Live-looping With Ableton & MIDI

Using Ableton’s Looper Device As A Performance Tool

Ableton Live

Many players now are exploring with the possibilities offered by looping. Even popstars like Ed Sheeran and KT Tunstall are using loops as the centre-piece of their sound.

For guitar players particularly, looping tends to come in the shape of a dedicated foot pedal. But what’s interesting for more studio-based or electronic musicians is the functionality offered by Ableton Live. Built into Ableton is a powerful, intuitive looping device which offers much of the same practicality as an external looper. Combined with a simple MIDI footswitch, you can do pretty much everything you could do with something like the Boss RC-3.

The real beauty comes in the fact that, as well as the looping, you will also be plugged into Ableton with its incredible features. It’s the best of both worlds; traditional looping, and the full capability of Live including recording, effects, instruments and sounds.

Let’s have a look at how to start live-looping with Ableton.

Ableton Live Looper

Getting started

It’s worth familiarising yourself with the looper tool in Ableton before we start. You’ll find it included in Ableton’s audio effects panel. There are a couple of options we’ll consider; looping with an instrument (guitar would be the obvious example) and looping using a MIDI instrument. If you’re using a guitar, drag the looper onto the audio track into which your guitar is connected. If you’re using a virtual instrument or VSTi, load that into a MIDI track then drop the looper in after it.

You’ll notice straight away the big button for recording. Before you fly into action, take a minute to get things set up the way you want them. The first priority should be mapping that big button to a MIDI controller. While you can use anything with MIDI capability, it makes sense given the circumstances to use some kind of foot pedal. A simple MIDI enabled foot pedal will do the job here, you don’t need anything too fancy.

Under its default settings, the foot pedal will start recording on the first press. You can then set it to either immediately record the next layer with the next press – great for quickly building up layers – or to stop recording but keep playing the loop. This setting is perfect for anyone looking to lay down a basic chord progression and jam over the top. You can then double-tap the switch to stop playing, and press & hold to clear the recording and start afresh.

Behave yourself

The next job is to tell the looper how you want it to behave. You could have it run to a set tempo, dictated by Ableton’s global tempo control; this is useful if you’re using virtual instruments as you can use the in-built metronome for accuracy. Ableton will also quantize the recording, meaning it will cleverly ‘shift’ any slightly out of time notes to make them in time. Alternatively, you could set the looper to base its tempo on your playing, which it does with a decent level of accuracy.

Ableton Live 9 Standard

From here, it’s pretty easy to get up and running. But let’s say you wanted to record more than one instrument. You might, for example, want to experiment with a full band sound. The process here is slightly more complex, but with the same overall principles. Just more of them.

Multi-instrument setup

To give an example, create two audio tracks and two MIDI tracks. Load your favourite drum machine into one MIDI track, and a synth bass into another. Then, in the audio tracks, route in a guitar and a microphone. Now it gets a bit more complex. You could, for ease of use, load the looper device into a bus track and route the four individual tracks solely into the bus; this would capture the ‘overall’ sound but doesn’t leave much room for controlling the different components.

Really, each track needs its own looper device, but the problem here is that the foot pedal would start recording on all four simultaneously unless you have an alternative solution. The best method to get the full benefit would be to use an external MIDI controller like the Novation Launchkey 25. Using the Launchkey, you can assign the ‘arm record’ buttons on the individual tracks to buttons on the keyboard. Then, you’d load individual instances of the looper device onto each track, and simply ‘arm’ the track you want to focus on at that time.

There will always be demand for external, dedicated hardware loop pedals. They offer portability, and don’t require laptops or other devices to operate. But for those of you with access to a copy of Ableton, the in-built looper device is a powerful, controllable little tool which opens up a world of new possibilities for recording. And, being a full DAW application, any great ideas you stumble across can be built up extremely quickly into full tracks.