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Charlie Clouser

Charlie Clouser considers Live to be the "holy grail of software." This designation comes from a man who has known or worked with virtually every significant piece of digital hardware and software since the infancy of digital music technology. On the heels of his tenure as keyboardist with Nine Inch Nails, Clouser is now composing for the intense new Fox TV series, Fastlane.

Your setup is a little different than what might be expected.

I use two dual processor 1GHz Macintoshes side by side, one running Pro Tools and the other Ableton Live and Reason. The Live computer has an RME Hammerfall card in it with Lightpipe over to the big guy, and a Midiman 4-port MIDI interface slaved by a beat clock tied to a master sequencer. There's no analog inputs or outputs on my Live rig at all; it's strapped to 24 channels of ADAT bridges on the Pro Tools system. When I'm working in Live, I break out to 12 stereo pairs, which come up on Pro Tools' screen faders. Basically, I think of Live as a drum machine. It's as simple to operate as a can of soda. It works all day long and it will not crash. I'm old school--I still have stacks of drum machines. You hit the space bar on Pro Tools and everybody lights up and runs--old style. I treat Live in that same manner. Certainly I do complete performances on it, but I am always recording its output as though it were a performance instrument. I then record on my multitrack, which just happens to be another computer.

What is Ableton Live's role in your production process?

It's replaced about 50% of what I used a sampling device for, which is chopping up loops to create my own rhythm performances of the mangled, chopped-up, spliced-up bits and pieces of loops whose tone I like.

Quite literally, Live is the holy grail of software. I've been waiting for 15 years for a method to preview my loops, one at a time, in sync to my song. One mouse click, one button. I even had a cash bounty on the problem. Several of us were going to chip in $5000 to get someone to write it! Then Live came out. I drove 60 miles to go pick up the first copy the day it hit the streets in America. Just the ability to choose loops and hear what they will sound like in context to my song has revolutionized the way I work.

I used to spend hours making an instrument for SampleCell that would load 60 of my sample loops and pitch them. To load these 32 megabyte instruments would take three or four minutes. I would then pitch bend up and down to hear them in sync to a song. Now I'm just pointing at them in Live and flying through. It's no good having 10,000 samples if it takes all day to hear 500 of them.

My old process had at least seven steps: select a loop, pitch into the song, chop them out, improvise a performance, quantize that performance (a very important part), edit that performance, then record that performance as audio. With Live the steps are: select loops (unbelievably easy), and chop out the loops- just drag out the various cells in Live and slide them up to their start points. That just takes a few seconds. Now comes the part where Live has removed the next 5 steps: I used to have to perform, then quantize, and then record the audio. Because of the way Live works, I now get a quantized performance. I jam my way through the song and hack out the bits I don't like and loop up the bits that I do. I'm talking about insane Fatboy Slim, ring modulator, sample-monkey, loop chopology, with solos of jungle and drum n bass. It's ridiculous- I'm creating these hail storms that I never could have achieved in any other manner. Now I can just perform these amazing things that are improvisational in nature, but don't require an army of technicians to manicure them into a useable data.

How does Ableton Live contribute to your score composition?

Fastlane is a very high-energy cop show with a lot of live music that we have to do in an unbelievable hurry. Sort of big fake retro G-Funk. I take finished elements and chop them into 4- and 8-bar loops and dump them back into Live. Now I can regenerate that piece of music at any tempo and in any key. If something needs to be a little faster or a little slower we can do that in Live. If something needs to be in a different key, for example it butts up against a cue in another key, it's easy to do in Live. It's sooooo fast, it's stupid.

Any other comments?

With Nine Inch Nails, it took us two years to finish a record. Today, I finish cues in 7 minutes. Without Live, it simply couldn't happen. Within 8 seconds of downloading the demo, I knew I had to have it--at any price. I'm not a laptop bedroom musician--I'm running on CPU number four here, with samplers lining the walls. I hate to say it, but they could have charged any price--it doesn't matter how much it cost, I couldn't work without it. Live is the deepest!

Charlie Clouser, ex-Nine Inch Nails Keyboardist and Programmer, TV/Film Music Composer