Ableton Wavetable
Future Music|October 2020
Ableton Wavetable
Take a deep dive into Live’s newest onboard synth which promises to have your sound design making waves

Although Ableton Live 10 was packed with workflow enhancements and impressive new effects (like Echo and Pedal), the biggest news for sound designers has been Wavetable, an impressive new approach to wavetable-based synthesis, with an interface that lets you see nearly every design/modulation element on one screen.

Here we present Wavetable’s features in-depth, along with a few expert tips along the way.

Architecture

Some users have compared it to Serum and Massive, but Wavetable’s engine is different, with its own unique collection of wavetable data and filter options; it doesn’t replace either of those synths, but instead, expands the range of this popular synthesis method. Wavetable’s architecture is key to its capabilities.

Its two oscillators include nearly 200 preset tables organised into 11 categories. This makes it easy to find a starting point if you know what type of sound you’re after. In addition, Wavetable includes a flexible sub-oscillator that provides a wide range of functions that belie its name.

Those three generators feed a pair of multimode filters that can be arranged in parallel, serial, or split configurations. This is followed by an amp (volume) section and topped off with a unison effect that includes several modes that break new ground.

Unlike other plugins, there’s no dedicated effects section, as Wavetable is baked into Live Suite. Consequently, if you want to add final processing, you can take advantage of Ableton’s massive library of audio effects. Of course, if you’re a Max for Live user, you can design your own.

Oscillators

Getting the hang of Wavetable’s dual-oscillators is best done by simply dropping the instrument in a track and starting with the default preset, which consists of osc 1 only (osc 2 and the sub-osc switched off) feeding a 2-pole low-pass filter, with cutoff at max. From here, you can audition the contents of the 11 wavetable categories and inspect the tonal character of each, while sweeping them with the wave position slider (see Fig. 1).

PRO TIP

Setting the wave position to 50%, then applying a slow triangle LFO to the Osc 1 Pos routing in the mod matrix with a value of 50, is a great way to sweep each table automatically as you familiarise yourself with the content. Each wavetable category has a distinct flavour.

BASICS – Aptly named, this category covers bread-and-butter tables, leaning toward analogue oscillators, but with a few FM-derived options mixed in.

COLLECTION – Named after colours such as Olive or Sapphire, this is a set of go-to Abletonflavoured tables that are both unusual and flexible.

COMPLEX – These consist of more radical wave-tables with a lot of harmonic complexity.

DISTORTION – While these tables are derived from various distortion and waveshaping processes, this is also where you’ll find a few options oriented toward a more ‘West Coast synthesis’ approach.

FILTER – These tables are based on filter sweeps and work nicely when you want to stack filter types in series (or if you’re new to synthesis and want immediate results without learning the subtleties of multimode filtering).

FORMANT – This category handles vocal-like timbres, with apt names like AEIOU and Tuvan.

HARMONICS – For experienced wavetable fans, this category is loaded up with wavetables that are excellent starting points for layering, additive, and timeless sweeps that somewhat evoke the PPG and Synclavier.

INSTRUMENTS – These tables are based on actual instruments such as piano, marimba, and oboe, among others. The options here really shine when swept with an envelope, as opposed to an LFO.

NOISE – While converting noise into wavetables may seem like a strange choice since they contain no easily translated harmonics, these tables are useful for adding a chaotic element to sounds: several of the options come to life when modulated with an LFO, often yielding a sound that is much like a tuned flanger that tracks the keyboard. (Some of these tables, such as Vinyl Noise, have unusual frequency response characteristics, so keep that in mind as you gain-stage sounds.)

RETRO – Like the name implies, these tables evoke the early years of wavetable synthesis.

VINTAGE – This collection is packed with really useful tables that are derived from classic and modern analogue gear. With a bit of LFO modulation, they deliver impressively realistic results if you’re going for a circuit-based oscillator sound. At the bottom of each oscillator window is an FX section, which is similar to Massive’s Spectrum and Serum’s Warp options, allowing you to manipulate the wavetable’s shape and spectrum further (see Fig. 2). In fact, the FX functions are so crucial to extending the value of the oscillators’ wavetables that I urge readers to devote extra time to modulating these parameters with LFOs and envelopes to understand their sonic range. Here are the three FX modes.

FM – This mode applies an FM modulator to the wavetable, with visual feedback so you can see the results. In this mode, the two adjustable parameters are tuning and amount.

PRO TIP

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October 2020