Why use Ableton

A few years ago I moved to a new house situated along the flight path into Manchester airport, one of the busiest airports in Northern England. The first few weeks consisted mainly of broken sleep and sudden shock as yet another noisy plane would cut through the air above our little house. However, in a surprisingly short amount of time I adjusted to the familiar sound of the aircrafts and soon I didn’t even hear them.

Our next house was in a town centre adjacent to a shopping centre and a multi story car park which was also the evening residence for a tribe of noisy seagulls. At 6am every morning the metal shutters of the centre were pulled open, the alarms reset and the seagulls would launch into full chorus. Again, within a few months this noise was simply filtered out.

Scientists explain this process of filtering as Habituation. They refer to a specific structure in the brain stem called the pons, which as well as our hearing deals with our sleep, respiration, swallow-ing, bladder control, equilibrium, taste, eye movement, facial expressions, facial sensation, and posture. This process of habituation is even the main form of treatment for hearing issues such as Tinnitus. Habituation is defined as the brains ability to filter or ignore familiar, repetitive or even boring noises.

As a worship leader I find this all a bit scary. I wonder how long it takes the average brain to filter out our repetitive and familiar sounds. How many songs does it take before my acoustic guitar is no longer heard, or the same familiar song rock arrangement is simply ignored? Maybe that’s why people get so excited when a new song, sound, band or genre comes along: it helps them not to switch off - and that’s why I decided to try something new....

I wanted to freshen up the way we did musical worship - to see if the instrumentation, the sounds and the textures could help unlock some of this potential. And that’s when I discovered loops & tracks.

Loops are tracks designed to compliment your band but provide the sounds and textures usually reserved for the studio or huge productions. Go and listen to some music that really moves you, but make sure you’re really listening - like the kind of dark room, eyes closed, music loud, kind of listening. Study your favourite band’s album and you begin to notice the little textures that are so easily missed.

In my music collection I started to notice the little electronic beeps, the multi-layers of pads, the lush string parts, solo cellos, multiple pianos, the synth bass parts below the normal bass, the electric drum sounds mixed with the acoustic kit and so on. These are the textures and sounds missing from most live worship bands and these are the parts that loops can provide; where technology and worship can collide beautifully.

In this video Ian McIntosh shows he decides between what to play Live on Keys and what to leave in the tracks in Ableton Live. You'll see how he has Ableton Live setup in Session View to give him the ultimate flexibility in playing and using tracks live.

I believe technology can be to our era what the Cathedrals were to previous worshipers. Walk into a Cathedral and the sheer size and grandeur of the place screams of the glory and majesty of God. Aspects of this are missing in most modern worship settings today. Maybe the use of technology, media and well-crafted sounds can draw our worshippers to a higher place; to a sense of the majestic and to a place of wonder in worship.

This is why I love using technology in our worship times. Tracks are more common than you might think too, in fact it’s harder to find chart topping bands that don’t use them when playing live. The worship scene is readily accepting and recognising the advantage of loops and there is a vast online community offering support and guidance. The equipment available to run loops varies from simple iPod setups to laptops and midi controllers.

Personally I use a brilliant piece of software called Ableton Live to trigger my tracks. Ableton is amazing and is one of the most versatile programs ever. Ableton can be found in many DJ setups or is usually being run on the laptop you often notice sat next to the drummer.

Probably the biggest reason I chose Ableton was the fact that I am still in total control of the loop. I am not playing to a backing track. Ableton allows me to move around the song with ease and with the press of foot pedal I can trigger off the verse or repeat the chorus or bridge. I can play with track and not to track. In fact, I’m now a self confessed Ableton geek and in our church Ableton feeds multiple sends to our desk for strings, beats, guitar parts, keys and pads.

It also feeds clicks and band director cues into ears so we are all super tight. Ableton controls our projection software and triggers off lyric video in time with our loops. It turns the pages on our iPads and pdf chord sheets and Ableton can even control our lighting rig! Since the introduction of loops into our worship set up our band is tighter, our musicians are more expressive and our church is more engaged.

This video shows how The Digital Age uses Ableton Live to control lights, lyrics and videos with Ableton Live. You'll see how they use Timecode to control their Grand MA console, use MIDI to trigger lyrics in ProPresenter, and use MIDI to trigger videos in Arkaos Grand VJ.

What more could I ask for? Technology is my pile of bricks and I aim to creatively pair it with the cement of servant hearted musicians to build something that is bigger than all of us. To build an environment that allows people to engage with God and for lives to be changed.


Question: What creative ways have you used or encouraged others to use in worship?  Leave a comment below.

For worship leader Suzanne Hanna, lockdown has been a time of resourcing churches, events and individuals to worship God.
Join us online for an evening of worship and teaching on Friday 6 Nov at 7:30pm
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