Audio Effect racks are one of the most powerful sound design tools in Ableton Live, and a truly unique feature with no direct equivalent on other platforms. Not only can you layer, combine and morph between effects, but you can also use the parallel processing of multiple rack chains to drastically alter separate EQ bands of the original incoming audio. What does that mean, exactly? In the example we'll look at here, we'll start by taking a basic synth bass loop and isolating and compressing its sub-bass frequencies; we'll then apply a high-pass filter to isolate the high frequencies - where we'll add some chorus and delay to widen and brighten the sound.
Pic 1: The original loop.
Finally, we'll isolate the mid-range frequencies, which we'll use to generate some background ambience – all without muddying the subs at all. The end result: transforming a standard synth-bass loop into a dynamic, full-frequency juggernaut. Let's take a look.
LISTEN: The original loop –
If you've never used Live's Audio Effect Racks, start by going to the Audio Effects section of your Device Browser and double-clicking or dragging to add one to an Audio or MIDI track in your set (Browser > Live Devices > Audio Effects > Audio Effect Rack)
Pic 2: Browser > Live Devices > Audio Effects > Audio Effect Rack.
Now that we have an empty Audio Effect Rack on our track, it's time to start adding devices. If we simply want to create a serial effects chain, we can drag a Live or 3rd-party effect into the Device View Area (Pic 3) – and add as many as we want to one chain.
Pic 3: Drag a Live or 3rd-party effect into the Device View.
The first thing I'll do is add a Chorus and Ping-Pong Delay.
Pic 4: Add a Chorus and Ping-Pong Delay.
However, since I only want these effects to process the high frequencies of the sound, I'll place an EQ3 before (to the left of) them in the chain with the Low and Mid bands deactivated – so only the high frequencies are passing through into any effects further down the line; in this case, our Chorus/Delay combo.
Pic 5: EQ 3 settings to isolate the high frequencies.
PRO-TIP: Adjust the High frequency of the EQ3 to find the frequency range you're looking for.
LISTEN: Isolated High band processing –
Since we ultimately want to effect each frequency band separately, we need to process the signal in parallel. Racks allow us to do this by having multiple effects chains, processing the same original dry signal through separate effects and mixer parameters. If we were to create two chains without any effects on either, the original signal would be doubled up, resulting in phasing and gain issues – but that's not the plan here. In order to add a new Chain, click the Chain view button, above the Device view button on the upper left edge of the Audio Effect Rack (PIC 6), and we're now looking at the Chain view area to the left of the devices of the currently selected chain.
Pic 6: the Chain view button.
Before adding a new Chain, I'll rename (Command-R) our existing chain “High” to keep everything tidy down the road. Now that we're ready to begin processing our low frequencies, I'll simply drag another EQ3 right where Live suggestively instructs us to “Drop Audio Effects Here” in the Chain view, and – voila! – a new chain is automatically created.
PRO-TIP: Right-click or Control-click in the empty Chain view area to access the Context menu “Create Chain” command.
To isolate the low frequencies, the first thing we'll do is deactivate the Mid and High frequencies in the EQ3 that we've used to start this chain – and we'll rename it “Low” before going further.
Pic 7: EQ 3 settings to isolate the low frequencies.
Now I'll add a Compressor with a low threshold and fairly high ratio, and a Saturator with a sinoid fold shape to really beef up the sub frequencies; you'll also notice that I've adjusted the EQ3 Low Frequency to isolate a lower range of frequencies than the default EQ3 setting of 250 Hz.
Pic 8: FreqLow set to 160 Hz.
LISTEN: Isolated Low band processing –
LISTEN: Two-band processing, High plus Low –
Listening now, we have a dynamic split between two frequency ranges, and it already sounds quite different from the original loop – but there's something missing in the middle. This time, I'll hold down the Option key, click to select the newly-created Low chain in the Chain view, and drag it just above itself to duplicate the chain between the two existing ones – which we could also do by selecting it and using the duplicate command (Command-D), then dragging the new chain to re-order it as needed for organizational purposes. Having done that, I'll quickly rename our third chain “Mid”, activate the mid-frequencies of the EQ3 while de-activating the Low and High bands. I'll then delete the Compressor, leaving only the Saturator, which I can minimize. Now I'll add a Reverb with the Dry/Wet set to 100% Wet, followed by a Phaser and an Auto Pan.
Pic 9: The "Mid" chain.
The result: a slowly modulating, stereo-panning mid-range ambience.
LISTEN: Isolated Mid band processing –
LISTEN: Three-band processing, High, Mid and Low –
As you may have noticed, the Chain view gives us a mixer section, similar to a drum rack, where each Chain – in our case, Low, Mid and High – has its own volume, pan, activator and solo. The mute and solo are particularly useful for figuring out exactly what's happening to each frequency range individually as you make adjustments. Having disabled the Device view by deactivating the bottom of the three view buttons in the upper left of our Rack, you can see that I've balanced our sound adjusting the volume of each chain, panning the High band to the left, and the Mid band to the right.
Pic 10: High band panned to the left, Mid band to the right.
LISTEN: Three-band processing, mixed, in stereo –
PRO-TIP: To process four or more EQ bands in parallel, use an EQ8 rather than an EQ3 at the beginning of your chains, configured with high- and low-pass filters to isolate the desired frequencies for each chain.
The intricacy of any rack – especially a highly creative one – can involve quite a bit of planning and execution. To save any rack for future use, just click on the Save button in the upper right corner of the device to save it under any name you like in the Browser.
When processing loops, percussion, ambience or entire songs, the ability to separately effect as many EQ bands as you need, as specifically as you want, opens up limitless possibilities for spectral transformation. Factor in the ability to morph from one chain or frequency band to the next via the Chain Selector and to modulate any of these rack parameters via Macros and/or Clip Envelopes, and you should have no problem coming up with some wild ideas. Whether altering original material for a remix, designing sounds for your library, or simply breathing new life into stale loops, Audio Effect Racks are a powerful tool for any Live user.
For more on the power of all of Live's Racks – including MIDI Effect, Drum and Instrument Racks – check out my macProVideo tutorial, Hooked On Racks.