How Professional Producers use the Secret Functions of Racks


By Donald Dinsmore

Ever listen to a track and been floored by the thick, rich tones of the synths?  My guess is yes and if so you've probably stopped and wondered, how do they make these incredible sounds?  You may already know the answer or at least part of it, layering sounds is a hallmark of electronic music.  To make interesting dynamic synth sounds producers layer synths.  In Ableton, the easiest way to layer synths is with Instrument Racks.  If nothing else, Instrument Racks can be used to layer multiple synths together and Audio Effect racks are used to process signals in parallel.  Some producers will assign different synth or effect parameters to the Macros and voila! You have a rack.  

Although many Ableton users make use of racks, most don't fully exploit their power.  Over the years I've worked with several seasoned producers who overlook fundamental functions of Racks.  Why you ask?  Because some of the capabilities of racks lay beneath the surface, they're hidden. The Key Zone Editor, the Velocity Zone Editor and the Chain Select Editor are the secret functions that professional producers use to get the most out of Ableton's Racks.  In this article we will run through how you can use these functions to make the most of Ableton's Racks and take your tracks to the next level. 

How to Use Chain Selector to Make a Wet/Dry Knob

Some Ableton Devices don't have a Dry/Wet knob.  A great example is Redux which has only two knobs, one called "Bit Reduction" that reduces the bit depth of the sound and can be used to emulate the tones of old school digital samplers and "Downsample" which reduces the amount of samples played through the device.  Noticeably absent on Redux is a Dry/Wet knob.  By taking advantage of the Chain Selector in an Audio Effect Rack you can add a Dry/Wet knob to any effect.  Here's how:

How to Make a Split Keyboard with the Key Zone Editor

Splitting the ranges on your keyboard so the bass keys play a different sound than the treble keys is a classic keyboard trick.  In the days of old keyboard players were restricted by having two voices split at middle C (C3) but with Ableton musicians can now split their keyboard into several different ranges that allow multi-voice performance on an individual track.  Setting up this type of instrument is simple but requires a few steps.  In the example below I'll demonstrate how to make a patch that has a Tuba on the bass keys and a French Horn on the treble keys.

Load up an Instrument Rack onto a blank MIDI Track and show the 'Chain List' menu

Once you've loaded up the initialized Instrument Rack it should look a little something like this.

Once you've loaded up the initialized Instrument Rack it should look a little something like this.

Load two or more instruments into the Instrument Rack  

In this case I loaded up a French Horn Section preset and a Tuba Solo preset from the Live Library to make two separate chains within the Instrument Rack.

Show the "Key Zone Editor" by pressing the "Key" Button

Key Zone Editor

In the Key Zone Editor window the green bands to the left of "Chain List" tell us what range each chain will play across.  The image above displays an Instrument Rack that will play both the French Horn and Tuba when any key is triggered. 

Adjust the range of each chain

The range of each chain can be adjusted by hovering your cursor over the edge of green range band.  Your cursor will change into an [ or ], then click and drag the end of the band in or out.  In the image above I set the zone of the Tuba be be every key below C3 and the French Horn to be every key from C3 up.  This means if I hit a key below C3 it will trigger the Tuba sound and if I hit a key above B2 the French Horn sound will play. 

This technique works exceptionally well for making Orchestral style patches that contain several different sounds.  Experiment with overlapping ranges so you can trigger multiple chains at once.

Use chain Selector to swap Sounds

A common musical technique is for one instrument to respond to another instrument's call.  This is aptly named, "call and response."  Imagine it sort of like a Led Zeppelin live performance, Robert Plant moans a melody one part musical and one part sexual.  Jimmy Page responds to Robert Plant by playing the same notes on his Gibson Les Paul.  

You can do this sort of thing in Ableton with or without a bare chest and revealing skin tight pants.  Your natural inclination may be to load up the two different voices on two separate tracks but that isn't necessary.  Call and response can be achieved on a single track using an Instrument Rack, the trick is to use your Chain Selector to alternate through the two patches.  I imagine this type of technique being particularly useful for dubstep or another genre where having multiple bass voices is normal.  Here's how you can set it up:

Load up a Blank Instrument Rack

Load up two or more bass sounds into the Instrument Racks

You don't even need to have different patches in your instrument rack, the different chains can be the same patches with different processing or modulation.

Show the "Chain Select Editor" by Pressing the "Chain" Button

Extend the range of each chain

Extend the range of each chain (blue bar) across the entire range.  Next, right click in the Chain Select Editor window a drop down menu will pop up.  Select "Distribute Ranges Equally."  Now each Chain will have it's own Zone in the Range and can be played individually by moving the Chain Selector Ruler.

Macro the Chain Selector Ruler

To give yourself a little more playability try macroing the Chain Selector Ruler.  Right click on the the orange Chain Selector Ruler and choose "Map to Macro 1."  Now by moving the macro knob you can scroll through the different sounds.  

Use Velocity to Apply Effects

Have you ever watch a truly captivating live performance?  Exceptional players can make their instruments speak.  Of course the instrumentalist plays the right notes at the right time but they add something else to their performance, emotion.   Those intangible flourishes that they add are what separate the good players from the incredible.  One of the inherent struggles of performing and recording music on the computer is adding emotion to your performance.  Producers make use of Velocity, Envelopes, LFOs and Automation to help add this emotion.  But most producers overlook Velocity as a parameter that can control things other than volume.  Many synths allow Velocity to control things like envelope depth, or LFO rate but few VSTs allow you to apply effects with velocity.  By using an Instrument Rack in Ableton you can apply effects with velocity.  Here how:

Load up a blank Instrument Rack

Instrument Rack

Add an Instrument to the rack, duplicate the chain and add effects to the new chain

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Show the "Velocity Zone Editor" by pressing the "Vel" button and extend the range of each chain

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 4.39.10 PM.png

Adjust the 'Fade Range' 

Fade Range

The Fade Range is the little bar found above the red range band.  If you hover your mouse on the edge of the Fade Range bar you will see the little brackets again [ or ].  If you drag them across the range you will add a crossfade to the red range band.  Now as you hit a key with more velocity more and more of the distorted signal will be mixed in with the unprocessed signal. 

Be creative and think up unique ways of using the Key Zone Editor, the Velocity Zone Editor and the Chain Select Editor to add more interest, more variation and more awesomeness to your tunes.  At the end of the day these functions were added to Ableton to make it more playable, unique but more importantly, inspiring.  Open up Ableton, grab your MIDI device and start playing!

If you found this article useful consider enrolling in our 12 week Synthesis and Sounds Design courses.  Both of these course were created to help teach producers like you to dive deep into Ableton and remove the limitations stopping you from making the best music you can. 

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