DJ’ing Using Ableton Live Arrangement View

I had a great time last week DJ’ing a dance party for our school marching band camp.  It was an hour long set, and I didn’t take requests but I totally could have.

First, the tools.  I DJ’ed exclusively using Ableton – in Arrangement View.  Huh?  Arrangement View?

“But Session View is for stuff like live prefromants rite?”  Yes, my poor-spelling friend.  However, there are some distinct advantages to DJ’ing in Arrangement View.  Here’s an unordered list of my reasons:

  • I like knowing how long my set is, especially for a short 1-hour set
  • I like to craft nice transitions between songs
  • I like to incorporate pieces of the previous song in the current mix, something that’s hard to do without a timeline visualization
  • It gives me less to think about

Now.  Some people may criticize those who simply press play and let the DJ set go as planned, rather than beat juggling on the fly and such.  There’s some merit to the argument, especially if people just lie down after pressing play and take a nap.  However, preplanning the main song material gives me more freedom to play around with effects during the performance, which you’ll see in a bit.

First, how I organize my set.

Organizing the set

This is what the overall set looks like:

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 12.06.22 PM

Two main tracks alternating playing a song.  No crossfader, just automated volume adjustments.

The blank track is part of a drum kit I’ll get to later.

Notice the automation line at the bottom – this is the master tempo.  By pre-setting this, all my transitions are taken care of and I don’t have to worry about any party fouls.  I can also visually see how much I’m working the crowd.  I don’t want too much fast or slow all at once.

The overall picture of the night I’m going for looks like this:

  • Act I: Hip Hop / 80-100 BPM Pop
  • Act II: Dance tracks / 120-130 BPM Pop
  • Act III: Line dance / cheese / big tracks people go crazy for

You can see in the tempo line how everything calms down around the start of Act II – I need some runway to build up to the bigger tracks.  Some of the big jumps are actually quarter time to half time transitions as well; I’m not a masochist after all.

Another thing I like to use in Arrangement View are the Locators.  These are position marks on the timeline that act like clip triggers do in Session View.  In DJ’ing, they’re perfect for marking the big hits/drops/choruses of the song – if the song is going really well I can trigger back to that hit to keep the party going for a bit longer.  Even though this effects my overall set length it gives the ability to be somewhat reactive to the crowd response.

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 12.12.00 PM

 

These can be added by simply right-clicking the strip below the timeline and selecting “Add Locator”

Mashups

Mashups are awesome and easy to do in Ableton Live.  Basically, I’ll take an instrumental (or an instrumental loop from a song) and play another song (or acapella version of a song) over it, creating something new and fresh that a) sounds unique and b) makes me sound like I’m working the decks really hard or whatever they call it.

To see if  two songs will mash I just need to:

  1. Make the tempo of the two songs the same
  2. Make the key of the two songs the same
  3. Evaluate if the mashup works or not

Mashing up is like an extension of transitions.  Ableton will attempt to make any song you drag in the same tempo, but will often get the warping wrong.  To make a track warp correctly,

  1. Turn on the metronome
  2. Double click the track header (the colored stripe)
  3. Find a known beat 1 on the track
  4. Double click the grey transient mark above that spike to add a warp marker
  5. On the warp marker, right click and select “Warp from here (Straight)” – this will recalculate the warping at a constant tempo, something most songs are notable for having.
  6. If this doesn’t work, the song requires some TLC such as adding more warp markers.  Remember, any sound can occur on whatever beat you want in Ableton – you just have to add a warp marker and move the beat to the right timeline mark.

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 12.22.12 PM

 

So now that the two songs are sync’ed to the metronome click, we need them to be in the same key.  Generally we don’t want to move the key of vocals too much as it will distort the singing and make the song less recognizable.  Most of the time we can adjust the “Transpose” of the instrumental to match the singing.  Even if you know nothing about music theory, it is possible to tell if it sounds like the singer is singing wrong notes or not – if it sounds wrong, move it a step up or down and see if it starts to match.

Protip: If you can’t find a match in +6 or -6 steps the two songs may not be matchable.  12 keys represents every possible key the song could be in, and a mismatch might mean they are in different modes (major trying to play with minor, etc.)

This is where warp modes can come in handy too.  The different methods for warping a clip can impact how they sound.  For anything with vocals, I’d recommend “Complex Pro” mode.  It preserves more of the timbre of the vocalist than the other modes.

 

Effects/Instruments

I use an Akai MPD24 for effects.  It’s not a LaunchPad or an Ableton controller like the Push, but it suits my needs better for my set.  It’s dead simple.  Here’s the MIDI map:

mpd24_top_lg_700x438

 

(click to enlarge)

With Beat Repeat and the other two FX plugins I can do a lot to skip and juggle and mess with transitions even more “on the fly” without compromising the stability of my set.

I had a lot of fun with the drum pads too.  I want anything I add to not sound like I’m just farting around on a drum machine, so I put an Arpeggiator set to “Chord Trigger” on my Drum Rack.  This way I can play 16th notes on multiple pads just by holding down the pad and they won’t just be close to the right tempo, they’ll be EXACTLY the right tempo.  I think I also mapped a couple of the blank knobs to the pitch for individual hits so I could freshen up the sound.

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 12.35.31 PM

I used this feature to:

  • Add trap “machine gun” Hi Hats to everything
  • Add extra craziness to buildups
  • Reinforce weak Kick patterns
  • Look super busy during the set

It’s important to have lots of knobs to turn.

And with that I’m done for the day – have fun DJ’ing in Ableton Live and feel free to send me your set questions!

 

 

 

Author: Will Kuhn

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

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