Be Your Own Preset

Chris Carter's MacBook, with Live and Faderfox controller. UK, 2008.

Ableton Live is a loop based program created for live performance and improvising with electronic music. This is a paradox, musically and ethically. A loop is a continuous sound that, when it reaches its end, starts at the beginning again. It’s an exact replica, a copy of itself, repeating over and over, and a live performance is duplicated after the fact.

Ableton attempted to create some ways of getting around this issue by offering a “Beat Repeat” device, as well as the “Groove Pool.” Both can do a pretty good job at taking a loop, that is a copy of itself, and altering it so it sustains your attention for a little more time.

The Beat Repeat in Ableton Live is a device that gates and pitches the incoming signal in no random way that I can hear. But it works best, and most accurately, when the incoming signal is a copy of a copy, repeating, and the Groove Pool is a library of Presets for adding swing.

Swing should not be considered an effect. Quantization IS an effect. Quantization is not human. It’s impossible to achieve with the human body.

We are trying to make the music “wider,” but these aspects of DAWs [Digital Audio Workstations] are only making the music narrower. As long as we know and recognize these things, we can move on. Similar to psychology, when you recognize the problems, you can move past them. Ideally speaking, that is.

I suppose I was spoiled by my old Tascam 8 Track, which, even if you ran a duplicate through it, would come alive as the tape rolled.

It modulates the duplicate, but will never modulate it the same way twice. The tape slows down and speeds up, not noticeably, but it’s always doing it. Wheels are turning, tape is corroding, heads and outputs are overheating and in need of a good cleaning… all of these things played a factor in randomizing a duplicate.

Of course, removing the loop function inside of a clip, or creating a different version of the copy each time can break the mold of the loop, but can also cause a sort of hysteria of fear with amateur e.musicians.

Sometimes it’s better to take some time to build a simple set up for yourself. Don’t think of making immediate music.

The tools must be customizable to make something original, which means that each copy of a single DAW must be slightly different per user.

Guitarists like Fred Frith customize their guitar setups. Neil Young uses a particular amp, pick, and technique to get his sound. Frank Zappa used his guitar. No two instruments are the same.

As with any instrument, each person brings their own voice to the table. However, that only happens through the practice of developing your own sound and bypassing presets.

Cosey [Throbbing Gristle, Chris & Cosey] playing Live. UK, 2009.
Cosey [Throbbing Gristle, Chris & Cosey] playing Live. UK, 2009.



Presets go beyond soft synths and digital effects. Every time you say “like” or “dude” unnecessarily, 5 times within a sentence, you’ve become a preset. Becoming a copy of every other person who speaks the same way.

You pick these things up as you try to assimilate into society. Something we all want to do of course, but lose your own originality along the way.

Develop your own personal language. It’s made of the same words that you are raised to speak. But you and everyone else has their own ways of conveying them.

This is changing however, due to a shift that happened in the way we communicate in the early000s. The shift occurred when presets started to be used in our communication. Texting came with an autocorrect type in function, that with a few letters it will automatically create the words you want, but sometimes it doesn’t work very well, especially when you are saying something unique.

This is what happens with DAWs and their presets. You lose the ability, or rather the urge, to develop your own voice.


Further Reading:

Making Sand Dunes Sing

Synthesizing Nature Sounds


Photographs  courtesy of  Chris Carter. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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