001-07- Processing Audio & MIDI

Week IV - Lesson VII

Processing Audio

Up until now, we talked about music using notes, chords, and scales. Now we’ll talk about music using frequencies.

Sound frequencies are measured in Hz (Hertz). Which represents the number of cycles in the waveform per second.

When we are born our hearing range covers 20Hz to 20kHz (20-20,000). As we grow older that range decreases.

All the music that we’re listening to and all the sounds we’re going to process are sounds somewhere in the human hearing range.

Did you ever come back from the club with ringing in your ears? That ringing is the frequency you are slowly loosing to hear. Keep your ears safe. WEAR EARPLUGS IN LOUD ENVIRONMENTS.

To better understand the representation of sound in Hertz lets look at a Frequency Spectrum Analyzer.

We have a built-in one in Ableton Live. In Live’s browser under Categories=>Audio Effects=>Spectrum



The Spectrum display the frequency response of any sound you throw at it. The low frequencies are on the left (0-100) and the high frequencies are on the right (1000-10,000).

We can divide the frequency spectrum into 7 sections:

1. Sub Bass (20Hz-60Hz)

2. Bass (60Hz-250Hz)

3. Low Mid Range (250Hz-500Hz)

4. Mid Range (500Hz- 2kHz)

5. Upper Mid Range (2kHz-4kHz)

6. Presence (4kHz-6kHz)

7. Brilliance (6Khz-20kHz)

As we can see the sound that is being analyzed in the image above is heavy in Bass frequencies.

* Remember, Piano notes are just the musical term for frequencies. (note to frequency chart)

Universal Controls Between all Ableton’s Devices

In every Ableton device (Instrument, Audio Effect & Midi Effect) we can find the same global controls

Device Activator – On the top left of all devices you will find the on/off button

Hot-Swap Presets – allows for a quick switch of presets/sounds

Save Preset – Save the changes you made to the device in the User Library

Sonic Tools

Audio Effects can change the sound to something completely different and unique. When a sound has no effect on it we’ll refer to it as DRY. When a sound has effects on it will refer to it as WET.

Ableton Live comes packed with a lot of audio effects. To load an Audio Effect simply drag it to any Track. You can drop audio effects on MIDI, Audio, Return and Master tracks.

There are a lot of different audio effects. We’ll divide the Effects into several categories:


Time-Based Effects



Distortion & Saturation

Special Effects


Filter effects let us attenuate or emphasis information across the frequency spectrum. Using filters is the best way to shape a sound to fit your music. You can take away energy from the sound and later bring it back to create impact and power in your music.

Auto Filter

Channel EQ

EQ Eight

EQ Three

Time-Based Effects

Time-Based effects let us add depth to the sound and control if it’s in the background or the foreground of the music.

The two main time-based effects are Reverb and Delay. Reverb will add space to the sound. We can change the sound to feel like it’s playing from a room or a cave or any other space.

Delay will repeat the sound in various ways. Ableton Live comes with different types of delays.



Filter Delay



Dynamic effects control the volume of the sound in various ways. We’ll cover dynamics in more depth in the next level.



Glue Compressor


Multi-Band Dynamics

Side Chain

Side Chain can trigger the effect from an external source. Most famously used in EDM music for the “pumping effect”

You can use side chain with, Compressor, Glue Compressor, Gate, Multi-Band Dynamics and Auto Filter.


Modulation in music means change. Something is changing over time which add a sense of movement.

Modulation effects can be a great source of experimentation with sounds. If you want to take your sounds to new sonic places or just add some movement and interest over time. Most modulation effects are based on different methods of Filtering and Delaying.

Auto Pan


Side Chain Pump



Frquency Shifter


Distortion & Saturation

Distortion adds more information on top of the dry sound. We call this added information Overtones or Harmonics. Harmonics are added frequencies above the frequencies of the original sound.

When the harmonics are mostly even frequencies our ears tend to think of them like warm and pleasant distortion. When the added harmonics are mostly odd frequencies our ears tend to dislike them and think of them as a harsh distortion (like Metal guitars). You can look at it in these simple terms:

Even Harmonics – Warm

Odd Harmonics – Harsh

Distortion can add grit, dirt, and power to the sound. Saturation is another type of distortion but a very light distortion. Saturation can be a great tool to warm up the sound and add more weight.



Dynamic Tube






Vinyl Distortion

Special Effects/Utilities

All the other effects we did not cover so far do not belong in a specific category. We’ll consider them to be special types of effects. Some are creative effect, Some utilitarian.

Beat Repeat



Drum Buss

External Audio Effect

Grain Delay








Signal Flow

Signal Flow or Signal Chain refers to how the sounds are being processed from its origin all the way to the Master Track and then the speakers.

If you place an Audio Clip on an empty Audio Track and play it. The signal flow is very simple. The sounds play from the clip, Then go to the Mixer device and then go to the Master Track.

Audio Clip => Mixer Device => Master Track

If you have effects on the Track like Auto filter the Signal Flow will be slightly different.

Audio Clip => Auto Filter => Mixer Device => Master Track

Let’s add another effect to the Signal Chain

Audio Clip => Auto Filter => Overdrive => Mixer Device => Master Track

As you can guess, The order of the effects makes a difference. Right now the sound first getting filtered and then the filtered sound is getting overdrive. If we switch the Auto Filter and Overdrive position in the signal chain we’ll get a completely different sound cause now the sound is first being distorted and then the distorted sound is going to the filtered.

In Ableton Live you can simply drag any effect to anywhere in the signal chain.


When the Signal Flow goes from one device to the next it is called SERIAL PROCESSING

Return Tracks

Return Tracks can only hold Audio Effects on them. We can then use the Send knobs on each track to send the Audio to the designated Return Track.

The most common effects used on Return Tracks are Time-Based Effects like Reverb and Delay.

When we use a Return Track we are not applying an effect on the original sound but rather mix the original sound with a 2nd effected sound.

When dropping an effect directly on the Track it’s called an Insert Effect. When using a Return track for the effect it’s called a Send Effect.


When a signal is being sent to two different places and then getting mixdown at the audio output it is called Parallel Processing.

In Ableton Live you can add up to 12 Return Tracks.

Next week we’ll see how to setup a return track and use them in a project.

MIDI Effects

MIDI effects do not change the audio in any way but change the way the MIDI information is being sent to the instruments. They can be extremely useful to change the way the instrument is reacting to MIDI clips or the way you play your MIDI controller.



Note Length






Home Work

– Create a project with 1 Audio Track, Only use loops and Audio Effects. Create something new out of the exciting audio clips using as many Audio effects as you want (be irresponsibility creative!)

Keyboard Shortcuts

0 (zero) – Deactivate/Reactivate anything in Live (Effects, Clips, Notes, Tracks etc.)

CMD+OPTION+T or CNTRL+ALT+T – New Return Track

Student Resources

Ableton Audio Effects Reference

Audio Effects: The Beginner’s Guide to Shaping Your Sound

Audio Effects 101: Time-based FX

Effects 101: Reverb Explained

Effects 101: Delays Explained

Mathematical Approach to understanding Audio Effects and Sound

Effects: All You Need To Know… And A Little Bit More

Index of Effects from the free Audacity Audio Editor

Class Video



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