With the VST software market oversaturated with a good number of perfectly serviceable host applications, I can see how newcomers arriving fresh on the scene might possibly shudder at the overwhelming selection of digital audio workstations at our disposal. As there are many different types of music, there are also many different ways to approach music production.

Some programs specialize in live recording, focusing on ease of use, intended for musicians who want to plug in and play with a modicum of required technical expertise. Other more specialized programming environments are intended for the seasoned electronic music producer who possesses a deep knowledge of mix engineering, sound design, dynamics processing, etc. But what if there was a program made for both individuals? A hybrid of inspiration and innovation…

Since 2001, Berlin-based developer Ableton has endeavored to provide such a program, bridging the gap between performers and producers, and blurring the cultural divide between trained instrumentalist and experimental musicians. Ableton Live is so much more than just another DAW. It’s a cultural phenomenon. For well over a decade, the Ableton Community has become a vast global network of forward thinking collaborative independant artist who share ideas and break down creative walls everyday.

Max For Live, a streamlined version of Cycling 74’s innovative Max/MSP visual programing platform, was introduced in January of 2009, which ultimately became fully integrated with Ableton Live 9 two years later, making it one of few digital audio production suites seamlessly interfacing with a fully modular environment.

Despite its slight learning curve, Ableton Live is a very approachable DAW. Fortunately, in large part of its ever increasing popularity, there’s an abundance of orientation videos on YouTube, so you should have no problem familiarising yourself with Ableton’s interface; although there are some very noteworthy certified training facilities such as Point Blank and Dubspot that will help you master a veritable arsenal of factory instruments, effects and flexible Max For Live patches made available (often free) to registered users online.

For Those Unfamiliar With Ableton Live…

If you’re looking for a program worth investing yourself in, look no further. Its simple, utilitarian GUI is a little intimidating when starting out, but even though the controls might resemble the cockpit of a small aircraft upon first glance, Ableton’s architecture is actually very simple once you begin to grasp its overall design.

There are two basic environments within Live that display mixer tracks (simply called Tracks) either vertically within the Session View or horizontally within the Arrangement View. The Session View is where you’ll spend the majority of your time within the Device View, where you can drop instruments and effects, and also the Clip View, where you can fine-tune the Clip Properties and program musical material in the MIDI Note Editor. As for The Arrangement View, this is where you’ll be working with audio recordings and live sessions along a timeline that displays all your tracks on a linear grid from left to right.

Tracks are routed by default to the Master Track, and have In/Out options for routing any signal to and from virtually any combination of tracks – but don’t get careless! Signal flow can spiral wildly out of control if you happen to create an infinite feedback loop by routing the signal output back to its source through an unlimited number of Return Tracks. Although, this isn’t always a nasty accident; infinite feedback loops are often used to create dissonant pads and howling atmospheres for ambient sound design, just as long as you make sure not to exceed unity gain. Just drop a limiter in the Return Track. Also, there are Pre/Post Fader switches above the Master Fader that will either preserve the dry/wet ratio from the Track Volume (post-fader) or receive audio from its source and preserve its initial amplitude (pre-fader).

Obviously, MIDI Tracks store anything that will either send or receive MIDI event data while Audio Tracks store and play back audio. Within the Session View, Clip Slots appear underneath the Track Title Bar. If you double-click on an empty Clip Slot within a MIDI Track, it will change color and display the MIDI Note Editor in the Clip View below. But if you double-click on an empty Clip Slot within an Audio Track, nothing happens! Well, that’s because it’s an Audio Track, silly! Drag and drop a supported audio file into the empty Clip Slot, which should generate a randomly selected color and display the Sample Editor in the Clip View below.

Let’s say you’ve done this with a drum loop. After you’ve imported the audio, right-click on the Sample Editor and select the “Slice to New MIDI Track” option within the context menu, which will open the Slicing Options dialogue with a dropdown menu providing a list of “beat resolutions” and the option to slice in accordance with Warp Markers and detected Transients. In this case, we’ll just be using the “⅛ Note” time signature with the “Built-in” slicing preset. Now press “OK”. Congratulations, you’ve created your first Drum Rack!

A typical effects rack in Ableton Live.

A typical effects rack in Ableton Live.

Instrument and Effect Racks are perhaps the most valued aspect of Ableton Live. With the ability to “group” instruments and effects within a track’s “device chain”, you can build practically anything you can think of. Also, you can map almost any parameter in the device chain to each of eight built-in Macro Controls you can rename, re-color and program automation for within the Arrangement View. There are “Zone Editors” for Key, Velocity and Chain Zones, allowing you to manipulate the signal flow through any combination of devices. I would prefer a larger selection of Macro Controls, but there are a good number of workarounds made available in free Max For Live patches, such as Sixteen Macros by Vayner.

The factory instruments and effects are (in my personal opinion) the very best factory plugins I’ve ever used. Operator, a flexible FM synth that uses phase modulation in place of more traditional frequency modulation (similar to the legendary Yamaha DX7) just might be my absolute favorite FM PM synth… period! Analog, Ableton’s subtractive synth, is also very capable, and the unisoned pulse width modulation sounds heavenly. The audio effects are no exception. The Frequency Shifter and the Grain Delay modules are a blast, but the MIDI effects are actually some of the most inventive and useful tools I’ve had the privilege of tinkering with, and present a world of exciting new possibilities in generative music production.

When it comes to warping, Live was one of the first DAWs offering highly sophisticated audio stretching and transient detection algorithms available in the Warping Controls section of the Sample Properties Box in the Clip View. Basically, the “Warp” button will sync audio with the current project tempo, stretching the sample in accordance with Warp Markers or any one of five “Warp Modes”: Beats, Tones, Texture, Re-Pitch, and Complex/Complex Pro for large files. Each Warp Mode (other than Re-Pitch and Complex) offers specific controls for adjusting Granular Resolution, Transient Loop Mode, Formant compensation; these are among the brainiest time-stretching algorithms I’ve encountered in anything I’ve used in the last fourteen years of computer music production. So, if warping is your bag, Live is definitely where it’s at.

Also, the Groove Pool is a great way to give your tracks a little character by imposing “Groove” files (.agr) onto MIDI or Audio Clips. You can drag AGR files from the Browser Content Pane directly onto a clip in the Session View, which will appear in the Groove Pool (indicated by two wavy lines below the browser) or you can just drop AGR files into the Arrangement View if you want to work with them that way.

So, What’s New In Version 9.0, 9.1, 9.2 And Public Beta?

Live 9.0, released in the Fall of 2012, boasts several new features and bugfixes, support for Ableton’s own Push hardware controller, a new Glue Compressor, and a new Convolution Reverb plugin with a generous impulse response library that ships with the Max For Live Essentials pack, available as a free download for registered users on Ableton’s official website.

New effects in Ableton Live 9.

New effects in Ableton Live 9.

Perhaps one day the Convolution Reverb will be included as a factory effect plugin, but I’ve had no problems with any of Max For Live’s devices, so you won’t hear me complain. There’ve been several upgrades and bugfixes since 2012. I won’t bore you with a detailed checklist of every last tweak implemented within the past three years, but I will cover the most obvious changes made so far…

(Note: There’s a public beta version published FREQUENTLY!)

Support for multiple monitors allows you to work in both the Session and Arrangement View simultaneously. There are adjustable curves available for automation, which you can now record directly into clips or in the Arrangement View, having switched on the shiny new “Automation Arm” button. There’s also a new option to “Consolidate Time to New Scene” within the context menu for clips in the Arrangement View that will let you transfer information within the timeline to a new scene within the Session View, which is a huge time saver!

You can now drag and drop files directly into Live’s browser, and preview instrument presets either within the instrument folder in the Content Pane or metadata folders in the new “Sounds” category. There are three new options in the context menu for audio clips in the Session View to convert harmony, melody or drums to a new MIDI Track, which is actually pretty incredible! I really enjoy converting harmonic content to MIDI and exporting the MIDI note data (ctrl+shift+E) so I can load it up in a custom instrument rack in future projects.

Now that Max from Cycling ‘74 is integrated with Ableton Live, we now have exclusive access to an ocean of free and premium patches available on MaxForLive.com or Cycling74.com within the “Tools” category here.  I wholeheartedly recommend free patches, such as the Max For Live “Pluggo”, “Big Three”, “Building Tools” and the aforementioned “Live Essentials” pack, as well as the “Classic Synths” pack from Katsuhiro Chiba, which offers a phenomenal emulation of the Yamaha TX81Z rack mounted frequency modulation synth. Also, “Granulator II” from Ableton co-creator, experimental musician and professor Robert Henke has become my favorite granular sampler within the scope of existence, and might just become a factory instrument one day.

The Verdict

Where do I begin? Live is so menacingly broad in scope, I feel dangerously close to having a violent seizure attempting to synopsize it with any measurable degree of brevity. The implications are massive. While Live’s architecture might be cumbersome at first, you’ll eventually come to appreciate why the workflow is so drastically different from other programs. Ableton Live was made to change the way we typically approach electronic music production, with a more holistic attitude towards improvised production techniques, often resulting in some wonderfully original compositions that you simply cannot reproduce with ordinary methods.

Ableton Live may not be as intuitive as some might prefer, but once you’ve taken the time to really absorb everything that’s possible, you might begin to second-guess your own skill set – well, at least from a purely improvisational standpoint. There are legions of enormously talented people who might wrinkle their nose at Ableton Live, but don’t be discouraged by its increasing popularity among DJs. If you’re a DJ, good for you, but Live is more than capable of fulfilling the needs of recording artists, and you don’t need to graduate from a technical institute to plug in and do your thing. After all, it’s called “Live” for that reason. But the things you can do in live performance scenarios are nothing short of groundbreaking.

Perhaps you’ve tried Ableton Live in the past, but it just wasn’t for you – at least that’s what you told yourself. Try again, and read the manual this time, it works better that way. You might have to do some heavy lifting at first to get a feel for it, but I’m very certain you won’t regret having done so.

More info: Ableton Live 9 (official website)

Ableton Live 9 REVIEW


Ableton Live was made to change the way we typically approach electronic music production, with a more holistic attitude towards improvised production techniques, often resulting in some wonderfully original compositions that you simply cannot reproduce with ordinary methods.

  • Features
  • Workflow
  • Performance
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About Author

Bryan Lake is a sound designer and a musician. He publishes sound design tutorials and sound libraries on his website Sound Author.

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