A really neat feature of Ableton Live is the clip loop length. In session mode this can easily facilitate simple polyrhythm generation which can lead to some great results.

Polyrhythms are two or more multiples or divisions of a meter, for example 1/4 and 1/3, or 3/16 and 5/16. Sometimes these can sound cacophonous, but used tastefully can generate some great patterns.

Here’s a quick video demonstrating how polyrhythms can be used in Live to generate both melodic and rhythmic ideas:

How it’s Done

While this works best in session view it’s entirely possible in arrange too, but I’ll stick to session. For the purpose of this I am also going to be assuming we’re working on a 4/4 time signature (4 quarter notes to each bar).

Creating new clips usually defaults to a 1 bar duration, which is 16 x 16th subdivisons in length. However we can shorten that to loop different numbers of subdivisions. Some, such as 1/4, 1/2 or 3/4 might be quite familiar to you. Others such as 1/3 or 2/3 less so, but what I’m interested in is 5/16, 7/16, 11/16 etc. Broadly speaking odd numbers will produce some more intricate patterns.

Let’s start off with a simple 1/4. This will outline our meter and give us an anchor to layer other subdivisions over. I’m using C1 note triggering Analog, with a short pluck sound. Here’s two bars:

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Let’s add a 5/16 rhythm over that. This is 5 x 16th notes. I’ll use a different note to more clearly demonstrate how they overlap:

Here’s what that 5/16 loop looks like:

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Let’s mute that 5/16 quickly and audition a 9/16 loop on top of our 1/4. Again I’ve selected another note to use:

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By now you should be getting the idea. Let’s test out 3/16 and 3/8 (again these are isolated with the 1/4 division):

3/16:

3/8:

And here they are all together:

…and with some added ping-pong delay:

Polyrhythmic Drums

Let’s repeat the exercise with some drums. I’ve created 5 MIDI tracks in session view, the last one with a Drum Rack using Live’s 707 kit. In the I/O tab, route the first four MIDI tracks to the last, and set the Drum Rack’s monitor to ‘In’.

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I’ve named each track Bd (bass drum), Clap, CH (closed hat) and OH (open hat). We can use the same odd length loops to create drums. I’ve used a simple 1/4 for the kick and a 5/16 for the clap, but in addition I’ve offset the clap by 3/16:

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Here’s the two hat parts together. What’s neat about drum samplers is that they often (or should) choke the hats, so only one can play at a time, as if they were monophonic. This can lead to some unexpected results from time to time. Here’s the closed hat pattern (7/16):

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… and the open hat (9/16):

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And here’s how they sound:

When you put all of that together you get this:

To make this slightly more interesting, I’ve switched the kit out for some hits from Sample Magic’s Minimal Tech House pack and used one of the lighter MPC 16th swing groove templates that Live comes bundled with:

Lastly let’s add that to our Analog synths from earlier with some light sidechain compression courtesy of the kick drum:

Further Reading

This is only really scratching the surface of the potential of both polyrhythms and MIDI resampling in Live. You can take this much further experimenting with MIDI FX, Max4Live and Reaktor Euclidean sequencers and much more to boot.

YouTuber and bass player-extraordinaire Adam Neely recently made a great video on what he calls Harmonic Polyrhythms, something I linked to in my recent article on Frequency, Pitch, Overtones, Harmonics and Timbre. It’s a bit more hardcore than what we’ve discussed but a great video, well explained.