Ableton Live is an excellent DAW for sound design. It combines flexibility with a dense spread of instruments and effects to manipulate audio and MIDI.
Live isn’t your average DAW. It shares overlapping features with other software on the market, but new users can expect some hurdles before they’re able to use it efficiently.
Like any DAW, it’ll take some time to get familiar with everything under the hood.
Be aware, you can design sound with any DAW. It’s mostly a matter of skill rather than the tool you’re using. Nevertheless, Live has some unique VSTs worth using in your projects.
To be clear, there isn’t any way I can accurately explain how to create, edit, and mix like a pro. Instead, I’m going to briefly lay out some of the strategies and tools I personally find helpful for sound design in Ableton Live.’
Let’s be honest: Live has an unusual user interface, and sometimes it turns people off. The best thing you can do for yourself is lock yourself in the studio and make friends with it. This might seem unrelated to improving your sound design skills, but knowing where everything is will help strengthen your understanding of Live’s layout so you can set the effectively set up the project.
This is also a great opportunity to get organized. If you plan on using any third party plugins, learn how to integrate and locate them in Live’s hierarchy. If you’re using a personal sample library, make necessary folders to create your own file hierarchy to access what you need as quickly as possible.
All of this may seem redundant, but part of this routine will help enhance workflow by developing a map of how to quickly access your sound design tools in Live.
Explore the Library
Live has a dense library of stock instruments and effects. You don’t have to use them all, but it helps to be able to identify them and understand what scenarios they’re best suited for.
It’s best to start simple. Pick a random piece of audio, no matter if it’s music or spoken word. After you drag it to an open track, browse through the effects library and take turns hearing how each VST effects the audio. Experiment with all of the parameters of each effect to experience the full range of possibilities.
Pile them on! Who says you have to use just one? Part of what makes Live fun is the complex creative relationships you can draw between all of the devices you’re using in a session. Experiment!
Take Advantage of Clip View
One of the most overlooked windows in Live is the clip view. Live doesn’t excel in audio editing, but clip view has a few cool tricks that can aid in sound design.
I’m paying a nod to the clip view for a few reasons. Firstly, audio editing will allow you to get surgical with your sound design efforts. Secondly, clip view is a magnifying glass into each audio or MIDI clip, which is extremely helpful for edging up transients and manipulating the waveform. I can write an entire post about how to use it. Instead, I’ll focus on a critical window available specifically for audio clips.
The sample box is the sub-window that allows you to take advantage of Live’s sample-warping capabilities. We can also transpose and modify segment BPM. I highly recommend using a dedicated audio editor with Live. Clip view can open another editor, like Audacity via the “Edit” button in the sample section.
A lot of what we do as sound designers revolves around manipulating sound waves. Unlike Pro Tools, Live doesn’t have the greatest audio editing tools, but I still find myself visiting clip view just as much as session view.
In my opinion, signal flow is the most important skill to learn in audio. The ability to trace a signal is what separates the wolves from the dogs.
In every DAW, it’s important to carry a firm grasp of internal routing. For the purposes of sound design, it’ll allow you to handle larger sessions and string together complex signal chains, which widens the realm of possibilities for your sound design project(s).
Live has a basket of effect racks specifically for a variety of uses from replicated analog channel strips to fully involved master bus compression. If you’re itching for a blanket to throw over your mix, these mastering racks are a great place to start. I don’t recommend reaching for one of these every time, but Live’s mastering chains are handy in a pinch.
This is another great opportunity to test how Live’s stock plugins behave. Not all mastering plugins are practical for every situation, and your disposition is going to change depending on the project at hand. The key here is to develop a familiarity of the stock plugins at your disposal.
Improving your sound design skills is partly related to your awareness of appropriate times to play the cards. Your ear is always going to be the deciding trigger. Learn how to aim.
Critical listening is a big part of good sound design. While you’re diving into mountains of trial and error, it helps to see it. I use dual spectrum analyzers on almost every track, pre and post FX. This way, I can observe how my effect chains alter the original signal.
If you can make sense of the spectrum, it’ll ultimately improve your judgement when making mixing decisions.
Keep an Open Mind
Finally, exercising your creativity is the only true way to enhance your sound design skills. Through a ton of trial and error, you’ll begin to adopt tools that work best for you. The most important advice I have for sound design is to avoid falling into a routine. This means to stay away from excessive use of the same plugins and chains across multiple sessions. It’s best to get experience with multiple effect racks to keep from running for the same handful of plugins.
Sound design is subjective. There really is no right or wrong. If you can master the bare essentials and grow proficient with the tools, the rest becomes easier along the way. Improving your sound design skills starts with the mastering the basics and continues towards a personal route of creative discovery.