Since its introduction in 2001, Ableton Live has developed from a software system used primarily by DJs to a package promising something altogether bigger and broader in scope. There’s no mistaking its visual style, which has remained very similar in each of its yearly updates. The last few versions have been particularly focused in positioning Live as a contender in the mainstream music sequencer and production market and Ableton obviously feel the time is almost here when they can take on the full DAW market.
Live 6 hit the streets this time last year and proved to be a major upgrade for the music composition and recording features in particular. What does Live 7 have to offer, is it worth the money, and can it really compete with the full-blown ‘big boys’ such as Cubase and Logic as well as staying true to its DJ roots.
I don’t intend to give a complete rundown from scratch of Ableton Live’s impressive functionality, but at its most basic Live 7 can be thought of as a MIDI/audio file and loop sequencer plus live trigger, all rolled into one. The way in which you work in Live determines which of the main window you’ll use. The Arrangement view uses a familiar scrolling timeline for tracks, while the Session view is used for more improvisational and unpredictable situations, such as playing live, DJing, triggering sound effects or even jamming with rough ideas as a creative writing tool. It is possible for any real-time tweaks in the Session View to be captured in the Arrangement View for further editing. Live uses the concept of Clips to integrate whole songs, audio loops, MIDI sequences and internal Ableton Instrument riffs and phrases into the workflow.
Clips can be dragged and dropped from the Browser window straight into a Live Session (Ableton’s name for a complete project), with real-time time-stretching and ‘warping’ of AIFF, WAV, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC and MP3 files. It includes a wide selection of built-in (Live only – not VST) audio effects (delays, filters, distortion units, compressors and EQs and so on.) and two software instruments (Simpler for basic sampling and instrument playback and Impulse for drums). Ableton also produce optional sound libraries and instruments – some of which are available as part of the Live 7 Suite (see box at the end of this review). VST or AU effects and instruments as well as Rewire integration are supported, alongside provision for video import and export. Real-time control of Live with MIDI controllers is catered for with a wide range of predefined templates and its simple MIDI and keyboard assignment system.
New and improved
So what are the improvements and additions? Ableton have been making great play of the enhanced audio engine in Live, which it claims improves fidelity. Internally the program uses 64-bit mix summing. Whilst you may not notice any particular difference initially, it certainly helps in terms of headroom and overload provision. However, new dithering algorithms do make a noticeable difference to audio rendering (export) results.
The High-Q sample-rate conversion option in the Clip has been improved for better audio transposition, but I was a little disappointed that more advances hadn’t been made in the ‘warp’ algorithms. Obviously there are limitations in how much a whole track can be chopped and changed for perfect playback at different tempos and pitches, and Live’s algorithms are no slouch in this respect, but it would be great to see Ableton putting even more research into this aspect of the program.
The new and tweaked effects (including the nice sounding Compressor and EQ Eight as well as a new High Quality mode) are all welcome, but my favourite feature in this department is the sidechaining functionality (for use with Compressor, Gate and Auto Filter), which certainly ups the stakes, and is quite easy to use.
The new MIDI engine does seem to improve timing, but it will depend in the most part on what devices you have plugged into your computer. Ableton have just published two MIDI and Audio Engine fact sheets, which detail how various systems were tested and how you might improve your own system. Unfortunately, they also highlight that you get what you pay for in the MIDI and audio interface game!
MIDI hardware integration has always been good in Live, but this version sees the addition of two new devices – External Instrument and External Audio Effect. These allow hardware synthesizers and effects to be inserted into device chains as if they were software plug-ins. Both devices automatically compensate for any latency introduced by the audio and MIDI interface. They are relatively to setup and use, but perhaps may only be of interest to a limited number of users. That said I’m probably on of them.
Multiple automation lanes can now be displayed and edited for each track, which allows for easier project management. Time Signature functionality has been updated to include multiple time signatures (for you electronic experimentalist and prog-rockers out there). This certainly comes in handy for any kind of live performance outside of conventional house music DJing. The new Tempo Nudge transport buttons (like those on some CDJ units) make it easier to synchronize the software to live musicians or other DJs (if you dare!).
One important addition is the way in which REX files can be dragged, dropped and played as if they were regular WAV files. Many sample libraries include Recycled (REX) versions of their content, making this a boon for loop manipulation. Live 7 includes numerous additional features and workflow enhancements that make life a little easier, many of which were requested by users. The Quicktime Video Export support, whilst unexpected, takes the video integration into interesting territory.
In use I found Live as intuitive to use as always. The help system and embedded tutorials make this one of the most user friendly and speedy programs to learn, particularly if you are new to electronic music making. The fact that it runs under Window or OSX only enhances its appeal, especially when passing projects between different people.
There’s no getting away from the fact that despite the numerous tweaks and plentiful supply of (mainly subtle) new features this update feels like one of consolidation rather than ground-breaking change or radical new vision. This is probably a good thing, as most new features and tweaks are in response to user needs and requests, but partly because Ableton have a clear idea of where Live sits in the grand scheme of things (just remember the name of the program).
As a dedicated ‘old skool’ DAW user I won’t be switching to Live as the hub of my studio just yet. However, I will definitely be using it to put together live shows and as a turntable alternative (vinyl and CDs dead). If I was new to the world of music technology I would certainly be checking-out Live 7 as my all-in-one solution to writing, mixing and live production. Ableton should be congratulated for sticking to their vision, but at the same time offering a highly credible and constantly improving system.
Overall: 9 out of 10
Sound Expansion - Essential Instrument Collection 2, Session Drums and Drum
The Essential Instrument Collection 2 is included in the boxed (non-download) version of Live and as part of the Live Suite. The Essential Instrument Collection 2 is a 15Gb library of multi-sampled instruments (created by SONiVOX and Chocolate Audio). It offers a range of bread-and-butter sounds for writing that includes acoustic and electric pianos, guitars, basses, drums, strings, brass and woodwinds (amongst others), which are loaded via Simpler (Ableton’s built-in sample player). Each instrument includes different versions for high-quality and lower CPU load.
Session Drums is a brand new acoustic drum library that weighs in at a hefty 28GB. Much like rivals BFD and DFH, Session Drums (based on Scarbee’s
Imperial Drums) gives full control over the close mic levels for each drum as well as overheads and room mics. Each drum has been simultaneously recorded from different positions allowing you to mix and match the direct and ambient recordings. There are also versions using mallets brushes. The library makes full use of Live’s Drum Racks functionality which allows each drum channel to have its own effects and routing as well as 8 macro controls for tweaking parameters such as drum tuning or decay. This level of sophistication may not be for everyone so Session Drums also includes stereo kits and a selection of MIDI loops played by drummer Shawn Pelton (Sheryl Crow, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, David Byrne, Elton John) for quick writing and groove creation.
Drum Machines is a simple and relatively compact library of some classic electronic beatbox sample. These include Roland’s CR-78, DR-55, 606, 707, 808 and 909, the awesomely funky LinnDrum, Oberheim DMX, Drumfire (obscure analogue box) and the SCI DrumTraks). These have all been sampled at 24-bit/96kHz and once again use Live’s highly tweakable Drum Racks alongside a library of MIDI patterns. Many of the new instruments take advantage of Live 7's new SmartPriming, which is a custom streaming engine that unloads unused samples and lowers the overall resource load.
All three of these sound expansion packs is available to buy separately (see pricing) or as part of the Ableton Suite.
Ableton Instruments - Electric, Tension and Analog
The two optional Ableton instruments, Sample and Operator (an FM synth), have been added to in Live 7, with three new arrivals from the well-regarded Applied Acoustics Systems (AAS) stable – makers of top-notch acoustic modelling synths.
Electric is based on the same physical modelling synthesis technology found in Lounge Lizard and is designed to recreate the sound of Wurlitzer and Rhodes electric pianos, although it is capable of a lot more. It uses mathematical models to reproduce the behaviour of the components of an instrument (tines, mallets, dampers etc).
Tension is a stringed instruments emulator (like AAS String Studio) that models the characteristics of the strings, body, frets and pickups, as well as the playing style, of a range of instruments including bass, violin, viola, cello, guitar, piano, harpsichord and clavinet. It can also be put to good use on entirely synthetic tones, and it is this part of it that I found the most useful, as I’m not entirely convinced by some of its ‘real’ orchestral or guitar tones. However, it excels at ‘ethnic’ sounds, with a fantastic degree of playability.
The final part of this AAS triumvirate is Analog, that is aimed squarely at analogue synth emulation. Analog models the individual circuits (oscillators, filters, LFOs and so on.) found in various legendary synthesizers. Broadly speaking, it is a twin oscillator dual filter synth with comprehensive routing and envelope options. I enjoyed this most out of the three new offerings and found it full and fat (or smooth and mellow) when required.
All three synths come with a full library of presets and quick editing knobs
within the Clip View.