Stop button and then pressing the Play button to its left.
Create a rhythm
Have you just recorded a great track, but would like to give it more sustain and create a suitable beat ? Well, you will now discover how Ableton Live is extremely versatile in this respect too. In fact, this program has many interesting tools useful for this purpose, including Impulse , which you can access from the Browser section, to the left of the tracks, under the Instruments heading .
By clicking on the Impulse entry you will find a series of presets (ie a combination of preset sounds and effects). Choose one by clicking on the relative item with the mouse to listen to a preview and then drag the one that convinced you the most towards the track area on the right, precisely in one of those marked as MIDI . The latter will automatically take the name of the chosen instrument.
If you have a MIDI keyboard the sounds of this preset can be played through its black keys. Otherwise, you can use the computer keyboard, using the keys in the middle row ASDF , but remember to activate it by pressing the MIDI Keyboard button , in the upper right corner of the Control Bar (the one with the keyboard icon ).
Now, activate the metronome to play in time, by clicking the button with a white and a black dot located at the top left, in the Control Bar, so that it lights up (it will turn yellow). You can change its settings using the down arrow button to its right.
Ableton Live also offers a mode called quantization , i.e. an automatic adjustment of the playing time based on a certain metric value. This value can easily be set from the Edit > Quantize menu in Record . Here you can choose the reference value from one of those proposed (for example Quarters , Octaves and so on).
It’s time to start registering. To do this, activate Session Record mode in the Control Bar above the tracks area: this is a button with the shape of an empty circle , not to be confused with the Arrangement Record button, which has a circle symbol solid black.
Always remember that, hovering the mouse cursor over a button, the box at the bottom left is populated with detailed information relating to it. To end the recording, once you’ve created your drum loop , press the Stop button in the Control Bar at the top.
Finally finished your song and can’t wait to export it to a file or CD for your friends to hear? Then follow the instructions in the next paragraphs and, in no time at all, you will have clear how to export projects to Ableton Live . This procedure is, in fact, simpler than you think.
The thing I recommend you do first is to select the start and end points of the track. Simply access the Arrangement View (remember that you can press the Tab key on the keyboard to switch from one view to another) and click anywhere in the Tracks area. Now press the key combination Ctrl+A ( cmd+a on Mac), which allows you to select all tracks, both vertically and horizontally.
Then access the File menu , at the top left, scroll to the Export Audio/Video item and click on it. A window will open which is useful for defining some fundamental parameters. The first field that interests you is Traccia Renderedizzata , which must be filled in with Master in order to produce a single file. It should automatically be present, but if it is not, press the down arrow and choose the Master parameter from those proposed in the drop-down menu.
The next two fields, i.e. Rendering start point and Rendering length , are characterized by three boxes in which the start and end values of the piece are entered, respectively. These were automatically set when you selected tracks in the first step of this procedure.
Even the subsequent parameters are already correctly set, unless you have special needs, for which I refer you to read the complete Ableton Live manual, present on this page. You just have to click on Export and, in the next window, choose the destination folder, then press the Save button . Wait the necessary time, which varies according to the length and number of tracks of your song (as well as the power of your computer) and you will finally be able to enjoy the fruit of your creativity!
For any further information, I refer you to the Ableton FAQ page, with answers to all the most frequently asked questions about the program’s operation. If, on the other hand, you want an overview of other software for producing and recording music, I absolutely recommend my article on audio recording programs.