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Ableton Live 1.1 Loop Mixing Software Review

June 1, 2002
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For some time I've dreamed of owning an application that would combine loops in real time without stopping playback to reload, like an automatic pistol that could fire loops in a never-ending stream of remixed beats and sounds. After trying all of the DJ remix programs I could find and attempting to coax my digital audio sequencer into acting like a loop-remixing program, I was still hauling my hardware sampler to gigs.

Every software-based setup fell short in crucial areas. Among the functions I couldn't find were flexible loop triggering, multiple outputs, sample auditioning on the fly, and MIDI. In addition, RAM-based playback limited the number of samples that could load simultaneously. The only setup that even came close to giving me the kind of dynamic remixing flexibility I wanted was a hardware sampler with multiple outputs and a 6-channel DJ mixer. However, that system still paled in comparison with what I believed should be possible with a laptop and the right software program. (Besides, carrying around all that equipment was killing my back.)

Then a DJ friend told me about Live, the new program for mixing loops and samples in real time from Ableton, a German software company. In January I made it a point to catch a demo of Live at the NAMM conference. I expected to be disappointed but ended up hardly believing what I saw.

Ableton Live has all of the features I've been dreaming of. You can audition loops and throw them into the mix on the fly, and effects plug-ins can be treated in much the same way. A prelistening feature lets you cue samples before sending them to the main mix, and Live can address multioutput sound cards. Ableton Live plays back audio streamed from your hard drive, so running out of RAM isn't a problem. Live even has MIDI to let you use an external controller. As soon as I could, I obtained a copy of Live and gave it a thorough examination.

EASY INSTALLATION

Ableton Live runs on Macs and PCs, and both versions ship on the same CD-ROM. (Mac users will be interested to know that Live is the first multitrack recording application that runs on OS X.) I used Live on a Power Mac G4/450 MHz with 704 MB of system RAM, lots of drive space, and a Digidesign Pro Tools/24 Mix card. In addition to the minimum system requirements, you should have plenty of hard-drive space to store sample libraries (you'll want them readily available while you're mixing) and an ASIO-compatible sound card for the best possible fidelity. The software works with Sound Manager on the Mac and with DirectX-compatible sound cards on the PC, but those output sources might not provide enough bottom end to really make your mixes bump.

Installing Live is simple, and with no extensions to install, there's no danger of driver conflicts. Authorization is through challenge and response. Live generates the challenge after you enter its serial number. Then you can register the product on Ableton's Web site to obtain an immediate response. If you can't get online right away, the program runs for ten days before requiring the response.

LIVE IN PERSON

Everything in Live is accomplished in a single window that is divided into three sections. The largest area toggles between Session View (see Fig. 1), an audio clip mixer where you will spend most of your time; and the Arranger (see Fig. 2), a sequence editor that features grids and blocks to display audio events and control data. To the left of the main area is the Browser, and below that are the Detail Area, which toggles between three displays: the Clip View, which shows a sample's attributes; the Track View, which shows a channel's inserted effects chain; and the Bus View, which allows you to monitor the mixer's buses.

You can also display the program's handy help window, called the Info View, below the Browser. When you hold the cursor over an element, its description appears in the window; that invaluable feature almost replaces reading the manual.

Around the sides of the main window are various screen-access controls and indicators. At the top of the window are indicators for CPU load (calibrated by percentage), MIDI In, and hard-disk overload. All are extremely useful, but the hard-disk overload indicator would be more valuable if it were a drive-usage meter; it doesn't turn on until it's already too late and audio playback has probably been disrupted. You can horizontally resize the Browser so that you can read long file names. To optimize screen space for the Session View/Arranger, you can hide the Browser, the Info View, and the Detail Area (see Fig. 3).

Live's default appearance is mostly gray with lime green highlights. Thankfully, Live includes a few alternate skins that feature different color schemes to spice up the program's appearance.

BROWSING FOR A BRUISING

The Browser is logically organized, with buttons in its left margin for opening the sample and effects folders on your hard drive. Four of those buttons — one button for VST plug-ins and three for sample libraries — are user-defined and require you to specify the locations of the folders they open. Another button is dedicated to the program's built-in effects. The buttons can save a lot of time because they let you jump directly into several different folders without the need to continually navigate your drive's folder hierarchy.

Live recognizes WAV and AIFF audio files; if a folder doesn't contain those file types, the folder appears empty in the file dialog. I wish that Live recognized some additional file types, especially Sound Designer II (SDII).

In the Browser's prelistening bus, you can audition samples at your session's current tempo without having to drag them into Live's mixer. Although the sound quality isn't as good as playing the sample in Session View, the ability to cue samples directly from your hard drive before dragging them into the mixer is marvelous.

PLAYING THE SLOTS

In Session View, you can play back samples from channel slots. After you drag a sample to a slot, the length of the sample governs the amount of time it takes to load; an 8-bar loop at 130 bpm takes about a second.

A channel can contain as many slots as you want, and the number of mixer channels is practically unlimited. However, the number of samples you can play back simultaneously depends on your computer. My computer could play no more than 12 simultaneous loops with 8 plug-ins that included a long reverb and a medium delay. To understand Live's mixer channels and slots, just think of each channel as a monophonic sampler.

A display beneath each channel's slots shows the length of the sample that's playing, how many times it has looped, and a pie chart that indicates its progress; as the sample plays from beginning to end, the pie fills up. That information is quite useful, but the display is painfully small; some means to enlarge it would help.

MASTERFUL MIXER

Each mixer channel features a fader, a pan knob, two send knobs, and an input-source selection menu. You can hide any of those elements, leaving only the sample slots visible. You can have as many as four sends, and each send return supports drag-and-drop effect insertion, just like the regular mixer channels. All that's missing on the mixer is a solo feature; although you can use the prelistening bus as a solo when it's assigned to the same output as the master, it's not quite the same as having a discrete solo button on each mixer channel.

Input sources, in addition to channel slots, can be routed from Live's main output, your sound card's input, or Propellerhead Reason and ReBirth programs. When you route Live's main out to a channel's input, you can sample your own mix and then drag that sample back into the mix without stopping playback (presenting some interesting possibilities that I will discuss in a minute). With your sound card assigned as the input, you can use Live just like a multitrack hard-disk recorder but with greater flexibility in terms of sample tweaking and looping in real time.

If you open Propellerhead's Reason or ReBirth in the background, you can route their audio to Live's mixer using the ReWire system extension. ReWire also synchronizes the programs, with Live serving as the master clock. I ran all three programs at the same time and was pleased with the results. Starting playback on Live caused Reason and ReBirth to begin playing also. The ability to use those two programs in tandem with Live opens up a new world of soft synthesis, virtual drum machines, and step sequencers that you can integrate seamlessly with Live. Ableton really did its homework.

TAKING THE BUS

Live's mixer is equipped with a wonderfully flexible bus system. You can route each channel's audio to the master bus, the prelistening bus, or a sound card's multiple outputs (in stereo pairs). Each channel has dedicated buttons for sending its signal to the master or prelistening buses. In the program's Preferences page, you have the ability to set the master and prelistening buses to any of your sound card's outputs. Assuming that your sound card has multiple outputs, you are able to select those outputs in each channel's pop-up output-assignment menu. You can do all your busing during playback with no interruption in audio — just like a real mixing board.

Live's busing architecture blows other remixing applications away. Prelistening lets you use Live with a four-output sound card (two stereo cards might work as well) to perform DJ-style cuing. Connect the outputs assigned to the prelistening bus to your headphones and then plug the outputs assigned to the master bus to your house speakers. Use the prelistening bus to privately cue loops over your headphones before sending them to the house speakers. That's the same method DJs use with two turntables and a DJ mixer — except they must also beat-match their tracks, and Live does that automatically.

Another alternative is to simply bus each mixer channel to its own stereo output (which should require a sound card with at least eight outputs). Plug the outputs in to a DJ mixer with lots of inputs and use the board's cue system instead. That setup provides more immediate control over levels because you don't need to fuss with Live's virtual faders. Use the board's faders to control individual output levels. Such a setup also gives you easy access to outboard gear, such as external effects units or even the DJ mixer's own EQ, to lighten your computer's processing load. That's how I have Live set up, and I'm extremely pleased with the amount of flexibility it brings to my real-time remixing endeavors.

EFFECTS GALORE

It is possible to use VST effects with Live, and the program also comes with its own set of effects plug-ins. Stock effects include standbys such as chorus, compression, EQ, and delay, as well as more uncommon effects such as vinyl distortion and Erosion. An effects chain is created by dragging and dropping plug-ins into a channel's Track View. You can have as many effects chained together as your computer can handle. It is possible to drag effects into Track View during playback, but any plug-in that requires a great deal of digital-signal-processing power (such as long reverbs and delays) might cause dropouts. It is probably a good idea to have all of the effects in place ahead of time so that you do not risk overloading your CPU by dragging in new effects during a mix.

The user interface for most of the included effects and for all VST effects allows you to control two parameters at the same time by moving a cursor inside a field where the x- and y-axes are each tied to a different parameter; manipulating parameters in that fashion is ideal for live performance. The parameters are fixed in Live's plug-ins, but for VST plug-ins they are user-definable. The trade-off is that VST plug-ins look different in Live than they do in other programs. You can recall a VST plug-in's original interface, but in its own window outside of the Track View. You can automate practically every effects parameter and assign a MIDI continuous controller to most controls, which is nice.

Live's stock plug-ins are decent and seem particularly suited for composing electronic and loop-flavored music — the type of music you're most likely to compose with Live. Among my favorite plug-ins are the Auto Filter, which is great for creating hardcore filter sweep sounds, and Filter Delay, a tempo-based delay that is useful for creating interesting rhythmic backdrops out of mundane-sounding loops. There are several additional delays that can be locked to tempo, but beware: they consume a lot of processing power.

LOOP AND TRIGGER

It's not enough for a real-time remixing program to simply play back beat-matched loops; to make it work in live performance, it needs serious sample-triggering and loop-tweaking options. Live doesn't disappoint in either area. Every sample loaded into Live can have its own triggering setup, tuning, gain, loop points, and Warp Markers (which determine how Live's automatic time-stretching algorithm is applied). You can even save a sample's settings so those parameters are instantly recalled as soon as you load the sample into a channel's slot.

You can trigger samples with your mouse or QWERTY keyboard, or by playing a MIDI note. There are four ways to trigger a sample: a Note On message begins playback; a Note On message begins playback and a Note Off message stops it; a Note On message begins playback and another Note On message stops it; and holding a note repeats the first portion of the sample (the length of which is determined by the sample's first Warp Marker and the session's quantize setting). The last mode is cool because after setting your session's quantization value to 16th notes, you can repeat the first beat of a sample to play 16th-note fills.

I'd like to see a trigger mode in which you can start a sample's playback from any Warp Marker without losing the loop's lock on the downbeats; Mixman's Mixman Pro software offers that type of triggering. It would also be much cooler if Live's samples responded to Velocity.

A loop can be continuous or one-shot, and you can set its length to any number of bars. The sample's start point can be anywhere within the sample as long as it isn't after the beginning of the loop. A waveform overview (in the Clip View) lets you drag the sample's start point and loop-in and -out markers into position; if you prefer, you can enter marker locations directly into the appropriate text fields.

GO TO WARP

Warp Markers are similar to the beat markers of a REX file, but instead of providing directions on how to cut up a sample to match a project's tempo, they tell Live how the sample should be time-stretched to match the project's tempo. Divisions for Warp Markers range from whole bars to 32nd notes. Live automatically applies Warp Markers to a sample according to its length and specified time signature.

If the sample is trimmed to a perfect loop and its rhythm doesn't waver too much, automatic Warp Markers usually work fine. However, when a sample's tempo is erratic, you can freely move Warp Markers around in the waveform overview to manually align them to the waveform's beats. Live's time-stretching algorithm is then automatically applied to the sample during playback.

Live's time-stretching methodology is similar to that of other loop-based programs such as Sonic Foundry Acid and BitHeadz Phrazer. If you're used to working with those programs, Live will probably be familiar territory. I'm more accustomed to working with beat markers in the style of Propellerhead ReCycle, so Live's system threw me for a loop at first. After learning the Warp Markers, though, I found them pleasingly accurate, and the time stretching sounded good. The program won't perform miracles, of course, but most material with tempo changes of 25 beats or less sounds okay in the mix.

ROUGH ARRANGEMENT

After recording a performance using Live's onboard sequencer, you can edit sample-trigger locations and automation data in the Arranger. At first glance, the Arranger appears to be missing most of the features found on full-fledged MIDI sequencers such as Mark of the Unicorn Digital Performer and Emagic Logic Audio. Although the sequencer is not comprehensive, it does offer the essential commands necessary for basic editing. Live's design is so unlike those of more popular sequencers that it's somewhat counterintuitive.

Initially tracks are displayed in a mode that allows only limited editing. Blocks of performance data can be dragged vertically within a track, dragged horizontally between tracks, and deleted. To edit a track's performance in detail, you need to unfold the track. Unfolding a track displays its waveform and lets you cut and split blocks of performance data. You can also adjust a block's start and end points by expanding or contracting its edges. When a track is unfolded, Live can display its level and pan moves (or any other controller you have selected) as break-point automation data.

Editing commands are located in the main menu bar's Edit menu. There's no editing-tool palette, but adding one might make the Arranger much more intuitive. Some kind of draw tool would make it easier to add events to a track.

Navigation and zooming are accomplished using a small box that overlays the sequence overview bar. Drag the box to navigate the sequence; drag its edges to zoom in and out of the Arrange display. Getting around a sequence and zooming with that tool are particularly tedious — an old-fashioned scrollbar and magnifying glass tool would be better. (For another perspective, see Todd Souvignier's loop-sequencer survey, “Loop-a-palooza,” on p. 50.)

GET YOUR MIX ON

You can quantize your performance on input so that when you trigger a sample, the event snaps to the nearest note value, which is determined by the quantize setting. Quantization can be set from whole bars to 32nd notes. For my needs, 16th-note quantization provided the best results, because I could trigger samples at almost any point, not just on the downbeats. You can also turn off quantization, which is good if you want more precise control over when a sample is triggered and, ultimately, how it sits in the groove.

Triggering samples with the computer's mouse or keyboard does not excite me; using a performance-oriented MIDI controller is much more inspiring. Every channel's slots can be assigned a MIDI note number. An entire horizontal row of slots, called a Scene, can also be given a note number. When you arrange a session's samples to trigger on different notes of your controller, using Live becomes more like playing an instrument than simply tinkering with a computer program. With careful planning, you can even play chords to launch groups of prearranged loops.

Once several cool-sounding loops are playing together, Live can bounce down the arrangement into a stereo WAV file. Without interrupting playback, Live will then automatically loop the new sample and load it into a slot on the same channel that was used for recording. That amazing feature opens up myriad possibilities. For example, you never need to worry about running out of processing power; just bounce down when you near maximum CPU usage, clear out your slots, and start fresh. The potential for an endless mix is at hand.

INTO THE NIGHT

I had no real problems using Live 1.1; it even played through clusters of CPU overload peaks without crashing. Live gave me little to complain about, which is surprising considering that it was introduced so recently. Sure, the mixer is missing a solo feature, sample triggering isn't Velocity sensitive, the included plug-ins could use a few more effects, and the sequencer is rough around the edges. Still, those are minor shortcomings when you consider all the features that are packed into Live.

At press time, Ableton is on the eve of releasing Live 1.5. The updated version will run as a ReWire slave in tandem with popular sequencing programs as well as ReBirth and Reason. In addition, it will sync to external MIDI Clock and provide a master clock source for syncing other programs and external devices. A new Render-to-Disk function will quickly export Live's audio output to other programs. Other enhancements will include a new reverb plug-in and less strain on CPU resources.

Between its various trigger modes, drag-and-drop operations, busing and prelistening features, ASIO support, MIDI control, VST effects plug-in compatibility, and Reason and ReBirth integration, Live has the bases covered. Incidentally, Live also supports MIDI Clock and MIDI Time Code, so you can lock your computer up with your friends' systems for beat-perfect remixing jams. At the price, that's darn impressive. Version 1.1 is such a robust foundation to work from, I can't wait to see how Live evolves.


Visit Erik Hawkins's fledgling record label (www.muzicali.com) to hear music made with the latest studio gizmos and to buy his virtual-recording-studio book, Studio-in-a-Box (www.artistpro.com).

Minimum System Requirements

Live

MAC: G3/233; 128 MB RAM; OS 8.6; CD-ROM drive

PC: Pentium/300; 64 MB RAM (128 MB recommended); Windows 95/98/2000; CD-ROM drive; Windows-compatible sound card

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Ableton
Live 1.1 (Mac/Win)
sample sequencer
$299

FEATURES 4.0
EASE OF USE 4.0
QUALITY OF SOUNDS 4.0
VALUE 4.5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Automatic beat matching. Good time-stretching algorithm. Resampling. Almost total automation. ASIO and ReWire support. Assignable outputs. Flexible bus architecture. MIDI control. Drag-and-drop operation. VST compatibility.

CONS: No solo buttons. No Velocity sensitivity. CPU-intensive delay effects. Limited sequence editor features. Awkward Arranger navigation.

Manufacturer

Ableton/Midiman (distributor)
tel. (800) 969-6434
e-mail info@midiman.net
Web www.midiman.com

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