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Not Quite Random Notes

February 1, 2006
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In Ableton Live, each audio or MIDI clip that you place in a Session view slot contains a list of options that dictate what will happen after the clip begins playing. These options are called follow actions. Follow actions are powerful tools for creatively arranging and remixing clips. The feature is easy to use and lets you add an element of chance to your arrangements without your production's descending into a morass of randomness. I'll explain a few basics about follow actions, describe some more complex applications, and then discuss how to creatively combine follow actions with other Live features.

FIG. 1: You set up live clip follow actions at the bottom of the Launch panel (shown on the left) in the Clip editor. You select the desired action from the pop-up menu shown on the right.

Follow actions are used to sequence clips in successive slots on the same track in Session view. The settings for individual clips are found at the bottom of the Launch panel of Live's Clip editor (see Fig. 1). Each follow action contains settings for a time, two alternative actions, and a ratio that indicates the most likely action. For example, the follow action in Fig. 1 specifies that after four bars (time 4.0.0), either the clip in the next slot will be triggered (Action A) or the playing clip will be retriggered (Action B), and that Action A is twice as likely to occur as Action B (ratio 2:1). A setting of 0 on either side of the ratio prevents the corresponding action from occurring.

So Many Choices

As you can see in Fig. 1, eight choices are available, including No Action. The last five choices — Previous, Next, First, Last, and Any — are relative to the group of successive clips in which the selected clip resides (in other words, empty slots terminate a group). Grouping allows you to create several follow action sequences on the same track. And because the Previous and Next actions wrap around, you can create and quickly extend cycling groups of clips by dragging clips to either end of a group.

A group consisting of a single clip set to either Play Again or Stop is the simplest example that makes use of follow actions. When set to Play Again, the clip repeats at the interval set as the follow action time. That's especially useful for short clips, such as sound effects, that you don't want to time-warp but want to repeat at regular intervals. Setting a single clip's follow action to Stop and assigning a time setting longer than the clip's loop length causes the clip to loop multiple times and then stop.

Another simple example is a group that contains multiple clips with each clip's follow action set to Next. When any clip in the group is triggered, Live cycles through all clips in the group, playing each clip for its follow action time. You have several options for the last clip's follow action. Next and First sends it back to the beginning of the group. No Action will cause it to either loop or play once, depending on its clip-loop setting. Stop will stop playback after the follow action time, terminating the clip sequence.

You can get a lot of mileage out of a basic clip sequence by adjusting the follow action time settings to make some clips loop several times and to truncate others. If you want elements to stay in sync when using time settings that truncate clips or loops, turn on Legato for all clips in the group. That forces the next clip to start at the same relative time position at which the previous clip is stopped.

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe

Using alternative follow actions is one way to add an element of chance to clip sequencing. If each clip's alternatives are Next and Play Again, the clip sequence will eventually reach the end, but some clips will repeat in the process.

The Any follow action introduces more randomness, and the order of the clips in the group is not preserved, which may or may not be important. If the clips are variations on a drum loop or interchangeable bass lines, for example, the option Any works well. If, however, you have long loops and short fills mixed in the group, choosing Any wreaks havoc with the rhythmic flow of the sequence.

Fortunately, there are several ways to introduce an element of chance with alternating forms such as loops and fills. If the loops and fills are in alternating slots (a loop followed by a fill followed by a loop, and so on), use alternative actions Previous and Next. Then each loop or fill will always launch a clip of the opposite kind (the one above or below it).

FIG. 2: Simultaneously playing clips can be alternated using volume Clip Envelopes. Here, the Loop 1 clip plays for three bars, and the Fill 1 clip plays for the fourth bar.

Grouping the loops on one track and the fills on another is a more flexible alternative. Setting all follow actions to Any will cause loops and fills to be selected randomly. But they will also play simultaneously, which probably isn't the result you're after. Fortunately, there are two ways to ensure that you're hearing only one track at a time. You can use Live's Crossfader, which you can automate on the Master track in the Arrangement view or assign to a MIDI controller (try the Mod Wheel or a MIDI note). Clip Envelopes offer a more powerful solution, however, as the following example illustrates.

Suppose you have a collection of 4-bar drum loops and matching 1-bar fills, with the loops grouped on one track and the fills grouped on another. To create random 4-bar patterns with 3 bars of a loop followed by 1 bar of a fill, set all the follow action times to 4 bars (4.0.0). Next create a 4-bar, unlinked volume Clip Envelope for each clip. For the loop clips, set the first three bars of the envelope to maximum and the fourth to minimum. For the fills, do the opposite: set the first 3 bars to minimum and the fourth to maximum (see Fig. 2). Triggering any Scene containing a clip from each group will start an unending drum sequence that alternates between loops and fills. Furthermore, unlike the Crossfader method, you can use this approach with more than two tracks.

For the Record

Once you've created follow action groups on several tracks, launching a Live Scene containing a clip from each group takes on a new meaning. Assuming that there are chance elements and that not all clips have the same follow action time setting, you'll quickly wind up with an ever-changing scramble of clips playing on different tracks. Those scrambled clip configurations won't be repeated the next time you launch the same Scene, but there are three convenient ways to capture the results.

If you like working on the fly, you can invoke Live's Capture and Insert Scene command, which will create a new Scene containing the currently playing clips. The clips in captured Scenes retain their follow action settings, which is probably not what you want, but you can select all the clips when you're done and turn off their follow actions. Captured Scenes are placed below the currently selected Scene, so select a Scene outside of the area containing the follow action groups to avoid disturbing their order.

FIG. 3: After recording the results of follow actions in the -Arrangement view (top), Scenes can be isolated and consolidated for dragging back to the Session view (bottom).

Recording the Session view playback as an Arrangement is a more flexible option, because it captures every follow action as it occurs. When you're done, switch to the Arrangement view. Any clip change on any track marks the occurrence of a follow action and a potential new Scene. You can audition each of those by enclosing it in an Arrangement loop. You can use the Consolidate option on the clips in the loop, and then drag them back to the Session view to create a new Scene (see Fig. 3 and Web Clip 1).

Making the Scene

Using the Session view's Resampling feature to capture the combined audio output of all the tracks is the third option, and that will capture mixer and send-effects processing as well. Make several copies of the resampled clip and adjust their start and end points to isolate interesting segments. Applying follow actions to those new clips is akin to having follow actions for Scenes — something that Live does not provide for directly.

Follow actions also have a place in live performance. The feature comes into its own when you have multiple follow action groups on the same track. When you assign a computer key or MIDI note message to a clip in a follow action group it will, of course, launch the entire follow action sequence, not just the individual clip. Trigger is the best Launch mode to use because once another clip in the group is launched, toggle- and gate-off modes no longer work (they apply to a clip that's already off). To turn off the whole group, assign a computer key or MIDI note message to the track's Clip Stop button, which resides just above the mixer.

Follow actions are well covered on page 110 of Live 5's manual, and the examples differ from those given here. Follow actions provide one very interesting way to explore the middle ground between chaos and complete predictability.


Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. For free refreshments, visit his Web site at www.swiftkick.com.

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