Recently, I’ve been working on a pretty complex/ CPU intensive live performance set that I’ll be playing and using to do workshops in Miami next month, and I’ve found myself wrestling with audio dropouts that seem to happen right when I’m getting into the music. Yesterday it became clear to me that I simply had to lower Ableton Live’s CPU usage.
I’ve had the pleasure of having the amazing Daniel Mintseris come through my live performance with laptops courses at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music and he’s discussed the philosophy that he uses to do keyboards and Ableton work with artists like St. VIncent, David Byrne and Martha Wainright. The philosophy is pretty simple: If something goes wrong with a laptop during a live performance, it’s your fault.
Daniel’s philosophy may sound harsh – but it contains a lot of truth and wisdom. When you’re preparing a live set on a laptop, according to Daniel, if something goes wrong, you absolutely have to take note of it and ruthlessly hunt it down to figure out what is causing the crashes, glitches, bugs etc. Otherwise, you can pretty much be assured, by Murphy’s Law, that it will return – usually right at the moment when your set is getting really good and in front of the maximum number of people.
So with Daniel’s wisdom in mind, I’ve begun to research and apply ways to lower Ableton Live’s CPU usage in order to avoid any audio drop outs and hiccups when I play live next month. Here are a couple of topics that I wanted to share.
1. Set Up Your Audio Settings To Lower Ableton Live’s CPU Usage
There are several things that you can immediately do in your Audio Preferences to reduce the load on your CPU. See the video above on how to access Ableton Live 11’s Audio Preferences.
One of the most obvious culprits is the Buffer Size. If you are recording, or doing live performance looping or audio processing, you want to keep the Buffer Size down at 128 or 256 samples. (With a really powerful computer, you may even be able to go down to 64 samples). If you are mixing or producing, however, you definitely should shoot for a higher buffer size. For me, 1024 samples, usually does the trick.
Another important thing to get right is the In/Out Sample Rate. If you are doing a live set where you are playing back a lot of MP3’s and/or AIF/WAV files, setting the In/Out Sample Rate to 44100 will help tremendously. For production, where it’s not a problem if I accidentally cause an audio drop out or crackle, I definitely like 48000 and I generally record at 48000.
A third thing that you can do in the Audio Preferences is to disable any unused inputs and outputs. Every additional in/out uses CPU.
Finally, if you are doing live looping or audio processing in a live set, it also helps to go to “Record, Warp, Launch’ tab in the audio preferences and set the bit depth for recording down to 16.
2. Manage CPU Heavy Instruments And Effects Like Echo, Reverb and Wavetable
Ableton’s instruments and effects sound great and are generally very CPU efficient. In a live set, I try and use them as much as possible, since they generally operate better than external plug-ins. There are a couple of Ableton instruments and effects, however, that I use which can get quite heavy. Here are ways to manage them so that they don’t tax the CPU as much. (See the video for visuals on how to do these tasks)
1. Echo: Echo is an Ableton delay that emulates a classic tape delay. It sounds fantastic, however, it can be CPU heavy. To maintain the CPU lower on Echo, you can keep the feedback low, turn the reverb off if you’re not using it and most important, kill the filter if you are not using it.
2. Reverb: Ableton’s Reverb is a fantastic space generating tool. The simplest way to reduce the processing power that it’s using is to change the Global Quality to “Eco.” Also, place Reverb in a Return track and use your send knobs if you have various elements that are using it.
3. Wavetable: Wavetable is Ableton’s powerful wavetable synth and I use it for some pretty gritty, cutting leads. It sounds great, but it can be a CPU hog. Fortunately, you can make it a lot lighter by reducing the number of voices in the Global Section (See Video Above) or even changing it to Mono if you’re only using it for leads/basslines. Another thing that helps is to use one, rather than two, oscillators. Finally, as a general rule, in Ableton Live, the ‘Clean’ filter algorithm takes less processing than one of the emulations and if you’re not using the filter at all, turn it off.
3. Reduce Polyphony In Plug-In Synths And Turn Off Unused Filters, LFO’s And Effects
In the last section I spoke about reducing the voices of Ableton’s Wavetable, as well as killing the filter if you’re not using it. This goes for any plug-in synth that you’re using live. Keep the polyphony and effects to a minimum. Another strategy that I use in live performance is to make sure to try and kill every synth and audio effect that I am not using at the moment. I’ll do a video in the future, explaining in more detail how I do this.
4. Deactivate the Hi-Q Mode In Audio Clips and Use The Complex and Complex Pro Warp Modes As Little As Possible
If you have a live set that uses a lot of audio, and especially if the audio is warped, it can contribute significantly to the CPU load. In the Audio Preferences you can set the “Default SR & Pitch Conversion” setting to “Normal” and then be sure to turn off the “HiQ” setting in all clips – except if you plan on significantly altering them from their original tempo. What this setting does is allows Ableton to make significant tempo adjustments without affecting the pitch.
If you have warped clips, try and keep your use of the “Complex” and “Complex Pro” algorithms at a minimum. If you have a simple drum beat, just keep it in “Beats.”
5. Close Other Programs, Deactivate Webcams, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and Clear Up Memory
When you perform live it’s really important that you treat your laptop like a valuable performance instrument. Before a performance, be sure to close all other programs – especially programs like Zoom which use your cameras. Absolutely deactivate any webcams and turn off Bluetooth and even your Wi-Fi. Also, be sure to have at least 20 percent of your hard disk available. Having too little hard disk space available could severely affect your laptop’s performance. Finally, with many recent Mac laptops, adding a second monitor through an HDMI port significantly heats up the machine and slows performance. Be aware of it if you want to have an extra screen for visuals.
6. Clean Up Your Live Set and Freeze/Flatten as Much as Possible
Finally, it’s really important that you keep your live set as clean as possible. Get rid of every track, device and clip that you don’t use. Remember that everything that you have in your live set could potentially create an unexpected complication. Try and see if you can replace synths and plug-ins with audio by Freezing and Flattening. This will really help keep the set light and help lower Ableton Live’s CPU usage.
Final Tip: Clean Your Fans And Vents
A final useful tip came to me a couple of weeks ago from Ableton’s Northeast Brand Manager Matthew West. Especially if you have, as I do, a Macbook Pro that’s prone to overheat, cleaning the computer’s fans and vents will make it run much cooler and efficiently.
Dan Freeman is a Brooklyn-based Producer/Music Technologist and Ableton Certified Trainer and the founder/director of the Brooklyn Digital Conservatory. He is currently on the faculty of The Juilliard School and New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music where he teaches electronic music production. He currently produces and prepares live shows using Ableton Live from his studio in Brooklyn as well as teaches in-person and online courses on electronic music production and performance.