Mission: Turn Ableton Live Into A Killer DJ Tool!

Darren E Cowley | Read time: 7 mins
ableton live apc40 isotonik launchpad oktopad Pro
Last updated 28 March, 2018


Ableton Live
Want to combine the best of Ableton Live with some of the immediacy of “‘traditional’ DJing? We know some software for that…

I started DJing with Ableton Live after a couple of decades of playing out on CDJs and 1210s. I also own Traktor Pro 2 and I play out using Serato with vinyl too, so I’m certainly well placed to understand all the ups and downs of Ableton DJing – of which there are many of both! I should also add that for me the glass is always half full, and half the fun of a Scalextric was building the track itself!

As the creator of Isotonik and Oktopad, which are software templates for the Akai APC40 and Novation Launchpad respectively that work with Ableton Live via Max4Live, I believe I’ve created two tools that makes DJing with Ableton Live more intuitive and more fun – especially if like most DJs you come from the kind of background above. In this article, I’ll go through some of the philosophy behind my products, and look at specific ways they can help you to tame Ableton Live for DJing.

My take on DJing

For the traditional DJ, the benefits of Serato and Traktor are many. Personally, I was first attracted to the ability to carry my entire record collection in a single bag (my gym membership lapsed many years ago and my back isn’t what it used to be…). But I also embrace wholeheartedly all the new technology. Looping actions, doubling up tracks at the click of a button, cue-point juggling and bewildering effects can all add to the DJ’s ability to entertain a crowd. Some will use these subtly, while others have created whole genres out of making tracks unrecognisable from their original forms (check out Kutski or Kissy Sell Out on YouTube to hear what I mean).

(Incidentally, on the whole beatmatching thing, I’ve seen DJs who can and who can’t beatmatch both rock a crowd and fall flat. So I don’t care much for the argument that you have to know how to beatmatch to be able to DJ; you have to know how to DJ to be a DJ, and that for me is about being able to build a vibe and read a crowd. Glad to get that off my chest!)

So anyway, if Traktor and Serato can help you to do all of this, why consider Ableton Live in the first place? Serato Scratch Live can give you the real true vinyl feel, while Traktor is a Midi programmer’s dream. Surely between them they are all the digital DJ needs? Well not quite, as it turns out.

The Ableton advantage

Here are just a few benefits of DJing with Ableton Live:

  • User configurability – One of Ableton’s most appealing features. For instance, how about being able to create endless effects chains to distort or enhance your audio and possibly even create an effect never heard before?
  • Remixing your tracks live – If you’re a producer then you can reproduce your tracks in stems and mix them live. In this field there’s actually no competition for Ableton Live
  • Rearranging and perfectly phrasing every mix on the fly – As a DJ, Ableton’s Session mode can be hard to beat, giving far more possibilities than two or four decks. (Performance missing impact? Just trigger a white noise sample and filter out the lows until the bass kicks in…) True, Traktor and Serato have sample players, but nothing can beat Ableton’s practically infinite number of tracks
Isotonik in action on the Akai APC40.
Isotonik in action on the Akai APC40.

Matched up with the right controller (buttons are important for triggering tracks, and encoders and faders are necessary for effects, so consider an APC40 or Launchpad / iPad combination; even a couple of Nano-style controllers can give you a full set-up from a backpack) and you can create a truly unique performance.

So where does Ableton lose out to its DJ controller and DVS cousins, and how can Max4Live along with my products help reduce that disadvantage? Let’s look at that question.

Ableton’s main shortcomings

There are two big shortcomings to Ableton that crop up again and again, but both can actually be seen in a positive light.

With an Ableton session you first have to “warp” all of the tracks you want to play (think beatgridding in Traktor or Serato). While things got simpler with Live 8’s new warping methodology, some users still complain that this isn’t as automatic as, say, Serato’s system which seems to hit the downbeat each and every time without much effort.

However, those of you who have been DJing for a number of years will recognise the benefit of knowing your tracks inside out. Initially the process of warping involves listening to your tracks a number of times, which has to be good for your DJing – and anyway, with a little experience a track can be warped in no more time than it takes to listen to it.

The browser
No question, Ableton’s browser is currently lacking. It’s small, and slow to respond to search requests. After a night smashing tune after tune out of Serato you’ll yearn for the simplicity of its browser and meta tag searching.

Ableton Live's browser
Ableton Live’s browser: not its strongest feature for DJs.

There are workarounds and some are ingenious in their approach but these feel more like hacks rather than a streamlined integrated solution. So instead many DJs choose to create a large template, containing every tune they think they’re going to be playing! Preparing such a template feels a little bit like packing a crate of tunes for a DJ session.

But when you come to think of it, focusing on your set before you turn up (just like vinyl DJs used to when packing a crate for the night) can actually be a very good thing.

Using Ableton Live with Max4Live

OK so we’ve coped with the shortcomings, realised the benefits, and we’re ready to start pushing the envelope with our DJing, doing things that leave the Traktor and Serato boys way behind. Here’s where Max4Live along with my software for the APC40 and Novation Launchpad helps you to better use Ableton Live as a DJ.

Max for Live is best seen as a toolkit for adding new behaviours to Ableton Live. My procuts – Isotonik and Oktopad – are templates for the Akai APC40 and Novation Launchpad that use this toolkit to put some pretty cool stuff in your hands.

Easier DJing with parts and sections
Ableton guru Tom Cosm championed what he called his “megaset” DJing principle, where each full track is split into its relevant parts – intro, drums, break, vocal etc. This is a popular way of using Ableton Live for DJing, as you can really get stuck into remixing on the fly, get a visible indication of where you are in a track, and have the ability to create infinite cue points.

Although Serato has just upped its game with the ability to name cue points, you’re limited to five in total, and while Traktor Pro 2.5 with the new Kontrol F1 controller again are nodding in Ableton’s direction, we have yet to see how that system will pan out. However, the downside of using Ableton this way comes when triggering the following clip. Currently you can set “follow actions” with Ableton within each clip, choosing from a number of defined actions to occur after a certain number of bars, beats and units from the clip initially started.

Megaset Principle
The “megaset” principle of Ableton Live DJing: Lots of tunes ready to play, all pre-assembled.

With a little bit of effort this can be done quickly but each clip needs to be set separately and if in the middle of a clip you decide to engage a loop then your follow action will occur at the originally set time regardless of the fact that the clip has not met its end.

So here’s where Max4Live comes in. It circumvents this limitation in Ableton, by keeping an eye on where you actually are in a clip no matter what you’re doing and only triggering the next clip when you actually reach the end. No follow actions, no lengthy set up and the ability to perform looping within tracks!

Better looping
Ableton offers a great deal of configurability for Midi Mapping (not as much as Traktor admittedly, but easily equalled when using a third-party utility such as Bomes Midi Translator). However much of what can be mapped relies on what is in focus.

For instance, you can map a Midi controller to set a loop start and end point and toggle the loop on and off; however, you can only do this on the clip that’s in focus. therefore to loop a clip, you’d have to navigate to it first, unnecessary mouse-pushing which, in a dark venue and with a glowing screen can lead to that “just checking Facebook” look. Wouldn’t pressing a single button to set a four-bar loop be much more preferable?

Again, Max4Live to the rescue! With Max4Live you can send message to hidden parameters. Once you understand the nuances of getting the message order right, it’s ultimately possible to set up on-the-fly looping for the eight tracks within the Novation Launchpad’s Clip Launch rectangle (the 8×8 grid of clips that can be triggered from the pads of the Launchpad), setting loops and halving, doubling and moving them with even more control than either Traktor or Serato.

Nudge, nudge…
Having each clip pre-warped, you’ll never have a clashed beat again! Well, almost…

Sometimes no matter how well you warp a clip it’ll just not sit right with another clip’s bassline or hi-hats. On a pair of turntables, jogwheels or touchstrips you’d just give the offending track a little nudge to bring things sonically back into line. Unfortunately, with Ableton it’s not as straightforward. While Ableton has a Midi-mappable set of nudge buttons, but like the looping functionality you can only nudge the clip in focus. Plus, it will also only perform a nudge in the size of the current Global Launch quantize.

The Novation Launchpad
The Launchpad: a perfect pairing for Ableton with an iPad.

Once again, the, you’ve got multiple button presses to contend with: Change quantization to none, focus on clip and then nudge. All a far cry from reaching out your right hand and holding two fingers against the platter of a 1210…

But once again, Max4Live to the rescue! By sending a simple message to the playing clip with a value of 0.01 you’ll be back to one physical action to achieving the nudging result – just like the + and – buttons on a Denon CD player.

Here’s a bonus: Ever started a track a bar too late or early? Well simply ask Max4Live to jump forwards or back a bar! Again, it’s simple, one-click stuff.

Mixing in key
Many digital musicians love mixing in key, analysing their music files for key and colour coding them in Ableton according to the Camelot wheel for easy harmonic mixing and mashups. Well for them, the ability of Max4Live to be change the pitch of a clip on the fly brings brand new mashup possibilities to the fore, with an endless number of accapellas now becoming suitable to lay over virtually any instrumental.


I made Isotonik and Oktopad because I love the creative possibilities of Ableton Live but wanted to address some of these very real concerns that DJs moving across from other systems have with the program. However, it’s not for everyone. Ableton is still a far cry from two-decks-and-a-mixer. Hopefully Max4Live with the APC40 or Launchpad and my templates makes it easier and more fun, but the truth is, you’ll never finish building your source tunes template, and with this and other issues, it’ll own your life, ruin your relationships, and see you end up with friends that you only recognise through their avatar on a forum!

I can’t do anything about all of that, I’m afraid – and I can’t bring parallel waveforms back for you, either. Apart from that, though, for the adventurous DJ, Ableton Live plus Max4Live with Isotonik and/or Oktopad, does, in my opinion, present the most powerful DJing platform out there today.

• Isotonik and Oktopad are fully featured templates for the Akai APC40 and Launchpad respectively. Subscribers benefit from a steady dream of updates as new functionality is requested and realised. More details and videos can be found at Darren’s website, and subscribers can get involved on his Facebook Page.

Have you tried or considered Ableton Live DJing? Do you currently DJ with Ableton Live? What are your experiences of Ableton, Max4Live, or Darren’s templates? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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