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Sound Design Workshop: A Step in Time

November 1, 2008
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Although Ableton Live 7's MIDI effects collection does not include a step sequencer, it has all the ingredients for building one in a MIDI Effect Rack. I'll start with a basic 8-step sequencer and then go on to describe several useful enhancements. You'll find all the tools mentioned here in Web Clip 1. For an alternative approach, check out the free Fib 02 step sequencer from TrackTeam Audio (trackteamaudio.com).

I'll use notes C2 through G2 (MIDI Note Numbers 48 through 55) to trigger individual sequence steps. Trigger notes can come from MIDI clips, live playing, or an arpeggiator, and each has its advantages. Separate racks for Velocity, length, and pitch will have their eight Macro knobs mapped to individual steps. If you have a MIDI control surface with continuous rotary knobs that is supported by Live (such as the Novation Remote SL series), you can quickly shift its focus between the three racks to update step values in real time.

Eight Is Enough

Insert a MIDI Effect Rack on an empty MIDI track, reveal its Chain List, create eight chains, and rename them Step 1 through Step 8. Use the Key Zone editor to limit each chain to one note: Step 1 to C2, Step 2 to C#2, and so on. Create two copies of this rack so that you have three racks in series, and rename them Velocity, Length, and Pitch.

Insert a Velocity effect in each chain of the Velocity rack, map its Out Hi knob to the corresponding Macro knob, set its Operation to Velocity, and set its Mode to Fixed. Insert a Note Length effect in each chain of the Length rack, set its Mode to Time, and map its Length knob to the corresponding Macro knob with range 25.0 ms to 4.25 s. (Controlling the length in milliseconds rather than beat divisions gives you greater flexibility.)

In the Pitch rack, insert two Pitch effects in each chain and map the Pitch knob of the second one to the corresponding Macro knob with range -48 to 48. Delete the first Pitch effect in the first chain, and set the Pitch knob of the first Pitch effect in successive chains to -1, -2, -3, and so on. The first Pitch effect ensures that each Macro knob has the same range: C-2 through C6.

FIG. 1: In this 8-step sequencer, the Scale effect at the left displays the active step in green, and the Macro controls of the three MIDI Effect Racks control the step Velocities, lengths, and pitches.

FIG. 1: In this 8-step sequencer, the Scale effect at the left displays the active step in green, and the Macro controls of the three MIDI Effect Racks control the step Velocities, lengths, and pitches.

Insert a Scale effect before the Velocity rack and rename it Trigger Display. That lets you see when each step is triggered, and you can also use it to turn off or remap steps. Group everything into a new MIDI Effect Rack and save it. You now have an 8-step sequencer that you can route to any instrument plug-in (see Fig. 1). When you create sequences you like, save the whole sequencer rack or save the individual Velocity, Length, and Pitch racks to swap into other sequencer racks.

To create a sequencer with 16 steps, duplicate the chain in the 8-step sequencer and precede it with a Pitch effect having a fixed offset of -8. Notes Ab2 through Eb3 will trigger the second chain (Steps 9 through 16). You can create larger sequencers in the same way.

Trigger-Happy

You can trigger steps in real time by playing the trigger notes on your MIDI keyboard, or you can create a looping MIDI clip for more-complex step sequences. The MIDI clip determines the rhythm, quantization, and order of the steps but has no effect on their Velocity, length, or pitch. Try adapting a percussion MIDI clip to trigger sequencer steps while using the original clip to play percussion (see Web Clip 2).

Inserting an Arpeggiator effect before the step sequencer is a more traditional solution (see Web Clip 3). Hold mode lets you set up sequences adding one step at a time. Use the Style setting to change the step order or to make it random. Also explore the Retrigger and Repeats controls.

You can insert Chord and Arpeggiator effects after the sequencer to create chord sequences and then arpeggiate the chords (see Web Clip 4). Use a Scale effect to filter or correct the sequence to any scale as well as to transpose the whole sequence. Web Clip 1 contains step sequencers of each of these types with their Macro knobs mapped to the important parameters.


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

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