Thursday, July 11, 2013

Why Ableton Live Is the Best DAW for Beginners

I very commonly hear people who are new to or curious about music production ask what's a good Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) for beginners. My answer is always the same: Ableton Live.

Here's why:
  • It is inexpensive to try out. The Live 9 Intro version is only $99, and if you find that you enjoy the workflow, Ableton offers very good upgrade discounts to Live 9 Standard and Live 9 Suite. Sometimes you can even get it for free! Occasionally websites and magazines offer free licenses to Live Intro, and a lot of MIDI hardware products include free licenses (or at least coupons).
  • It has built-in tips and tutorials. You can get information on every element on the screen by just floating over it with your mouse cursor and reading the help text in the lower left of the screen. There's also a Help tab you can open on the right half of the screen where you can find interactive tutorials to help you learn different facets of the application.
  • Everything's all in one window. Live has a compact and intuitive user interface that doesn't require you to click through hidden menus or manage a bunch of floating windows to find what you need.
  • There's an active community. Live is very popular, and as a result, there are lots of people talking about it online. You can find answers to your questions at many music-related message boards. Strangely, the official Ableton forum has a high number of unhelpful and nasty trolls- although the official Ableton Help page can be useful. Third-party sites such as GearSlutz or even the Something Awful Musician's Lounge are a much better resource.
  • There are free and commercial tutorials everywhere. There are a number of sites dedicated to mastering Live, tons of free YouTube tutorials, and lots of great for-pay courses at sites like Groove 3 and MacProVideo. (I especially recommend the MacProVideo courses, even if you're a PC user.)
  • It's a real, professional DAW. While I believe Live is the ideal DAW for beginners, it is not a "beginner DAW." It's a full-featured music production environment, suited for original composition with hardware and software MIDI instruments, audio recording, remixing, and DJing.
  • It has solid effects and instruments. With the understanding that different versions of Live have different selections of virtual instruments and audio effects, the ones you get are all useful. When I work in Live I use the built-in "The Glue" compressor all the time. While the price may be steep, the Live 9 Suite package is so complete you really could do just about anything you needed to do musically without investing in another software product. (Although I personally would recommend Live 9 Standard coupled with Native Instruments Komplete 9 if you want the biggest possible bang for your buck.)
I do have some complaints with Live, although they're minor. The lack of VST3 support means that it's not as compatible with plugins as some other DAWs (like Cubase or Reaper)- but most major plugins are available in VST2 format, which Live supports just fine. Sidechaining can also be difficult in Live with anything other than the built-in audio effects (but this can be true in other DAWs as well). There's also the notorious "PDC issue" that a handful of people complain about endlessly, but the great majority of Live users never encounter in their day-to-day work.

Overall, though, I don't think there's any better place to start an earnest exploration into music production than Ableton Live.

Antares Products and Ableton Live

Antares is the company who sells the world-famous Auto-Tune vocal processor. Their products are fine, but their website is awful for numerous numerous reasons, and there's a lot of out-dated and misleading information about their products' compatibility with Ableton Live . I own Live 8 and Live 9, and I've personally stopped bothering with anything Antares makes. Here's why:

Auto-Tune Live, and versions of Auto-Tune EFX 2.1.1 or greater are not supported on Live due to Live's lack of support for the VST3 plugin format. They actually do mention this on their site. But you'll have trouble finding out this other detail: Ableton Live 8 and 9 both have 64-bit versions, but from my own experience with recent Antares products, the 64-bit versions are all VST3, which means you cannot use them in 64-bit Ableton Live.

So, as of this writing, if you're running 64-bit Live, you won't be able to use a 64-bit version of any current Antares product, although you can probably use some 32-bit Antares plugins with some kind of 3rd-party plugin bridging solution, like jbridge. Also, not even 32-bit versions of Auto-Tune Live and current versions of Auto-Tune EFX will run on any version of Ableton Live.

The pitch correction options are kind of limited on Live. Waves Tune is not compatible with Live at this time, which basically leaves Celemony Melodyne. When doing pitch and harmony correction on Live projects, I sometimes export the vocals to Steinberg Cubase, which has built-in Pitch Correct and VariAudio features, and then re-import the audio back into Live.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Adjusting MIDI Velocity on the Fly in Cubase

Ableton Live has a handy little MIDI effect called Velocity. Among other things you can use it to set minimum and maximum velocity values for the current MIDI track. The result is that you can adjust the MIDI velocity values during playback without making any permanent changes to the MIDI clip itself. Here's a screenshot of a Velocity device that sets a velocity range between 64 and 96. Any notes in the clip with velocities below 64 will play back at 64, and notes with velocities higher than 96 will play back at 96.

This is such an easy way to make non-permanent adjustments to MIDI tracks and I've wanted a way to do something similar in Cubase. While Cubase offers many, many ways to permanently and temporarily edit MIDI data, what follows is the closest method I could find to mimic what the Ableton Live device does, and it should work on both full Cubase and Cubase Artist. The following example sets a minimum velocity of 64 and a maximum velocity of 96, just like the Ableton Live example. Once you understand the basic steps, you can customize to meet your own needs.
  1. Select a MIDI track or Instrument track where you want to limit the velocity range, and open up the MIDI Inserts tab on the left of the arrangement window.
  2. Add the Transformer effect to an insert slot. Note that the Transformer window has three sections: The Filter Target pane, where you will define notes to look for, the Action Target pane, where you define actions to perform on the found notes, and the Function bar, where you specify the general category of operation to perform.
  3. First off, make sure to select Transform on the Function bar.
  4. Click the + under the Filter Target pane and (if necessary) change the values that appear so the line says Type Is, Equal, and Note.
  5. Click the + under Filter Target once more, and a new line will appear. Make sure the bool setting of the first line says And, and change the second line so that it says Velocity, Less, 64. (It's a little confusing, but when changing the first field, you must choose Value 2, to select Velocity.)
  6. Click the + under Action Target and change the fields so they say Value 2, Set to fixed value, and 64. (Value 2 is the same as Velocity when performing operations on Note events.)
  7. To create a preset that you can use in other projects, click the Store Preset button (the little page icon with a plus on it) and enter a name for the preset.
  8. Now add another Transformer to your MIDI inserts list so we can set the maximum velocity value.
  9. Repeat steps 3-7, only this time specify a Parameter 1 of 96 for both panes, and make sure the Filter Target Velocity Condition is set to Bigger.
  10. Store a preset for this Transformer setup as well, and now you'll quickly be able to restrict the upper and lower MIDI velocity ranges to any MIDI or Instrument track in Cubase.
To learn more about the Transformer, see the chapter in the Cubase operation manual named "The Logical Editor, Transformer, and Input Transformer."

SOLUTION: Restoring MIDI Inserts Presets in Steinberg Cubase

I've had this problem on every version of Cubase I've used from 5.0 through 7.0. For whatever reason, the presets for Cubase's MIDI Insert plugins never seem to get installed in their proper location, with the end result being that none of the MIDI inserts appear to have any presets available when you try to use them- when in fact Cubase includes hundreds of presets.

Here's how to fix the problem:
  1. Quit Cubase if you currently have it open.
  2. Browse to the folder where Cubase is physically installed on your system. The exact folder name depends on your version of Cubase, and the exact location depends on your Windows platform (32-bit or 64-bit). Here are some examples of where you might look on a 64-bit Windows system:

    32-bit Cubase 6: C:\Program Files (x86)\Steinberg\Cubase 6
    32-bit Cubase 7: C:\Program Files (x86)\Steinberg\Cubase 7
    64-bit Cubase 6: C:\Program Files\Steinberg\Cubase 6
    64-bit Cubase 7: C:\Program Files\Steinberg\Cubase 7
  3. Inside the Cubase folder, open the folder named Presets. Inside it, you should see folders for: Arpache, Auto LFO, Chorder, Input Transformer, KeyCommands, Logical Edit, Micro Tunings, MIDI Monitor, MidiContextGate, MIDIEcho, Project Logical Editor, Staff Presets, StepDesigner. These are the preferences folders for all those inserts!

    Leave the Presets folder open. You will need it shortly.
  4. In another Window, click Start > Run and type the following: %appdata% (If you are running Windows 8, open up an explorer window and type %appdata% into the address bar, then press Enter.)

    You should now be in the AppData\Roaming folder for your current Windows user account.
  5. Locate the Steinberg folder in AppData\Roaming, and inside that, open the correct Cubase folder for your current version. Here are some examples:

    32-bit Cubase 5: Cubase 5
    32-bit Cubase 6: Cubase 6
    32-bit Cubase 7: Cubase 7
    64-bit Cubase 5: Cubase 5_64
    64-bit Cubase 6: Cubase 6_64
    64-bit Cubase 7: Cubase 7_64
  6. Once inside the correct Cubase folder, open the folder named Presets. You will probably find that most or all of the MIDI insert preferences folders are missing.
  7. In the original folder you opened in step 3, select any preset folders you wish to copy to your AppData folder in Explorer. Right-click the selected folders and type CTRL+C to copy them into your clipboard.
  8. Now click your mouse in an empty area in your AppData Presets folder (from step 6) and press CTRL+V. This should make copies of the presets folders. If some of the files or folders were already there, just let Windows replace the existing files.
  9. Now launch Cubase, create an instrument track, and place a MIDI insert on it. When you open the plugin and click the Select Presets box, you should now be able to pick from a list of presets for that MIDI insert.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Like to Vroom

There was an informal contest on a message board I visit where we had to write a song no more than two minutes long that was inspired by a particular photo. This photo, in fact:

The resulting song is available for download on SoundCloud. I also made a companion video. Enjoy.