If you’re not into the who audio-tech-production-geeky scene, you may not have heard of Ableton Live. That’s ok. I absolve you, grasshopper. I trust, however, you have heard of worship, so we’ve got that going for us.
Well golly, what is Ableton Live?
Is it a nationally acclaimed touring show of dancing mice? Or maybe the “i” is soft. Is it a grassroots humanitarian movement to empower the oppressed, those unable to N..? Is it even English? No, no, no, and kind of: it’s pure-blooded German. But we digress. Basically, it’s a powerful Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) that’s actually more aimed at DJ’s, producers, and loop-based musicians, but has caught traction in other areas because of its ease of use, versatility, and live performance loop manipulation.
So, how do we use it in worship?
I had heard of Ableton for years, but just left it to Snoop and the spin doctaz. I was intitially inspired to begin using it as a tool in our worship services after seeing Matt McCoy’s rig. Matt is a really talented worship leader and gear junkie who leads worship at Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago. After I saw how he and some other guys were using it, I got the itch. And I scratched it.
For worship leaders, Ableton is most powerful in its truly unique “Session View” where bits of audio or MIDI data are viewed as ‘clips’ in a grid-based layout. Just remember: Rows are scenes, columns are tracks. Check it:
This is our almost-finished setlist for The Bridge this Sunday. As you can see, each song takes up as many rows as there are clips for that song. A clip can be made up of anything or nothing. The only clips with stuff in them here are the two tracks on the right, “Loops” and “Originals”, while the two left tracks, “REF” and “Setlist” don’t have any data in them. They’re just there as reference placeholders. You’ll notice that the “Originals” track is muted since the little “4” at the bottom isn’t lit up. We only use that in rehearsals.
Here’s where the magic starts. I’ve set it up to where you just press the “?” key to launch a scene, and the “<” and “>” keys to scroll up and down, respectively. When a scene (a song) is launched, all the clips in that scene are launched simultaneously, and their data will start playing. And since there’s only data in the “Loops” track, all you hear is the loop. That’s why each song is a different row.
Probably the most important function of Ableton (so far) is the integrated metronome (the little yellow box in the top left corner just to the right of the “4 / 4” box). This “click” keeps us all on tempo and with the loops. With the box yellow, the click is activated so when each song is launched, the click sounds with the song’s tempo and time signature as defined by the setting in the “Master” column on the far right. So, when switching between songs during the set, the tempo changes by itself. And for simple setups like ours, you can split the output so the click will go only to the band’s monitors and the loops will go to both the band and the main house speakers.
Why Georgia, why?
In short, not only does this allow the band to stay tighter, but all this clip/scene/loop malarkey opens up a lot of possibilities for adding textures and instruments not readily available to the average Joe worship band. Have you ever been to a church with a dedicated beatboxer or clapper or whistle synth player? Yea, me too, and it was amazing, right?
It’s also a ton of fun. As a musician and worship leader, I love exploring new and creative ways to use my craft to allow the worshiper to connect with the Spirit. The point of a loop is to fill in the tiny gaps in rhythm and sonic space to enhance what’s already going on onstage. A good loop will fill out and fill in without taking over. There’s a ton you can do with Ableton (get it?) and we haven’t even cracked that thin film on the epidermis of the surface yet. That’s exciting. I’ll keep you tuned (musical reference..bonus) as we dig deeper and integrate it more into our services.
Here’s Ableton’s website: http://www.ableton.com/