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Ableton Live Tutorial: Operator Percussion “Recipes”

Drum synthesis may not be something you’ve considered, but understanding how to create basic percussive sounds using any synth can open up the way you approach production. The classic analog drum machines such as Roland’s TR 808 and 909 used synthesis techniques to create the most used sounds in current electronic music.

Let’s look at three basic percussive elements we’re about to create from scratch using Operator:

Kick Drum



All together

Kick Recipe:

1. Open a new MIDI track and load a blank Operator.

2. Set your keyboard active to C0-D1 – I’ll be using C0 the entire time as I create the kick.

The first order of business is to set the algorithm and voice amount. The Operator’s default algorithm sets most of the oscillators to modulate each other. We want to work with the last algorithm on the right. This way, the oscillators will be independent of each other.

Ableton Live Operator Tutorial 1

Set the voice amount to 1 voice. Setting the patch to just one voice ensures that no two hits will be playing at the same time.

Global Shell settings:

  • Algorithm: last on the right.
  • Voices: 1

Now it’s time to hit the oscillators.

3. Oscillator A should be at full volume and set to a Sine wave by default. Leave those settings in place.

4. Turn the envelope sustain amount down to -inf dB. Zero sustain is important when making any percussive sound so all of the oscillator volume envelopes we’ll use in this tutorial will have no sustain.

5. Leave the attack at 0.00 ms and play with the decay settings until you find one you like. I chose 189 ms and set the release to the same amount.

6. Finally, turn up the oscillator feedback to somewhere around 20%. Feedback allows the oscillator to modulate itself resulting in a more complex overdriven sound.

Osc. A settings:

  • Wave: Sine
  • Coarse: 1
  • Level: 0.00 dB
  • Sustain: -inf dB
  • Decay & Release: 189ms
  • Feedback: 20%

At this point, our patch could be used as a tom if we played it an octave or two up.

7. We’ll use oscillator B to add a few higher harmonics. Turn it up to -11 dB, use a coarse setting of 2, and leave the wave shape set to Sine.

8. Leave the attack at 0.00 ms again, turn down the sustain completely and use a decay/release setting close to what you used on oscillator A.

Osc. B settings:

  • Wave: Sine
  • Coarse setting: 2
  • Level: -11 dB
  • Sustain: -inf dB
  • Decay & Release: 191 ms

9. Set oscillator C to a triangle wave to add a few more harmonics. Turn it up to 0.00 dB.

10. Set the attack to 0.11 ms, sustain to -inf dB again, and decay/release to around 123 ms.

Osc. C settings:

  • Wave: Triangle
  • Level: 0.00 dB
  • Attack: 0.11 ms
  • Sustain: -inf dB
  • Decay & Release: 123 ms

11. Oscillator D will add a little more body to the low end. Set the coarse setting to 0.5, leave the wave set to Sine, and turn the level up to 0.00 dB.

12. Set the attack to around 0.11 ms, sustain to -inf dB, and decay/release to around 267 ms. The important thing here is that oscillator D’s decay/release envelope is a little longer than the other three so that the low end rings out slightly longer.

13. Turn the feedback up to 11%.

Osc. D settings:

  • Wave: Sine
  • Coarse: 0.5
  • Level: 0.00 dB
  • Attack: 0.11 ms
  • Sustain: -inf dB
  • Decay & Release: 267 ms
  • Feedback: 11%

So your Operator should look something like this now:

Ableton Live Operator Kick Tutorial 2

We have a kick with low end and body, but it’s not very loud and there isn’t much punch in the high end yet.

14. Turn on the pitch envelope.

15. Set the peak amount to +24 steps. This will add a little more punch once the envelope amount is turned up.

16. Set a very fast decay. I chose 11.1 ms.

17. Turn the pitch envelope amount up to somewhere around 40%.

18. Turn off oscillators C and D in the pitch envelope destination settings.

Pitch Shell & Envelope settings:

  • Peak: +24st
  • Decay: 11.1 ms
  • Pitch env amount: 40%
  • Pitch envelope destination: Oscillators A and B only

19. Turn on the filter and set the type to the low ladder. Turn the frequency down to somewhere between 300 and 400 Hz.

20. Turn up the envelope amount to about 27% and set the attack to 0.00 ms with a short delay of around 31 ms.

21. Now set the shaper in the filter settings to hard. A hard shaper will add punch and drive to the sound. Set the drive low, try -10 dB.

Filter Shell & Envelope settings:

  • Filter type: Low Ladder
  • Frequency: 365 Hz
  • Attack: 0.00ms
  • Decay: 31.1ms
  • Envelope Amount: 27%
  • Shaper: Hard
  • Drive: -10 dB

Finally, we’re going to add some velocity modulation settings.

22. Adjust the Time

23. In the filter envelope, set Time

Velocity Modulation settings:

  • Adjust all oscillator Time
  • Pitch envelope Time
  • Filter envelope Time
  • Filter envelope Freq

24. Instrument volume up to -3.0 dB. It’s good to turn the volume up at the end as it saves your ears from getting tired early.

Your operator should look something like this now:

Ableton Operator Kick Tutorial 3

Some things to try:

  • Play with Shaper types: Try soft.
  • Adjust global time percentage: Try around 58%

Snares Recipe:

Open a blank Operator and set the keyboard range to C1-D2 – I’ll use C1 to design the snare.

1. Use the same algorithm as we did with the kick so that no oscillators modulate each other.

2. Set the number of voices to 1 voice.

The basic idea is the same when synthesizing a snare drum so I’ll let you follow the recipe below. Some major differences are the use of a bandpass filter rather than lowpass, and the prominence of white noise in the patch. The white noise adds to the stereotypical crack sound of the snare.

Osc. A settings:

  • Wave: White Noise
  • Attack: 0.00 ms
  • Decay & Release: 291 ms
  • Sustain: -inf dB
  • Level: -1.9 dB

Osc B settings:

  • Wave: Sine
  • Coarse: 2
  • Level: -1.9 dB
  • Attack: 0.00 ms
  • Decay & Release: 146 ms
  • Sustain: -inf dB

Filter Shell & Envelope settings:

  • Filter type: Band SVF
  • Filter Freq: 912 Hz
  • Resonance: 0.61
  • Shaper: Hard
  • Drive: 0.00 dB

Velocity Modulation settings:

  • Osc. A Time
  • Osc. B Time

Your snare settings should look something like this:

Operator Snare Settings 1

If you want to add more punch in the high end of the snare:

  • Turn up the filter envelope amount percentage.
  •  Play with filter envelope decay settings.

Hat Recipe

The hat recipe is fairly simple in comparison to the kick. The key to a good hi-hat is an interplay of short and long decay (emulating a closed and open hat). Make sure to use the velocity modulation settings at the end and write your beat with varying hat velocity.

1. Keyboard range doesn’t matter this time because we are only using white noise, which doesn’t pitch.

2. Same algorithm as the last two recipes.

3. Voices: 1

Osc. A settings:

  • Wave: White Noise
  • Attack: 0.11 ms
  • Decay & Release: 123 ms
  • Sustain: -inf dB

Osc. B settings:

  • Wave: White Noise
  • Level: -6.2 dB
  • Attack: 0.13 ms
  • Decay: 33.9 ms
  • Sustain: -inf dB

Filter & Filter Envelope settings:

  • Filter Type: High 12dB
  • Filter Freq: 2.53 kHz
  • Filter Res: 0.50
  • Shaper: Soft

Velocity Mods:

  • Osc. A Time
  • Osc. B Time

Here’s how my snare patch looks:

Ableton Operator Hi Hat Settings

Remember that Operator’s Time parameter and velocity mod settings are your best friends when it comes to drum synthesis. Try throwing a little reverb on your snare/hats, and some compression on the entire kit.

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