How to Make DJ Edits in Ableton Live
Liam Shy, Ableton Certified Trainer
- The first question is WHY do we want to make DJ edits?
- 1.1. There are 3 primary reasons:
- 1.1.1. Practical
- 1.1.2. Technical
- 1.1.3. Creative
- Regarding practical reasons, the main driver for this is usually quite simple:
- 2.1. If we were doing a fully live performance with Ableton Live, a laptop, audio interface and midi controller, we may not need to do any editing prep (or at least a different type of prep) in advance, as there are ways we can re-create this experience live. However, it is often impractical to perform in this way due to limited table space, not wanting to be “that DJ”, or simply out of respect for the DJ’s performing before and after you. Like it or not, Pioneer CDJ’s are essentially the club standard, and being able to conform to this standard will be very handy, so that you don’t limit your ability to perform and are adaptable to certain gigs where bringing tons of equipment is either too risky or too burdensome. It is also far and above easier to show up to a set with a USB and headphones, vs a huge backpack with $5-10,000 worth of expensive gear that you have to lug around and worry about all night. It also reduces potential technical hiccups you could have on stage if any of your gear malfunctions. Laptops are notorious for crashing and especially once you combine heat, moisture, heavy vibrations, and other common factors into the mix.
- Technical Reasons
- 3.1. First and foremost relates to DJ Transitions and Tempo Syncing
- 3.1.1. DJ Transitions and tempo syncing are hard. Even for experienced DJ’s there is a lot of variability between setups and quality of gear, as well as other conditions such as environment, lighting, heat, dust etc. Furthermore, use of the sync button is often unreliable unless you have spent a lot of time meticulously editing your beat grids in advance. A process I personally find a bit boring and not super creative. We can solve this by conforming all our DJ tracks to a single BPM in advance. While this may not work for all genres and complex sets, it can be useful for trance, techno, house and similar genres where a DJ would be performing in a relatively constrained tempo range anyway.
- 3.1.2. DJ transitions can also be hard for phrase matching. For example Song A may have traditional 16 bar phrases, while song B may deploy 12 bar phrases. Trying to remember this timing to accurately nail your transitions in a live environment can be annoying, cumbersome and require detailed notes. We can solve this issue by creating custom intros and outros, that have the same bar phrase counts, to ensure smooth timing.
- 3.1.3. DJ transitions can also be difficult for reasons relating to key matching. While it is not possible to completely alter the key a song is in, it may be possible to shift the pitch so that the transitions are cleaner and less abrupt.
- 3.1.4. DJ transitions can also be difficult due to conflicting vocals or other sounds. Certainly two vocalists singing on top of each other is not ideal. By editing in Ableton beforehand, we can solve this problem. This can also apply to overly prominent synths or other elements that distract from a clean transition.
- 3.1.5. The last and most prominent technical reason could simply be that your DJ tracks are just too long. It’s not uncommon in techno, house, trance and psytrance to have songs that are 5-8 minutes in length. While I appreciate the artistry it’s quite normal for the song to communicate all of its strengths in a much more confined time frame. Furthermore, in my experience of nearly 20 years of DJ’ing, I find that the best way to keep a Dancefloor engaged, and not running off to the bar or outside to smoke, is to keep the pacing moving along at a good clip. That means making transitions around every 3-4 minutes, and not 5-8 minutes. By all means, use at your own discretion, some songs are epic and deserve to be played in full. But if you are only slated for an hour set (or worse, less), it can be quite useful to express yourself more fully by making faster transitions. Therefore, we can pre-edit our tracks to highlight the best parts, remove the worst parts, or just shorten it overall so as to keep the Dancefloor’s attention. The other element to this is egregiously long breakdowns, where the beat drops out completely, sometimes for 1-2 minutes. Or fake drops where the build up seems to indicate the eminent release of a drop, but instead goes into a second and often unnecessary build up. We can edit these out to make a much more satisfying Dancefloor experience. We can also do things like layer a filtered kick drum underneath a break, so that the energy of the beat is not lost completely during this moments.
- Next, let’s discuss creative reasons:
- 4.1. For one, it can be great to “reimagine” a track’s arrangement. Often times I will find the best part of a song only happens for a short time, and the rest of the song the producer is stuck exploring ideas that I feel are not as worthy. In this case, we can duplicate or extend sections that feel the most inline with our vision, and reduce the sections that clutter, take away from, or dilute the power of our sets.
- 4.2. On a similar note, we can also take creative liberty to remove sections with egregiously cheesy vocals, something that I often find useful when playing for “blended crowds”. I define a blended crowd as one that consists of a mixture of die hard underground music fans, along with a more mainstream audience. In trying to identify songs with crossover appeal, we may encounter that by and large the track works, but we really need to cut out the overtly mainstream bits, and focus on the elements that will satisfy the more discerning listeners.
- 4.3. On another creative note, we can also explore adding extra elements, blueing the line between an edit and a remix. For example, we could take an older track, filter out the low end, and add a more modern kick and baseline underneath. The kick and bass would need to closely follow the patterns of the original, but if down right, it can help to breathe more life into a track that may otherwise come off as dated. Furthermore, we can do things like add extra percussive elements, loops, one shots or FX to add drama and flair to the song. This can be done by adding audio effects, midi or synth elements, or just by processing portions of the song through effects processors such as beat repeat, filters, distortions, delays and more.
- 4.4. Creative tempo changes. If you wish to have a song serve as a “transition” from two wildly different tempos (140 to 90 for example), you can automate these tempo changes within live to make for a smooth and precise transition when it comes to your live performance.
- 4.5. Finally, for those who are truly adventurous, we can explore the concept of mashups, and truly bringing that extra level of flair and creativity to your sets. Mashups are an incredible way to carve out a unique sound for yourself, especially in an era where many DJ’s simply play the same “hot” tracks and are all competing from a similar pool of music to choose from. This can be as simple as taking two similar tracks from the same genre, but more often than not allows for us to really flex our creative muscle and take songs that are completely different and layer parts of them together. I do this a lot with classic rock and roll, which is a really fun genre, but not great for traditional dance floors. However by doing it tastefully, and not for too long, it can add unexpected joy and flair to an otherwise unsurprising set.
- With that in mind, what does the process look like in order to pre-prepare our tracks in advance?
- 5.1. First and foremost of course, you will need to compile all of your DJ songs into a folder. As a quick aside, there are a few points I will mention.
- 5.1.1. One, ideally make sure to organize your files in the final place that they will live. This means don’t just do your edits from the downloads folder, because if you move the files later, it will break Ableton Live’s ability to find the songs and your set will break.
- 5.1.2. Second, make sure to download high quality WAV or AIFF files. MP3’s are not recommended for live performances, though they can be ok for live streams and smaller gigs if you can’t find WAV’s or it’s cost prohibitive to pay the extra fees. I recommend Beatport for buying music as they have the option to purchase all tracks as high quality. In particular I recommend AIFF over WAV as it will embed the metadata and album artwork.
- 5.2. Next you will need to warp your songs. I will go over warping now.
- 5.2.1. Create a warp marker at the first downbeat
- 5.2.2. Set 1.1.1 here
- 5.2.3. Delete the original warp marker from the start of the track
- 5.2.4. Select “Warp from here straight”
- 5.2.5. Spot check that it has warped correctly by going to the very end of the song. Use the metronome and make sure you are doing this in arrangement view and not session view.
- 5.2.6. You may need to create additional warp markers at this point. Do so by going to other prominent drops in the song where the drum transient is easily identifiable. Align the phrase of the song to the phrase ruler in Live. Place no more than 4 warp markers for your entire track if it is an electronic dance music song. If you are warping a classic rock or older song you may need to spend considerable time going through every 4 bars or so and warping throughout manually.
- 5.2.7. Confirm that the “Seg BPM” roughly matches the original BPM of the song. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it should be close.
- 5.2.8. Choose your warp mode, either Repitch or Complex Pro. Repitch will disregard the original pitch of the song but sounds cleaner. Ideal for techno and psytrance. Complex pro is ideal for harmonic mixing or mixing pop, vocal house or other genres where the integrity of the key is more important than the integrity of the transients.
- 5.2.9. Adjust your global BPM to either match the original song or choose the new BPM that you want to conform the song to.
- 5.2.10. You’re done!
- 5.3. Once your song is correctly warped, we can begin the processing of crafting the edit. We will go through each of the problems and solutions above and demonstrate how they can be achieved.
Thanks for attending the Live Stream! If you would like further lessons in Ableton Live, definitely be sure to check out my upcoming course on music production, launching July 21st. It is a behemoth of a course where I walk you through from start to finish how to create music in Live. We tackle every aspect of the software as well as song writing, sound design, music theory, arrangement theory, recording, midi and more. There is a $100 off coupon live on www.liamshy.com
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