Synthesizing in Ableton Live: Envelope Generators

My first pass at working with Ableton as a modular synth was to explore “dummy” clips. These are tracks that contain an audio clip with the actual content muted. The clip is then transformed into a container for audio effects automation that can be applied to any audio routed through whatever audio track the clip is in. The clip becomes an Envelope template that can be pulled into other projects.

Ableton Live allows the sound designer to see and manipulate many parameters within each individual clip. This is most amazing, and something I have not paid enough attention to. Here is a picture of the clip console from the Ableton Manual:

For Audio Animation Clips, the focus is on the Sample box and the Envelopes box. The slider in the sample box is used to mute the audio by simply turning it completely down. Now the clip is ready to be shaped into an envelope. (That is how Audio Animation Clips will function in my Abeju Synth Station – as Envelope Generators (AAC/EG). The two drop down windows in the Envelope box give the sound designer access to all the effects and mix processing available on the track for this clip only. So whatever I draw onto the audio clip itself only happens when that particular clip is playing. In the case of AAC/EG, the clip will play the animation of the envelope and the envelope will be applied to any audio routed through the track.

In order to create an AAC/EG, we need an audio track and an audio clip. The length of the clip doesn’t seem to matter cause it loops. (Currently, I am sticking with 8-12-24 bars and I hear potential for longer clips with more complex movement in the automation in the future). Use the volume slider to mute the audio within the clip. (Addendum: Experience has taught me that the original audio in the clip should be low volume. I am going to start experimenting with creating audio specifically for these clips.) Then assemble a rack of audio effects you want to use to shape sound and insert them on the track. In the orginal audio clip, use the drop down box in the clip to access each effect, and turn them all to Device Off by moving the red line in the clip box to the off position. Now you have an open audio sleeve with no effects enabled. When source audio is routed through this clip, the audio will sound as is, with no effects present. Next, duplicate the clip. This will be the first AAC/EG. Go to the drop down box and turn on the devices you want to use. The top box takes you to the main effect, and the second will bring up every adjustable parameter within the effect. When you identify a parameter that you want to change, go to the red line in the audio clip window (on the right above) and draw in the animation you want.

Once I finally understood all this, I began to design AAC/EG Modules. Each module is a track with 2 to 4 different envelope template clips. Each instance of the clip can be shaped by adjusting the automation (I am calling animation) of the effects that are on the track. One technique I like is layering three effects over three clips. The track contains three effects (a delay, an EQ and a reverb), so the first clip has one effect on, the second has two, the third has three. Initially, I tried linking several modules (tracks containing the clips) together but found this too cumbersome. The option to layer modules is in the routing in each particular set.

To use the modules, insert another audio track that will hold the samples you are using. I label this track Source. Now there are several routing options, but the main idea is that the AAC/EG modules need sound coursing through them in order to perform. On the In/Out tab on the track, audio can be routed from someplace and routed to some place. The best mixing option so far is to have the AAC/EG modules receive audio from source and then everybody sends audio to the Master Volume. This allows the faders to act as dry/wet attenuators. The Source can be heard as is or through the AAC/EG Modules and Clip Templates.

So far, I have created four modules. Combed, Mangled, Stutter Delay and Harmonics Flinger. [Post Publication Addendum: More modules are added to above and all are being fined tuned. Our April 14th SITES event was rained out (rescheduled for May 19th) so the debut of Abeju Synth Station will be tonight as part of Electronic Appetizers program at Arcana. I am playing a piece called Perimeter Centre, which will feature the Ripplemaker semi-modular ios synth as my sound source for the Abeju Synth Station. Come listen!