Tips for full band recording
Ableton Live is well known for its suitability with regards to electronic music. With its unique clip-launching functionality, and tonnes of instantly changeable instruments and plugins, Live has long been seen as the go-to choice of producers and DJs. What a lot of people don’t realise though is that it also excels at recording bands, on account of its relatively simple, intuitive workflow.
As with any DAW, Ableton can be as complex or as straightforward as you want it to be. For the more advanced user there are plenty of techniques for things like time-shifting, sampling, MIDI integration and mixing, but less experienced users can also pick it up quickly enough to get some professional results with just a few core skills. Let’s take a look at how to record a full band in Ableton Live.
We’ll assume, if you’re reading this, that you already have a copy of Ableton Live 9 in some format, be that the entry-level Ableton Live 9 Intro or the feature packed Ableton Live 9 Suite. You’ll also need a few other bits of kit to get started, notably a USB audio interface and set of monitor speakers. The audio interface is effectively an external sound card which enables you to connect your instruments ready for recording, while the monitor speakers will allow you to listen back to your sounds.
The first decision to make will have a huge impact on exactly how you record the band; do you record ‘live’, with everyone playing, or do you lay down instruments individually. If you’re dead set on recording everyone at the same time, there are certain barriers you should understand, most notably the need for more expensive audio interface capable of recording multiple audio signals at the same time.
For many bands recording live is the preferred option, however there are advantages to tracking instruments individually, including the ability to record certain parts over and over until you have the desired results. A mix between the two approaches is often used though, with full band recording done for laying down demo recordings and per-instrument recording done for final versions.
Working on a hypothetical band of two guitars, drums, bass and vocals, let’s assume we want to record ‘live’. We can see that we’ll need at least two inputs for the guitars – either as microphones for recording amplifiers, or for line-in connection to software packages. We’ll also need a few inputs for drum microphones, another for the bass amplifier microphone and finally one for the vocals. In total this could be anywhere between 6 and 12 microphones, depending on how many you assign to the drums.
For a recording session of this size, you’ll need a large interface like the superb Focusrite Scarlett 18i20. This interface can easily cope with up to 18 individual inputs, and will ensure the collected audio signals reach Ableton in perfect condition.
We’ll explore microphone techniques in other articles, but let’s assume all the instruments are mic’ed up and ready to go. The first job in Ableton should be to start a new project – naming it so you can easily find it later – and opening up the app’s preferences page. From here, you’ll need to tell Ableton which audio interface to use. In the picture above you can see we’re using a Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 interface. Next, we want to put Ableton into its ‘session view’, as opposed its clip launching view. Clip launching is great for writing songs and arrangements, but for proper recording we’ll use the traditional timeline session view. You can access this easily using your tab key.
Once this is set up, you need to begin some good ol’ fashioned administration. In this context, administration means setting the project up so it can be easily navigated around with everything in a logical place. We’ll begin by adding as many audio tracks as we need – let’s say 10 – which the interface will feed into. With your 10 tracks, go and individually name each one with the corresponding instrument which will be recorded into it. It’s also a good idea to colour code the tracks, which again helps navigation and also provides a welcome wash of colour to Ableton’s otherwise pretty stark interface.
Assigning inputs and outputs
To the right of the screen you will see the track information, like its name, level, pan setting etc. You can also set the input and output settings here – if you can’t see this, press the small ‘I-O’ button – so we can assign the audio interface to the correct tracks. Next, change the track input setting to Ext. In, which tells Ableton to look for the external channel, and then change the input channel using the drop-down menu by the track’s I/O settings.
With your mics set up, tap gently into the top of each individually to ensure the right one is reaching the right track. You’ll see the green level meter in the drop-down light up for the relevant channel. With each channel recording into the right track, we’re almost ready to go.
With all the necessary housekeeping out of the way, we can begin recording. To do this, you’ll need to ‘arm’ each track for recording. You do this by simply clicking the small record box with the circle in for each corresponding track, which will turn red to signify it is active and ready. To arm multiple tracks, hold down control/command as you click each time.
If your drummer is playing to a click or metronome in Ableton, you will need to set up the output BPM accordingly. This is done in the top left hand of the screen, either manually or by clicking the ‘tap’ box to the time you want. If you’re playing without a click (very brave!) then you can disable Ableton’s BPM by clicking into the ‘Record/Warp/Launch’ tab in preferences and unchecking the box marked ‘Auto warp long samples’. Now, Ableton won’t try and change your recordings to fit the BPM template which can save many a scratched head moment.
With everything all set up, it’s as simple as clicking the record button at the top centre of the screen, then clicking play. If everything has been done correctly, you should now see the screen begin to fill up with your sounds. Once you’ve finished, press the space bar to stop recording, and you can listen back to what you’ve captured. Overdubbing or re-doing sections is as simple as finding the relevant part and following the same process. Ableton has some pretty solid overdubbing functionality built into it too, which you can read more about here.
So, to recap, recording a full band in Ableton will require you to do the following things.
- Start a new project
- Name and colour-code the tracks
- Assign channels from your audio interface to the relevant tracks in Ableton
- Arm the tracks for recording
We hope this guide has helped and given you some ideas for recording your next session. Ableton Live is great for full band recording, and with the good habits you’ll learn from keeping everything organised your recording workflow will become more efficient and easier to manage as your portfolio grows.