Tutorial: Creating a Breakbeat-style song in Ableton Live

The Breakbeat style
is a form of electronic music that gained popularity in the mid 1990s. It’s main characteristics include liberal use of a sampled beat which was usually derived from the drum solo of a 70’s funk song. This beat is cut into many permutations, and is combined with a wide array of other samples, guitar clips, and original synth parts. This lesson plan includes some examples for listening at the end.

Here’s a video version of the lesson that follows:

Step one: Crate Digging
The first thing any good breakbeat artist would do is go digging for samples. I have my students pick 2-3 songs from which they will take the solo drum breaks. I provide a large selection of funk tracks from my personal library. One place to start when finding these might be a CD from the popular funk collection “Ultimate Breaks and Beats,” which was compiled mainly for the purpose of finding good drum breaks to sample for early hip-hop music. A nice side effect of this part of the lesson is that students get what might be their only direct contact with funk music of that era.

Step two: Isolating and retooling the beats
Using Ableton Live, drag one of the tracks into a clip slot. I’m going to use an Amy Winehouse track with a great drum intro for my break. Live tries to figure out the correct beats per minute, but isn’t always right. We’ll have to use Ableton Live’s beat markers to demarcate four bars of this beat. You can take the time to mark the beginning as measure one, but it really doesn’t matter which measure numbers the beat starts with. I’ve turned on “Loop” and set the loop length to four bars.

After you have the loop running well, take the global tempo of the song (in the upper left corner) and crank it up to the 170s or 180s. This is a standard tempo range for this style of music. Also, in the Clip Panel, take the transposition (Transp) to +3 or +4, and boost the volume. Adding an effect like a compressor or limiter might be good too.

By now, your funk drum break should sound much more techno-like.

Step three: Divide the beat into distinct levels of complexity, and different effects on an A/B

Ableton Live’s session view uses a column-style for different instrument tracks, each of which is divided into rows called “scenes”. I like to think of each scene as a different section of the song, and I usually arrange from top to bottom in order of complexity.

Duplicate the drum track you already made, and set the first track to A and the second track to B. I have my students use the MIDI button in the upper right to assign the Mod wheel on their keyboards to the crossfader (located underneath the rightmost “master” track). This will allow easy switching between these two tracks for varied drum beats.

I like one of the drum tracks to sound fat and boomy, and the other to sound dry, chopped, and gated. Some fat and boomy effects include: delay, compressor, or reverb. Some dry sounding effects include: hi-pass filter, gate, beat repeat, bitcrusher, and flanger.

Now it is the students’ job to come up with some interesting variations for each track. I require at least three different reworkings of the clip per track whether it is a re-chopped version of the clip or a version of the clip with effects on it.

Step four: Add guitar licks
Now that the drums are pumpin’, let’s find a good guitar lick. I recommend finding some really obscure isolated guitar part, and juicing it with effects into a third track. The main idea is to get the guitar to sound more like a synth part by the time you’re done with it. I like using grungy sounding licks from bands like Nirvana, The White Stripes, or any other heavy guitar lick you can find.

I would suggest two tracks of guitar; one for a repeating rhythm, and another for interesting “one-shots”

Step five: Add synth bass and supporting kick bass
Tracks five and six will be for synthetic instruments, mainly a bass or pad for underlying harmonic structure, and an electronic kit to provide extra punch and drive to the drum track.

I let students be more individual with this part, as the basic song works already for performance and these are really the sounds that will define their taste for this song.

One neat trick for getting a great sounding techno bass is to have one track with a dry kick drum part, and another track with an extremely low bass note effected with a limiter to take the volume level up. This will get that club-style thumping sound so familiar in all kinds of electronic music.

Step six: Season to taste and perform

Ableton Live can be used as a sequencer, but for this project I find it more exciting and effective to have the students perform their songs. Hit the global record button at the top, and start live-triggering your clips. Use the crossfader we assigned to the Mod wheel to flip between A and B drum parts, and go through the different sections of your song.

I tell students during this phase of the project to be doubly sure that none of the level meters are peaking to red, and if they can’t hear them after turning them down, to add a compressor to the master track or simply spend a little time mixing the levels of all the tracks to a comfortable listening level.

I set a time requirement of about 2-3 minutes for this project, and most students will have gotten through all of their material and ideas by that time.

It’s also not a bad idea to listen to some Breakbeat artists while doing this project. I’d suggest Roni Size/Reprazent, The Prodigy (older stuff), Photek, and the Breakbeat Massive series.

You have successfully recreated the Breakbeat style, and are ready to bust out the glowsticks and rave until the sun comes up. Please add any thoughts/comments below.

Author: Will Kuhn

I teach music technology to high schoolers. I do some other stuff too. @willkuhn on Twitter.

5 thoughts on “Tutorial: Creating a Breakbeat-style song in Ableton Live”

  1. I came across your tutorial at Synthtopia…great work Will! I just started learning Ableton (I’m a Logic guy) and this is probably one of the easiest tutorials to get into.


    1. Thanks!  I love the results you get from this technique too.  Very Prodigy-ish.  By the way, I added your site to my google reader – nice blog!

  2. very nice … I will be using those techniques. Been using Ableton for about 6 months and I love it. Always looking for good ideas.

    Do you use the looper in Ableton alot?
    Just getting familiar with it.

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