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Ableton Live 6

Looping & Composition Software [Mac OS X/Windows]
By Simon Price

Ableton Live 6

Ableton's Live revolutionised user interface design in music software, and with every update, the company have striven to retain its ergonomic appeal whilst adding some very sophisticated new features.

Ever since Live 's 2001 release rocked the world of computer music, Ableton's prolific development efforts have brought us an average of one major update per year. Version 6 has a long list of new features, many aimed at broadening Live 's appeal in the composition and production spheres. Performers and DJs also get looked after with the new instrument and effects 'racks', MIDI control features, and massive performance improvements. So is Live in danger of moving away from the fast, streamlined working methods it's known for and sinking under a bloat of features, or has the newest kid on the block come of age?

Two For The Show

I have to admit that I was a bit surprised when I heard that Live 6 would support multi-processor and multi-core computers, as I had no idea it didn't support them before. To find out what performance boost Live 6 would give me on my dual-G5 Mac, I created 10 MIDI tracks, and put an arpeggiated Simpler bass patch with some effects on each one. Playing all the tracks at the same time in single-processor mode gave me a CPU reading of 37 percent. I then turned on multi-core support in the Preferences, and CPU use dropped to just 19 percent! Further tests confirmed that instruments and effects are completely shared among the processors. Playback of audio Clips, however, seems to be kept to a single processor: when playing 24 audio tracks the CPU reported 16 percent use with one processor, and 14 percent with multi-processing enabled. On mixed MIDI, audio and instrument projects the performance gain seems to be well in excess of 50 percent. This is such a big deal, it's like getting a brand new computer. You can open up those projects that were pushing the limit, and find a new level of processing headroom. If you play live, now is definitely the time to look at dual-core laptops.

Killer Rack

The centrepiece of Live 6, however, is the new Racks functionality. A crude approximation would be to say that Racks are an equivalent idea to Reason 's Combinator, or Native Instruments' Kore shell, but they deserve a more considered explanation. When you select a track in Live, any plug-ins on that track appear at the bottom of the screen, running from left to right in the order in which they take effect. An example is the patch I used for the performance tests. This 'chain' of Devices starts with a MIDI plug-in, which feeds an instrument, the output of which then passes through some audio effects. In Live 5, you could group all these Devices, making them act as a single Device which could be saved as a patch for use in the future. Racks are, in essence, Groups with multiple layers, which can act in parallel on the same track. This allows you to create patches with keyboard splits and/or layers, and many more complex configurations. Controlling the patch is simplified by a master control panel with eight 'macro' knobs that can be assigned to parameters within the chains.

Racks are made in the same way that Groups were in Live 5: by selecting the devices and choosing Edit / Group. Live 6 's library includes a number of Rack presets for audio effects, instruments and combinations. Let's have a look at a couple of examples. The screen below shows an instrument Rack with three layers (chains): an Impulse drum machine and two instances of Sampler. In the centre is the chain list, with a key map display where I've allocated which keys play which instruments. The Tambourine Sampler has its own key zone, while the Impulse and second Sampler are layered. The relative levels of the chains are set here in the list, where there are also on/off and solo buttons for each chain. The Impulse chain is highlighted, so this Device chain is displayed to the right. In the Macro control panel, I've assigned the first two knobs to control effects on the first chain, and three further knobs to control the levels of the chains.

Racks containing only effects can be used to create complex effects presets, complete with relevant controls. They also allow you to route signals through effects in parallel. Signals coming into the Rack are split and fed through each chain, then recombined at the output. You can nest Racks within one another, so you could have several parallel effects in one Rack, and then route the output through a reverb at the end. Grouping this arrangement results in a Rack within a Rack. Although this provides for almost limitless possibilities, it would be tidier to be able to mix chains and route the result through final-stage effects within a single Rack. The same is the case if you want to add MIDI effects before a layered instrument Rack: you either need a Rack within a Rack, or the same effect on every chain.

Rack 'Em Up

The new Racks functionality gives huge new scope to existing Devices, but there are also several new additions and improvements to Live 's line-up. Ableton Live 6

  • Note Length, a new MIDI effect, can be used to change MIDI performances, but its most useful feature is the ability to create Note events when releasing keys. This has been used in the included piano sample patch to add release sounds.
  • EQ Eight doubles the number of multi-mode bands from the Live 's previous EQ. It defaults to having four bands enabled, and is compatible with older songs that used EQ Four. An awesome feature is the Scale control, which lets you alter the intensity of the EQ globally, from 0 to 200 percent. For example, at 50 percent all bands' cut or boost is reduced by a half.
  • Utility now lets you set pan and width at the final stage of a chain as well as gain and phase. The Width contol goes up to 200 percent, providing stereo widening.
  • Saturator now has a waveshaper mode with a variable curve. You can also switch in a second-stage saturator which limits the output, preventing clipping at intensely driven settings.
  • Operator (an optional add-on) has some new goodies, such as new FM algorithms and four-pole filters.
  • Dynamic Tube is easily my favourite new Device. It's a valve emulation effect with three shapes. This is mostly a subtle effect, and you have to push it quite hard to get obvious effects. You'll want to go back and stick it all over your old tunes to get the lovely tube grunge. The results are most notable when you bypass the effect and hear how puny the original clean version sounds in comparison.

Chain Gang

As well as key mapping, there is also a velocity map with definable crossfade ranges. This makes it possible, for example, to create multisampled drum kits with multiple Impulses or Simplers. The feature I found most useful, however, was the Chain map. This has a 0-127 scale, with zone bars for each chain. The orange marker at the top can be moved by hand, or mapped to a Macro or MIDI controller. By allocating the brown bars to ranges in this map, you can switch chains on or off, depending on the position of the marker. You can even set crossfade ranges with the smaller of the two bars. This has huge potential, especially for live work and sound design. The screen above shows a multi-effects Rack which would be perfect for a live DJ-style set. The Rack has four different effects, each with its own chain. I've assigned each chain a range in the Chain map, and mapped the top-right Macro knob to the chain select marker. As a final flourish I've set overlapping crossfade zones, so I can actually morph between the different effects smoothly. You can use the same technique to set up a selection of instruments for a live performance. A single knob on your controller keyboard can then be used to switch or fade between different instruments and configurations.

The new Rack feature in Live 6 allows you to create multi-layered Device chains.The new Rack feature in Live 6 allows you to create multi-layered Device chains.Macro mapping is fairly straightforward: you simply switch on Map Mode in the Rack, click on a parameter, then click Map on the Macro. You can also right-click parameters and assign them directly to a knob. Each Macro can control multiple parameters, and I couldn't find a significant limit on how many (I got to 16 before I gave up trying). When Map Mode is active, the browser display switches to a list of all Macro assignments. The minimum and maximum values are entered here, and you can create reversed polarity assignments by setting a larger minimum than maximum, or right-clicking and choosing 'Invert Mapping'.

The Macro assignments are certainly useful, especially for live performance, or for controlling complex patches. The new MIDI control functionality comes into its own here (see the 'Hands On' box). When there are nested Racks, each Rack's Macros can control its own devices, plus they can control Macros of other Racks that are nested one level down. One thing I didn't like, though, was that once a parameter has been assigned to a Macro, you can no longer use the original control. Although this ensures that the Macro stays in sync with the parameter (and you can't have two-way mapping because there might be multiple assignments), it's annoying when you want directly to program a device that has Macro mappings. Macros can be assigned to AU and VST plug-ins, but only via Live 's expanded plug-in parameter view — you can't directly click a control on the plug-in to map it, but you can wiggle it to quickly find the correct slider in the parameter display. The final thing that would be on my wish list would be some assignable buttons as well as knobs.

Chill Out Tunes

Chain mapping makes it possible to switch between different chains of effects using a controller.Chain mapping makes it possible to switch between different chains of effects using a controller.If multi-processor support is still not enough for your tracks, or you're on a single-processor machine, Deep Freeze has your name on it. Like other freezing schemes, Live 's Deep Freeze renders the contents of tracks as audio files to save real-time processing power. However, Live 6 lets you do much more with frozen tracks than any other program, and in many situations you hardly even notice when a track is frozen. You can make changes to the contents of frozen tracks in the Arrange View, such as moving, duplicating or trimming the Clips. You can edit mixer automation and mixer envelopes. You can also work in the Session View as normal, launching and stopping frozen audio and MIDI Clips, duplicating them, and creating scenes. You can even record into the Arrangement by launching and stopping Clips on frozen tracks. Obviously, what you can't do is edit or play any plug-ins on a frozen track. One cool feature is that you can drag a frozen MIDI Clip into an audio track, whereupon it loads the bounced audio file created by the freeze (as with tracks 4 and 5 in the screen on the first page of this review). And, of course, the top feature of Live 's freeze functionality is still that you can run frozen tracks that use plug-ins you don't even have on the system.

A Flatten command gives you the option to completely render a frozen track to disk, a process which is almost instantaneous. On audio tracks, this replaces the Clips with versions recorded through the track's effects. Flattened MIDI tracks are turned into audio tracks, with all the MIDI Clips replaced by rendered audio versions. Once a track has been flattened, all the audio effects and instruments are removed, and the track is no longer frozen. Genius.

Bits And Pieces

Ableton Live 6Live 6 is a whopping release, and we don't have enough room to cover all the new stuff in detail. So here's a quick round-up of some extras. There are several improvements to the mixer. Mixer channels can now be resized flexibly, with as much important information as possible retained. You can extend the length of the faders, revealing new peak level and overload warning indicators. Bussing a track output to another track can now be done Pre FX, Post FX, or Post Mixer (post fader and panner). The big news in the mixer is the inclusion of selectable crossfader curves (see screenshot).

There has been an overhaul of Live 's file management system, and new features in the Browser. Live songs are now created in a folder that can include anything you record along with presets and so on. There is an excellent Project Management display that lets you see what's being used by the song, find missing files, create a Live Pack of the project, or copy elements you've created into the Library for access by other songs. The Browser now features bookmarks, and you can drag in unprotected AAC files. Finally, you can now view and use individual instruments in Live from a Rewire master.

Clip Joints

It's now possible to select multiple Clips and edit their warp markers at the same time, as long as they are the same length. The screen above shows an example of this. The Clips don't need to be recorded in the Arrangement, but it's cool to watch all the waveforms compress and stretch as you move the warp markers. A multiple Clip selection is indicated by striped lines in the Clip view. Any warp markers you add and move will be duplicated for all the selected Clips. This a really handy production technique, allowing you to change the rhythmic feel of all the tracks at once. I can imagine some Pro Tools operators who would normally use Beat Detective dumping across multi-mic drum recordings so they can use this to tighten up performances.

In The Movies

Yet another major change introduced in Live 6 is movie import capability. Live 's warping makes it an ideal package for composers and music editors working in the TV and film worlds. Traditionally, half the battle is making sure that significant picture cuts and events on screen have a degree of synchronisation with the music. Live makes it easier to experiment with tempos and tempo changes, and if it comes down to it, cheat.

Multiple Clips can now be warped as one -- great for fixing multi-miked drums, for example.Multiple Clips can now be warped as one -- great for fixing multi-miked drums, for example.Unsurprisingly, Live does not take the same approach as the other sequencer packages. Quicktime-format video files are dragged from the browser or desktop into an audio track in the Arrangement, and any audio tracks in the movie come too. A movie window then appears, and can be resized freely. There's no way to constrain the size of the window to the movie's aspect ratio, but if the window doesn't match, the movie doesn't get stretched: you just get black bars.

The first cool thing is that you can import multiple movies and edit them together, freely cutting, trimming and duplicating sections of video. You can even have multiple movie tracks, although only one can play at a time. Even Pro Tools has only just got these features! The real jaw-dropper, though, is that you can warp movies just as you can audio. By default, movies are not warped, so if you change the tempo, the SMPTE timecode ruler stretches compared to the bars and beats ruler in the Arrangement, and the video continues to play back at the same speed. Switch Warp on in the video Clip, however, and video playback speeds up or slows down to stay sync'ed to the bars and beats ruler. You can even set warp markers in the video. While this is not something you'd need when working in post-production, it is cool, and it does mean that you could use Live as a rudimentary live sequencer for visuals.

So it's a great start for Live with video. However, there are a few things that film and TV people are going to want added. Firstly, although a timecode ruler has been added, there's no grid option for it. Video can be snapped to bars and beats, or moved freely, but there's no way to snap video so that it aligns correctly with the timecode ruler. There's also no way to change the timecode start time compared to bars; there is a new function that lets you create a marker in the bars ruler and specify that this is the start of the song, but it doesn't renumber the bars, which is a problem, as most video starts at 01 or 10 hours timecode. Obviously, though, these things are not a problem if you are working on a section of video in isolation and will later cut it into the movie.

Hands On

Rather than fixing assignments to specific parameters, Live 6 supports a number of specific devices for flexible control mapping. For example, my Oxygen 8 happily took control of the Macros on whichever Rack was currently selected. Unfortunately, it's not enough just to select a track to control the Rack that is on it: you have to actually click on the Device.

One of the long-standing problems with MIDI control is that when you change the Device that you controller is addressing, the physical knobs are out of sync with those on screen. Endless encoders cause incremental changes which solves this problem, but Live 6 has some new tricks for standard knobs. There is a new Takeover Mode preference, with three settings. None gives you the traditional behaviour, where parameters in Live immediately snap to the position of a knob when it is moved. In Pick-up mode, a parameter will ignore the knob it's assigned to until the knob passes through the parameter's current position. The cleverest mode is Value Scaling, which gives you instant results with no jumps. As soon as you move an assigned knob, Live reads where the knob is and scales the range of the parameter to match. The result is that either way you turn the knob, the control moves in the correct direction and reaches the end stops at the same time as the knob. Once this occurs, the knob and parameter are back in sync. It works beautifully.

Essential Instruments

In the last couple of years Live has really beefed up its compositional abilities, with MIDI tracks and instrument support. These features are advanced, but the package has been behind some of the competition in terms of sound sources. The basic Live package came with the Impulse drum machine and the simple sampler Simpler (try saying that a few times). A fairly basic library was included, which was really more like a set of example patches than a fully fledged instrument package. The instruments were tools to be programmed, rather than browsed. The FM synth Operator has been around for a while, and now we have Sampler, but these are both paid-for extras, and seems Ableton have decided that now's the time to start filling the gap.

The Essential Instrument Collection is included with the boxed (not download) version of Live 6. It's a library of multisampled instruments from Sonivox (formerly Sonic Implants). The good news is that they can be opened and used with Simpler, so you don't need to buy Sampler (in fact, you can't actually open the patches with Sampler). Although user-created Simpler patches are still restricted to using a single sample, Ableton have done something clever under the bonnet that lets Simpler open (but not edit) the full multi-zone, multi-velocity patches. The EIC consists predominantly of acoustic instruments, plus a piano, some electric keys, organs and some synth patches. To pick out a few examples, there's a Steinway Grand, a Mk1 Rhodes, orchestral strings (solo and ensemble), brass, harp, upright and electric bass, guitars, mallet instruments and choirs.

On one hand, this is a solid selection of standards that you would want to include. On the other, it's not the sort of electronica material you would normally associate with Live. Perhaps Ableton are trying to give Live a broader appeal than the types of music they traditionally cater for, or perhaps there's a lot more people out there doing pop, rock and orchestral/soundtrack music with Live than I realised. There is a synth section with some bass, lead, pad, 'bleep' and rhythmic patches, although for my tastes I'd like to see more along the lines of fat analogue synths and textures. The EIC is a big step forward from previous Live versions, although it still doesn't make the program's out-of-the-box sound generation capability quite as strong as, for example, the basic Reason or Logic Pro installs. However, if you've got existing plug-ins and sound sources, it's hard to beat the way Live employs them. Besides, there are bound to be expansion packs and updates from Sonivox to follow. One thing missing is a multisampled drum kit, and this is also true of Sampler 's library, which is a bit limited with the exception of the pad patches. These show how Sampler 's feature set, combined with Racks, can be used to create a variety of rich patches from a limited selection of actual samples. I'm guessing there will be updates to come with more patches that make further use of the EIC and Sampler libraries.

Best Of The 6

In nearly all respects, Live 6 is a fantastic update. It has a broad range of new innovations that will be felt in all the diverse areas it's used. I'm happy to report that Live 's fast and streamlined approach remains intact, and is in fact enhanced by the improved MIDI control. Racks are a fresh and effective take on the idea of creating complex, multi-Device patches, and the ability to switch and crossfade between different configurations is brilliant. This release makes Live considerably more flexible as a live tool beyond Clip playback. I think this update will also be the extra bit of encouragement needed for more people, myself included, to convert to using Live as their main environment for music composition. 

Sampler

On the face of it, calling a sampler Sampler seems pretty unimaginative, but as this is the big, fully functional brother of Simpler it makes sense. And it's better than calling it Complicater. Sampler looks similar to Simpler at a glance, but instead of the latter's single-panel display, there are six tabbed views to house all the necessary zone, filter, envelope and modulation parameters. The user interface is tailor-made for Live, with the key/velocity map displayed in its own area below the tracks.

Ableton Live 6 If you know samplers, then you'll already have a very good idea how Sampler works. Apart from its own format, Sampler can read patches for Akai S1000/3000, EXS24/Garage Band, Soundfont, non-protected Kontakt, and Gigastudio. I created some patches of my own, and tried importing from Kontakt. To import, you double-click the Kontakt patch in the browser, and it's converted and placed into the Imports folder in the Sampler directory. This can then be dragged into a track as a new Sampler instance. The key and velocity zone information came across OK, but filters, modulation, envelopes, loop fades, and so on didn't. Some Kontakt 2 patches would not import.

Everything except the parameters on the Sample page is global, which includes envelopes, filters and modulation. You can't create groups with different settings. This limits how much you can layer different sounds within a single Sampler, so this must be done in an Instrument Rack. This is quite a problem when importing layered patches from other samplers if each sample zone is filtered and modulated differently.

Sampler is unusually good when it comes to setting sample playback and looping options. If you are viewing a sample as you play it, you can see a playback cursor move through the waveform. Setting loop points and crossfades is equally visual, and this is one of the rare samplers where it's actually possible to set loops that don't click. Samples that would normally take some painstaking effort in a sample editor like Peak can be up and running in a few moments. This smooth loop crossfading, and the fact that you can modulate the sample start position, also means that you can sweep a short loop through a sample to create granular synthesis effects.

Another stand-out feature is the oscillator mod in the Pitch/Osc page. This is a high-frequency modulation oscillator that can be used for FM or AM modulation of the voices. There are 20 or so waveforms to choose from, as well as an envelope and pitch controls which can stay relative to the key you are playing. This vastly increases the sound design potential of Sampler: you can go nuts or just gently add some harmonics. There is a saturator, and a morphing filter that glides between different filter modes. The modulation and envelope options are extensive, and the mapping/routing system is highly versatile.

Pros

  • Powerful new Racks system for complex instrument and effects patches and live control.
  • Multi-core support brings huge performance gains.
  • New free-roaming MIDI control, with intelligent pick-up modes.
  • Warpable and editable video.
  • The best freeze and flatten system of any music package.
  • Multisampled instrument library that can be used with the basic Live package.
  • Dynamic Tube is brilliant.

Cons

  • Rack programming could be more intuitive.
  • Controls assigned to Macros cannot subsequently be used directly.
  • Library a bit lacklustre in some areas.

Summary

Live 6 is a major release with many cleverly implemented new features. Live remains the best choice for many live situations, and is now much more 'playable', with instrument Racks and much better MIDI control. Live 6 is also a mature composition environment, hard to beat for its fast and musical approach.

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Published November 2006