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Ten Essential Ableton Live Tips & Tricks - Part 2: Send Return Channels Featured

Send / Return tracks are like audio tracks that can be stacked up with an array of effects that lay there waiting for you to send them an audio signal from your main tracks. The audio that gets produced from these effects stay within the return track, so the original audio track continues unaffected.


You have a percussion loop playing and you want to quickly add a delay just to the snare hit, while leaving the rest of the percussion as it is. By having a return track set up with a delay effect, you can send the audio from your percussion track across to the return track just as the snare hits. The return track will receive the audio from the percussion track, add the delay, and let the snare delay fade out within the return track while the original percussion track continues on as usual.

To do this, we need to add a return track by clicking on the Insert menu and selecting Insert Return Track (this is if you don’t already have return tracks there, Ableton adds two to the default template, A Return and B Return).

You will now see, over on the right next to the Master Channel, a new return track. Give this a name by choosing Rename from the Edit Menu, and call it Delay.


Now this return track is ready to be stacked up with effects, for this example we are just going to use one, the Simple Delay.

Open the Live Device Browser (The second circle button in the group of circles over on the the top left), open the Audio Effects Folder, and find the Simple Delay. Ensure your return track is selected and drag the Simple Delay down on to the Device Chain (Where it says Drop Audio Effects Here).

Once your Simple Delay is loaded, you can now change how you want it to act. To keep things simple, click the Link button to link both delay times, and change the Delay Time under L (for Left) from 4 to 3.

Give the delay 50% Feedback and set the Dry/Wet value to 100%. Because this signal will be mixed together with the original sound there is no need to have any dry sound coming through.

Now our return track is sitting there ready to delay whatever we feed it.

Load up a sample or loop into a spare clip slot in an Audio Track and begin playing it. By default, the audio of this track will be playing out just to the master, it is not yet being sent to the return channel.

To send this audio to the return channel, we need to bring up the send values. This looks like a round virtual knob, with an A at the base, followed by the word Send. If it is not there, enable the Sends from the View menu.

This knob specifies how much of the signal gets sent to our new return channel A.

As you turn this knob up, you will notice the level meter of Return Channel A start to become alive, and if everything has been done correctly, the sound will become delayed, as the Return Channel is now receiving audio and processing it with the effects we loaded up, in this case a Simple Delay.

We can now send the audio from this track, or any other tracks we have, to this send channel if we want the sound to delay.

So why use Send / Return tracks instead of adding the effects you want to actual audio or MIDI channels?

It cuts down CPU while giving you more effect options at the same time. Any one of your tracks can be sent off to a return track, giving that particular sound or layer complete access to whatever effects are loaded up on your return tracks. You can send two tracks, three tracks…as many as you want, but it will only use the processing power of one set of effects.

If you have 10 Tracks playing, and each one of these needs a specific effect (a filter for the bass, a delay for the synth, a reverb for the vocals etc.), it’s worth setting up return tracks for your effects, so each Track can share any of the other effects if you want to. You might decide to add a reverb to the synth…easy, just turn up the reverb send knob on the synth track.

Bonus Tip #1

By using Ableton’s KEY (or MIDI) mapping, you can assign a external device (such as a key on your keyboard) to both turn up the send value, AND turn down the main volume. This is handy if you don’t want the signal to be mixed, but go from completely dry to completely wet.

To do this, enable KEY mapping mode by choosing Edit Key Map from the Options menu (it will turn all values that can be assigned keys orange), click on the send knob for the return track you want to use, and press the key you wish to assign (I have chosen the 1 key). The key you pushed will appear on top of the Send Value to show it has now been assigned.

Now select the Volume Slider for the same track, and push the same key, it will also be assigned.

The final thing we have to do to ensure this works, is to reverse the maximum and minimum values of one of these key assignments. At the moment, pushing that key will turn both the volume and the send off and on together; we want them to do the opposite of each other.

In the Key Mappings box up the top right (if it is not there, click the first little circle up the top right with the triangle) we can see the Max and Min values of each parameter, these are the values that will be applied each time that key is pushed.

Change the Min value of the Track Volume to 0, and the Max value to –inf by clicking the box and dragging down as far as you can go.

Turn of Key Mapping Mode from the options menu, and push the key you assigned. You will see that the audio from your track will now switch between going straight to the master out, and going via the return track then the master out.

Finally, ensure that the send channel is set to Pre (not Post) so that the audio will still come through the send even if the volume of the track is down. This can be changed above the master out level.

Bonus Tip #2

You can send the signal from a return track to another return track, to add even more effects to the chain.

Say we have our delay return accepting audio from an audio track, but we want the delayed sound to slowly gather a reverb. To do this, we insert another return track (Insert Return Track from the Insert Menu) and name it Reverb.

Add in an Ableton Reverb onto this new return track, so we now have a Delay return, and a Reverb Return.

Once audio is being fed to the Delay, we want to turn the Send B (Reverb) value up on the Return A (Delay) track. You will see that the Delay return track has send knobs just like the Audio track, but they are disabled by default.

This is because you can cause some pretty nasty feedback if you are not careful! If you have Return A sending to Return B, and Return B sending to Return A, it will get loud and distorted very quickly as the feedback loop grows, so be careful.

We just want to enable the Send B knob on Return A, so right click this knob and choose Enable Send.

Now when the Delay effect in Return A is working, we can increase the Send B knob to send the delayed sound to the new reverb send.


Bonus Tip #3

Return tracks can also be useful for looping bits of audio from the main tracks, so you can keep one loop playing while you move onto the next, mixing the two together.

The easiest way I have found to do this, is to set up a Filter Delay on a new return track (call it Loop) and modify the parameters of this effect as follows:

  • Turn off the L and R delays by clicking the L and R boxes under Input, we just want the middle L-R one active.
  • On the L-R delay, Set the Frequency of the filter (the box below the On button) to 1khz (so the pole of the frequency is near the middle of the spectrum).
  • Set the Q value (below the Frequency box) to its maximum value, 9. This is so the filter is as wide and open as possible, as we want the sound that is looped to be as close as we can to the original.
  • Set the Delay Time to 16 by clicking the box with 16 in it, this is so the delay will kick in after one bar.
  • Set the Feedback to 100%, so the delay will repeat over and over without loosing any volume.
  • Set the Volume of this delay to 0.
  • Set the Volume under the Dry meter to 0.

This creates a delay, with infinite feedback that delays at a value of 1 bar. Now, if you send something to this return track for one bar, the delay will repeat it over and over until you turn the Feedback from 100% to 0%. It’s good to assign a Key to the feedback, so you can turn this looping effect off easily by having the keys max value at 100% and min value at 0%.

Remember not to send audio to this return for more than one bar, or else it will start layering over itself which won’t sound very nice.

You can now stack up more effects after this new looping effect to mess with the loop while the rest of your set continues on as normal.


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