How to get kids hooked on Live: Martin Delaney

Artist and instructor Martin Delaney, a.k.a. mindlobster, was one of the first people to use Live for educational projects in the UK. Being an active Live user since version 1, he's built up an impressive educational portfolio, including several workshops with kids and teenagers at primary schools, community centers and arts centres, two long-term projects at secure psychiatric units as well as profound experience in one-to-one training. Besides his vast experience as an instructor, he produced the "Ableton Live 101" and "Sampling With Live" DVDs for MacProVideo and wrote the "Ableton Live 6 Tips & Tricks" book for PC Publishing. He also designed the Kenton Killamix Mini USB MIDI controller.

Ableton met Martin in London to find out more about his experiences as a Live instructor.

Martin, you were a very early adopter of Live as a tool for music education. How did this happen?

I was already conducting a music and video project in a secure psychiatric unit in South East London. We were using traditional hardware, but it was very equipment-intensive, and not intuitive to use; this matters when you're working with students who tend to have serious literacy and communication problems.

I purchased my own copy of Live 1 after a friend wrote a brief magazine piece about it; until then I'd been jamming with software synths and QuickTime loops. I immediately began jamming and composing with Live, and the educational potential became obvious pretty quickly. A laptop running Live was added to the hardware setup towards the end of that first project, and by the time the second project began, everything was running on Apple iBooks--Ableton Live and Arkaos VJ.

You have been teaching Live to very different types of people. You must get a lot of interesting reactions from your students.

Yeah, I've taught kids from about 9 years old and up, adults with special needs, psychiatric patients, corporate clients...and of course musicians and DJs!

You can't predict people's reactions to Live; usually those most impressed are the ones who've worked with music software before--they can readily see the difference between Live and regular sequencers, whereas total beginners just accept Live as it is and get down to business.

Having said that, there is one thing you can depend on to get a reaction--kids love to record their own voices, then crop and warp them, fit them to beats, and apply audio effects. It's the same with video; kids, especially teenagers, are very concerned with their self-image; they're fascinated by manipulating their own likenesses and voices.

The kids' projects always end with a presentation for the parents, who have been known to shed a tear or two as they see their child's excitement and pride in their work.

We found that students in secure units responded in unexpected ways. Ours was the only class that many of the students would attend; often they wouldn't get out of bed until they knew we were in the building. After a few sessions, the students were asking about all kinds of other things - video production, photography, literacy classes (because they wanted to read the Live manual) and even typing classes (I can type, and they saw how useful it is, even in a music context)!

Most of your students probably haven't had any previous experience with music or music production. How do you get them hooked on Live?

I take them through it in small steps. When the class begins, a Live set is already loaded, in full-screen mode, with a selection of audio clips mapped to keys on the computer keyboard. These clips are mostly loops, and include beats, guitars, synths, sound fx, speech, and even animal sounds. Typically, there is an audio effect on each track, mapped to a keyboard character for toggling on/off.

The clips are named with the letter of the alphabet that will trigger them. I tell the students to start hitting keys on the keyboard and to observe what happens--bedlam ensues. The kids love it and begin to understand what's going on very quickly, and things become more structured and less chaotic. Then it's a matter of explaining browsing for samples, using scenes, recording automation and so on.

What is your typical setup when teaching Live to larger groups of kids or newbies? Up to about ten Apple laptops, tons of headphones, a mixer, amp and speakers, video projector... pretty much what you'd expect. For longer projects you might introduce MIDI keyboards and controllers, MiniDisc recorders for sample gathering... that depends on the capabilities of the group.

Are you currently working on any projects with Live?

Sure--I always am! At the moment I'm continuing the individual Live training, the DVDs for MacProVideo, the books for PC Publishing and the hardware controller designs for Kenton. You can hear me sing on the coming mindlobster single "Number One Fan," which will be released later in the summer. All of the mindlobster material is produced with Live 6 and a little help from Logic Pro. The single release will be followed by an album. Again, Live will be at the core of this. mindlobster uses Live for all performances--during these shows, Live is also sending MIDI via ReWire to Arkaos VJ.

I've used Live for remixes and production fixes for other artists, it's unparalleled for manipulating song structures and getting the clearest possible overview of what a piece of music is doing.

The highest compliment I can pay Live is that it doesn't have a signature sound--that's left to the artist!

On the teaching side, I think Live should be present in every school--it's such an adaptable piece of software, it can fit in so many situations, and it has implications beyond teaching kids DJing or music composition... it's an art thing, it's a design thing, it's a socialization tool (with its jamming and resampling features); it stimulates an interest in other topics...Live has a lot of potential for teachers... as always, the secret is presenting it in the right way.

For the future, I'd like to see a continued emphasis on Live as a performance tool--this is where Live's unique selling point lies. I'd also like to see more video functionality--I want to be able to render movies from Live, and to interact with video clips more in the Session View.

Live Teaching Packs could really help introduce it to schools--including examples of Live sets, custom lessons for different target audiences, and simplified documentation. Those of us who have grown with Live from version 1 must remember to see it through the eyes of a total beginner; to us it's simple, but the novice needs a careful introduction. There could also be an education-only area of www.ableton.com, where teachers and participating students can show and discuss their work in a safe environment. I would like to see more use made of the unique social interactions that arise through jamming with Live--it puts computer-using kids, who are often isolated, back into a world of human contact. I would like to see this encouraged through some kind of new networking feature, where certain Live functions are only available when more than one Live user is present on a wifi network... kind of like some Nintendo DS games!

Thank you for the interview and good luck with your upcoming projects.

My pleasure. I love it!