Over To You: Is Ableton Live A Good Way To Start DJing?

Funkagenda Ableton Live

DJing with Ableton Live: It's preferred by a sizeable minority of DJs, but it's very different from 'normal' DJ software.

Digital DJ Tips reader Adam writes: "I am looking to begin DJing but don't have the budget to buy a decent controller or software. I already have Ableton Live on my computer. Can a DAW (digital audio workstation) like Ableton be used to digital DJ without a controller? It has effects, sampling, EQ, crossfader, and looping capabilities, but would it be an effective way to DJ before I can buy the real deal?"

Digital DJ Tips says:

Yes it certainly can - lots of DJs choose Ableton to DJ with. However, it is a very different experience to DJing with "two decks and a mixer", which is what all mainstream DJ software at heart still is. My advice would be to learn the "normal" way and then experiment with Ableton DJing later. you can download Virtual DJ Home for free, which is a laptop-only version of that package but is perfectly good for learning the basics on, especially if you take time to learn the keyboard shortcuts.

However, I am sure we have lots of differing views on this among our readership, so I thought I'd throw this one open to the readers and see if they can give you more advice.

So, did you learn to DJ with Ableton? Would you advise this as a first route, or do you agree with me that learning the "traditional" way is best? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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  1. Ableton is an amazing program. I wouldn't recommend starting to DJ with it though. Unless you have a really solid grasp on warping your tracks it could be incredibly tedious and frustrating. Without the ability to nudge one "deck" to stay in time with a second source one could easily get frustrated.

    If you're already producing than this could be a viable platform because you probably have a solid understanding of music theory and song structure.

    If cash is the problem, why not try and find a friend that has equipment and get them to let you practice with them? You could show them how to use Ableton in return.

    I have gone the traditional route; vinyl, cd's, serato scratch live, Serato Itch, and finally Ableton. IMHO a great performer should try as many different platforms and styles of music they can. That will allow one to fully choose what they feel most comfortable on, and thus achieve the best results.

  2. I personally find that Ableton is the best and the worst for Djing with. It is great if you want to mix loops together to create mashups but if you simply want to do a normal mix then traditional DJ software is superior. For learning to DJ i would recommend using more "normal" Dj software as it is an easier way too learn about Djing. But if you are more interested in creating mashups then Ableton is definitely worth looking into.
    Hope this helps

  3. You can DJ with ableton and do some seriously impressive stuff (see madeon for example). But as Phil states you won't have learnt how to DJ the regular way as its nothing like 2/4 deck mixing, so if conventional DJing is what you're after it wouldn't be best to use ableton.

    • Dennis Parrott says:

      ...and because you aren't using two turntables, a mixer and a mike some will tell you that you aren't a real DJ...

      Assuming you are producing (which is why you have Ableton) I think that you might want to look at a combined Traktor+Ableton setup. With your Ableton skills you might be well-suited to DJing that way.

      The advice to experiment with Virtual DJ is pretty good. You need to know about beat matching and such...


      I would suggest learning Traktor because of its ability to work with Ableton instead of VDJ.

      However, that advice is all contingent on you wanting to mix the two programs. Sticking to Ableton as a DJing platform isn't a bad idea. Doing so is a bit tougher because the DJing education available isnt geared to Ableton.

  4. As said by Phil, Jack and Frank, Ableton is an amazing piece of software, I use it mainly for production but it can be used in a dj setup. Look at videos by the likes of madeon to see how it can be used.

    The essence of dj'ing is the two turntables and a mixer setup (in my eyes) and you should get the hang of this before incorporating something like Ableton into your setup (Traktors remix decks reminds me a lot of abletons clip launch view).

    However, that being said the main objective is to enjoy yourself and get the party rocking so if Ableton works for you then go for it but if you want to try the 'traditional' way first download some free software like virtual dj and map your keyboard to control it, this will probably give you the push you need to get a controller or dvs.

    Probably didn't help here but hope you find what you are looking for

  5. Ableton is by far the most amazing DAW I've used the past year, and I'm looking forward to continue learning how to produce music with it, but I don't think I will reach a point where I will remain by heart as a DJ towards it.

    I know a very close friend to me who swears his life by Ableton, he uses the Novation ZeRO SL MKII controller to DJ with it, but in my eyes, DJing with Ableton and things like Ableton Launchpad/Akai APC 40, that's more preforming to put on a show or to play around in my opinion, but it is a very difficult and time-consuming skill to know how to DJ in it.

    I went from a Numark Mixtrack Pro to a pair of Stanton STR8-80 Turntables and a Vestax PMC 06 Pro mixer, and I'm remaining by hear as a Vinyl DJ, although now that the way the EDM culture is progressing and how a DJ stance is in today's modern atmosphere, it has changed a lot from beatjuggling your favorite vinyl records to things like the "Numark Orbit" and other gimmicky gear.

    All in all, it's a great performance when DJ'ing in Ableton, but for me, it remains as a DAW for me to produce my music in, not DJ.

  6. It's a little odd to me that the replies above are encouraging Adam to learn "proper" DJing first, since we've probably all faced similar criticism of digital DJing from vinyl/cd purists. I started DJing with Traktor when it looked like this http://d2zhqqtw3ey5cw.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Traktor-2.jpg before controllers existed. I used an M-Audio Trigger Finger and created my own mappings but I got a fair bit of friendly flack for not doing things the traditional way, not that it stopped me!
    So basically I say if you have experience of using Ableton, go for it. Map your keyboard to control what you need. You may well work out your own version of "proper" mixing and could even bring something new the table.

  7. Absolutely Live is a good place to start. In fact that's where I got my education in DJing. We're not necessarily talking about trying to do the whole on-the-fly DJing bit right out of the gate (though you certainly can), what I recommend instead is making promo mixes using Session view. You will learn more (and faster) about phrasing, volume control, harmonic mixing, how to place a mix, and how to think your way through the whole process in one completed Live project than any other way I can think of. Since DDJT doesn't really have a huge amount of Live users, I'd suggest going over to http://abletonlivedj.com an poking around the forum if interested in going this direction.

  8. The thing with Abelton is that it limits you in some aspects as much as it frees you in other aspects.For instance with Abelton you are free to do more effects wise and in the area of blending so you can make more mashups on the fly,but at the same time you can't really do much beat juggeling.In my honest opinion the genres which you chose to perform with would determin what you perform withfor example im mostly a trance-deep house-techno guy and i'm fine with my traktor/virtual dj/serato/mixxx[ect.] mixtrack combo,but my friend who plays Trap,trip-hop,dubstep and general minimalism is better off with abelton as with just a little bit of hacking at a mapping and thought he can do amazing things with Abelton.

    So ultimately it is in the end up to the person and what they're preference is.

    • Dennis Parrott says:

      @Bojan -

      You said:

      im mostly a trance-deep house-techno guy and i’m fine with my traktor/virtual dj/serato/mixxx[ect.] mixtrack combo,but my friend who plays Trap,trip-hop,dubstep and general minimalism is better off with abelton

      I don't understand why your friend who seems to be playing different genres is better off with Ableton. I must be missing something about those genres that make it easier/better to DJ them using Ableton.

      Can you help me understand?

  9. If you have an android or iPhone you can easily swing n effective controller out of it. There's an old project on my website that use touchOSC and ableton to create a two channel mixer setup with x-fade, eq, effects, all remotely from touchOSC.

  10. DJ Ben Blayton says:

    Well we have to work with what have(Lord knows I did and still do). Use it and learn how to use it. There is no wrong or right way. It is OK to start learning how to use Abelton for DJing. Also there is nothing wrong with learning how to produce first and how to produce first. Like someone previously stated get the free version of VDJ so you can see set ups and bring that info to when you get a midi. Spend as much time as you can leading about Abelton. Your in a win win situation!

  11. I would learn to dj with virtual dj or serato first. even if u can just get a cheap $100 controller it is going to benefit you in the long run. you have to learn the techniques of spinning records before you can get into the whole ableton scene of launching clips. the spinning part teaches you timing which is the most important part about djing

    • DJ,ing and understanding mixing has nothing to do with 'spinning records'. I have learnt to DJ in Ableton without ever using decks. Whats more improtant is your understanding of the music itself. Of course, the equipment you use can effect how you engage with the music but ultimately it is just an interface. DJ'ing is about song selection first and foremost, it is then about mixing those songs together. As long as you can do those two things well it really doesn't matter how you do it or what tools you use to help you do it.

  12. Chris the DJ says:

    I think most people (like me) who came from a more or less traditional two decks and a mixer setup will say start with dedicated DJ software. That's because our brains are trained to work in that environment, and we approach music in that manner.

    I will say from experience mixing of tracks back to back is less convenient in Live, but the opportunities for creativity are virtually limitless. I find it difficult to mix on the fly, because my sets in Live will never be as big as my Serato library. However, I go to producer nights and have a blast doing live remixes and shorter sets where I mix my own tracks with elements of existing songs.

    When learning to DJ in Live, you'll still learn the important aspects of DJing such as tempo, phrasing, song structure etc. It will just be a different process than us vinyl/cd guys.

    One thing to consider is that if you start doing gigs around town, you might be expected to use turntables or CDJs. Maybe you can convince the people in charge to accommodate your set up, but it will probably be useful to be proficient with the traditional platforms.

    Other than that, I think you should go for Live! Forge ahead and help take DJing to another level.

    • Chris the DJ says:

      One thing I forgot to add:

      If you choose Live, I highly recommend buying a controller. They free your hands from the cramped keyboard, many have knobs and pads for better control and rhythm, and they can take a beating better than your laptop!

      • Dennis Parrott says:

        That was well-said.

        We always give advice based on our own experience and biases rather than a more objective assessment of where the other person wants to go.

        We'd all do well to learn how to step outside of ourselves to get to understand the other persons reality as we form our advice.

  13. SpeakaJackn says:

    To be honest, if you really want to get at the heart of DJing, find turntables or CDJs to start off with, and get to the fundamentals of beatmatching, beat juggling, blending, mixing, etc... Anyone can pull the David Guetta style mixing where you basically use a computer to perfect a mix and then wave around your hands for the crowd ... meanwhile doing absolutely nothing. Try learning how to work a crowd live. To be honest, if you don't have the money to buy your equipment, then spend the time saving for it. There is an entire culture behind the creativity it takes to spin and mix.

  14. Isn't that like learning how to drive in an F1 car? A beginner DJ who choses software to DJ with should start off with something like Virtual DJ or Traktor, there is so many other things that a he/she should be focusing on. Trying to figure out something as complex as Ableton would just overwhelm that person, I personally have a very hateful relationship with Ableton I use it but I wish I could shoot it in the face.

    • Fully agree. Ableton is my preferred DAW (at the moment:), but I am not using it for DJing. Personally, for DJing I prefer to use CDJ's or Traktor and sometimes Serato when I need to put video into the mix. For straight mixing, I don't think Ableton is the right tool. However, if you want to produce music live, then this can be your software of choice, although I must say this is not the most typical entry level learning path. To learn the basics, I think CDJ's are perfect, because most of them do not include the sync feature, which is a good thing if you want to learn the DJing fundamentals. On the other hand, if you wish to skip the basics and think you will always have enough time to correctly prepare / beatgrid your tracks, then any DJing software will also work for you. I would recommend Traktor or Serato to start with and any certified controller for that matter.

  15. I'm gonna just say this cause i forgot to say it before.In my opinion when you're starting out,try and get as much experience on as many different platforms as you can,use as many different software as possible and try and get proficient with each one,same with hardware.To me a great DJ is an adaptive DJ.If you can switch from setup to setup to setup and adapt to what ever the clients throw at you you'll be better off.

  16. Lets get to the "technical" bottom of this, leaving out (desireably) all the pre-conceptions of what true DJing is or our own prejudices of what DJing "should" be accomplished with.

    There, stripped out from all that, the basic principle which is different when using Ableton Live VS any other DJ software is mainly one:
    You can't just grab a tune off your folders' collection mid-set, drop it into one of your decks-tracks and hit sync. 99% of the cases, it wont work - the difference betweeen Live vs the rest is that when the beat detection system goes wrong there's no nudge, no pitch-bend or ANY other similar process, physically or programmatically that you can do (besides ducking your face deep in your screen mid-set and start 'warping" that track). Whereas on the rest of the DJ programs, you can get away with a simple track nudging/pitch shifting which, incidentally, feels like second nature to the "traditional"/seasoned DJs anyway.

    So, what that means is, that if you choose to use Ableton Live as your DJing application (midn you, yes this IS what Im using)...you need to have most of your tracks' collection warped and ready in order to keep that "in the spur of the moment, Im dropping THIS track which I hadnt planned" which, to me, is an important aspect of DJing.
    Why go through all this trouble then? Well again, personally speaking, the ability to use virtual synths, drum sequencers or other elements, custom effect chains and in fact custom mixer topology - routing (sends, group channels, etc etc) are all worth the trouble!


  17. Like Softcore already said. You can't do on the fly mixing with ableton. You are always limited to your library with prepared track. A second thing to mention I stuggeld with too, is that you spend a lot of time on preparing and building your setup and forget sometimes the actual djing. Now im using Serato but Ableton is a great tool I think for people who are already familiar with making edits and producing, and want to perform that live.

  18. One important question is "what are your goals?" Another important question is "do you really care if you never learn to use turntables and beat juggling?" - i.e. if you could play the sets you want to play with Live would you care that you didn't know Traktor or turntable skills?
    If you are producer who is going to largely be playing your own tracks + remixes, and / or you are mainly interested in doing "creative" DJ sets (vs being a wedding DJ where you might have to take a request for a track you didn't warp in advance) then Ableton could have distinct advantages. For one thing you would presumably be using Ableton all the time to create your material, so you don't have to dick around with moving your stuff to different systems. Second, as someone who has both Ableton Live and a DJ setup, there is definitely a much larger bag of creative tricks available in a general purpose tool like Live than there is in Traktor. As softcore points out you will have to warp everything in advance, but presumably if you do any rehearsing the warps would have been done automatically long before you hit the stage, presuming you are using the same computer. To sum up, in this case you are basically a "DJ musician" and Ableton is your instrument of choice.
    On the other hand if you want to be a wedding / bar / party / small club DJ it's another story, since you have less control over requests and the environment in general; in that situation you'd ideally like to be able to show up with nothing but a flash drive to turn out a set. And if the latter is your chosen line of work then you should be familar with the tools of the trade.

  19. MellonHead says:

    i started djing with ableton. spent tons of time creating a setup with sidechained comps, all kinds of return fx, dummy clips and all the synths and drums i could ever want. two years later, i've gone to the 2 deck method. being able to look at 2 waveforms at once is so nice! there is a program called deckadance that can open as a vst in ableton, so you can use ableton for all the fun loops and stems of your own music and deckadance for just playing tracks dj style. i just mapped a free button to bring up the deckadance vst window whenever i want it.

  20. DJ SpecializED says:

    Imo anyway to get "started" is a good way to get started! Just get started! Youll get your footing regardles of hardware/software. I started w cheap radio shack gear long long ago. I just needed music thats all i cared about.

  21. Ableton relies on preprocessed material which usually means using a smaller more or less predetermined setlist. A better way to get into dj'ing is to use dedicated dj software such as VDJ free or (the one I prefer) CrossDJ free. These will allow you to play in free style, mix and match whatever material, learn what will work for you (or indeed, the crowd) and simply have fun!

  22. MOST DEF!! as a first experience.. Once you get past the learning curve huge doors of possibilities such as production as most DJs long for the day we DJ our own tracks.. I agree though one should ALWAY'S research about the history of DJdom to learn what being a DJ is really about and always always respect the artform...

  23. There´s an accepted and rarely questioned idea today that a person must "learn everything" to become proficient and/or have an edge on the competition. Then, if you want to be a DJ you better start dealing with all kinds of tools you can conceive, from tape and roll recorders to vinyl to CDJs to samplers to the most advanced software. I´m not sure I agree with that.

    The problem with learning to perform a task (in this case, DJing) using a tool (in this case, Ableton) is that it will take a lot of time to master it properly, and as wisely pointed by some here, though Ableton is an awesome tool and perfectly able to perform mixes, it has limitations.

    Now, many other "tools" have limitations too, but some cause serious impact in DJ performance. Seasoned DJs who also produce and deal a lot with music are already at a level to make the best from Ableton and fuse it with traditional DJ setup, taking DJing to another level. But to DJ straight-out using only Ableton that´s a different proposition. I´m not sure I would recomend to anyone, beginner or not. The problem IMHO is the flux of information, knowledge and learning: there´s a lot you can bring from "2 decks + mixer" to Ableton later on, but not much use to what you learn from Ableton to put into the traditional DJing, especially if you´re starting out.

    Any DJ must deal with limitations. Back in the mid-80´s the Techs 1200 was already available, but we could not afford one so we would improvise: mixing between tape recorders and belt-driven "hi-fi-system" turntables using finger pressure on the platter and the tape driver to slow down or speed up and change pitch to match songs. It was crazy, but we didn´t have to un-learn or re-learn anything once we got hold of a pair of MK2´s years later. The principle was there, the skill was there, it just made it all so much easier, solid and smoother.

    Because the traditional "2 decks + mixer" setup allows the much-needed flexibility, it makes improvisation not only possible but easier, spontaneous and good-sounding. As much as DJing changes and evolves in regards to music and gear, its principles remain intact, so regardless of the tool a DJ still needs some features and commands that Ableton can´t deliver for a live set.

    I believe it´s counterproductive to put all DJs in one big basket. A small club or gig DJ need all the flexibility and spontaneity he can afford in his/her set, whereas top DJs like Guetta or Tiesto can afford to have a more structured, pre-programmed set for their audiences, thus benefiting more of what Ableton provides in terms of sound manipulation.

    And as such, it makes more sense to invest in the more traditional DJ setup and ways than going straight for the less flexible and more limiting (DJ-wise) tool. As said by many here, no one needs a pair of decks or CDJs or even physical controllers to have a "2 decks + mixer" setup at hand. We have free DJ softwares, $5 apps for tablets and phones, all kinds of tools to learn and practice. When it comes to learning something new, I for myself prefer to start by the basics.

  24. The consensus seems to be very much where I found myself:

    I was producing with Ableton and considered using it for DJing but having weighed up the pros and cons (warping!) went for Traktor and bought an S4 - a few weeks before they dropped the price 😉

    Having said that I hope to integrate Ableton into my sets in the future, I have a Vestax VCM-600 that I picked up on eBay for £150 😉


  25. Learning to dj with ableton is like learning to drive with a spaceship, it will take you a ton of time more then learning with a user friendly like vdj7

  26. arthursprong@hotmail.com says:

    It's a bit late to leave a comment on this probably but I felt like sharing my point of view on it.

    To the main question I have to say no...

    To me the definition of Dj'ing is mixing tracks together in a creative way of your choosing. So to Dj in the traditional sense there are a million options to do so without having to prepare each track like you would in Ableton and be way more flexible during your performance.

    Don't get me wrong, I LOVE Ableton... But for the task of mixing tracks you've bought in iTunes or whatever It doesn't seem to be worth the effort.

    Ableton's strength lies somewhere else. The ability to take a whole lot of different parts to put together your sound on the spot. This takes a lot of preparation, but when done right can lead to great performances and gives you the freedom to play with music in a way Dj'ing with conventional music files (full songs) doesn't allow.

    To me Ableton is for performing (your own) music in a digital way, Vinyl, CD, and software like Traktor is for Dj'ing

  27. I use both Ableton and VDJ to play music and both work well. Remember DJing is just playing music to create a "vibe". It use to be done using two cassette players, so there is no right way or best way. Ableton and VDJ just approach playing in two different ways. I believe Ableton is much more flexible. With Ableton you can create songs, edit songs, remix songs, and include all the special effects you can think of; save that work and then play that at a gig. VDJ can play that, but it can't REALLY create that. Personally I wouldn't use either program without a mixer/midi because of the complexity, but both can be done with just a laptop keyboard.

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