Sunday 23 February 2020

DAWless or Ableton Live Only - Inspired by a Ricky Tinez YouTube Video

There are a lot of electronic music resources available on YouTube, and some of the best, in my humble opinion, are the videos published by Ricky Tinez on his channel:

Ricky Tinez channel screenshot

It was a video from Ricky published on the 4th of January 2020 that caught my attention recently, and it inspired a series of exploratory experiments. The video starts out by looking at the 1010 Music Blackbox sample player (and more - almost any short description is going to be a total understatement of what that box can do...), but it segues into a live jamming session using Ricky's live-performance-oriented modular synthesizer, where he syncopates a melody line, and uses rhythmic timbre variation to give a compelling groove with lots of easily accessible variations.

Ricky Tinez Video screenshot

Ricky's video uses the 'live performance, hardware only: no computer' buzz-word 'DAWless', which got me wondering if you could do something similar in Ableton Live 10 Suite, because I'm a contrariwise sort of person. As even more of a challenge, I wondered what would be possible without using Max For Live, because my immediate thought was that I could program up a Max For Live plug-in to do a lot of the rhythmic control. (I'm using the 'Suite' edition of Live because I like and use the software instrument plug-ins a lot, but you could easily replace them with VSTs or samples via Simpler, the sample player included in the Standard and Lite editions of Ableton Live.)

Limitations are the spur of creativity. That's what they always tell you in moments of desperation - like when the only sound source you have is a referee's whistle and you have to produce a TV soundtrack. So by deliberately limiting myself to the factory presets in Ableton Live 10 Suite and with no Max For Live, I was removing all of my usual 'Get Out of Jail Free' cards. Well, prop-less and some time later, I'm pleased to report that a DAW can produce some interesting emulations of some of the workflows that you would normally associate with a small modular synth. That strange whooshing sound that you can hear is me swimming against the tide, because this is the opposite of 'DAWless' - more like 'DAW Only'.

There's a YouTube video that shows a screen capture of me showing the results here (and I have made the Ableton Live .als file available for download as well). I'm going to follow approximately the same flow as the video in this blog post...

DAW Only

I started with a basic drum underpinning using the factory 'Core 808' drum kit the comes with Ableton Live 10, followed by a factory reverb, and just in case, a factory Auto-Filter that I might use later to give some variation to the drum sound (As it turned out, I didn't need to do this, but the effect is there, ready and waiting if I do ever need it.).

Drum synth screenshot

The drum pattern itself is not sophisticated, and is a single bar, repeated - for tech demos then I think the detail should only be where you need it.

Drum notes screenshot

The bass line is just more underpinning, and is just four notes, single bar, repeated. Just for fun, there's a little bit of MIDI velocity variation, but that's something I do automatically without thinking, and once I'd done the clicking and dragging, I left it in place.

The bass is just a modified factory preset for Ableton's 'Analog' VA 'Virtual Analogue' synth from AAS (Applied Acoustics Systems), followed by a little bit of factory reverb. I know that there's a specific factory 'Bass' synth plug-in, but I just like Analog... In front of the synth, there's a factory Velocity MIDI plug-in the is turned off, but it is there so I can rapidly give a bit of extra velocity variation if I feel that it is needed. Again, this is just an insurance policy against boredom setting in. Confidence in live performance is all about knowing that you have done the preparation, and you are ready for any eventuality. Foreseen difficulties mean that you can have pre-prepared mitigations waiting to be activated, and everything can procede calmly and smoothly.

Bass notes screenshot

The bass line isn't going to win any prizes, but it is just background supporting material, and so the more it lurks in the background, the better.

The final part of the backing tracks is a couple of chords, so that there's more character to the background than just drums and bass. I used a factory preset for the AAS Collision physical modelling synth that you get in Ableton Live 10 Suite - because I love marimbas and their ilk. (Let me know when you get sick and tired of me putting 'factory' in front of everything!)

Marimba synth screenshot

There's a MIDI 'Random' plug-in in front of the Collision PM synth, set up so that I can add random octave transpositions if I think that the chords are too boring.

Marimba synth effects screenshot

After the Collision PM synth, there are three effects, a delay to give the chords a bit of rhythmic interest, then a factory chorus to round the marimba sound out a bit, and finally a factory reverb to put the chords back in the mix.

Marimba synth notes screenshot

I so wanted to use my Max For Live chord utility here! But that would have been total overkill for two simple chords. Once again, there's nothing complex or clever here, just plain C major and an inverted C sus 4 (I've always had a weak spot for suspended chords!). That completes the backing tracks.


Which brings us to the start of what I hope is going to be the interesting bit, where I try to get the same sort of syncopated notes and rhythmic timbre variations as Ricky got using his modular synth. My starting point is a factory AAS Analog VA synth again, using a factory preset, and preceded by 'if I need it later' factory Random for octave variation, 'if I need it later' factory Velocity for MIDI velocity variations, and another factory Velocity plug-in for doing the gating for the syncopation:

Melody synth screenshot

After the synth plug-in, then since I'm going to only be using monophonic sounds, we can go West-Coast and have a factory Saturator plug-in to do 'wave-shaping' timbral changes, then a limiter to keep volume under control, followed by a factory Ping-Pong Delay and a factory Reverb. Once again, just in case, there's an LFO in there, but I'm not going to use it now since that would break the 'No Max For Live' limitation.

Melody synth effects screenshot

The 'Melody' line, and I hesitate to promote it to such dizzy heights, is more of the 'straight-forward' mind-set - just eight notes with an interval of an octave:

Melody synth notes screenshot

For the syncopation function, we need to be able to turn these notes on and off easily, using a simple control mechanism. For this, one easy approach is to use the factory MIDI Velocity plug-in, and to control the 'Out Hi' parameter. The 'Out Hi' rotary control sets the maximum MIDI velocity for a not that passes through the Velocity plug-in - but it you set it lower, then the maximum velocity goes lower, and if you se it to zero, then no notes pass thru - because a MIDI velocity of zero is the equivalent of a Note Off message. So if the 'Out Hi' parameter is set to 127, then all notes will pass through unchanged, whereas if it is set to zero, then no notes pass through.

The clip envelope is one of the newest features of Ableton Live, and is the key to doing the syncopation. All you do is create an up and down rectangular set of steps, gong between zero and 127, and set this to control the 'Out Hi' parameter in the Velocity plug-in:

Clip envelope note gating diagram 1

The diagram shows the clip envelope that is controlling the 'Out Hi' parameter in the 'Velocity plug-in, and just jumps up and down between zero and 127. The Velocity plug-in then processes the MIDI notes going to the Analog synth. If I annotate the clip envelope with ticks for when the value is 127, and with crosses for when the value is zero, then we get a clearer picture of what the clip envelope is doing:

Clip envelope note gating diagram 2

So the clip envelope drives the Velocity plug-in, which 'gates' the notes, and in the example shown, the fourth and eighth notes in the melody never get to the synth. So the clip envelope shape is 'gating' the notes before they are received by the synth. If the clip envelope shape changes, then the gating will change - and editing clip envelopes is easy!

One really easy way to change a clip envelope is to 'Unlink' it and then change the length:

Clip envelope example screenshot

In the screenshot above, the clip envelope is set to a length of slightly less than a bar: 3 beats and 3 'ticks'. So each time the bar repeats, the clip envelope will be a tick early. After four bars, the clip envelope will be a beat early, and after 16 bars, the clip envelope will be back in sync. As the clip envelope moves around in the bar, the notes that are allowed through the 'gating' function will change, so there will be 16 patterns of notes gated from the melody: one per bar.

If we set the clip envelope length to 3 beats, then there will be four patterns of notes gated from the melody, and so on. Just setting the clip envelope length, or moving one or two of those '127' high values, will change the notes that will be produced by the 'Melody' synth. And if you hover the mouse just underneath the top of one of those high clip envelope values, it will change colour (to blue) and you can then move it vertically as if it was a slider, so moving it between zero and 127 is easy. You can hear this note gating happening live in the video, as various lengths of clip envelope give changing patterns of notes played from the melody.

Timbral changes

For timbral variation, then a second clip envelope can be signed to the 'Drive' parameter in the factory Saturator plug-in audio effect. This time, the clip envelope looks much more conventional - just a sloping line or two:

Clip envelope example screenshot

Note tha this clip envelope is also unlinked, and it is set to 1 bar and 1 tick, so it is going to be later by one tick for each repeat of the bar, which gives 16 different times during the bar when that 'rise and dip' is gong to happen. Once again, changing the length of the clip envelope is going to give different timings for when the Saturator Drive hits the maximum value from the clip envelope.

Clip envelope example screenshot

The screenshot above shows a clip envelope with a length of one tick less than a bar, so this time the peak is going to happen earlier and earlier in the bar. The two clip envelopes (gating and saturator) are separate, so you can set them to different lengths and they will just repeat away, giving complex rhythmic changes in timbres and syncopated melody notes gated from the melody.

Controlling these variations is easy: change the length of one of the clip envelopes, or edit the clip envelope. All of this can be done, glitch-free (unless you over-drive the Saturator!), live during performance - which can be seen and heard in the video.

Marimba delay...

The Marimba chords have a little 'busy' or 'pickup' motif added by using a clip envelope to control the Wet/Dry mix of the Delay plug-in:

Clip envelope example screenshot

The blue highlighted section can be moved up and down as if it was a 'slider'-type control:

Clip envelope example screenshot

So turning it on an off is easy! But what is it doing?

Delay screenshot

 The clip envelope is controlling the Wet/Dry mix of the factory Ping-Pong Delay, and is the first time that a clip envelope has been 'linked' so that it runs at the same rate as the main bar timing! So for most of the bar, the wet/dry mix is set low, and so you only get faint ping-pong echoes, but for the last beat, the wet/dry mix goes very high and there are lots of echoes, and then at the end of the bar they all go away again. It adds an interesting variation to the playing of the chords. Can you figure out what would happen if this clip envelope was unlinked?

(In the .als file, there's a double 'pickup' example!)

Getting the YouTube video and the Ableton Live .als file

You can see the video here.

You can download the .als file here.

screenshot of ALS file contents

Modular Equivalents

Ricky's video is a good source for seeing one way to do similar transformations using a modular synthesiser, but there are many ways to achieve similar results in a modular or a DAW, and so assigning ME values is not a good indicator in this case.

Links in this blog post

1010 Music Blackbox

AAS (Applied Acoustics Systems)

My YouTube video

Ricky's video


I must thank Enrique Martinez for his help in making the video and this blog post possible. His reply to my initial email happened amazingly quickly!

If you find my writing helpful, informative or entertaining, then please consider visiting this link:


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