I have been using Ableton Live for many years, and today (after all this time) I decided to finally figure out the difference between clips and samples in Ableton.
I think I had a good idea about what a sample is and how clips contains samples. But what I didn’t understand is why the Ableton browser has a section for clips and a separate one for samples, and how they are different.
The information in the Ableton Live Manual doesn’t really explain this, and only gives us the definitions you can see below:
Clips — all of your Live Clips.
Samples — all of your raw audio samples.
Some of the other items listed in the Live Manual have links to more information, but not these two. There is some information in the Manual on clips, but It’s a bit hard to follow and doesn’t really answer the question asked here.
Long story short: clips and samples are often used interchangeably in Ableton, but they are actually two distinct types of data. A sample is a piece of recorded audio, while a clip is a container for either MIDI data or audio samples. This means that a clip can contain either MIDI notes or a sample of audio.
To learn more about how to use Ableton Live (especially if you already have some experience of Live), I would recommend The Music Producer’s Creative Guide to Ableton Live 11 by Anna Lakatos, which was published in March 2023. You can find out more about this excellent book below:
Clips and Samples in the Ableton Browser
The first thing to note is the different icons (or symbols) that Ableton uses for Clips and Samples in the Categories list in the Live Browser.
Clip Icon in Browser Categories
The icon representing Clips in the Categories section is a little rectangle with an arrow inside pointing to the right (a bit like the YouTube logo). This suggests that Live Clips are things you might click to make them start running, which is helpful.
Individual Clip Icons
The icons next to the names of the individual clips in the Content Panel of the Live Browser have two parts: one on the left and one on the right.
On the left of the icon is the little arrow pointing forward and on the right there is a little symbol telling you whether it’s an Audio Clip or a MIDI Clip.
For Audio Clips this little symbol is some vertical lines representing audio sound waves.
For MIDI Clips the symbol is horizontal lines of different lengths representing MIDI notes in the piano roll of the DAW.
I can’t believe it’s the first time I have noticed this difference. I must pay more attention in future…
Icons Representing Samples in the Browser
The icons representing Samples in the browser Categories section and in the list of individual samples are the same. This is a small rectangle containing some vertical lines of different lengths that relate to audio sound waves.
You may notice that some of the individual samples also display a small tick in the bottom-right corner of the icon.
The little tick indicates that the sample has been opened in Ableton Live previously and that an analysis file has been created for it. You can read more about Ableton analysis (.asd) files in this article.
Samples in Ableton
I’ll start with Samples, since these are pretty straightforward, and then move on to Clips.
Samples are just digital audio files produced by recording a sound. An audio file might be very short and contain something like a single drum hit or piano note.
A sample might also be a longer audio recording, like a drum loop or chord sequence. A sample might even be a complete track or song.
When you select a sample in the Ableton Live Browser, a preview of the audio plays automatically and the waveform is displayed in the Preview area under the Browser.
Which Samples Appear in the Ableton Live Browser?
I have never been sure why some audio files on my computer appear in the Samples section of the Ableton Browser and others don’t.
There must be special locations, or folders, on the computer that Ableton looks in to find audio files to include in the Samples list?
I just tried a little experiment and found one way of making audio files appear in the Samples section of the browser. I used a track I downloaded from Beatport for this.
I’m currently using an Apple Mac, and I copied the file into various folders to see which ones caused it to show up in Samples. One folder that does the trick is the Presets folder inside Library -> Audio -> Presets.
Placing it in Library -> Audio doesn’t work, so Ableton must have list of folders that it looks in for audio files to include in Samples in the Browser.
A way to see whether the audio files in Samples are part of Ableton’s core materials, or are external files from another source, is to right-click the files icons in the Browser.
Files included with Ableton give you the menu option to Show in Places, but the external ones (like my Beatport file) say Show in Finder. This seems to indicate that Ableton considers them to be external files.
Samples Are Digital Audio Files
Samples are representations of sounds that have been recorded digitally.
The conversion of analog audio signals into digital form is carried out by the analog-to-digital converter (DAC) in an audio interface. You can learn more about this process in our article on what an analog-to-digital converter does.
The filename extensions used with samples in Ableton are .aif or .wav.
Sample files ending in .aif use a file format developed by Apple called Audio Interchange File Format, usually abbreviated to AIFF.
Files ending in .wav are in the Waveform Audio File Format (often called Wave files), which was developed by IBM and Microsoft. This is the most widely used format for samples in Ableton and in DAWs generally.
It’s important to note that both .aif and .wav audio formats are uncompressed, lossless file formats that preserve the quality of the digitised audio. This is in contrast to MP3 files, which are compressed, leading to a deterioration of audio quality.
Being uncompressed means that .aif and .wav files can be quite large, whereas the compression applied to MP3 files can make them much smaller (although they don’t sound so good).
Getting Audio Samples Into Ableton
In Ableton Live you can drag samples into an audio track in the session view or arrangement view.
When you do this the sample is placed into a Clip, which holds the sample itself together with several other pieces of information.
If you double click the Clip that is created you can see audio waveform together with the related Clip information in the Clip View display to the left of the waveform.
We will look at Clips next and explore the types of information that Clips hold in addition to the audio sample itself.
Clips in Ableton
The Ableton Live Manual says that Live Clips allow you to store individual audio or MIDI clips into a single file, along with their respective device chains and settings, which you can use in any of your Live Sets.
A Clip, then, is a container that holds an audio sample file or a MIDI file, together will additional information about how the audio or MIDI file will play.
The file extension for Clips in the Ableton browser, for both audio and MIDI Clips is .alc. I believe .alc stands for Ableton Live Clip.
Audio vs MIDI Files (What’s Inside the Clips)
Here is a quick comparison of audio vs MIDI files.
An audio file is a digital representation of a recorded audio signal (as outlined above when looking at samples).
MIDI files don’t contain any audio information, but are instructions for how a MIDI instrument should be played. For example, which note(s) to play, how hard to play, and for how long.
Confusingly, the MIDI instrument to be played may contain an audio file, e.g. Ableton’s Simpler or Sampler, or a third party instrument like Kontakt from Native Instruments.
Adding Clips to an Ableton Live Set
Clips can be added to an Ableton Live set by dragging the Clip file from the browser onto a track in the Session or Arrangement View.
If you double click the Clip once it’s in the Session or Arrangement View you can see the information relating to it in the Clip View display at the bottom-left of the screen.
Ableton Live Clip View
Some of the information displayed in Clip View relates to the same things for both Audio and MIDI Clips, while some of the information is specific to Audio or MIDI Clips.
In Ableton Live 11 you can arrange the Clip View information tabs vertically or horizontally by dragging the right-hand border to the left or right. When arranged horizontally, you can see two tabs at the same time.
We will start with Clip View tabs that are displayed for both Audio and MIDI Clips.
The first tab is the Clip tab. This tab lets you edit the start and end point of the Clip, and its position and length. You can also select whether the Clip loops or not. You can also edit the time signature, e.g. 4/4, 3/4 etc, and apply a Groove to the Clip. If it’s a MIDI clip you also have the option to change the scale, e.g. C Major, D minor, etc.
The second tab is the Launch Controls. This is only available in Session View since the controls here don’t relate to the way Arrangement View works.
A recent improvement to Ableton has made Launch Controls a separate Clip View tab (which is available in Session View, but greyed out in Arrangement View), rather having to click a little triangular toggle button to reveal it in previous versions. The new set up makes it easier to see how this Clip View tab relates to the others.
The options in the Launch Control tab relate to how the Clip with be played (or launched). For example, you can edit Follow Actions that control how the Clips in a Session View track play from one to the next. There are also options to change how a Session View Clip will respond to being launched, e.g. Trigger, Toggle, etc, and the quantisation of the Clip.
The third tab that is found in the Clip View for both audio and MIDI Clips is the Envelopes tab (although it’s actually fourth in the tab order). The Envelopes tab lets you add some automation to the Audio or MIDI Clip, and the things you can automate are slightly different for the two types of Clip.
Clip View Options for Audio Clips Only
Sample Editor Tab
Third from the top, or from the left, depending on whether you have expanded the panel, is the Sample Editor tab.
At the top is the option to Warp the sample or not. Under the Warp button you can choose which Warp Mode is most suitable for the type of audio sample you have (e.g. drums, melodies, chords, etc).
Lower down in this tab you can also change the BPM of the sample, and halve or double the length of time in which is plays (which speeds it up or slows it down). There are also options to add a fade to the start and end of the sample, and change the way the sample is played to conserve CPU usage.
To the right you can adjust the gain of the audio clip (which can be useful if the audio sample is a little too quiet), and also the pitch can be raised or lowered by up to 48 semitones (four octaves).
The button at the bottom with two arrows pointing in different directions lets you reverse the sample.
Clip View Options for MIDI Clips Only
Clip View for MIDI Clips includes two Tabs that are not present with Audio Clips: the Notes tab and Note Expression tab. These are located either side of the Envelopes tab (whether the panel is arranged vertically or horizontally).
The Notes tab includes options for choosing how MIDI notes in the clip are played.
You are able to select the range of notes played, and and also transpose them by a chosen amount. There is an option to play the notes in half the current time (which doubles the tempo), or in double the current time (which halves the tempo).
You can also click buttons to reverse or invert the notes in the clip, and also duplicate the notes in the clip. There is also a button to stretch the notes, filling the horizontal gaps between the so that the clip plays legato.
Finally there are options to randomize the velocity of the notes being played in the clip.
Note Expression Tab
Selecting the Note Expression tab causes some additional options to appear underneath the MIDI notes in the MIDI Note Editor to the right of the Clip View panel.
These additional options, Slide and Pressure, relate to MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) and let apply more expression (and realism) to the MIDI notes being played.
The Difference Between Samples and Clips in Ableton Live
When I started looking into the difference between clips and samples in Ableton I expected to say a similar amount about clips and samples and the differences between them.
What I found was that samples are just digital recordings, but clips are much more complex, and audio clips can contains samples.
Learning about Ableton Clips has made me want to know much more about them, since a lot of what happens in Ableton seems to relate to the options available in the Clip View panel.