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Creating a DJ Set in Ableton Live is quite an adventure, and a fun one at that. It’s really a craft, I’d say, with all these little challenges that you need to overcome in order to create your perfect DJ set.
You can use Ableton Live for many purposes, not only creating DJ sets. It can be used for creating a promotional mix that you can send to clubs or upload on your SoundCloud account, or to create loops on the side while you’re mixing with your standard software.
Overall, it’s a quite useful DJ tool. You can use it to improvise, mix different genres, create music, loop… Imagine if you had a DJ mixer with an infinite number of audio channels, accompanied with dozens of effects and features – that’s Ableton.
Ableton Live: Quick Glance
Ableton Live is a digital audio workstation (DAW) launched in 2001, by the German music software producer, you guessed it, Ableton. It has been the weapon of choice for many famous DJs and music producers over the years.
It offers a clear, user-friendly interface, along with a plethora of effects and features. If you download the newest version you’ll get even more of them, and this trend just keeps going. You can connect a third-party device to it, as it offers very flexible connectivity.
You can use it for DJ mixing, live performing, producing, or making music. Creating or preparing for a DJ set can be perfectly executed with Ableton. The company is very reputable in the industry, so I suggest you at least give it a try.
How To Make A DJ Mix In Ableton: Step By Step Guide
Now that we’ve listed all the cool stuff you could use Ableton for, let’s see how easy or tricky it is to create your own DJ mix using this software.
The first thing you have to do, obviously, is to open Ableton and check out the home screen. Get familiar with it and find all the important and interesting features it offers.
Ableton Live Interface
As you can see from the image above, Ableton Live’s interface is a gray grid layout, separated by horizontal lines that form channels.
Below the grids, you have the editing space, where you will see your beat marks, BPM (beats per minute) segment, loop button, and similar functions.
On the sidebar to the left, you also have a box that shows you the speed of the song, i.e. BPM. Below it, there’s a browser that you can use to do a quick search through your library for a song you like.
The sidebar also shows you a list of your songs, organized in crates which you can just drag and drop to one of the audio channels.
Next to your music folders, you have the Categories segment comprising different sounds, drums, audio effects, or samples that you can use for your DJ mix.
The way you see things now is called the arrangement view.
However, you can also see the interface in a different view, such as the session view, which is presented in the image below.
This view is mostly used by people creating songs. So, it’s a place where you would experiment with different instruments, create samples, stack channels, and so on. For your purposes, you’ll need the arrangement view.
To exit the session view, take your cursor to the right top corner and click the icon which will take you back where you were.
Getting Ready For The DJ Set
The first thing you wanna do once you open Ableton is to go through your library and choose the songs that you’ll include in your DJ mix. Depending on the length of the audio section and its purpose, you will figure out which songs suit your mix best.
In case you have midi controllers hooked up, then you will notice that among your audio channels two are stand-alone.
These are the midi tracks and we don’t need them. So, the first thing I do is hover over them and delete them, so that I’m left with my two audio channels, or as people usually say – audio tracks.
Before you start importing the songs, I advise that you organize your workspace into sections, by creating groups. To do that, you need to replicate these tracks multiple times, which will allow you to move multiple songs around the timeline at once.
This is done by pressing Command + T, and you can replicate the track five times. The next thing you wanna do is to take your cursor to track 1, left-click on it, then go to track 5, hold the shift button, and left-click. This will select all the tracks that you replicated.
Finally, press Command + G, and Ableton will create a group comprising these tracks. Then, all you want to do is rename it into something that will tell you the content of that group, e.g. funky. You can create as many groups and replicate as many songs as you like.
Set The BPM (Beats Per Minute)
The last thing you wanna do before importing the songs is to check your timeline (BPM).
Beatmatching (or beat-matching) is the most important task a DJ has. You have two tracks that you want to combine together but they are playing at different speeds. What do you do? You adjust their tempo in order to make sure the transition is smooth.
You will find this at the upper-left corner, where you can just type in the BPM you want. If you’re mostly spinning dance music, you know that most tracks have a similar tempo according to their genre.
If you don’t know the BPM of the song, there are ways around it. You can check from the place that you’ve downloaded it, or use your DJ software. Most brands like Serato or Traktor offer song analysis which will reveal to you the beats per minute of your track.
Start Importing Music From Your DJ Software
Now that you’ve created your working space, you can start importing tracks from your DJ software. By pressing Command+Tab, you’ll get a popup window with the icon of your software. In my case that would be Serato DJ Pro.
Always make sure that the songs you’ll import match the timeline you set earlier. Depending on how many tracks you want to mix, drag and drop the tracks into their audio channels. To start, I advise you to make a simple two-deck DJ mix, and gradually progress over time.
Regardless of how many songs you will import, you only want to work with the first track. To do that, mute the other channels by left-clicking on the yellow box containing the channel number. Now you can start working on the actual song.
Quantize The Songs
Your audio files are all different, more or less. If you want to create a DJ mix, you need to do some beatmatching, of course. Most DJ controllers and software have a sync button for that, but you can also do it by ear.
The kick drum is the most common instrument artists use to keep the beat going. If you’re into electronic dance music, most of the tracks you listen to are in the so-called 4/4 time signature. That means that you have four beats in a bar.
Bars are put together to form a phrase, and phrases then form a song. You want all of your tracks to fall on the same beat. To do that, you need to get rid of some elements of the song that are prolonging the time needed for the first beat to drop.
Warping is also called time-stretching and there’s a perfectly good explanation for that. Surely you’ve noticed that in Ableton, the tracks are located in grids, and you work inside the grids all the time.
Warping allows you to stretch the song as much as you want to adjust it to the track grid. Let’s make this clearer.
When you’re working on a DJ mix in Ableton, you want your track to start exactly on the first beat. To do that, you need to mark all the spots (using warp markers) right before the beat (usually a drum kick). This is easily done in Ableton Live – and here’s how.
How To Use Track Warping
If you have a track with a fixed or no BPM, that’s the one you’ll be stretching. So, highlight the track you wanna edit, double click on it and it will open up the editing window. You repeat this process with every track that will join your mix.
Just click to edit and start working on the track. Ableton Live has ways to help you with this, by using warp markers. These are basically points that will mark the first drum kick sound in your track, and every other beat that you want to mark.
The warping process takes place in the bottom left window, i.e. the editing window. First things first, enable warping by clicking on the warp mode button. If it’s yellow – it’s on.
There, you can set your BPM. The tracks I make are usually at 125 BPM, and they are sometimes even faster. You can set your speed according to your needs, of course.
The yellow box that you’ll see is a warp marker and it locks itself to the grid. So, what you want to do is to set the first one at the very first beat of the track. You will do this by first locating the drum transient, which is usually the one almost touching the grid lines.
How To Use Warp Markers
Ableton already knows where the first beat is, so you will have a gray marker right in front of the first drum kick. These gray markers will also be at other spots where Ableton thought it’d be cool for you to put a warp marker.
These are also called pseudo warp markers. They are usually at the beginning of some new sounds, especially drums.
The easiest way to warp is to go to this unlocked warp marker and double-click on it so it turns yellow, meaning it’s locked to the first beat of the track.
Next, you have to drag the newly locked marker to number one, or the beginning of the grid, because that was the whole point – having the song start at the first beat.
Ableton also offers other warp modes as well as the auto warp function. This way, Ableton does the work for you. However, it won’t always properly do the job, especially if you plan on mixing some old-school live funky beats.
The reason for this is that they’re played by live artists, i.e. humans. Since they’re imperfect, the drummers, guitarists, or any other instrument player can sometimes mess up the tempo by missing a beat or playing too fast.
That’s where you’ll have to type in the exact BPM of the track that you want to include in the DJ set. As said, this usually happens with old disco or funk tracks, as well as early hip hop.
Using Pseudo Warp Markers
I mentioned pseudo warp markers a bit earlier, which are the gray warp markers, unlocked and flexible. You can move them around and lock them if you want to.
The first method I taught you was just to double-click on it and lock it since Ableton is pretty accurate in where it places the pseudo markers. However, if for some reason you want to move the marker left or right, here’s how you do it.
As I said, Ableton places the marker in front of new sounds. If you take a look at the soundwave you’ll notice that the transients mark some beginnings of new sounds. The spiky one is the drum kick and that’s the one you’re most interested in.
When you’re not happy with where the pseudo marker is, you can drag it until the beginning of the sound you want. You can do that by holding shift and dragging the marker right before the drum transient. You then double click to lock it and drag it to wherever you want it to be dragged.
Warp From Here Options
Ableton Live has a set of warping techniques called “warp from here” options. Most of them are very useful for DJs, especially if your DJ set is composed mostly of electronic music.
As mentioned earlier, the beat gets messed up mostly with tracks of a live performance. With techno, house, or any other type of electronic dance music, this is not the case. That’s why a warp from here options is a good call.
Since electronic music rarely has the need for manual warping, the warp from here straight option comes in handy for a lot of DJ artists. All you have to do is go to the first marker, right-click, and select warp from here (straight).
This will correctly warp your entire track. I would only advise you to double-check by eye-scanning the track and see if the drum kick transients are in line with the beat grid. This is one way to warp without putting in the extra effort.
Other techniques are warp from here at 125 BPM or warp 125 BPM from here, and warp sample. The first two are used if you’re sure that you want 125 BPM, which works for most electronic dance tracks. The last one is self-explanatory.
Whichever warp mode you use to make a DJ set, you have to repeat the process with the tracks in each audio channel. This is the final stage before you’re ready to start making a DJ set in Ableton Live. Now we get to the fun stuff!
Bonus Tip: Complex Pro
Without getting too much into it, I’ll just give you this quick tip. When working in the editing window, you set the BPM and enable the warp. Another thing you should do is select the complex pro warp mode, which you will find below the BPM window.
This is a quick step that you have to remember when you’re making a DJ mix. Other modes such as Pitch or Beat, are mostly used for actual DJing. However, what mode you use is subjective in many cases.
The Mixing Process
When I get to this part in the whole process I consider it a treat after all the group creating, quantizing, warping, and whatnot. Now it’s time to actually do your DJ magic and make a DJ mix that will make the crowd go wild!
The next thing you have to do is to add each audio track that you’ll mix in their respective grids or audio channels. It’s like mixing using regular DJ equipment, but you have grids that will visually show you where your tracks intersect.
Remember, you do this kind of work in the arrangement view. That way, you can clearly see where the beats from your master channel are, and where the other track is. After that, it’s a simple drag-and-drop game.
Your job is mainly to select the master tempo, i.e. the BPM for your mix. Next, you’ll have to check if the beats, bars, and phrases match with one another. If everything falls perfectly and is where you want it, you’re good to proceed working on the track.
As a DJ, you’re not gonna be satisfied by just matching the first track with the other. After all, your job is to spice things up a bit. So, if everything is in place technically, you can start focusing on the details and add some audio effects, experiment with the EQ section, and so on.
To trigger the equalizers and set the frequencies right, you’ll have to go to the EQ panel in your right upper corner and switch on or off any frequency you want.
You can do this to any segment of the song, meaning that you can cut a baseline for 8 bars, and then have it continue grooving. DJs usually do this when their priority baseline ends playing.
So, there you go! If you follow these steps closely, you’ll have your very best DJ mix thanks to Ableton Live!
Things You Could Do With Ableton
The things I listed in the previous sections are just a few pieces of the puzzle. I use Ableton for a lot of purposes, mostly for creating my own songs, or DJ mixes. During the lockdown, I even performed a few live DJ sets via Ableton Live.
You might hear some “experts” telling you that using Ableton to create a mix is cheating and that you should be recording your mixes live. I can only tell you not to pay attention to that. Ableton is a great DJ tool that even techno god Richie Hawtin uses.
So, let’s see what you could do in Ableton.
Promote Yourself: Make A Demo Mix
Ableton helped me a lot in my days to get the attention I needed from venues. Nobody will knock on your door and ask you to perform at their club without knowing who you are. You have to put yourself on the map and Ableton Live can make that a lot easier for you.
The DJ set that you will make using Ableton Live should be a lot more than just another DJ mix that you upload on SoundCloud and forget about. Instead, consider spreading it a bit more.
Club owners love DJs that are confident enough to come up to them, drop their mix on the table, and say: “Listen to this, and if you like it, I’d be more than glad to perform at your club!” This might be a bit old-school, so you could send them a link to your DJ mix instead.
With a little knowledge of social media, you could take the game further and promote your mixes in various groups, pages, and even create a fan page of your own. As far as I’m concerned, launching your own website is a smart choice nowadays.
Make Your Own Track
Ableton Live is a popular tool that’s been used in music production for a long time. If you’re a producer, you’ve probably been using it for a while. Ableton is a solid DAW offering dozens of incredible features for your music.
It’s not uncommon for DJs to take on a career as a producer or vice versa. Working in music production just makes it natural at a certain point, I guess. I’m more of a DJ but I do have some titles to my name where I occupy the role of an artist.
Of course, I’ve created these tracks in Ableton Live. Its greatest purpose is to be used as a music-creating software, so why not take an advantage of that? I’m sure that there is an idea in your head that’s just waiting to be realized!
Using Ableton On the Side
Although one of Ableton’s main purposes, as the name suggests, is to perform live, I don’t advise that. Ableton will give you lots of effects and features to work with, but it will take a lot of flexibility away from you. Most DJs like to avoid a rigid grid-look to work in.
However, using Ableton as a DJ tool by your side is something different and I totally suggest it. For that purpose, you’ll need Ableton Link, a technology that will allow you to use Live along with the software you usually use, such as, let’s say Serato DJ.
The way Ableton Link works is that it syncs the track’s tempo, beats, and phrases throughout multiple devices, software, and hardware. It uses a local network to keep the devices in sync. This means that you could connect your DJ mixer or MIDI controller with Ableton Live and use these features.
Under preferences in Ableton Live, choose the Link MIDI tab, and go click the show/hide Link button. Once you click it, a button will appear in the left upper corner, saying Link. You can then connect your Ableton with any software or hardware you’d like.
As soon as Ableton Live recognizes the third parties that have joined, the quantization process will begin, after which you’re good to go. You can start adding effects, loops, or whatever you have in mind.
All things considered, using Ableton as a DJ tool is a very smart move!
Make A DJ Set In Ableton: FAQ
Can You DJ In Ableton?
Yes, you can do full DJ mixes in Ableton. Moreover, the DAW offers great features that will make mixing much easier. The warping mode will allow you to mark and lock every part of a track that you want. It allows you to have your tracks always fall on the first beat.
Is Ableton Hard To Use?
No. Ableton Live is a very flexible and user-friendly DAW. It offers simple features and a clean interface, with clearly visible buttons.