Getting Started With Ableton Push 2
One controller to rule them all
Ableton is best known for its DAW (digital audio workstation) juggernaut Live. Now in its ninth iteration, Live has become the centrepiece of studios, stages and bedroom setups the world over. It differs from other DAWs in that it is as much geared towards performance as it is towards production.
On one side, there is the ‘session’ view. Here, audio and/or MIDI clips are recorded into boxes, arranged vertically according to the track. You’ll have tracks for drums, synths, guitars, vocals etc, all housed in their own line. The user can fire up any box, or clip, within the vertical line, and it will happily play along with the other clips you have running. As a tool for songwriters and composers, this was – and still is – gamechanging. The amount of ‘happy accidents’ I’ve personally had by firing off a clip unintended and hearing it fit the rest of the tracks like a glove make Live worth its weight in creative gold many times over.
But as well as that, Live has its ‘arrangement’ view. This is a typical timeline in the style you’ll find in any production software. You can arrange your audio and MIDI clips, add effects, tinker with automation. Basically anything you could require to complete your tracks is there waiting to be played with.
Conscious, however, that Live is essentially another software platform, Ableton sought to find a way to make things more performance orientated. To bring a level of tactility to what could easily become another point and click exercise.
A few years ago, a number of approved manufacturers began creating hardware devices specifically designed to be paired with Live. Both Akai and Novation created some superb bits of kit which echoed Live’s unique session view. These lent themselves perfectly to controlling soft synths, drum racks and also to firing off clips.
Understandably, Ableton wanted a piece of the pie and so, in conjunction with Akai, launched its first ever hardware device: Push. As it’s designed from the ground up by Ableton, Push gives users the keys to the car in a big way.
Pretty much anything you can do on your laptop within Live is do-able using just the Push device. This detachment from the screen, mouse and keyboard went a long way to giving players and performers the immersion they needed to concentrate only on their music. It is not, however, without a learning curve. Let’s take a look at a few things to consider when getting started with Ableton’s newer model, Push 2.
Fire it up
There’s no getting around this. Push 2 is an imposing beast. Prior to turning it on, it looks like a fairly monolithic piece of future tech. You could imagine Weyland Yutani installing them on their ships. Flick the switch however, and this beast comes to life with a flash of vibrant colour. All is forgiven.
Your eyes are instantly drawn to the 64 coloured pads which form the performance part of the unit, before then spying the gorgeous OLED screen at the top. This screen is context-sensitive, meaning it changes depending on what you’re trying to do.
To the top of the unit, you’ll find a row of touch sensitive encoders, and coloured buttons underneath each. Again, these are context-sensitive, but the primary function of these is to control parameters in the devices you load up.
The left hand side contains buttons to control transport (record, play, stop) along with ways to create new clips or duplicate existing ones. A touch sensitive bar next to these buttons is used to control various in-device parameters. To the right, you have various navigation-specific buttons, along with the all-important buttons required to add new devices and tracks to your composition.
Towards the bottom right of the unit is a hugely important pair of buttons, marked ‘session’ and ‘note’. Remember earlier in the article we mentioned about Live’s unique session and arrangement views? These buttons effectively let you travel between these two workflows. You can, for example, use the note layout to programme in a series of beats, then travel over to the session view to fire off the different clips you’ve created.
Basic working example
So far, so opaque. The best way to get your head around the myriad things Push can do is to get stuck in.
As a starter, find yourself a reasonable tempo to work at (default is 120bpm) and load a few devices into separate MIDI tracks. Tweak the sounds to your liking, and add effects as required. Push 2 can handle VST and Au plugins too, which is worth knowing.
Head down to the performance area and make sure ‘note’ view is on. For drum machines, the pad splits itself up so you have a 4×4 area with which to play beats, a 4×8 area to the top which becomes a step sequencer, and a section which tells you where in your chosen loop you are. Handy so you don’t lose track.
If, on the other hand, you have a synth, or a sampler loaded up, the ‘note’ view becomes a 64 key input device. Better still, you can change it to display specific keys and scales only, which is ideal for anyone not trained in musical theory.
All you need to do then is hit the record button (there’s a metronome at the top if required) and begin playing. Try sequencing in a basic drum pattern, then moving over to your synth. Changing the parameters of effects while recording means they change too – great for some creative adventure. Once you’ve recorded something, you have the option to quantize it so it’s all in good time.
While the above example demonstrates the most basic of Push’s functions. There are so many other things it enables you to do, but we only have some many words available to us in this article. YouTube has hundreds of amazing tutorials, including some superb videos from Ableton itself guiding you through the basics. Once you’re up and running, you’ll see for yourself what an amazing, liberating performance device Push 2 is.