Subtle Distortion in Ableton Live

Working within the box often leads to quite flat sound, we'll fix that...

When it comes to distortion you rarely want to flat out distort the whole signal. I often create a separate audio track in Ableton with distortion effects, so I can use the volume fader to dial in just the right amount of it and keep a clean version of the sound on the other track. It’s referred to as parallel processing and gives you the subtle distortion in Ableton Live that can make all the difference!

Track setup to add sizzle and excitement to your sounds

Here we have a drone on track 1 and another audio track with autofilter and overdrive loaded into it. By selecting the drone track as input we get the same signal as track 1 but run through the effect 100% wet for some crunchy distortion. Let’s listen to the before and after:

The first drone is already quite nice, but still feels a bit static. It would be great if we could add some interesting texture on top. Nothing much, just a little touch to make the drone move more. In the Autofilter, look at the LFO section and change the wave to sample & hold for randomly generated modulations. Use the Rate to beat sync so it fits better into your track rhyhtmically. 

Throw a reverb on your return channel and crank the send knob to send the distorted signal into space.

What’s great about this combination is that the distortion is randomly created, so you get very organic results that won’t sound like a loop is running over and over. On the other hand it’s not completely random, because we set it in time with the project and the distortion is based on your source material, so it should always fit into your mix once you have dialed in a distortion you like.

The exact same settings can also work wonders on bass lines. First you hear a simple sub bass which is nice and low, but adding the distortion rack above to it, instantly makes it move and feel more alive!

Putting it into context

Now in context of our sparse arrangement, first you hear the beat idea without the distortion applied:

The next audio clip show how much difference a little more organic life in your sounds can make. That’s what we mean with subtle distortion in Ableton Live!

As you can see, distortion doesn’t need to be the overall defining effect that colors your track into oblivion. It can be used in a subtle way to enhance the sounds from free sample packs you are working with and breathe some extra life in them.

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