Ableton Live offers a way to deconstruct an audio file into individual slices. You can then edit each slice with respect to placement in a loop, filtering, envelope characteristics, and much more. This is a great way to take existing beats, then mutate them into something completely different.
First, right-click on an audio clip (or ctrl-click on the Mac) and select “Slice to New MIDI Track” (Fig. 1). This opens up a dialog box where you determine how you want to slice the audio.
Fig. 1: Select “Slice to New MIDI Track.”
For drum parts and other parts with a regular rhythm, it’s convenient to choose a specific beat, like eighth notes or sixteenth notes. You need to choose whichever encompasses all beats; for example, if there’s a 16th-note high hat part, you’ll want to choose 16th notes (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2: After you choose a rhythmic slice value, click on “OK.”
This isn’t your only slicing option, as you can also slice based on warp markers, transients, other rhythmic values, etc. Also, Ableton provides various slicing presets, and you can also create your own and save them. In general, a consistent rhythmic option or the transient option is what you’ll use most of the time, so we’ll keep things simple and concentrate on that for now.However, note that Live won’t allow more than 128 slices (for example, with a file that’s 32 beats long, you can do a maximum of 1/16th note slices). If slicing exceeds this limit, set a lower slice resolution, or select a smaller region of the file for slicing.
After clicking on OK, Live creates a MIDI track that contains a MIDI clip and a Drum rack. The clip contains one note for each slice, arranged chromatically; you can call up the MIDI note editor to see the series of notes (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3: A sequence of MIDI notes triggers slices in succession.
Each note triggers a chain in the Drum rack, which contains a Simpler pre-loaded with the corresponding audio slice. Live also assigns important Simpler parameters to the Drum Rack’s Macro Controls (Fig. 4), such as basic envelope controls.
Fig. 4: Live generates useful Macros for controlling Simpler.
Now you can go into the MIDI note editor and edit the loop by changing the pitch and/or location of slices, as well as alter slice velocities. In this example (Fig. 5), several notes have had their start time and pitch changed, and the velocity is currently being edited for one of them.
Fig. 5: Once slices are turned into MIDI notes, you can edit them as you would any other MIDI data.
Next, click the newly-created MIDI track’s “unfold” button (Fig. 6) to reveal a mixer channel for each slice.
Fig. 6: Show the slice mixer channels in the MIDI track by clicking the “unfold” button.
This lets you mute or solo individual slices, change their levels, etc. Note that the controls affect specific, individual slices, regardless of whether you’ve changed their positions or not.
Live also creates a device chain for the loop, which has macro controls (Fig. 7) for the Simplers used to play back the slices. As one example of editing fun, turn down Sustain, and vary Decay to create more percussive slices.
Fig. 7: Use the Simpler macros to alter slice parameters.
You can also show the Chain List (Fig. 8) to select individual slices.
Fig. 8: The Chain List allows for additional editing.
When displaying the chain list, use the Show/Hide Devices function (Fig. 9) to change characteristics of the selected slice (e.g., add filtering, LFO, envelope response, etc.).
Fig. 9: Once you’ve selected a slice in the chain list, you can edit it further.
That should be enough signal warping to get you into some really interesting loops. And of course, if you want to use it in other projects, you can always export it as audio.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.