If you could control your music with all of your digits, and get interactive feedback on a display, what would your setup look like? Expert Lemur user and software engineer Bryant Place has one such answer. It shows off just how much the Lemur’s software has evolved over a series of revisions, and reveals a bit of what can go into performing with Ableton Live.

Photos/screens: Bryant Place. Used by permission. (Click for larger versions.)

Side note: for a look at live touch interfaces with Native Instruments’ Reaktor, see our story for our NI minisite. To really understand how touch is impacting live playing, I think it’s helpful to see what’s going on with different software platforms.

Multi-touch, Lemur, and Going Live

Part of the appeal of Ableton Live is that it behaves as a hybrid between arrangement software and musical instrument. Early versions even carried the tagline “Sequencing Instrument,” but that sums up the problem: instruments generally aren’t sequencers, and visa versa. To “play” your sequencer live is challenging enough, but added to that is the fundamental mouse-pointer interface that’s been in the marketplace for over twenty years. To really control live, you need more direct access.

The Lemur multi-touch hardware promised just such control when unveiled. In an early review, I saw this as promising but cautioned that the custom software the Lemur runs was overly rigid. Since then, firmware updates have gradually added more custom features.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I got to watch as Bryant showed off a set of templates he’s been developing that exploit these features for deeper, more interactive control of Ableton Live. Bryant’s session was brief enough that you could blink and miss it, but an awed crowd of assembled Live gurus revealed that he’d showed something really special. It’s a dream multi-touch setup. He’s using the new v2 firmware for Lemur, which we see in a screenshot from Jazz Mutant has also been used in their own template for Live. Not all the features come from v2 firmware, but those tabs make a big difference, and I can imagine continuing to go hog-wild with envelopes and such.

The basic idea: set up effects for live performance and make them readily accessible from the futuristic-looking, multi-touch, colored Lemur control surface. With a few compact screens, and interface elements that respond dynamically to what’s happening in software, it’s possible to use touch gestures to control elaborate effects arrangements in ways that would be very different than the results you could get from conventional knobs and faders.

Have a look at the pictures to really get a feel for what this means. I asked Bryant to describe to us a little more about how it all works. He cautions he’s “more of an engineer than a writer.” (Add “Damnit, Jim” to the beginning of that line, Star Trek fans.) But he actually has quite a lot to say, and you can feel free to ask some follow-up questions in comments.

Behind the Scenes with Bryant

My Live set is designed to take complete songs (preferably electronic dance music), and remix and affect the sound in such a way what I can take an original mix and completely transform its sound and rhythm.

I’m using only Live’s [internal] effects for the following reasons: stability, [efficient use of] CPU resources, tempo changes. I am thinking of adding some Sugar Bytes and possibly Audio Damage – we’ll see. [Ed.: Yes, I have to at least observe that third-party plug-ins are often as stable and sometimes more CPU-efficient – depending on the specific application.]

Some notes and tips, as I have learned building this project:

  • Using the Lemur to control Live, which I can then do very quickly and naturally, has allowed me to discover the nature and quirks behind some of Live’s effects.
  • Live and is amazing at changing tempo – especially evident when there are quantized auto-filters.
  • Changing tempo while holding [instances of] Beat Repeat can cause some problems with the groove as Beat Repeat uses a good amount of audio buffer.
  • Playing fast songs (for example, 135 bpm) at a slow tempo (e.g., 75 bpm) usually sounds weird. This can be somewhat enhanced by the following procedure: use two of the exact same audio clip, one using the "beats" algorithm and one using "complex." Together, they have a much better texture than you’d get using just one.

The signal flow and layout:

  • Four Audio Tracks: I have four audio tracks for clips. Two A and Two B – I use the crossfader to fade between set A and B.  A1,A2,   B1,B2: These four tracks are "sends only"
  • Seven Sends, with Pre-Configured Routing: I have seven sends.  A1,A2, are sent to sends: A Hi, B Mid, C, Low (the seventh send is simply a DRY track "G"). B1, B2, are sent to the hi mid lo sends D E F
  • Effects Inserts: Sends Set A (ABC) and Sends Set B (DEF) contain independent auto-filters, multi-band compression tuned to their specific frequencies and auto pan.
  • Effects in performance: The effects are controlled by the Lemur in a very magical way. 🙂 (I spent a lot of time tuning the MIDI mapping)  This allows me to create a separate groove from the original song [using the resulting effects] – AND one that is frequency-independent.  (I had to compensate some things due to buffer limitations and CPU [utilization] for my MacBook Pro.)
  • Returns, and More Effects: Next I take the sends and route them back to specific audio tracks.  I route A Hi to X Hi also D Hi to X Hi, and so on. This is where I add band-independent instances of [Ableton’s] Beat Repeat and Simple Delay. (By the way, these delays are far deeper than they seem on the surface.) I have full control of them using the Lemur – you can see the delay units in the images.  Lastly, I use a multi-ball object to control Hi, Mid, Lo. Chorusing tuned to their respective frequencies.  (When used correctly and with taste – the effect is mind-blowing)
  • Recording: Lastly, I have my FIRE track which I use as a pre-Master (Xhi Xmid Xlow are sent to FIRE) – so I can record my performances.  I also use some mastering plug-ins to finalize the sound. [Ed.: Interesting, though I’d be inclined to do that after recording!]

The result is called LiveFIRE. I am using v2 Lemur Firmware but I haven’t used many new feat
ures — only the tabbed container object, color options, and other little tidbits. [Ed. That may be, but having worked in the Lemur editor, sometimes having just that one object you need can make a huge difference. If you saw an early revision, like the one I first tested, many of these objects are also the result of a series of new features.]

Technical notes: I can’t use my Live set to its fullest capacity due to my MacBook Pro’s limitations with audio buffer.  I have already scrapped my audio interface in turn for my integrated sound card – as it allows a larger audio buffer size. (This problem occurs only when I have audio on all four tracks playing at the same time.)  [Ed.: I’m actually not sure about this detail; we’ll have to discuss it more. Switching to internal audio is usually the opposite of what’s necessary, so we’ll have to have a separate conversation about exactly what’s going on, what the symptoms are, and what the cause may be. An inability to get a sufficient audio buffer, or problems running out of CPU horsepower to complete the tasks, would be symptomatic of either trying to push the envelope a bit too far with the set or encountering some driver-OS-software issue. Then again, it sounds as though Bryant is intentionally modifying the buffer to get certain results – an interesting and unorthodox technique. We’ve kicked off the discussion, so we can look at this some more.]

My future plans are to naturally incorporate the LiveAPI, which will take some time and a lot of remapping. [Ed.: The Live API is a user-supported way of customizing functionality in Ableton Live – it’s a hack, and requires a bit of Python coding knowledge in order to make it your own, but it’s a very powerful outlet and well worth revisiting here later.]

I really look forward to continuing this discussion. What would your ultimate touch controller look like for Ableton Live or other software? Or would you rather dump the touch and stick with tangible hardware control?

  • A

    Thanks for the report / insights. I still wonder if Lemur can label ALL buttons and if can the font size be larger… In the most images I saw there were no labels at all. Yeah it looks pretty much like Starwars but IMO no labels are complete BS for live (or my personal needs, that is).

  • A

    Star Trek, and pardon the grammar. It's late over here.

  • touch screen is the future!
    or something close to it
    if/when apple comes out with a multitouchscreen laptop
    (the one they've rumored to have patented)
    you will know touch screen has arrived.

    funny how that happens
    even though 90% of tablets out currently are single touch
    and HP has some of the best touch screen software availible
    it takes somebody like apple to make people look twice
    yay for renegades

  • Carter

    You can Label anything on the lemur with a Text object and it an be bigger. How do you label your controller with white tape and a sharpie?

  • http://forum.jazzmutant.com/viewtopic.php?t=1214&…

    Made a little proof of concept hack based on the Live API a while back.
    It wont actually take a lot of work to modify it I think. The real limitation was not being able to send text to the lemur. Clip names, Scene names, colors, triggering clips and scrolling are all easy to implement. Displaying it on the lemur was the real problem.
    Cant wait to mess about with the new version. This project has been like 90% done for ages. Jazzmutant sure take their sweet time.

  • @ Carter:

    Digging deeper into v2 of the firmware/software, you can add an elevator to the lemur screen allowing you to literally "scroll" up and down the screen, an elevator!

    Beyond labeling, adding "values" to faders and other objects are surly helpful. For instance – Adding some points of interest in a multi-ball object, are very handy.

  • Carter, not sure I understand what you're saying.

    Yes, you can label a controller with white tape and a sharpie. 🙂

    But of course, as various folks say here, indeed it is possible to do things with a Lemur that are difficult or impossible with a physical controller. That's the tradeoff for tangible feedback from physical objects.

  • A

    What the heck is a sharpie? fineliner felt pen? (Lost in translation…)
    Eh, tape or stickers, yeah, why not. Dymo is cool, too.

  • Jake

    Personally I think that the controller software being developed for the iPhone/iPod touch is really exciting in terms of multi touch stuff. I'm already using the itm stuff in conjunction with bomes midi translator to develop some really interesting ways of using my iPhone as a cheap monome esque controller. With a more modular itm and a server app capable of connecting to multiple iphone's, both of which appear to be in development, you have the option of a far cheaper alternative to the lemur that's scalable to suit individual needs. Not that I'm saying there isn't a place for the lemur, more that I think that the iPhone seems like the device that will bring multi touch to a far wider audience.

  • It bears saying:

    Sharpie markers are *awesome* technology. I never leave home without them.

    And yes, Dymo also rocks. I love my Letra 109.

    New digital stuff is fantastic, but don't think we're turning our backs on some more conventional tools. 😉

  • A

    We mostly use EDDING over here… uh interesting, so I will definitely take a *sharper* look at what they sell at the stores around the corner.
    As soon as fast 24"+ multitouch displays become affordable, I will buy one for music interfacing. Controlling the knob- and menu-ladden sequencer and synth software windows directly. Lemur (or JM) seems to be a nice start for usables touchscreen interfaces but the prize/*size* relationship is ridiculous, at this time.

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  • i know its a bit unrelated…but i just got an mpd32 and i love it…i spend much less time looking at the screen and more time interacting with the crowd!

  • partyonmarz

    this is B I G

  • This is definitely promising. What we really need is a below-$1000 tablet computer with multitouch and a version of Ableton that allows you to interact directly with the controls on screen. The Lemur is amazing but it still doesn't offer that much more than external controllers other than a cooler interface; ultimately, you're still interfacing with the software indirectly and probably looking at two different screens and even occasionally picking up the mouse. In the future we will have flying cars AND we'll be able to tweak the controls on Ableton live directly by touching them on the screen 🙂

  • gah, I hate NDAs.

    – Well, suffice to say that the really cool things about v2 have yet to be shown!

  • A

    I changed my mind and better buy one of those flying cars.

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