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Easy Guide: Programming beats in Ableton Live

Programming beats in Live doesn’t have to be difficult

By Daniel Rothmann (T7)


So you’re new to electronic music production. You don’t know much about it all, but that’s OK, everyone has been at this point of experience. I figured the best way to start this series out would be explaining basic drum programming. While many may know very little (if any) theory on the subject, drum programming is quite a bit easier accessible than chords and harmony, since it doesn’t require direct acquaintance with music theory. Even for the inexperienced ear, you can usually tell if a rhythm just isn’t right, or sounds strange in some way. During this tutorial we’re going to set you up with the basic tools you need to get grooving. First, let me introduce you to the software.

The software

The two most widely known techniques for producing drums sounds on a computer are drum synthesis and drum sampling.

Drum synthesis is typically a polyphonic synthesizer that comes with a set of preset parameters that you can change to a certain degree. Some of these could be drum pitch, waveform, noise amount, saturation, and so on. Drum synthesizers are similar to regular synthesizers in the way that they generate (synthesize) a drum sound from scratch, live. Generally, drum synthesizers differ from regular synthesizers in the way, that the drum synth generally have some preset parameters that can only be changed to a very small degree. This could, for example, be the pitch envelope of a kick drum. The way the kick drum very promptly (in a matter of milliseconds) drop from a high pitch to a low one in order to generate a ‘punchy’ effect in sound.

Drum sampling is essentially taking a sample (a recording), i. e. an acoustic snare sound or an electronic hihat from a drum synthesizer, and playing it back whenever a certain note or switch is triggered inside the software. Drum samplers usually feature parameters such as individual sample volume, pitch, length, pan etc. Drum samplers differ from the drum synthesizers by not producing any sound from scratch, you utilize a sample that has already been recorded, prefabricated and modify it according to your musical aspiration.

First of all, let me introduce you to the drum sampler we’re going to be working with: Ableton Live’s ‘Impulse’. It is a decent-quality drum sampler, with some relatively typical features (and a few not-so-typical). In eight square slots, samples can be loaded and played back. Each sample has separate controls for pitch, decay, volume, pan, filter, saturation, timestretch and more. Some of these can be affected by velocity (how ‘hard’ the note is pressed on the keyboard, defining the strength of the particular tone) and some parameters can be set to select a random value with each new note. These things can come in very handy when you want to program a bit of variety into your beats.

Let’s get busy

In this tutorial, we’re going to program an electronic drum kit from scratch, using pre-fabricated drum samples from the internet. We’re going to be using Ableton Live’s ‘Impulse’ which is, as I’ve already mentioned, a drum sampler.

  1. For legal reasons, I cannot supply you with samples, even if they are available for free on the Internet. The samples I’ve used are from, a site that provides free drum samples. I chose their ‘VKE Modem’ drum kit ‘“ You can download it for free here:
  2. Download the drum kit (for NI Battery, even though we will be using Abletons Impulse, the raw samples are in that package) and extract the folder named ‘Modem Kit Samples’ to wherever you like to have your drum samples.
  3. Open up Ableton Live and make a new MIDI track. Drag Impulse on to the MIDI track. Impulse is located under ‘Instruments’ in ‘Live Devices’.
  4. We need to navigate to the place we saved the samples. Use Live’s browser (on the left, named ‘File Browser 1’), and locate the folder.
  5. For starters, I’ll drag ‘BD_RnB_SS2’ on to the first free slot in Impulse. BD is short for bass drum. The sound is a bit harsh for what I am going for, so I am going to turn Transpose (Transp) down by -2 semitones (st), dial the Volume to -9 dB, and apply a low-pass filter (LP 1). You accomplish this, by pressing the ‘Filter’ button, make sure that Mode is set to ‘LP 1′ and turn the Frequency down to 825 Hertz (Hz). I also turn the Resonance (Res) to its’ minimum, 0.30.
  6. For my snare, I’ll drag in ‘SD3_Modem’ and turn the volume to -3 dB. Next up I’ll add a clap sound, named ‘Clap’, and set the volume at -2 dB.
  7. In the next 3 slots, I’ll load in some effects. I’ve chosen ‘SIGNAL’, ‘Tu3’ and ‘Tu’. I pan ‘SIGNAL’ slightly to the left (24L), and turn the volume down to -10 dB. Basically, I used the same procedure for ‘Tu3’, though I pan it to the right (23R), and dial the volume in on approx. -7 dB. I transpose ‘Tu’ up by 8 semitones, and set the volume at -12 dB.
  8. We are now left with 2 empty slots. I am going to fill one of them with a hihat; The sample I’m using is named ‘Hat’. I find the hihat a bit too deep and harsh, so I turn the Transpose up by 4 semitones, Stretch down to -16% (this will make the sample slightly shorter, using a time stretching technique), Decay down to 120 milliseconds (ms) and Volume to -7 dB. I also throw in a low-pass filter (LP 1) at approx. 9.5 kHz to take off some treble.
  9. All we need now is our last effect ‘“ Let’s use ‘Crash2_modem’. By itself, this sample does not sound very good. I am going to transpose it and make it shorter, controlled by gate (this means that when the drum note for this sample in the drum editor stops, the gate will cut off any of the remaining sample material that has not yet been played back. It makes us able to create a much ‘sharper’ release with this sample). Here is the parameter values I used: Start: 15 ms, Transpose: 7 st, Stretch: 48%, Decay: 9.14 ms, Volume: -21 dB. Remember to press the button that reads ‘Trigger’ so that it displays ‘Gate’ instead. This enables the gate function.
  10. All we need now is a beat to play back on our new drum kit! I’ve chosen a electro-inspired beat I thought fit for these sounds.
  11. Finally, I’m going to use a Compressor to get a bit more consistency in volume. I set the Threshold at -19 dB and Output -5.6 dB.

Enjoy your new drum kit! You can drag the Impulse instrument back up in your browser and create a preset you can use at another time.


25 Responses to “Easy Guide: Programming beats in Ableton Live”

  1. Sean Cleary says:

    thanks so much for the help, this is really cool!

  2. Kieran O Brien says:

    ya man this was a great help, fair play! thanks a lot. you dont have any other guides by any chance? on youtube perhaps?
    im just getting into this stuff atm

  3. Bedroom Beats says:

    Nice post, very informative for the newb producer.

  4. ryan says:

    I normally use acid music studio, but when I get some money together, you have inspired me to try out ableton.

  5. mmm says:


  6. ravi says:

    very informative….very nice

  7. Viero says:

    Hey man great site! I found it randomly on google searching for bass line tips and wow this site has everything! I am gonna print out each article and take it to work and read it instead of the daily newspaper. Keep it up!

  8. Keels says:

    Thanks a lot for sharing your knowledge, most artist I know are stingy.

  9. Ronnie says:

    In Ableton, everytime I pull impulse into a midi it turns the file name into “impulse” and I get the little sample thing at the bottom, but I cannot drag into it? If I do drag, say a kick drum down there, it turns my impulse file into whatever kick drum I chose.

    Im stuck and cant figure this out.

  10. TroyP says:

    Just what I was looking for. Thanks!

  11. Todd says:

    Nice tute! This was at a good level for me. I think the hardest thing is knowing what level to gate, transpose, filter, stretch and decay each individual sound to so that the sound like part of the same ‘kit’. But I guess that is the kind of thing that comes with time and a trained ear…

  12. Matt says:

    just to say thanks for this, completely new 2 it all and it was nice to see the process & has helped me understand a (very) little bit more 🙂

  13. yamaha dtxplorer says:

    hey there and thanks for the information – I have definately learned something new on here. I did however come across some technical difficulties with this blog, because I had to keep loading the site numerous times before I could get it to load properly. I was wondering if your hosting is OK? Not that I’m one to complain, but slow loading times times will quite often lower your position in google and will damage your quality score when advertising with Adwords. Anyhow I’m going to add this RSS to my email and will look out for more of your informative posts. Please post again sometime soon….

  14. Johnny Bley says:

    Hey, thanks for the help. I just bought Ableton Live 8 and really like it but understand there is much to learn. I will here often. Please keep posting!

  15. raoul duke says:

    I dont usually leave comments, but this tutorial really helped me.

    The least I can do is thank you.

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    But you understand what? Existence may just be so a good deal more beneficial, if only we discovered to goal larger.

  17. Richy says:

    Really useful pointers – I’m sure a lot of people who are starting out in Ableton will appreciate this! 🙂

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  20. psy musica says:

    i was looking for this months now!im so happy you made this article!100% i will come in this site because im sure i don’t wanna don’t read any of your gorgeous job you presenting here.

  21. Nemo says:

    I love you.

  22. Luke Sega says:

    Thank You for this fine tutorial.
    The Gate function within Impulse is indeed a clever trick.


  23. Ed Hawx says:

    Good tutorial

  24. corrupted says:

    Thanks a lot, very nice tutorial for beginners

  25. NEW FL USER says:

    HI AM NEW FL STUDIO KINDLY SOME ONE TELL ME HOW I CAN OFF SOUND LIKE KICK,TOM,HAT,CLAP etc. from any song please and only extract vocal. if it done by any plugin than how and tell me for its free or not

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