As you are probably well aware, DJing with Ableton Live is a bit different than DJing with Serato or Traktor. There is a little bit more pre-production that goes into creating a Live set than with ‘deck’ style DJing. With so many options available, where do you start?
We’re going to talk about one way that you can set up your Live project to create an easy to use hip hop DJ set. There are many other ways that you can do this, but take this as a foundation to build upon and modify to suit your personal style.
Audio and MIDI Tracks
We start out with two audio and one MIDI tracks. These audio tracks will be for the full songs and the MIDI track will be for a drum kit. You can arrange these in whatever order you like, but I personally prefer to set it up and rename as; “Track A”, “Drums” “Track B”.
A lot of hip hop (at least what has been in my current rotation) does not have the ebb and flow of large builds and breakdowns as a lot of EDM does. This will affect where you can logically start playing clips and, consequently, will affect your mixing style. The first thing you have to when importing your songs is warp them. By default, I have auto warping set to the ‘Complex’ mode, but I have found that vocal hip hop sounds a lot better when using the ‘Tones’ or ‘Texture’ warp modes. Higher quality audio files will go a long way when playing with warp settings, so try to use 320 kbps or higher and play with the settings until they sound right.
Once the clips are warped properly I like to make three versions of each song. These versions will all be in the same track and will be staggered with the proceeding clips in the next track. In the first clip I like to find the spot in the song where the first verse (or at least my favorite verse) begins. Depending on the song I will usually let it play our for at least one verse and the chorus, so I try to pick a start spot that I can jump to immediately. In the next clip I like to find an drum break and set a four or eight bar loop. Drum loops like this can usually be found in intro and/or outro sections of the song. I put this clip second because I don’t always want to start each new song with its default intro. Personally, I like to mix out of tracks with these drum breaks because you can control the length and flow of your transitions. In the third clip I will usually find a snare, clap, etc. hit from the previous drum loop and set it as a one-shot. You can do this by disabling the loop bracket and moving the end marker to the end of the sound in question.
Why do this? Well, I like using the drum loops to control transitions, but they can sometimes get stale very fast. By having the snare hit from the loop in a separate clip you can play these two clips as you would play the kick and snare in a drum kit. Voila, instant remix.
Occasionally, instead of a drum loop I will use an instrumental loop. It is good to have a few of these available for the times when you just need to kill the beat and have a moment with the melody. Some songs just have an instrumental break that is too good to pass up, while sometimes others just have drum breaks that don’t fit with what you’re doing. It’s all a matter of personal taste.
I always like to have a playable drum kit in my DJ sets. There’s something about playing an instrument (if only a MIDI instrument) that makes it feel like I’m REALLY performing. There are hundreds of drum kits that come packaged with Ableton Live, which gives you the ability to pick a kit that will blend with the sound of your set. I usually end up using a good ol’ 808 style kit to keep things booming, but you should pick something that suits your taste. You can use this kit in intros, breaks, or just to give a song a little more thump.
Since you are creating an entire MIDI track for this drum kit you can create a bunch of MIDI clips to go along. I like to have a series of ‘elements’ MIDI clips in this track to boost the beats of the currently playing song. What are these ‘elements’, you ask? Basically, they are MIDI clips that only have one or two sounds in four or eight bar loops that can be played with a fully mixed song. For example, a clip with claps on the ‘2’ and ‘4’ or a stream of eighth-note hi-hats. These can be used to add energy, even out mix production between tracks, or to give a remix vibe to your songs.
To give a ‘Trap’ feel to any track you can create a series of clips with streams of hi-hats at different rhythmic values (i.e. from quarter notes to thirty-second notes). You can trigger these clips at different intervals while a song is playing to change the vibe
Between the drum loops, one-shots, verse starts, and drum kit you should be able to come up with an interesting way to play your hip hop set. However, this is only one way to set up and play so you should experiment with various setups and see what works best for you and your style of music.
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