Templates

The tyranny of the blank page is a real issue with creatives, especially beginners. This is why lots of beginner-focused apps open with a splash screen of suggested tasks. The difficult part is making these tasks open ended enough to lead to a unique endpoint. Using only prerecorded loops can be a helpful starting point but can often lead to uncreative ends that resemble output of anyone else who has used the software you are using.

Thus, many “professional” DAW apps eschew the feature entirely, opting to show entirely blank pages as a starting point. The reasoning may go “yes, this looks intimidating, but no less intimidating than any other professional tool”.

Ableton Live has had Templates for awhile now, usually found in the form of the “default set”, although any Live set can be saved as a template set that does not allow itself to be overwritten, only copied. Ableton has not traditionally gone further than this though by suggesting potential styles of music you might make, or tempos you might produce at. In fact, when Live *does* choose an instrument for you, it seems to intentionally choose an instrument you would not want in your music.

Try it yourself: convert some audio to to drums, melody or harmony using the right-click menu. Live will dutifully convert the material to one of these three potential endpoints and assign the most basic Platonic standard instrument it can muster (808 for drums, piano for harmony, etc.) It’s begging you to change these instruments to something else and fast!

Live 11’s now first-class-citizen Templates menu in the browser seems to dip a very tentative toe into the “suggested styles” pool. In addition to the “DefaultLiveSet.als” (which still defaults to Session view with four blank tracks), we now see 8-Track Recording, Demo & Sketch, and Podcast Template. The most interesting of these is Demo & Sketch.

This template opens to a screen that shows four instruments that resemble elements of building a song. In fact, these seem to mirror the elements chosen for the Learning Music website:

Beats, Chords, Basslines, Melodies are represented in this template by Drums, Keys, Bass and Vocals. I feel like this order being exactly the same isn’t a coincidence, although it could be (the names are slightly different too, but more on that in a bit).

This is the only template with pre-populated loops on any track. The Drums track has a standard Basic Drumming-type beat for several preselected styles. I would be very interested to know how these styles were chosen. The types of beats suggest a drummer selected these patterns, as they mirror the typical order of styles a person learning drum set might pursue. This is much more straightforward than GarageBand’s “drummers” although the Ableton approach still sets you pretty far away from the finish line. The GarageBand approach is: “if you want to make a song quickly, you are almost done as soon as you start”. The Ableton approach seems to be: “here’s how a lot of people start, but the road ahead is long”.

Not a ton of electronic styles here, but traditional “learning drumset” styles instead.

This mirrors the philosophy of Live and Push as instruments that reward practice, rather than solution-only software.

The most interesting part to me are the prescribed tempo markings for each scene. I know from experience that the fine people at Ableton have strong opinions on this topic, as many of them have personal production or DJ experience in addition to their software and business responsibilities. The project I initially called the “Push Project Guide” that you can find here on Ableton.com had some of the best copy editing I’ve experienced as it dealt less with the formatting of my words, but with the content of my lessons.

He was right.

These are interesting, and so specific. Traditionally tempo markings are divided in groups of four or three, presumably to aid in the calibration of mechanical metronomes. And since we’re usually expecting Platonic-ideal type material from Ableton these numbers are a really interesting contrast. Why choose 99 instead of 100 for Reggaeton? Why choose 77 for Herm Yarl style Grunge Rock? Are there specific songs or artists the author had in mind when choosing these?

Adding to my theory that the drums define the genre…

Keys and Bass are more straightforward. There are no pre-recorded loops here, but the default instruments do make great use of the Macro Variations feature in Live 11. These tracks are set up to provide a variety of possible instruments all at once, letting you quickly swap between instruments until you have a solid foundation for your track. The instrument choices are slightly more interesting than the true neutral types Live still uses for Audio to MIDI conversion. Maybe I’d call these “greatest hits” of the Live core library.

“Keys”
“Bass”

Vocals is an audio track, but it is not empty! This track includes an audio effect rack for Vocals, which is another really handy tool. I have observed many vocalists are turned off by the first time they hear their recorded voice in a DAW because they are expecting more compression than they get off of a professional mic setup. I’ve heard this character described as “awkward” by students – and it does sound very lonely and soft, the exact opposite that most vocalists are going for.

And proving once and for all that music isn’t a sport because you can’t cheat at it, Ableton adds a Limiter to the master track by default.

What’s fun for me about this default set is how much more comprehensive it is than my own default set I’ve been using for the last few years in class. I felt the same need to provide some decent starting points when we started using Push, at the very least so touching the Push made sound right away. I’ve been using a template that gives three instruments for free: a synth, a drum kit and an 808 bass. The 808 is the same on every station, but the first two instrument presets are slightly different on each machine. That way, there is a smaller chance for students all picking the same instrument (when you listen to 30 projects out loud this can be a real problem).

Homemade “Demo & Sketch” circa 2018

In addition, I used 24 variations of this template to make sure that all the Push units turned on in class in a pleasing ROYGBIV pattern. Each station had one of these templates as its default set, and the computer was set to launch Live on start each morning.

I would not be upset to see more Templates provided by Ableton, or even downloadable as Packs. Starting points are important for beginners, and well thought out starting points like these can be a powerful tool for teachers helping those beginners as well.

Author: Will Kuhn

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