The challenge was to add yet more features to Live without compromising its legendary ease of use. Have Ableton succeeded?
Since its arrival on the audio software scene in 2001, Ableton Live has carved out a niche as a hugely popular music production and performance tool. The landscape eight years ago was dominated by well‑established, complex linear sequencing packages that were geared towards multitrack studio recording and production, but the newcomer quickly gained popularity by aiming at a slightly different part of the market: live performers and DJs. Live has always been something of a two‑headed beast — a loop‑based performance instrument on the one hand, and a linear recording and production platform on the other — and with the arrival of MIDI sequence support, opening the door to VST Instrument and effect hosting, Live became a serious contender as a studio production platform, while still enjoying a position on practically every performer's laptop on the planet.
Live's remarkable success comes down to some simple but well‑considered design choices. Firstly, it knows about looping, and works very hard at cueing, synchronising and aligning looped material, and providing a sophisticated editing interface for loop‑based music. Secondly, it implements a number of powerful and versatile features in a clean and reliable manner: instruments and drums can be 'racked' and chained in infinite combinations, audio can be routed and mixed in ways an actual mixing desk can only dream of, and the automation support is obsessively thorough and rock solid. Thirdly, Live's interface is clear and simple: one window, two views, and fixed panels for instruments and sample browsing.
Combining sophistication with ease of use is incredibly difficult, but Live manages to do so, with an interface that promotes flexible working without clutter or distraction. But this elegance of design tends to fly in the face of the software industry, where an arms race pushes vendors to add more and more features to their products to win on press release bullet points. Despite a major version release once a year, Live has already made it to version 7 without compromising its clean design and solid reliability. Does it still hold itself together in version 8?
I reviewed the full Live 8 package, called Ableton Suite 8. This is a four‑DVD boxed set consisting of Live 8 itself, a core library of samples and presets, the full set of Ableton's software instruments, a collection of loops and samples from Cycling 74 and Zero‑G, a library of Latin Percussion instruments and samples, version 2 of the Essential Instruments Collection (EIC), and two DVDs dedicated to session drums. The sample libraries are packaged as 'Live Packs' — compressed archives which Live itself unpacks and installs — so you have some choice as to what you want to install.
The full set of Live Packs occupies 48GB of disk space when unpacked, and installation on my MacBook Pro took several hours. All the instruments and sample sets occupy the same hierarchical navigation tree, and it's not immediately clear which instruments are part of which Live Packs: for example, some presets contain layers that mix samples with physically modelled synthesizers. Arguably this doesn't matter much — who cares what instruments are used so long as the result is good? — but it's potentially tricky to share projects with other users if you aren't sure what instrument packs they own and which ones you are using.
Thankfully, Live 8 looks and works almost identically to Live 7. I'm running both versions here, and found myself launching the wrong one by accident a few times and taking a minute or two to actually notice. It's tempting to feel a bit swindled — a major, paid‑for upgrade and it all looks the same? — but the improvements are non‑trivial, and the lack of upheaval to one's working process is actually a plus point.
The audio file warping and grooving machinery has been given something of an overhaul in Live 8. Live's ability to match up the beats and transients of recorded audio to the playback tempo of a sequence is one of its most prestigious features. Live attempts some aspects of this itself, but others require guidance, either to correct mistakes or to add some creativity into the editing and synchronisation process. The warp marker editing process is sufficiently different between Live 7 and Live 8, and sufficiently subtle, that it's worth a recap of how Live 7 supports warp editing, so that we can see what now happens in Live 8.
In Live 7, when a sample file is dragged into a Live Set as a new clip, the program attempts to determine the sample's tempo and its length in bars and beats, so that it can be looped and played in sync in any desired tempo. One warp marker is placed at the beginning of the sample, and a second marker with the appropriate bar and beat number is placed at the end. If the rhythm of the sample is regular, then the bar and beat divisions between the warp markers will fall on the sample's beats. Additional warp markers can be dropped onto bar and beat lines, and markers can be dragged back and forth along the waveform; bar and beat lines between adjacent warp markers are scaled linearly.
In Live 8, things get a bit more complicated. Live attempts to identify the transients in a sample and marks them on the waveform display as prospective warp markers. Transient markers can be added, deleted or moved if Live has not been totally accurate in its analysis. A transient can be turned into a warp marker by double‑clicking, although warp markers can also be created on bar and beat lines just as in Live 7.
Dragging a warp marker in Live 7 shifts the marker relative to the waveform, and Live changes the audio's playback rate on each side of the marker, so that the selected part of the audio is synchronised to the beat. Holding the Shift key while dragging does the same in Live 8, although in the new scheme the waveform display moves while the timeline stays linear: same outcome, but rather disconcerting behaviour until you get used to it. So what about simply dragging a warp marker? This moves the marker and its audio sync point to a new quantised bar/beat division, stretching or compressing the audio on both sides. This is an editing operation with no direct equivalent in Live 7, and appears to be the machinery Live uses when applying groove templates, although you are free to employ it for your own creative ends.
Live 8's groove features have also been significantly overhauled. Live 7's groove functions were rather elementary: it was only possible to select one of three swing resolutions for each clip and then set a global swing amount for the entire Set. Live 8 comes with a library of groove templates, which can impose a variety of new timing and volume settings on a clip. For MIDI clips, note events are shifted on the timeline and velocities are modified, whereas for audio clips the audio content is warped and a clip envelope is created to automate the gain levels. Applying a groove to a clip is non‑destructive — a groove is just a timing and volume template applied in real time as a clip plays — so grooves can be auditioned and hot‑swapped without risk of damage to the underlying material. If you want to make a groove's influence permanent, you can 'commit' it to its clip, causing the timing and volume changes to be applied as an edit.
Grooves have parameters which can be modified — active grooves are stored in a 'groove pool' in the Live Set. It's not possible to see the actual timing and volume parameters, but the time division, quantisation, timing strength, randomness and velocity scaling can all be fine‑tuned (or coarse‑tuned, for radical effects).
I have to say I'm not a great fan of swing time in my sequenced electronica sets, but the new groove machinery is sufficiently flexible that it can be used in all sorts of ways to subtly vary or randomise a lot of otherwise inflexible material. Even with the swing timing disabled, it's possible to slightly randomise the note timing in MIDI percussion clips, to inject energy into otherwise lifeless arrangements.
Lastly, and most intriguingly, Live claims to be able to extract groove templates from existing MIDI and audio clips. It's hard to tell exactly what this involves, especially since it's not possible to inspect the contents of a groove, and my brief experiments with audio clips were rather inconclusive, but groove extraction from MIDI clips seems to be a predictable way to create customised grooves from scratch or to match existing material.
For a while now, Live has supported composite devices constructed by nesting and layering simpler ones: an Instrument Rack enables several instruments (or chains of instruments and effects) to be played and controlled in parallel, and a Drum Rack maps each instrument in a rack to its own trigger and MIDI key. Whenever a mixer channel contains a Rack, that channel can be expanded in the mixer view so that each component of the rack has its own sub‑channel.
In Live 8, this kind of parallel nesting of channels can be done directly in the mixer. Two or more tracks can be grouped together under an enclosing group track. Each of these sub‑tracks can route its own output or send audio into the group track itself — this enclosing track has its own mixer controls and can host effects, allowing it to act as a submixer.
The enclosed tracks are first‑class citizens: unlike rack chains, they have their own individual clips. In the Session view, the group track shows clips as cross‑hatched areas when several enclosed tracks have clips in the same scene; the clips launch as a unit. In the Arrangement view, the group track has a thumbnail view showing clips from the sub‑tracks in the timeline.
Another improvement in the area of arranging is the addition of programmable crossfades between adjacent audio clips on the same track. In the Arrangement view, crossfade curves can be dragged and reshaped at the boundaries between clips, and, rather cleverly, the waveform is actually redrawn to reflect the effect of the fade. Even for isolated clips, it's now possible to edit the in and out fade curves without having to mess around with volume automation.
The MIDI editing pane (in both the Session and Arrangement views) has been improved. The pane now has an editing cursor, so MIDI events can be pasted at any desired location, and there is finally a step‑record function: the cursor can be nudged back and forth with the arrow keys, and if the track is record‑enabled, any notes held on a keyboard will be recorded into the clip at the cursor location as the cursor moves.
In earlier versions of Live, a VST or AU plug‑in's parameters would be made available in a panel in the track's device chain, so that specific parameters could be attached to MIDI Controllers or selected for automation. This worked well enough for simple plug‑ins, but many soft synths have hundreds of parameters, occupying a long strip of panel space and making it difficult to find that very particular oscillator or filter setting. Live 8 still has a panel for parameters, but for complex plug‑ins the panel starts off empty, and there's a configuration mode in which Live is taught which parameters to present there — they are selected by pointing and clicking directly in the plug‑in's interface. These parameters are also the only ones presented for automation in the Arrangement view, as well as for clip envelopes, so a huge amount of irrelevant detail — all the parameters which are set once, purely in the preset — are hidden from view. This is a simple but marvellous piece of streamlining, which focuses attention on those things that change, by removing from view those that don't.
Live's venerable four‑operator FM synthesizer, Operator, has received an upgrade, although at first view its on‑screen appearance is little changed. There are actually slightly fewer built‑in oscillator waveforms than there were in the previous version, but Operator more than makes up for this by allowing you to draw your own! A new oscillator pane presents a graph of editable waveform partials, while a thumbnail shows the resulting waveform. The built‑in waveforms are just presets in the partial editor. This doesn't exactly transform Operator into a full‑on additive synthesizer, but it seriously beefs up its power without interfering with its user interface. There are also additional filter types, and the filter response curve can now be viewed and edited graphically. New control options have been added — MIDI Controllers and values can be routed into the voice architecture via a small modulation matrix — and for added wackiness it's possible to select different FM algorithms at any time via automation or MIDI control, even while notes are playing.
Collision, meanwhile, is new for Live 8. It's a physical modelling synthesizer, where mallet and noise oscillators feed into a pair of modelled resonators. Collision excels at modelling instruments like vibraphones and glockenspiels, producing sounds that are clear, responsive and organic. There are also some surprisingly good analogue synth bass patches, and the plucked guitars have a nice sense of life to them. There are even some lovely piano presets, which I would have sworn were sample sets before examining them more closely. The cost, though, is CPU load, which can be quite hefty with certain choices of resonator algorithm.
My personal experience of modelling synthesis, starting with the Yamaha VL1 many years ago, is that the process of sound programming is usually pretty opaque unless you're the type of person who wears a white coat and carries a slide rule, but Collision actually presents a fair chunk of its architecture in a clear and accessible manner: the noise source has a conventional filter and envelope, and the resonators have controls that make sense after a bit of consideration (and that have descriptive hints in Live's Info View pane). I found that I was able to constructively alter resonator settings without breaking the preset, wrecking the tuning or or blowing up my speakers. I don't think Collision will ever be my 'go to' instrument for bread‑and‑butter synthesis, but it does present physical modelling in a demystified manner, which I applaud.
Bundled with Collision is an audio effect named Corpus, which is roughly equivalent to one of Collision's resonators with its own dedicated LFO. Corpus can be tuned by MIDI note number, and offers a variety of rich effects treatments that can be applied to conventional instruments and samples in order to add a bit of physically modelled 'pixie dust' to a sound.
Live 8 features a real‑time looper, similar in intent to the footpedal and rackmount loopers that are currently in vogue as performance devices. The Looper 'instrument' is actually an audio effect, since it generally needs an audio feed (which can, of course, be from an audio clip, soft synth or effect), although you can drag existing audio clips directly into Looper's buffer, as well as exporting loops as new clips. (Looper also saves its current buffer with the Live Set.) Looper is designed to be operated by a MIDI footswitch, so it has a big multi‑mode button that toggles between record, play and overdub mode and provides single‑level undo and redo of recording passes, separately from Live's global undo/redo stack. Looper's play/record mode can also be automated to allow it to be operated as part of an arrangement mix, although for some reason the mode can't be assigned to a rack's macro controls. The maximum loop length is not documented, but I dropped a two‑hour clip into Looper's buffer and it seemed to want to loop it after about 40 bars.
Looper can reverse its buffered audio and vary playback speed by up to three octaves up or down, but that's about the extent of its abilities. The playback speed control (which is also used for matching loop tempo to the Live Set) does not feature audio warping, so if the speed varies, so does the pitch.
Compared to other looping systems, Looper is rather basic, but that rather misses the point: since Looper is really just one of Live's audio effects, there's nothing to stop you using multiple Looper instances, and all of the other machinery Live provides, to build arbitrarily large and sophisticated looping engines to do almost anything you want. Looper is best viewed as a building block, rather than a complete instrument in its own right.
Perhaps not before time, Live 8 has its own vocoder effect. I've been a fan of vocoders since the days of the Korg Wavestation, when I would spend far too much time modulating pad sounds with rhythmic wave sequences. Thanks to Live 8's Vocoder I can revisit a whole set of techniques I've not used for years. Vocoder can run up to 40 bands in mono or stereo, with parameters for filter bank range and bandwidth, and a formant control to shift the filter frequences as a unit. The filter bands can also be gated. A graphical display allows the gain of each band to be individually set, and also shows the audio level in each band.
As an audio effect, Vocoder takes the modulator signal as input. The carrier can be tapped as an audio signal from anywhere in Live's mixer, or it can be a variable‑density noise generator, or it can be the modulator itself. Vocoder is clearly laid out and easy to use, running with a small CPU footprint, and does exactly what it says on the tin.
Live also now sports a combination frequency shifter/ring modulator. One's imagination immediately drifts towards unearthly sound effects and early modular synthesis, and these kinds of application are indeed catered for, but there are subtler applications of such a device: a slight frequency shift can produce a sweet flanging effect, whereas a low‑frequency ring‑modulation induces a gentle tremolo. There's also a place for more extreme treatments, such as altering the tone or tuning of individual drum samples in a drum rack.
The boxed version of Live 8 comes with a new release of the Essential Instrument Collection, EIC2 for short. The collection contains acoustic and electric keyboards, strings, brass, woodwinds, plucked instruments (harp, guitars, basses), mallets, choirs and drums: a good coverage of orchestral and band instruments. The EIC2 presets are more than just collections of multisamples, as they have been assembled using Live's device‑chaining machinery and feature multiple nested zones and layers, often with internal audio filters, and always with easy‑access macro controls allowing fast selection or editing of important aspects of the sound. The EIC2 instruments are actually shipped in multiple versions, balancing fidelity against computer resources, so that musical ideas can be sketched out using the low‑resolution instruments and later recorded with all the keyboard and velocity zones using 24‑bit samples.
Suite 8 also ships with two whole DVDs of Session Drums, again constructed as sophisticated chains of instruments and effects. The individual multi‑miked drums are actually layered Live instruments carrying distinct samples of the signal recorded from stereo overhead and room mics, and these signals are cleverly routed back into local submixes, allowing for remixing from the original microphone inputs.
Finally, there is a library of Latin percussion kits, covering a range of exotica from agogo to wood block. I was quite taken with the bells and chimes, and the timbale rolls are just a little bit too much fun.
With all of Ableton's drum kits, the mappings from keyboard notes to drum parts is standard, so it's easy to assemble customised kits drawn from different presets without too many clashes across the keyboard. All the drum libraries are packaged with a large number of Live Sets containing MIDI clips of drum loops using various kits. The clips can be browsed and auditioned within Live and then dragged into a session as starting points. I'm used to auditioning sample CDs, so had to remind myself that these clips are fully editable MIDI sequences driving instrument racks which are themselves editable. The scope for creative exploration is immense.
Ableton Suite 8 also ships with the existing set of instruments: the Sampler multi‑zone sampler with filter, Analog twin‑oscillator modelled analogue synthesizer, Tension physical modelling string synthesizer, Electric modelled electric piano, and 500MB of sampled drum machines.
Live 8 is the fourth major revision of Ableton Live that I've used, and, contrary to the usual software upgrade practice, the environment still gives an overriding impression of stability. Each major revision delivers a handful of important enhancements to the core package, but otherwise the process is one of minimal upheaval and low disruption. It seems that Ableton are now looking more to adding value to the Live environment, with a succession of new instrument releases and an ever‑growing selection of sample sets and loops. The full Ableton Suite is such a comprehensive package that it's possible to imagine entire production projects using it exclusively, without any additional instruments or effects.
The on‑line sharing feature (see 'Share And Share Alike' box) has a lot of potential, but the amount of mileage in that really depends on the effort that is put into the web experience and the support given to the Ableton user community that exploits it. Finally, we have Max For Live just round the corner, and I can absolutely guarantee that once the Live and Max systems — and user communities — intersect, there will be a total rollercoaster ride ahead!
All in all, Ableton have succeeded in producing an upgrade which adds considerable value to the Live environment and also points to an exciting future.
As well as the major changes described in the main text, Live 8 ships with a number of other additions and enhancements:
- New effects include a multi‑band dynamics processor (with visual feedback), a brick‑wall limiter, and an overdrive effect.
- Live's display can now be zoomed between 50 and 200 percent of its normal scale: the window size is unchanged but all its contents are resized accordingly.
- MIDI clips and audio files can be scrubbed and previewed in the file browser using a miniature waveform display.
- Mixer settings can be altered for multiple selected tracks at the same time.
- Tracks and scenes can now be assigned colours, as can chains and macro controls in instrument racks.
Live 8 marks a push into the world of on‑line musical collaboration and sharing of work and ideas. On‑line collaboration isn't new, of course, and neither is uploading and downloading of music and data files, but this is the first attempt by a music software company to integrate on‑line sharing directly into a production package. A Live Set can be made public, or shared with selected users.
All file sharing takes place via Ableton's servers (in fact, the files are stored in Amazon's S3 server cloud) rather than being peer‑to‑peer, so collaborators need to set up on‑line accounts with Ableton. The release notes talk about "intelligent” file transfer — only changed files are transmitted each time, which is obviously good news when working with large projects containing a lot of audio material — but the sharing scheme is really a variation on traditional uploading and downloading, rather than something smart enough to synchronise projects between multiple users (a process that is notoriously difficult to get right). Uploading is initiated in Live, which launches a web browser pointing at the Set's web page when the upload is done. Downloading is initiated from a web page containing a special 'ableton:' URL which transfers control to Live to do the actual downloading. At the moment the sharing service is free, but Ableton have not ruled out charging for it in future.
Each upload of a Live Set results in a new copy, as does each download, so collaborators are responsible for keeping track of the versions of Sets they transfer. Downloaded Sets are stored in a temporary directory, so you are also responsible for saving the project somewhere permanent. In practice, I found that Live tried to be rather too clever about locating audio files from Sets that had been through a few upload/download cycles, so the default action of collecting and saving all referenced files into the current project seems a wise approach.
Since there is no guarantee that all collaborators will have the same selection of MIDI sound sources and effects — hardware or software — Live offers the option of freezing any tracks that use internal or external instruments prior to upload. When a set is downloaded, tracks can be unfrozen if the recipient has the appropriate software instruments, or else left frozen until the track is back in the hands of its original creator.
The sharing process within Live is neatly integrated — a dedicated file-browser pane shows the progress of file transfers — but the web experience is, at the time of writing, a little primitive. A user's Live Sets are listed in order but there is no exact note of the time of the upload, which is awkward when the same Set can be uploaded several times under the same name. An uploaded Set cannot be renamed or, for that matter, deleted, and the on‑line experience is rather impoverished compared to other audio sharing services such as Soundcloud. However, it's early days yet — according to Ableton, the service is still in beta — so I would expect it to improve over the coming months.
One wrinkle I discovered is that Live refuses to upload audio files in Sound Designer II format, such as those created by MOTU's AudioDesk — probably because such files have a Macintosh‑specific internal resource format. Since Live does not provide any means to convert files between different formats, Live Sets containing such files cannot be shared.
It might also be worth perusing the small print of the licences of any sample libraries that you're using, since uploading and making available Live Sets containing copyrighted samples probably violates numerous bits of licence agreement.
The most intriguing, and almost certainly the most powerful, enhancement for Live 8 is one that, alas, isn't shipping yet, despite having its own chapter in the manual. Max For Live combines (or will combine) Ableton Live with Cycling 74's Max/MSP audio and media construction kit, allowing Max/MSP programs ('patchers' in Max parlance) to exist inside a Live Set. Max/MSP can already export VST plug‑ins to run inside most sequencers via a run‑time system called Pluggo, but Max For Live is a whole new ball game. Not only will fragments of Max inhabit Live's window directly, looking virtually indistiguishable from Live's built‑in instruments, but these embedded Max patchers will be editable: they will be MIDI and audio plug‑ins which can be taken apart, modified and rebuilt directly in the Live environment. All we know so far is that Max For Live will be an additional product rather than a bundled component of Live, and that we can expect to see it later this year.