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Ableton Sampler Tutorial: 3 Deadly Techniques

Ableton Sampler Techniques


Sampler is one of Ableton’s tools which appears innocent at first, but has a ton of power under the hood hidden in it’s tabbed windows. A ‘sleeper synth’, if you will. The beauty is that it is just so well integrated with Ableton’s other tools and overall work flow. In this Ableton Sampler tutorial, I will walk you through three deadly techniques that will help you get the most out of this excellent plugin.

Ableton Sampler Tutorial

In contrast to more powerful/extensive samplers like NI Kontakt, in Sampler, you drag and drop your sample onto the main display of the GUI and your sample is loaded. A small box below that sets the samples root note and then you’re off to the races. If you want to do things like add filters down the chain, or mess with the sample map (for building multi-sampled instruments) you can; but not having to do any additional steps past that main GUI window makes all the difference.

Ableton Sampler Tutorial: 3 Deadly Techniques

So what are some of the practical applications for Sampler? Here are some of the things I use it for:


Technique 1: Designing kick drums

The kick drum is the real meat of your drums in any track, and needs some serious body and character to hold things down. For this reason, I start nearly every track now by building a new kick and preemptively doing my best to fit it to the general vibe I will be writing.

To speed things along, an instrument rack with some samplers and a Max for Live ‘DrumSynth Kick’ do the trick nicely (when one is using the sample-layering approach to kick design). The instrument rack contains these layers:

1. ‘DrumSynth Kick’ Sub layer

I won’t go too far into this layer, but I will say that it’s worth going into the Max for Live instruments folder and checking this synth out. Play around with a few of the parameters and you’ll quickly see how easy it is to get a perfectly pitched sub layer that will lay the foundation for the rest of your kick to sit on top of.

2. Top Kick/Transient layer

This layer adds some click to the transient of the sound and mid-range body, allowing it to cut through the mix; it sort of emulates the sound that you get from a plastic beater on an acoustic kick drum. I always highpass this layer above 100hz to avoid clashing with the sub layer. Depending on the level of compression and saturation of the kick sample I put into this layer, I will then use an overdrive to give it some crunch.

Finally I will use a transient shaper to boost the attack for that ‘beater-click’ sound and reduce the tail to taste. Do note that if you do not have a transient shaper plugin, that step could be replaced by using the attack and release/sustain settings in the sampler and compensating with the volume of the top kick layer in the instrument rack.

3. Flavor layer

There are no rules with this layer. The only thing set in the template for this layer is the sampler attack envelope: I push it back between 7-30ms to stay out of the way of the top kick transient. Other than that, this layer could be anything. A metal hit, foot stomp, a tom, etc.

This is the layer that allows the kick to be tailored to the feel or sound of the track. If the flavor needs processing, I will drag it into the chain as I go. As a general rule, if the sample used contains sub-100hz information, it is a good idea to highpass it out to avoid clashing with the dedicated sub layer. Other than that, go nuts!

4. 2nd Flavour layer

Same as the last flavour layer~ it may not be necessary to always add a second flavor, though sometimes it is fun.

5. Tail Layer

If I want a little high end frequency in the tail of the kick, this is where I get it. Crunchy foley samples like leaves rustling sound excellent here. The attack of this sampler will be set to a minimum of 150ms so as to stay out of the way of all the other layers in the kick. Again, processing such as highpass EQ’ing can be added on the fly if necessary or left disabled in the template, ready to go.

Another great tip to add interest to the kick tail layer is using effects that will spread it like chorus, phaser, or delay. This breaks your kick sample out of the standard “kicks sit dead center in the mix” rule, without affecting the fundamental frequencies panning.

After all these layers are tweaked, some compression, saturation, and limiting will glue the sounds together nicely.

Resources For Further Learning:

1. Free customized tutorials & sample packs from BassGorilla

2. Sound Design In Ableton Live With Frequent (course)


Technique 2: Arp/Pluck sound construction

While the body of a pluck can be built in any instrument, sometimes Foley sounds can add interest to the transient which is lacking in the source synth sound.

One easy way to do this is using Sampler’s ‘Scale’ control.

Ableton Sampler scale

The scale control allows you to decide the relation between the MIDI pitch data being fed into sampler and how much the pitch actually changes. At 100% (Sampler’s default setting), the pitch changes according to the chromatic scale in the piano roll. If the scale was set to 50%, one octave up from the root key on the piano roll would play half an octave up from the root key at the output. At 0%, MIDI pitch data does not change the pitch of Sampler’s output at all.

This can be a great tool for adding transients to pitched instruments (like plucks) because it allows you to control how much the transient pitch will track the body of the pluck.

Depending on the quality of your sample, pitching up or down with scale set to 100% could cause loss of high frequency material and/or move the root harmonic of the sample substantially. With a component that is supposed to be purely a transient, moving this root harmonic or losing too much high end will sound unnatural.

So how can this be prevented? Unless that particular sound is what you want, setting the scale to 0% generally sounds artificial as the transient sample will never change in timbre as the pluck body pitch changes. I find that somewhere between 5% and 15% seems to be more forgiving. The transient will have some variation without losing too much information when straying past one octave from the root key.


Technique 3: Writing bass parts using long resamples

This is probably my favorite part of using sampler. I love it because after doing a huge 30 second audio resample of bass mangling goodness and losing all hope of being a musician (you are resigned to being a sound designer at this point), you can load that huge resample back into Sampler and play it with your MIDI keyboard~ you are a musician again!

It really breathes some life back into writing, for me. Here is a list of some of the badass things you can do with this method:

1. Velocity to sample offset control

You will find this control in the MIDI tab. If you set ‘Vol<Vel’ to 0% on the Filter/Global tab, first you can then use the MIDI note velocity to control where in the resample you start playing (thus enabling free access to any of the automations/articulations contained in the resample). You can liken this to turning your note’s velocity into a 127-step wavetable control. This picture shows you how to set it up:

Ableton Sampler Velocity2. Pitch Envelope

Engaging the pitch envelope on the ‘Pitch/Osc’ tab can give bass patches some awesome punch. You might not love this sound, but it’s worth messing around with. I generally set attack to 0ms, decay between 100ms and 180ms and the Amount greater than 20 semitones.

Pitch Envelope

3. FM Synthesis

I don’t know of any other samplers that can do this: FM synthesis with the loaded sample as the carrier signal and an single internal pitch-tracking modulation operator. This can lead to some seriously cool sonic destruction. Almost all the settings are worth messing around with, though I would highly recommend setting the ‘Volume’ parameter to a macro (and automating it) for maximum face melting. Here’s an example setup:

FM Synthesis

4. Soft/Hard Shaping

A little bit of soft-shaping on the output of the sampler can really boost the presence of the instrument in the mix. You’ll find this parameter in the bottom left corner of the ‘Filter/Global’ tab. If the resampled patch is already fairly compressed/saturated/distorted, less is more. Settings of 20 or under will do nicely.

5. Glide modes

Glide modes allow you to control how the synth reacts when overlapping notes are played. To use glide, the voice limit or ‘Voices’ parameter in the bottom right corner of ‘Filter/Global’ needs to be set to 1. Then you can adjust the mode in the ‘Pitch/Osc’ tab.

“Glide” will not start a new note instance when a new key is pressed, it will simply slide up to the new pitch at the pre-defined glide time. “Portamento” mode will start a new note when the overlapping note is played. When combined with the velocity-sample offset trick, this allows you to glide and start a new articulation/modulation from the resample at the same time. I’ve had nothing but killer results with this trick, so far.

6. Cross-fading between patches

If you have two samplers set up in the aforementioned fashion with different resamples, you could rack them together and cross-fade between them using the chain selector. The method for setting up a cross-fade on the chain selector can be found in my previous article on building a Z-Plane filter. I’m sure there has to be some really cool stuff you could get out of this method as it’s like having a second wavetable control on top of your note velocity you have already set up.

In addition to all the features contained within Sampler, writing bass parts this way will allow you to copy your MIDI over to your sub, thus eliminating guesswork involved in setting pitch bend data.

I hope this article, lengthy as it may be, has provided some interesting ideas on how Sampler can be used. There are so many more uses not covered here, waiting to be discovered~ now it comes down to you to wander into the endlessly modular world of Ableton Live and find out how it can increase your work flow and efficiency.



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About the author: The Creature is an up and coming Bass Music Artist residing in Vancouver, BC. Taking compositional cues from his previous 8 years of drumming in Progressive Rock and Fusion Jazz ensembles, he dishes out musicality not often heard in today’s electronic music. Combined with his voracious appetite for fresh sound design techniques and machine-like work ethic, he is rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with.


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