Ableton is a powerhouse in the DAW world, and rightfully so, as its workflow is incredibly fast and intuitive. But did you know you can make your Ableton experience even easier? In this article, we’re going to look at optimizing your workflow with Ableton Live templates that are suited to your needs.
As creators, one of the most important aspects of a great DAW is its capacity to maintain and maximize the creative flow state. This creative state is the crux of getting out a track quickly and efficiently, and capturing the most important elements of a musical idea.
So spending some time optimizing one’s workflow is one of the most valuable exercises and practices we can undertake as producers. Aside from learning hot-keys, developing a template should be a high priority.
An Ableton template is basically the default setup that an artist uses to start a new project from. Very often, it’s effectively a “blank slate”, but in this article we’re going to look at why more complex starting points can be better for your creative flow. The idea behind this is to design and configure a framework that allows producers to simplify and accelerate their creation processes.
The default template in Ableton Live is very basic. It looks like this…
Using a template doesn’t have to result in a static or fixed workflow, but it should give you a starting point that will get you going quickly. Basically, it streamlines your workflow, reducing repetitive tasks so that you can focus largely on the creative process.
It can include your groupings, sub-groupings, gain-staging, side-chains, return tracks, instrument racks, and processing techniques. We’ll jump into each of these points below. Your template can even include samples, such as drum hits in a Drum Rack, but I’m not going to go into this, and I’ll explain why…
Why I Don’t Use Samples In A Template
For me, I deliberately won’t have samples already loaded, like drums in a Drum Rack, or MIDI patterns, or any structural ideas or markers.
While having those things might be really useful if you’re starting out producing, it also means that your creativity already has boundaries.
I have worked with some well-known producers that do like to have those things already loaded up. If this works for you, then maybe you will want to incorporate samples, MIDI patterns, and synth presets into your templates as well.
You’ll notice that templates for Ableton Live are simply session files, just like your tracks. Sometimes, Ableton templates will also come with full tracks as an example of how the template can be used.
These royalty-free projects can be really useful in developing and finding your own sound, especially when starting out. In my opinion, because they already have another artist’s workflow baked in, they limit creative freedom and are not truly templates. However, they can still be used to make a template set.
How Do Templates Optimize Workflow?
Think about all the things you do when you’re creating a track, especially the repetitive tasks such as loading in an EQ8 for each channel or regularly using a particular synth, sampler, or preset.
Instead of having to look for and load those things each time you want to use them, they are now at your fingertips. Optimizing your workflow really helps with staying focused and not breaking the creative flow, which is the artist’s arch-nemesis.
If you have Audio Effect Racks that are a part of your sound, you can have these ready to go, already set, and ready to be used. All those racks you’ve developed over the years with mentors, tutorials, and/or playing around, can be saved within the project.
If, as an artist, you have wildly different processing for every track, your signature sound can easily get lost. When you find a chain that really works, stick with it. You can still tweak these, or maybe develop new aural signatures and evolve them over time.
How To Make (And Save) Your Production Templates
Before you start making (or updating) an Ableton live template, take a look at your process objectively.
Get to know your own style and what works for you. This might seem pretty straightforward, but often we are ‘inside’ the process and haven’t taken the time to actually remove ourselves from everything to view it as an observer. To help with this, take some time to write down all your workflow ideas and processes.
With my students, I tell them to grab a recent project that they were really happy with, and delete all audio samples and MIDI information, just leaving the groups, channels, and their processing.
This way one can see their workflow without referencing sounds and composition. Then save the current settings as a new template that you can use in the future for any new production explorations.
Once you’ve built your template, it’s time to save your new live set. You can take a few different approaches here.
You can go to the File menu and choose Save Current Set As “[project name] template”, and each time you want to use it in a new song, choose Save Live Set As then rename it, making sure you don’t save over the template.
By doing this, you’ll continue to have a blank template whenever you want it. The shortcut for windows users is CTRL + Shift + S, or on Mac it is CMD + Shift key + S. This is handy if you have multiple templates that you use for different purposes.
You can save the new live set to a templates folder. Also, if you’d like your new template to be your default on startup, you can go to Preferences -> File/Folder -> Set As Default (as below)
What A Great Ableton Live Template Should Include
Here’s a little checklist of what important features a template project file can include. The details will be somewhat genre-specific to whatever style you produce in.
Grouping is a very important feature of a project template. Each group should have its own color scheme so that one can visually check where they are in the project without having to read anything.
I personally like to group my kick and snare, with a sub-group that contains all the drum tops like hats, shakers, and cymbals in a group called Drums. I like to have my tops processed slightly differently to the kick and snare, but I also want these elements to collectively ‘glue’ together with a bus processing chain.
My next groups are the other percussive elements, tribal or war drums for example. Followed by Ambience/Atmospherics, then Instruments, Bass, and finally Vocals.
I like to split the Bass group into two subgroups, one for subs and another for harmonics (such as low-mids). This enables me to sidechain those 2 groups independently, ensuring that only the subs are attenuated when the kick hits. It’s a good idea to ensure the non-subs are treated with a high-pass filter after your processing so that there is no possible way for any low-frequency energy to build up and conflict with the sub channel.
Beyond the color-coding of the groups, the major reason I group (and subgroup) is that I can run each group through different processing, otherwise known as gain-staging.
Before I jump into this, I need to clarify what I mean by gain-staging. Gain-staging in the analog domain is maintaining the right level of gain into each stage of processing.
This is extremely important when using and recording to tape, to maximize (or minimize) signal to noise ratio. Also, analog processing effects chains (like compressors) required a fairly standardized input level (or gain) to get the optimum results from the hardware.
However, how we currently see the term gain-staging within the digital realm, is a different concept. It would be more correctly termed as process-staging chains, but gain-staging sounds neater so that’s what it has evolved to.
What is inferred by the term gain-staging within modern DAWs is the routing of processing chains that run into the master channel. Some elements want to be upfront and dynamic (less processing), like vocals or lead instruments, whilst others like bass and drums want to be more compressed and consistent (less dynamic).
So, we need to treat these differently as the signal chain finally runs out as the master channel. There is a great YouTube video about this from AHEE and you can watch it here.
However, my personal approach isn’t to run into a premaster channel as he does. Rather, I utilize common return tracks and individual group processing.
3. Instrument Racks
Having MIDI instruments pre-loaded into a template can also help maintain workflow as you don’t need to go looking for the instrument each time.
I use a lot of Kontakt virtual instruments, so I have Kontakt pre-loaded in my percussion and instrument groups. As well as having a few different go-to synths pre-loaded, like Serum, kick2 and Phase Plant.
You can also utilize the user library folder to save items like samples, synth patches, or even sound design ideas. You can also save Drum Racks already loaded with up to 128 different samples from your sample library. That could be a full rack of kicks, of snares, or whatever you want.
This is a real time-saver, no matter how you side-chain.
For my workflow, I like to use MIDI to trigger side-chains, and I am currently using a volume shaper instead of a compressor as it gives a cleaner and more immediate response.
I’ll have all my instances of side-chains triggered from external instruments within my kick and snare instrument racks as this saves some layout real estate. The routing can get a little confusing sometimes, so it’s best to have this in your production template from the get-go.
In the free templates below, I have taken 2 different approaches. The Advanced Template uses MIDI triggers within a rack for both the kick and snare, sending to a volume shaper.
The Basic Stock Template uses separate MIDI trigger channels with a ‘click’ track that sends to each instance of a side-chained compressor.
5. Analysing racks
The old adage that “if it sounds good it is good”, works to a point. And for producers that don’t intend to mix their own tracks, it probably holds.
However, for professional-sounding mixes that need to translate to a multitude of listening environments, eyes and ears have to work together.
Analyzing racks are essential for professional mixes. Get to know your analyzers by referencing other tracks that exhibit sonic traits you are looking to emulate.
Voxengo SPAN is a freeware spectral analyzer and is definitely worth checking out. I like to set mine to the pink noise curve which is a slope of 3.0 (-3dB per octave). You can also use the Ableton stock analyzer, but it’s not as visually accurate or as customizable as SPAN.
It is also very important to have spatial/stereo field analyzers in your projects also. Ableton doesn’t have a stock spatial analyzer, but there are a bunch out there including some from plugin giants like Waves and Izotope.
6. Effects chains
So, you’ve watched a seemingly endless stream of YouTube tutorials, or better yet, you’ve got a mentor. Now you’ve got all these great effects processing ideas that really work.
Rather than writing down your chain and its settings (you can also save them as audio effect racks or in the user library), you can put these into your template too.
Something I like to do here is I’ll turn off the effects that need to be dialed in each time (like compressors) so that I know when I am processing the channel I need to do it.
7. Return tracks
Return tracks can take a long time to set up in your Live set. Saving them to your project file is definitely a big time saver, and after numerous times you’ll remember what is in each return channel so that you don’t need to always check them.
In the Advanced Template, you’ll notice that there are 10 return tracks already set up. Ambiance/atmospheric reverbs and delays, snare and drum plates, vocal verb and delay, and then compressors to parallel process multiple channels together.
I highly recommend using return tracks – their input can be automated and independently EQ-ed, and they help gel a mix together. Return tracks are particularly useful for delay and reverb effects as they apply a cohesive sense of space to multiple instruments.
8. MIDI and Key Mappings
Another cool time-saving benefit of an Ableton Live template is your capacity to have MIDI mapping saved. If you use a MIDI keyboard, or even your computer keyboard, to control parameters inside a synth or rack macros, these can be all bundled up with your template set.
Free Ableton Templates To Get You Started
I am providing 2 templates to get you started. I highly encourage you to make your own that are suited to your needs as well.
The first is an advanced one designed for Bass music using mostly third-party plugins. The second is a more basic, stock plugin-only template.
The basic template is fairly self-explanatory, though there are a few things to note. The kick and snare side-chain channels will need to have the same MIDI information as the kick and snare to trigger the compressors.
The Ableton stock compressor used is actually from Ableton Live 8. This is because some people (including myself) feel that it has a superior side-chaining capacity that can have tighter settings before there are artifacts. You can download the Live 8 compressor from here, just remember not to click the ‘upgrade’ button on the compressor or it will put you back to the stock compressor of your Live version number.
Third-Party VSTs used in the Advanced Template are from Izotope, Fabfilter, Waves, Valhalla, IK Multimedia T-racks, Polyverse Gatekeeper, Output Movement, Sonic Academy’s Kick2, and Voxengo SPAN.
Even if you don’t have a few of these, the routing is definitely worth the time to peruse. There is also a sidechain set up on the reverb and delay returns, except for the vocal-specific verb and slapback delay (which should stay above the kick as the vocals are the main element).
Having a template, or a series of templates will save you a lot of time and energy when creating music.
Leveraging Ableton Live’s features will help keep you focused and inflow. With the right templates, you’ll produce far more tracks far quicker with less grinding. Because in the end, that is why we are creatives – we both love and enjoy it.
So now all that is left to do is open a template and start cooking up your next big hit…