DJing in Ableton: How To Warp Tracks with Drifting Tempo

In the first part of our series on how to get started DJing in Ableton Live, we took a look at the possibilities opened up by Live for DJs and learned how to warp an electronic dance track with a steady tempo. But not every track you’ll want to work into your sets will be as simple as that – what happens when you have a live drummer or a track with serious tempo changes? Here, we look into warping more “difficult” songs with a non-constant tempo.

As we’ve noted in the past, most current club tracks produced on modern DAWs, whether house, techno, dubstep, electro or hip-hop, are based on tightly quantized drum patterns. These songs will have a pretty much constant tempo all throughout, with minimal drift. Warping these tracks is very easy, and in many cases, will only require you to set 2-4 Warp Markers to have the song ready for a DJ set.

However, many older dance tracks, as well as music from non-electronic genres such as rock, soul or reggae, feature live drummers or samples of live drumming. This means that the tempo will drift throughout the song, making it difficult to do extended blends or mashups. If you wish to play one of these songs in an Ableton Live DJ set and have them perfectly beatmatched with other tracks, you will have to make sure the entire song is properly warped.

WARPING “DIFFICULT” TRACKS

Live drumming takes more a bit more effort to warp in Ableton

While warping music with drifting tempos takes more time than new dance tracks, the process is still fairly simple and shouldn’t take more than a few minutes for most club-ready songs. This kind of warping will be typical for soul, funk, disco, reggae, rock, and other genres based on live drum recordings. Songs with beats created on drum machines and software will likely need less Warp Markers, though many older records will have a lot of tempo drift compared to contemporary club music.

Whatever the genre of music you choose to play, the warping process and the principles behind it remain the same. Remember that this is simply one tried and tested way of approaching warping, and over time, you will develop a technique that suits your preferred work flow. Here are the seven simple steps to acing those tricky songs!

1. SET UP YOUR WARPING TEMPLATE

As with any process, making sure you’ve got the right workspace for the job is critical. Let’s make a few adjustments to the default Ableton setup that will make the sometimes tedious warping process a bit simpler.

Create one audio track for the songs you’ll be warping. You can use either the metronome, a MIDI drum clip or a simple, warped drum loop for your reference beat. I like to simultaneously have the metronome on as well as a steady kick loop running in a MIDI channel when warping.

Additionally, set global quantization to 1 bar if it’s not already there (keyboard shortcut: command-9 or control-9).

Sometimes a drum loop is more help when warping than Ableton's metronome.

You can easily create a MIDI drum loop with Ableton’s native Impulse drum machine. Simply drag an Impulse from the device browser into an empty MIDI track and load up a nice, clean kick sample into the first slot. Double click on the topmost clip slot in the MIDI track and go into the MIDI editor box. Pencil in evenly spaced kick drum hits to create a 1-bar loop, as shown above, and play this alongside the metronome as you warp your song.

Save this Live Set as your DJ warping template.

2. BRING THE UN-WARPED TRACK IN

You'll want a clean, Warp Marker-free track to start this process.

Drag your un-warped song into the empty audio track in Session View (the non-linear clip view). Ableton will then analyze the file, and automatically warp it if you have this option checked under Live’s preferences. Most Ableon users we know choose to disable automatic warping because of a distrust of the accuracy of the results – this is even more often the case with drifting tempo tracks!

To remove Ableton’s predicted warping, click on one of the Warp Markers, right click to select all and delete the automatic Warp Markers. You’ll want a clean slate to work on.

3. FIRST DOWNBEAT AND LOOP

Make sure that looping is activated in the Sample box. Set the loop length to 1 bar (the boxes under Length should read 1:0:0), and the start of the loop to 1.1.1.

With the metronome and/or your reference kick loop running, start playing the song. Zoom into the waveform and look for the first downbeat- use the gray Pseudo-Warp Markers to spot the kick drum transients. These are usually the largest transient spikes in the waveform. Drop a Warp Marker on the first kick sound by double clicking on the Pseudo Warp Marker that appears as you hover over the small arrow marking out the transient. Right click on the Warp Marker you just created, and set the 1.1.1 bar position at that point. A 1-bar loop should now be playing – but it still needs the second warp marker to make it sound just right (see the next step).

Creating loops this way will allow you to steadily progress through the song and warp it piece by piece. The loop braces will also serve as a guide for where the Warp Markers you’ll be creating should be. We use 1-bar loops in this example, as the song used has a lot of tempo drift. However, you might be able to get away with a 2-bar, 4-bar or 8-bar loop. The steadier the tempo of the song, the larger the loop that can be used.

 4. DROP A MARKER AT THE END OF THE LOOP

Zoom in and look for the downbeat which should be relatively close at the start of the second bar, assuming the detected tempo is close – but this is not always the case. Count out the beats while the track plays if necessary, and again, use the Pseudo Warp Marker to find the downbeat. Double click on this to create a Warp Marker.

5. DRAG TO PERFECTION

Drag the new Warp Marker at the end of the loop so it lines up with the nearest whole number on the ruler. You should now have a warped loop that sounds smooth.

Depending on the complexity or looseness of the drumming in the song, you may need to go into the middle of the loop and “correct” the timing of the beats there. You can do this by creating Warp Markers on 1-2 of the downbeats, and dragging these so they line up with the adjacent bar numbers along the ruler. Listen closely to see if the loop syncs up with the metronome and/or your reference loop.

6. MOVE DOWN THE LINE

It's loops all the way down.

Click on the loop brace in between the loop start and loop endmarkers. The loop brace should turn black. Press the up arrow key to move the loop forward by the global quantization amount. The loop will now start at the bar where it previously ended.

Again, zoom into the waveform and look for the downbeat at the end of the loop. Create a Warp Marker there and drag this to line up with the nearest whole number on the ruler.

Repeat this process for the entire track, moving the loop from bar to bar. Always listen closely and check if each loop syncs up with the metronome or kick track. If the track drifts less, you might find you can work with larger loop lengths to speed up the process- but for purposes of extreme accuracy, one bar is best.

7. LISTEN TO YOUR TRACK + SAVE

Got it perfect? Now never warp this song again - save it!

When you are done, make sure to click on Save in the Sample box. This saves the warping information to an .als file that is associated with your song file, which will be recalled each time you drag the song into Live.

Set global quantization to 1 bar and try launching the song from different points- it should always fall in time with the metronome. You now have a properly warped track!

SHOW ME HOW: VIDEO WALKTHROUGH

While the written steps might work for some, I’ve also gone ahead and made a video showing this process in action. It’s nothing fancy, but it allows you to see exactly how this warping process works.

Overall, warping tracks with drifting tempos can be very tedious – not too different then trying to mix in a track in a traditional DJ setup with a live drummer. The main difference is that an Ableton workflow requires you to take care of that headache before you start your set, opening up time that you would have spent beatmatching for even more creative types of performance.
What Ableton DJing concept do you need to learn more about? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll write up the highest voted ideas!

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  • quillpearson

    If I load an MP3 into Ableton, then warp it using this method, and then save it and export it so I can use it in another program, say Traktor or iTunes, have I lost any sound quality in this process?

  • Luigi

    Your method is good, but not very accurate. I do it precise, with a standard deviation of 0.01. Example: If a track is 110 bpm at the end brings me out 110.01 or 109.99!!
    Best Regards
    Luigi

  • aem

    thank you guys so much for this

  • Xian

    Thanks so much! This video got me to speed with Warping! Big help! THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! 🙂

  • u can simply wrap it a s a complex pro mode thats it ! it goes automatically !!

  • Would love to see an post on how to warp “Transition” tracks so that they can be added to a mix.


  • What Ableton DJing concept do you need to learn more about? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll write up the highest voted ideas! ” 
    I would love a walkthrough on Isotonik Studios’ “Isotonik 8”. I’ve read the manual, and watched the vids, but it’s really-really cryptic imho. It looks like an awesome m4l device, but it’s truly daunting.

    • Darren E Cowley

      There’ll be new guides to Isotonik Nine coming soon!

  • 808junkie

    anyone know the purpose of the asd.mp3 files?

  • DJ KIO

    What I’d like to know in the next article is how an Ableton work flow works. If I’m mixing vinyl or on my NS6 the flow is pretty straight forward: Near the end of one record or music file at moments when there is a change in the song you mix in the new record or music file. In arrangement view I make mixes in the same way. So how does a DJ work flow work in session view? If you prepare your full set at home and put all clips in place, then I would find that pretty boring on stage. I mean, just pushing the next button on a Launchpad so the next clip starts to play seems to be a very boring on stage experience. Plus you lose the ability to adjust your set to the crowd, which with a traditional work flow is not a problem. Do you drag clips into session view on the go? Please enlighten me on how this work flow works because I like the creative options in Ableton, I just don’t get how to use it in a traditional, two channel DJ work flow. I don’t see myself pushing buttons on Midifighter, since I’m not a controlerist, but the traditional mix one record into the next kinda DJ.

    • Dathunderthighz

      Like you, coming from a traditional 2-4 deck setup using vinyl/CD/mixer song selecting and beat matching on the fly background (and no, I am not THAT old!! LOL), I find it confusing to wrap my head around a session workflow. With the arrangement view, obviously you could do your entire set pre-programmed, but wtf is the point in that!? Talk about being locked into a set, not to mention boring as hell. I’m used to showing up at clubs with nothing more than a backpack with vinyl, CD’s, USB stick and headphones and not knowing what I’ll play until I see what the atmosphere is like. Anyway, back on topic… I’ve yet to try it, but would think warping tracks prior and having them all neatly labeled and easily accessible, setting up your virtual decks as channel 1/2 (etc.) and then putting a gain volume + 3 band EQ (+ FX etc.) plugs on each channel to control the freqs/transition when mixing in/out of songs would be the answer… but then I guess you’ll need to figure out headphone routing (left ear/right ear and/or full mix) for cueing while monitoring live playing songs, either route each channel out to a hardware mixer, midi controller with EQ knobs/volume fader (again assigned to the track plugs) or keyboard shortcuts to make it all work properly? Maybe I’m over thinking it, I dunno… seems like a big hassle more than anything. I’m interested in learning more about this type of setup/workflow simply because I can see the possibilities to take my DJ sets to another level. Maybe somebody who actually did/does DJ in the traditional sense can chime in and convince us this is the way forward 😉

  • DJTIANRMX

    muy buen metodo pero concuerdo con Frederik 

  • maomao

    nice article. 

    I’d add this: in my experience, the best sound is achieved by using the “Beats” warping mode, set to 1/4 notes rather than Transients, which distorts the sound as soon as you play clips at a different tempo than the original

  • Dj Ch3

    Also a great way to remember all the lyrics to old songs 1 bar at a time lol
    “My name is Humpty…..”

  • For a less tedious approach, I like to insert markers at the beginning of each new section (verse, chorus, etc) and go from there. I often find that I don’t need to put more than a couple of markers in between sections, even on very loose tracks. Of course, it all depends on how precise you want to be.

    • Oscilllating Frequency

      i agree, this also allows for the above mentioned “groove” to not be destroyed. This sort of tedious warp marking is only truly necessary for remixes and cross-over sections

  • First of all, awesome. You’re warping my favorite song for your example which made watching this even more enjoyable. Second, very good. I used to do this exact same thing when I used Ableton but less anal retentive. I would always regret this while live.

    Needless to say this tedium is why I left Ableton for Traktor.

  • djbells

    After warping, I like to set a one to two bar start loop right before where I want the track to drop in or sample in. Previously it was set at the beginning of the track, and i then I had to wait for the intro to past, which can decrease the energy.

    With all tracks, I use the least amount of warp markers to let the song drift (a bit), without getting to out of sync and still keeping the natural groove. However, some songs still need to be warped to death.

    Thanks for the video and notes

  • Posibleformula

    What is the reason my warped track is a different bpm in another software? If the track is 70 BPM in Ableton, it is 140 BPM in Traktor.

    • DJelixeR

      140 bpm and 70 bpm are in a way the same beat. dubstep for instance is usually considered 140 bpm with a 2×4 break or kick snare drum break where the kick is on the one and the snare on the 3. if you made a track at 70 bpm with a kick on the 1 and 3 and a snare on the 2 and 4, you would have the exact same beat or tempo, just counted differently. 2×4 and 4×4 are the same thing just in different lengths.

      • Posibleformula

        The track’s BPM was around 74 before it was warped to 70. After exporting it from Ableton, any BPM analyzer think it is double the speed.   (Traktor, Mixmeister). 

  • Djsteve

    Nice – just getting started transitioning to Live and this will come in handy. 

  • it’s odd to see this article because there was one posted a couple of years ago adressing the same issue. and the solution was much simpler. It basically consisted of warping the intro (or mix-in point) of the track and the outro (or mix-out point), saving those as seperate clips in your session view, whereas the bulk of the song remains with its groove intact.

    • Karlo Cleto

      I hear you, but the example here illustrates an extreme case, wherein you could mix in a song, originally of a constantly drifting tempo, at any point, any time you wanted. You could just warp certain sections of a song if you just wanted to mix in and out of those specific points. But if you want to be able to drop in the song at any point and do some on-the-fly mashes and remixes, you’ll need to have the whole track warped. The idea here was to demonstrate how to warp drifting tempos- it’s up to each DJ to decide how to adapt all these techniques to suit his/her own style of mixing- which for me is the best part of DJing!

      • Apoplexia Music

        yeah, good point. i do this with older tracks too and ultimately, i’ve never noticed a big difference, especially when mashing, for instance, Clear by Cybotron with a more recent breaks track or something

    • Mrrawuk

      I saw something on youtube that took the first part of the intro and pretty much worked spot on for warping in less than 2 mins, the method here is way to long.

    • Marqjune770

      you cant warp the mix in point without warping the middle. If the tempo fluctuated it would throw off the end point!

      • mellonhead

        Putting pairs of warp markers at the beginning and end of areas you don’t want affected will keep them in place. For the mix-out, just find one spot near the end that happens to fall on or near the actual downbeat. Warp the rest from there and it’s done!

    • DJ Margrave

      You can decide how much you want to ‘quantize’ the groove by the number of warp markers that you set. Keep in mind that you aren’t looking to warp away the groove, you are looking to make the tempo consistent. If the drummer was able to stay in the pocket without the slightest tempo change, you wouldn’t need warp markers.

  • Funkyou

    Fakin the funk

  • Wow, this method of warping entire tracks with drifting tempo is overcomplicated. While that number of warp markers is totally unnecessary when it comes to dj’ing and standard beatmatching, it “kills” the groove of the song as well.

    How I wish that ableton would allow users to run clips as masters instead of slaves of the BPM, like it’s possible to do in arrangement view. Well, hopefully it’ll be added in version 9.

    • John

       Amen.

    • ben101

      +1 to that

    • Karlo Cleto

      That’s definitely something I’d like to see as well. I went with a rather extreme example in this tutorial specifically to demonstrate how a track with a constantly drifting tempo can be warped for a DJ set. This way, you’ll be able to drop in the song at any point, and jump around the track while keeping perfectly in beat. Of course, you could choose to simply warp your mix-in and mix-out sections, or maybe use larger loops when warping. 
      I don’t warp most of my tracks this way myself- I usually just have a handful of warp markers for most songs. Whichever way you want to warp your tracks, the same principles apply. In the end, it all comes down to a DJ’s own mixing style and preferences!

    • ToOntown

      That’s typically why I’ll warp to the nearest 1 rather than each 16th note.  You can preserve swing and “the human element” of a groove when warping a track if you just lay off the idea that you have to have perfect quantization on it. 

      But this is the whole reason why I warp tracks, so that I can syncopate beats with multiple samples. If I “over-warp” it then it pretty much guarantees that I’ll be able to mash it up with any kind of electronic beat. Otherwise I’ll just drop the original track without warping it at all.