Ableton Live IS a Modular Synth


Hey friends! Today, want to go over a topic that I think is kind of becoming somewhat ubiquitous you see
modular synths everywhere and you ask yourself well I'm a you know complex electronic music producer do I need a hardware modular synth and I have one and I really enjoy it and it's really fun to use and mess around with but I think that it's really important for those that have max for live or are curious about upgrading to max for life to see what is actually possible with Ableton Live. In reality Ableton Live itself is modular synthesizer even before you get into the Max side of things. A great way to demonstrate this is with Live's Wavetable synth.

Thinking Modular With Wavetable

The core idea of modular synthesis is that from oscillators to envelopes to LFOs - elements of modular synthesis can freely interact and control one another. You could take any modulation signal and send it to any modulatable destination in a system of elements. Modulation signals can be sent freely to many other modulation destinations. An excellent tool to use as a visual aid for this idea is the modulation matrix inside of Live's Wavetable.

If you're interested in learning more about Wavetable check out our tips and tricks style video with Ableton Wavetable. Not only is Wavetable pretty awesome in and of itself, but in this case it's a great way to demonstrate how Live uses it's individual components to add depth and complexity to a complete whole, much as a great modular synth does.

Wavetable's Modulation Matrix shows the connections between sources and targets of modulation. Mod sources, laid out horizontally across the top of the table include the 3 envelopes and 2 low frequency oscillators (LFOs) available within Wavetable's interface. These modulation sources can be pointed to any destination listed on the left side of the table. This is more than a binary 'off/on' selection, the degree to which the destination is effected can be specified numerically as well to allow for fine control over the intensity of the applied modulation. In this example screenshot, LFO1 is affecting the synth's pitch by a very small amount (0.4), but applying a much greater level of modulation to the panning of Oscillator 1 (89). Beyond this, we can see that Envelope 3 is applying an inverse or negative value (-28) to the position of Oscillator 2. Since a Position value can be either forward or backward in the series of waveforms, this negative value indicates that Oscillator 2's position is modulated backward from it's starting point by Envelope 3.

So what does this example tell us conceptually about modular synthesis at large? In the grand scheme of things, modular synthesis allows for device parameters to be controlled by modulation sources. Two of the most important and common forms of modulation sources are ADSR envelopes and low frequency oscillator (LFOs).

Modulating Anything in Ableton Live

The biggest limitation of Wavetable's modulation matrix is that it only has access to the parameters contained within a given instance of Wavetable. The matrix cannot reach outward from Wavetable to other audio and MIDI effects in the same channel.

one another, you know we're looking at how can we expand this one thing that I can't do is in this matrix
if I click on anything in this matrix
that I haven't messed with yet let's say
like filter drive or something see how
it appears in the matrix that's great
but if I click on the dry/wet of my
frequency shifter you know it doesn't
show up that's because the nature of
this modulation matrix inside of wave
table is locked to the parameters inside
of the device like I can't edit this or
this or this you know with
the modulators the you know amplitude
modulator envelope one envelope two and
both these LFOs I can't use those with
external effects and

what I'm gonna do is instead of
starting from scratch all over again
I've already got something going here
what I want to do is add you know more
and more complexity to what's going on
by adding envelopes and LFO s to the
aspects of the sound as well as the
effects okay so let's just go ahead and
explore what's possible I can go up here
and search envelope so let's go to my
max folder and here's envelopes I'm
gonna drag it and drop it in here now
envelope is really really awesome
basically every time it receives a MIDI
note it fires an envelope right so I can
have these notes that I have inside of
this clip as you can see just these
notes every time a note fires it will
send a trigger signal to the envelope to
make an envelope right so what I get
whenever I play this watch the envelope
so now I can map by clicking map I can
map this to different parameters inside
of wave table and really just take this
take this sound to the next level maybe
one thing we can do is go to modern and
I'll return these to zero so we still
get the original sound but what I'll use
is the envelope perhaps maybe I'll make
a longer attack and I'll map that to the
wave folding just by clicking on map it
blinks see it blinks boom and now it is
mapped so it goes from zero to 100%
let's listen what happens now you could
say well why don't you just use an
envelope inside of wave table to do that
well both of my envelopes if you'll
notice have different curves okay
these curves are different than this
curve in fact I could make this one kind
of decay downward and I get this sound
so this is adding to the feature set of
wave table we're actually we're
enhancing the feature set in wave table
to take more envelopes in fact maybe
something that would be really
demonstrative of this is to make an
attack decay really fast so we get
and now I can take this effect and kind
of like dial it in just right that's
pretty sweet
ripping space-time so now I've kind of
I've kind of lessened the effect to make
it usable okay so when I click on this
this shows and hides multi map so multi
map is really useful in that you can
actually take the same envelope shape
and apply it to eight different
destinations so now let's choose
something else maybe we'll go to the
voices or now let's go to the amount
we're gonna go to the amount of the
Unison spread this should be you know
this should be interesting so click map
unison spread and now it goes from zero
to hundred just gonna be crazy so I kind
of want to have it start a little bit
higher and go down a little bit slower
so let's try something else maybe we'll
go to the high-pass filter frequency but
again trying to make this as subtle as
possible okay so now we've changed this
sound a little bit and we've enhanced
the sound a little bit let's see what
else we can do I also wanted to take
this time to tell you that I'm creating
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excited about this they'll be covering
macro topics like mixing sound design
composition and song writing live
performance and more I should say you
could always learn anything that you
want to learn off of YouTube but much of
the time it's really hard to find
exactly what you're looking for and a
lot of the time the the information is
not really relevant or factual even
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let's get back to it so another thing I
can do is I can grab an LFO will search
LFO and then this LFO up here this is a
max for live device as well and I can
the cool thing about LFO so I can drag
it and drop it and put it anywhere so I
keep it close and have a visual
reference and stuff so LFO is a lot like
envelope in this case what I can do is I
can map this to you know any parameter
maybe I'll map it to the volume and I'll
make it really fast so we can get like
what you would consider maybe amplitude
modulation so in the modular spirit this
is this is great because the LFO can get
really fast and you can do what's known
as amplitude modulation like it goes it
spins up so fast that it starts to make
its own note you can go all the way up
to 40 Hertz there so instead of doing
that though that's just one you know
example I'll return this back to
negative nine so keeping in line with
the modular spirit know that no matter
what you were doing any modulator can go
to any parameter including other
modulators so maybe something that would
be really fun is to edit the envelopes
with this LFO so what I can do is I'll
turn the rate real low okay so that it's
kind of long and I'll hit map and if I
go back over here I can map that to my
attack and now you'll see the attack is
changing over time pretty slowly right
it's going pretty low all the way up to
yeah pretty high let's just see what
this sounds like when I hit play it's
long and then short now because this
modulator is modulating this modulator
it might be a good idea to get up in
here and increase the ranges a little
bit so we can really hear what's going
on let's kind of really increase these
ranges and see what we get
so as you can see it's this because of
this LFO we're getting a lot of
different variations on the sound and
see when you use the modular synth you
can really start to create a what's
known as a patch that kind of just takes
off on its own it it creates its own
sounds and this can be really useful and
I'll show you in a little bit what I
mean by that so now that we've kind of
used envelope and LFO to change aspects
of this wave table let's listen to this
drum beat so super basic drum beat
there's not really much going on here
but yet again let's go ahead and expand
this drum beat with some LFOs and and
envelopes let's go ahead use this LFO
here and what I'm gonna do is I have
this beat repeat and what I'd like to do
is I'd like to get the beat repeat to do
more I'd like to hear more variations
and stuff going on right now we just
have it every once in a while on the
downbeat it'll change its beat repeat of
that kick drum well that's not enough
for me I'd like to - maybe I'll change
this rate a little bit and I'll hit map
to the offset and what this will do is
it'll choose a different place to repeat
okay and obviously that's a bit fast so
I'm going to turn that down a little bit
I think I'll also change the chants so
that it's higher let's just go ahead and
listen this with a chance all the way up
now that's fun okay so it's starting to
change the beat a little bit but the
beats kind of dropping out too much if I
turn it on mix I'll never have the beat
drop out and I won't get enough
variation so in the yet yet again in the
modular spirit let's map this will be
crazy let's go ahead and map the LFO
also to whether it's an insert or
whether it's a mix or whether it's a
gate okay so that's pretty interesting
idea let's see what happens here so it
switched to mix now it's back to insert
so if it repeats it's gone so we've got
a lot going on here this is this is
really moving the beat and some
interesting and crazy ways right okay so
now that that's done we could also maybe
do an opposite LFO to this filter
frequency so the filter is kind of
filtering down the repeated effect if I
hit map go to frequency now it's going
to shift this filter around so maybe
we'll go down to about halfway and maybe
not not quite all the way to 100 so now
we're kind of shifting the frequencies
so let's let's listen to this now
another thing I'd like to do is an is
occasionally do a volume decay so I'll
have that going down or not depending
upon the LFO and I'll have it about half
way another thing I can do is map it's a
pitch so as you can see I'm just
haphazardly changing this pitch decay
situation going on let's try that too
and so now we've just really got a lot
of modulation going on
so much fun all right so let's let's get
let's take it even farther let's take it
even farther I'm gonna grab yet another
LFO at a different rate and we're gonna
use this LFO to change some aspects of
the drums so within this simpler
anything can modulate anything that's a
really important thing to know let's
look at the high hats so something I can
do with the high hats is I can change
the decay so I'm gonna turn the the
release way down the sustain all the way
down so I can get I want to get a
different decay rate for this hi-hat
right so what I want to do is hit map
and go to decay so now I'll have this
LFO changing this decay no this is just
wild so what I need to do is kind of
tame that so we're going all the way up
to yeah 100 milliseconds and down to
zero let's listen what this sounds like
I'm gonna have to increase that just a
little bit and what I'll do is I'll just
make this solid this whole time so we
can really listen to that hat so if I
solo this hat out you hear that's the
beat repeat going I'll just so love a
hat without the beat repeat so you can
hear it's dynamically changing its decay
rate this is a really common complex
beat move here okay so as you can see we
could just keep going on forever in fact
you can even change the modes of the LFO
s to get you know more of like a random
thing going on and and we could sync it
to the beat so now we get some random
results based on BPM oriented changes in
the LFO so now we get
all right so the final step here as far
as I'm concerned is now doing some
committing so now that I've I've got all
this randomness going you're like okay
so what's the use of all this this is
really you know this is great and all
but how could I write a song with this
how could I how could I use this
material well if you go to the
arrangement view you could capture the
outputs of these tracks as audio tracks
and the the Nuggets are the the the
really amazing parts that you end up
recording out of these parts you could
use in your compositions and in your
music right because you know using a lot
of these modulators can you know Jack
your CPU and and take a lot of resources
away from what you would otherwise use
for mixing so in this case I'm going to
capture this by making an audio track
below each one of these and I'm gonna
choose from this wave table track I'm
going to choose wave table as the input
and then from this drum rack I'm going
to choose the drum rack as the input so
now I have two armed tracks and I can
just let them play
all kinds of good nuggets in there okay
so now I've collected a bunch of audio
and I have all kinds of crazy sounds in
here let's see what happened in
wavetable whoa that's a good one and
then over here we've got all kinds of
wacky so then you can just cut it up to
your heart's desire you know arrange
yourself a nice you know new rhythm or
you know composition out of these
outputs cool so I might explore this
even deeper if people are really
interested in this there's so much you
can do with Max for live in kind of
transforming Ableton into the modular
synthesizer of your dreams so if you
enjoy this kind of content like comment
much love everybody I'll talk to you

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