Designed a decade ago as a live performance tool, Ableton Live has progressed from a live audio toy and mash-up-meister to a fully-fledged audio and MIDI production powerhouse. Whether it's a DJ mix platform, sole studio companion or useful part of an integrated studio, more and more people are getting onboard. And it's just hit version 9.
There's a wealth of new features that have been implemented to make the workflow of this unique DAW even more refined — and more powerful. One of the headline additions to the new version is the Glue compressor. Adapted from Cytomic's The Glue, it is a nicely modelled version of the classic SSL compressor used on countless pop hits and boasts an incredible knack of pulling mixes together.
In a nod to modernity, it can react much faster than the original SSL (allowing it to act as a limiter), offers true side-chaining (for Prydz-esque pumping), and features a dry-wet control which can sound great for battering a drum track without making it sound flat. The existing effects found in Live, Compressor and Gate, have also been updated to offer real-time graphical interfaces, showing exactly what they are doing to a signal as it happens. These help novices to understand what is going on and give a visual warning when users are over-compressing. There are also various other improvements to the original program, including additional meters, controls and various little tweaks, so Live users with huge plug-in libraries would do well to revisit these staples.
The most visually spectacular update is to EQ Eight, which now features a huge pop-out display and a raft of new features. One such feature is individual band soloing, which brings immeasurable improvement to the precision of EQing. Users can even target parts of the display with the mouse to see what musical note the frequencies cover. The actual EQ filters themselves have been tweaked too, offering new modes and analogue-style curves — or simply use the originals for backwards-compatibility.
It might sound about as sexy as woollen knickers, but one of the best updates in 9 is the browser. For the first time, users can see everything, search for key words (e.g. bass) across any or all of the libraries, plug-ins, presets, everything. It even tailors suggestions based on past choices, and then lets producers instantly preview them all from the browser (even instrument presets). More useful updates come on the general editing and arrangement side of things. Foremost is a stunning new mode that allows users to take any chunk of arrangement in the Arrange page (the more conventional view where the usual layout of productions is worked on) and then turn that automatically into a Live trigger-able scene in the Session view. DJs/producers can take their own track and make it available for live play and remixing in Session view. It is massively time-saving.
In addition to all of this, Live now lets producers draw automation into individual clips, allowing for really complex programming of individual clips and, for example, to actually program plug-in FX automation into the tracks that a DJ might drop at a gig, freeing them up to do other things. Other very important improvements include automation curves and a variety of clever and innovative MIDI editing features, such as improved copy functions.
One of the big game changers and jaw-dropping features is the new Audio-To-MIDI function. As the name suggests, this amazing feature analyses any audio then decodes this into tuned and timed MIDI clips. There are three algorithms; drums, poly (for chords etc.) and single note, and they all work like a charm. Drums mode currently only recognises kicks, snares and hats, but it is staggeringly useful. The musical analysis will be a monumental leap forward for anybody who has ever struggled to replay a riff or chord, or get a riff from their head into the machine as MIDI. Producers can even just whistle, sing or hum a riff into Live and let the software do the rest. This really is a game changer.
For a few years now, Live has come in differently priced packages. The vast majority of users are better off going for the Standard package, as the additional sound libraries that come with the more expensive versions are okay, but have never really set the production world on fire. Now, though, there is another reason to opt for the more expensive Suite edition, as it includes Max for Live, a hugely powerful open device platform that lets users create their own devices, be it synths, FX, whatever — and then use or buy others that have already been created.
Suite comes bundled with a huge library of existing devices, plus 25 brand-new ones. It's of limited appeal and certainly not worth the price of Suite alone (as with everything else in Suite, it is available separately), but it's another point in favour.
Live was originally designed as a live performance tool, hence the name, but it rapidly became the weapon of choice for many DJs who started to explore the wonderful world of digital DJing. The advantage that seamless beat-matching and tempo-synced effects brought was obvious, but in order to play tracks you first had to warp them, which even with auto-warping was still rarely perfect without manual tweaking; sometimes a real pain. Nor was Live adept at handling tracks with tempo changes or playing tracks with radically different BPMs. Then there was always the temptation to mix about five tracks at once, which felt heroic, but rarely sounded good on the dancefloor.
So is it still good for DJing? Truthfully, it's not as immediate and versatile as say, Traktor, or Pioneer's Rekordbox-enabled CDJs, and doesn't feature proper scratch control in the way that the aforementioned Serato et al do. But for a more performance-oriented approach, and so-called live shows, it can be great.
It really comes into its own for podcasts, radio shows or mix CDs. It offers the invaluable ability to process each track with pro limiters and EQ to ensure there are no sonic jumps (much less apparent on a big club system) and, crucially, to easily edit tracks and a whole mix down to size. People love eight-minute epic versions with three breakdowns in clubs, but a whole generation has grown up on a diet of Ministry compilations with 20+ tracks per CD and heavily edited radio mixes, so they tend to expect more tracks and less repetition in their own time. Live is great for DJing, but it is now coming into its own as a monster of a production tool.
Ableton Live 9 is available now from Ableton priced at 79 EUR (Intro), 349 EUR (Standard) and 599 EUR (Suite).
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The new audio-to-MIDI functions will redefine what is possible for many users. It is like having a classically-trained musical co-pilot with you on every project.
Still no multi-screen functions between the clip and arrange view, and the channel clipping algorithms are as sketchy as they always were.
Ableton get back to doing what they do best — creating innovative features that let people make music quicker and more fluidly than they ever thought possible. And they still find time for enough new editing options and general refinements to delight producers and DJs alike.
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