Live 12 introduces a raft of new features, devices and general improvements.
Hot — or at least warm — on the heels of the latest version of the Push controller (Sound On Sound, July 2023) comes a new version of Ableton’s flagship DAW, right on time for the roughly three‑year refresh cycle. The much‑trailed new feature is support for alternate tuning systems, but there’s also a bunch of improvements to Live’s interface, some nifty new editing features and a handful of brand‑new devices. Let's explore...
Live has always had a pretty regimented idea of what should appear where in its window (or both windows, if used in two‑window mode). That regime has been broken down a bit in Live 12. For a start, the mixer view from the Live Session can now be shown in the Arrangement, a design move that makes such obvious sense one wonders why it wasn’t done before. And — sacrilege! — you can view a track’s device chain and selected clip at the same time. Try to do both of these things at once and you’re probably going to run out of editing space on a laptop screen, unless you scale the view down and have very good eyesight, but on even a modest external screen these are clear usability improvements.
Navigating around a Live Set has been made easier too. There’s a new Navigate menu that exposes keyboard shortcuts for selecting the main areas of the interface, and various Tab key combinations that then walk around controls within each area: along the control bar, up and down the controls in a mixer channel, and so on — or even within a single device. I’m a fan of keyboard navigation, but there’s so much on screen in a Live project that I’d probably wear my Tab key out if I tried to use it exclusively to navigate. You will probably end up learning a handful of shortcuts and then switching back and forth between keyboard and mouse while working.
Live’s browser has had a big revamp. A major new feature is filters: each filter is a set of on/off tags for specific characteristics of many types of object within Live, from an entire Live Set all the way down to a single clip file. The actual filters available change depending on the type of object: for samples the tags include content (sample or video), type (loop or one shot), category and character of sound, and so on. For plug‑ins the content tag can be device or preset (although plug‑ins rarely export presets to Live unless you save them to disk), and there are tags for properties such as format (AU, VST2, VST3) and creator (the vendor).
At every stage the filter is being applied to the root selection (in Library or Places) in the left column of the browser, not the actual item selected on the right. And in any specific library location or place, the tags are gently highlighted according to whether there are any items at all that match them, according to the current active filter, guiding you to finer searches with more tags.
Filters can be edited, so that you can add your own tags — the editing pane is also where you get to change which tags are enabled on the selected object. I added my own name to some Max For Live devices I’ve created, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I could move a device from one folder to another without its tag disappearing. The tagging appears to be done by name: change the name and the tags vanish.
I don’t know whether I will spend an afternoon at some point going through all my projects adding tags — I suspect not — but I found it immediately useful to filter plug‑ins by format, to make sure I was consistently using the VST3 versions rather than VST2 or AU, since Live 12 no longer groups the different formats into folders. Tagging entire Set files might well be useful for some workflows.
For a more contemporary take on searching, presets and samples support ‘Sound Similarity’ searching, using tags and neural net analysis to list content deemed similar. Results varied from spookily similar to vague approximation, so at the very least another way to influence your creative choices.
Live still features ‘collections’, which are coloured labels attached to objects. These seem to be orthogonal to the new tagging machinery. Select a collection by colour, and its contents can still be filtered. In any view, filtered or not, collection colours are shown against the items.
One thing I found myself wanting to do was search the currently loaded Live Set or Project for devices it was using — useful for swapping out those obsolete VST2 or Intel‑native plug‑ins — but this seems not to be possible for anything embedded in a Set, except for Max For Live devices, which exist separately on disk. Other DAWs do allow searching and listing of currently loaded devices, and I miss that feature in Live.
Tags are global, and appear to be stored in the application’s preferences folder, so if your tags are important, be sure to back them up.
One of the prime features of Max For Live, apart from generating and processing MIDI and audio, is its ability to control the Live Set that it runs inside. This enables you to build and use modulation sources like LFOs and envelope followers, and attach them to controls in other devices in the Set, or even mixer controls. Until now, this feature came with a down side, in that it wasn’t doing modulation in the true sense at all, but something akin to automation take‑over. A parameter under the influence of Max For Live could be changed in value, but the value would be changed permanently. This would potentially mess up any preset being saved, and also preclude any kind of manual update or automation of the same parameter. (You might, for example, want to have a long slow automation lane to open a filter, while also applying some LFO modulation.)
‘Real’ modulation already exists in Live: clips can contain envelopes which either modulate or automate parameters in a track’s devices or mixer. But now, Max For Live can do proper modulation as well, offsetting a parameter from a base value. This modulation can be unipolar or bipolar, and its presence is indicated by a green dot next to the parameter being affected. It is possible, as the illustration shows, for a parameter to be under both automation (red dot) and modulation (green dot) control at the same time.
I discovered that it is also possible to modulate a parameter with a clip envelope and a Max For Live device at the same time, and the effect appears to be a combination of the two, but a parameter cannot be controlled by more than one Max For Live device. (I’m sure some kind of clever modulation‑mixing device could be built if there were some demand for it.)
Plug‑ins can have modulation applied to them as well, but this is just treated like automation, and changes the actual value of any parameter being controlled, no doubt a restriction of the current plug‑in standards (VST and AU). If Ableton ever support the newer CLAP plug‑in format, the problem might well go away for some plug‑ins at least.
Live is now scale‑aware, in that clips and MIDI effects, as well as some devices, can have their notes constrained to a particular scale rooted in a particular key. Click a toggle in the control bar and that scale will be the default for clips and devices (and the new MIDI Tools, described below). Clips will show the active scale in the piano roll, and you can hide MIDI pitch rows which aren’t in that scale. MIDI devices can follow the current scale as well: the Scale device is a natural contender here, able to constrain notes to the current scale rather than one set in the device itself; the Arpeggiator can do this also.
At this stage I started to wonder how I would go about writing a track which modulated key part way through, a technique not unknown even in modern popular music. Even though the main scale selector is shown prominently in the control bar, this setting tracks the scale property of the selected MIDI clip. When a clip is launched in the Session, or starts playing in the Arrangement, its particular scale (if any) takes effect and is imposed dynamically on any devices in the track which are set up to use scale selection.
Instruments can potentially make use of scale information as well, although to date Meld (see below) is the only one to do so. When it’s in scale mode, Meld’s two oscillators can be tuned in scale degrees rather than semitones,...