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ABLETON Live 6.0.1 (Mac/Win)

February 1, 2007
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Live 6 is the latest in a steady stream of upgrades to Ableton's flagship sequencer, and it doesn't disappoint. Live 6 adds many new convenience features as well as some biggies such as video support, the new Sampler instrument, and plug-in Racks capable of housing parallel chains of instruments and effects. You can purchase Live as a download or in a box, which includes a printed manual and a large collection of presets for Simpler, Live's free sampler. The Simpler presets make up the Essential Instruments Collection (EIC) from SoniVox (formerly Sonic Implants).

Live 6 runs under Mac OS X and Windows. It can function as a ReWire mixer or client application, and it hosts VST and AU instrument and effects plug-ins. It includes a collection of Ableton plug-ins optimized for Live. For this review, I installed Live 6.0.1 on a 2 GHz dual-G5 Power Mac and an 800 MHz G4 PowerBook, both running Mac OS X 10.4.8. I also installed it on a 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 laptop running Windows XP. Performance was outstanding in all cases.

Because Live has been well covered in previous EM reviews, I'll stick to the new features. You can read reviews of earlier versions online in the June 2002, June 2003, April 2004, December 2004, and January 2006 issues.

FIG. 1: Assigning an audio clip in Arrangement view as the tempo master automatically generates tempo changes matching the clip''s Warp markers.

A Steady Clip

Live is primarily about triggering, arranging, and synchronizing audio and MIDI clips. Live 6 introduces three important improvements in audio clip management: you can slave Live's tempo to a time-warped audio clip, simultaneously time-warp multiple audio clips, and crop audio clips directly in Live's Clip view.

It was a nice step forward when Ableton introduced tempo automation in Live 2, but conforming Live's tempo to a long, freely played audio clip was still a tedious job. First you had to time-warp the whole clip, and then you had to go back and manually insert tempo-automation events to match each of the clip's Warp markers. Now, you can designate any audio clip in Arrangement view as the tempo master, and Live will automatically create tempo automation to match.

You can also use the tempo-master feature for a kind of groove quantizing. For example, designate a short drum loop as the tempo master, and then set Warp markers to align all hits to grid lines. The drum loop will sound as it originally did, but other quantized material — MIDI files, for instance — will conform to the drum loop's groove (see Fig. 1 and Web Clip 1).

Live 6 has a few more tricks to simplify working with Warp markers. If you select multiple audio clips of the same length, you can add and adjust Warp markers simultaneously. That's convenient when you've recorded multiple tracks and you want to adjust the timing of all of them. You can also copy and paste Warp markers between clips, and the clips don't need to match in length or in the location of those markers.

FIG. 2: Frozen tracks render all clips as audio, but you can still move and resize clips and add mixer automation.

On with the Show

Although Live 6 does not offer sophisticated video editing and imports video in only Apple QuickTime format (.mov), it makes it easy to quickly create soundtracks synced to video. You can drag video clips to Arrangement view audio tracks or to clip slots in Session view, but only their audio is imported in Session view.

Video clips on Arrangement view tracks work the same way that audio clips do — in particular, with regard to creating and managing Warp markers. The simplest way is to designate the video clip as the tempo master and align Warp markers with the desired video hit points. Imported and recorded audio tracks can then be time-warped to sync with the video hit points.

You can drag multiple video clips to Arrangement view tracks and even place them on different tracks, but only one video clip can play at a time, and that's always the one on the lowest track. You can also slice video clips and rearrange the slices, but you can't recombine them to create a single video or add audio directly to a video. You need separate video-editing software for those functions.

Frozen Solid

With new multiprocessor and multicore support, Live 6 delivers a significant improvement in performance. For example, a project on my 2 GHz dual-G5 Power Mac that peaked Live 5's CPU meter at 89 percent and broke up during playback played without problems in Live 6, peaking the CPU meter at 60 percent. In spite of that improvement, a few power-hungry virtual-instrument tracks can still top out Live 6. When that happens, it's time for the deep freeze.

Most sequencers have a freeze option that temporarily renders an audio or a virtual-instrument track, along with any effects processing. The sequencer then plays the rendered audio in place of the real track. Live's freeze function (called Deep Freeze) does that and more (see Fig. 2).

When you freeze a Live track, all clips in the Session and Arrangement views are rendered. You can move clips around on the track and between views, split them and shorten them from either end, and, if clip looping is turned on, extend the loop from either end. When a clip is frozen, its Clip Envelopes are also frozen. But mixer-automation envelopes such as volume and panning are not frozen, and you can edit them as on any audio track.

You can, of course, unfreeze a track when changes are needed. Conveniently, if you unfreeze a track and then freeze it again without making changes, the old freeze file is used, and you don't have to wait for another rendering. If you decide no further changes are necessary, you can flatten a frozen track. That converts the frozen track to an audio track playing the rendered audio and automatically removes all plug-ins and rendered automation envelopes. As an alternative to using Live's Flatten command, you can simply drag or copy a frozen clip to another audio track to get a flattened version of that clip. You can thereby flatten some frozen clips while leaving others for subsequent unfreezing.

What and Where

FIG. 3: Live''s File Manager window details all file usage in a set or project and -provides utilities for finding and ?replacing files.

Live's file browser sports several enhancements. A new Hot Swap mode facilitates swapping samples used on Live tracks or in Ableton sample-based instruments (Impulse, Simpler, and Sampler). Clicking on a sample's Swap button in the File Manager or an instrument's Sample window reveals the file's location in the browser's Hot Swap tab. You can use that as a starting point for auditioning or permanently swapping the target sample with the sample in the browser.

Each browser tab now has columns showing the type, size, date modified, and file path for displayed items. You can hide, reorder, and resize the columns. Bookmarks have been added to the browser, making it much easier to get around. You can add or remove the currently displayed disk location to the bookmark list, but oddly you can't change the order of the list or alphabetize it. Still, the permanent bookmarks (Library, Current Project, Desktop, All Volumes, and Home), together with a few of your own, come in very handy.

Live's project management has been improved in several ways. Live sets are now automatically saved in a Project folder where all ancillary files used in the set are collected using Live's new Collect All And Save command (an improved version of Consolidate Project). If you save a new set in an existing project folder, it becomes part of that project; otherwise, a new project folder is created with the same name as the set.

You use the new File Manager, which shares the Lessons window at the right of the user interface, to manage the files in a set, a project, or the entire Live Library. With it, you can quickly locate all relevant files, display them in the browser, and collect them into the project (see Fig. 3). Furthermore, you can collect projects into Live Packs for archiving or sharing. Live Packs are monoliths containing all files used in a project and are created with lossless compression to minimize their size.

Grabbing Hold

The Browser window is also used for Live's upgraded MIDI and Keyboard mapping functions. When you invoke either function, the browser displays all current mapping assignments, allowing you to quickly see, modify, and delete them.

You can now assign the same key or MIDI command to multiple functions where needed. For example, a single MIDI controller can control several volume faders, and a single key can solo multiple tracks. For knobs and sliders, each assignment has its own range, which can be positive or negative. You can use that to assign the same MIDI controller to increase one channel's volume while decreasing another's.

A global preference called Take Over mode determines how MIDI continuous controllers are handled. The target control can jump to the incoming value (None), stay put until a matching MIDI value is received (Pickup), or have its value scaled by the incoming MIDI value (Value Scaling). The last option is so clever that it's hard to imagine a use for the other two — on one hand, there are no jumps, and on the other, the targeted control reacts immediately.

Live's new Instant Mappings support a variety of popular control surfaces, and you can activate as many as six Instant Mappings at a time. When Instant Mapping for a control surface is invoked in Live's Preferences, the control surface's knobs, sliders, and buttons are automatically assigned to Live's mixer and plug-in device parameters, and that includes third-party plug-ins. Manual assignments (made using Live's MIDI Map mode) override Instant Mapping assignments. Although it's not officially supported, you can create your own Instant Mappings by following the instructions in the User Remote Scripts folder on your hard drive. I had no problem creating an Instant Mapping configuration for my discontinued Native Instruments 4Control.

Rack 'Em Up

Ableton introduced device groups in Live 5. They allowed you to collect linear chains of plug-ins in any combination of formats (VST, AU, and Live) into a single device, and then save the configurations of all the devices as a single preset. Device groups could start with a virtual instrument plug-in or be pure effects chains, and all automation and MIDI control was on a per-device basis.

FIG. 4: Instrument and effects Racks -manage parallel chains of instruments ?and effects.

Live 6's new instrument and effects Racks expand on device groups in two important ways: Racks can hold parallel chains of instruments and effects plug-ins, and each Rack has eight macro controls that can be mapped to multiple device parameters and scaled independently (see Fig. 4). Device groups saved from Live 5 are automatically converted to Racks when opened in Live 6.

You can use parallel chains within a Rack to layer and split virtual instruments and to layer effects. There are three ways to control the mix of virtual instrument chains: by key zone, by Velocity zone, and manually. Effects chains can be mixed only manually, which is done by setting the Chain slider with the mouse or through MIDI. You set the active zone and crossfade region of each chain, and then position the Chain slider to determine the mix of the chains.

Although the devices in a single chain work in series and separate chains work in parallel, you can create more-complex signal flows by nesting Racks and placing Racks in series. For example, you might place a MIDI arpeggiator effect before an instrument Rack containing parallel piano and strings chains and follow that with a Rack containing chorus and reverb. Incoming MIDI will be processed by the arpeggiator, and then passed to the piano and strings Rack, whose mixed output will be processed by the chorus and reverb Rack (see Web Clip 2). You can then nest those three Racks in a new Rack to save the whole setup as a single Rack.

By Any Means

Racks are only as good as the instruments and effects you stuff in them, and Ableton has added to and improved its complement of built-in devices. The new Note Length MIDI effect has two modes: Note On and Note Off. In Note On mode, incoming notes are all given a fixed duration that you set in milliseconds or tempo-synced note divisions. In Note Off mode, notes are triggered when MIDI Note Off messages are received.

The Dynamic Tube effect is a tube saturator and envelope follower combined. EQ Eight upgrades the older EQ Four to eight channels and adds left-right and mid-side modes. In those modes you get separate control of each channel. The Saturator and Utility effects have also been upgraded.

On the instrument side, Operator has been beefed up with a new set of 24 dB filters and a couple of new FM algorithms. Both add significantly to its range, but the big news is the new Sampler instrument. Operator ($149) and Sampler ($199) are paid add-ons to Live.

Sample This

Sampler is a full-featured multisampling companion to Live's free sampler, Simpler. Sampler comes with a small library of multisampled instruments, which is greatly expanded by the optional EIC ($119). The EIC instruments are built for Simpler, using a hidden multisample-playback capability, but they are easily converted to Sampler format, making them much more tweakable. The EIC is heavily weighted toward acoustic instruments and is a solid collection, but the electronica crowd won't find a lot here.

FIG. 5: The new Sampler instrument offers full multisample editing and a host of filtering and modulation capabilities.

In addition to creating your own multisampled instruments, you can import instruments in a variety of common sampler formats, including Tascam GigaStudio, Native Instruments Kontakt 2 (nonencrypted), Creative/Emu SoundFont, and Apple EXS24/GarageBand. Importing multisampled instruments in other formats is a notoriously flaky enterprise, and the less complex the format being imported, the better. I successfully imported SoundFont, Kontakt 2, and EXS24 instruments, though I had to guide Sampler to the EXS24 samples. The results were mixed; for example, all the SoundFonts I imported had their sustain loops disabled.

Sampler has a multitab interface along with a Zone editor that is expandable to the full size of the clip area if needed (see Fig. 5). Key and Velocity zones are sized and crossfaded using the same expandable-bars technique used for zoning instruments in Racks. The remaining tabs — Sample, Pitch/Osc, Filter/Global, Modulation, and MIDI — toggle displays for setting the corresponding playback properties. All settings, except those on the Sample tab, apply to all samples; you can't work with sample groups the way you can with most samplers. Ableton's alternative, which is quite effective once you get used to it, is to use multiple instances of Sampler collected in a Rack to create sample groups. Live will do that for you when importing foreign formats. The advantage of this approach, typical of Ableton, is that you don't have to fuss with sample groups unless you need them.

The remaining four tabs are devoted to filtering and modulation. An oscillator and envelope generator provide FM, AM, and pitch-bend effects. A morphable multimode filter and a waveshaper are there for timbral contour. An ADSR envelope generator and three LFOs can modulate two sources each. A modulation matrix routes six different MIDI messages to two destinations each.

Final Mix

Live's mixer is improved in several ways. You can vertically resize the Session view fader section to reveal digital peak and level readouts along with dB-labeled tick marks. Inputs from other audio tracks can now be pre- or post-FX as well as postmixer (after the fader and pan controls). Finally, you can choose between seven crossfade curves for the Crossfader.

One of the best things about Live 6 is that it looks and works almost exactly the way Live 5 (and 4, 3, 2, and 1) does. A cumulative what's-new list of Live's six generations reveals a huge change in functionality, but Ableton has been careful to preserve the basic look and feel. The company has also avoided adding features just to make the list look good. There's a lot to learn in Live 6, but it's mostly easy going. This upgrade is a must-have.


Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. For an earful and free refreshments, visit his Web site at www.swiftkick.com.

GUIDE TO EM METERS

5 = Amazing; as good as it gets with current technology

4 = Clearly above average; very desirable

3 = Good; meets expectations

2 = Somewhat disappointing but usable

1 = Unacceptably flawed

Specifications tables for EM reviews can be found at www.emusician.com/specs.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

ABLETON Live 6.0.1

digital audio sequencer

boxed $599 (upgrades from $219)

download $499 (upgrades from $119)

FEATURES 5
EASE OF USE 5
QUALITY OF SOUNDS 4
VALUE 5

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Instrument and effects Racks for complex processing and layering chains. New full-featured multisampled Sampler instrument. Tempo master clips. Video support. Value-scaling MIDI remote control.

CONS: Browser bookmarks implementation is awkward. Audio content is limited.

MANUFACTURER

Ableton
www.ableton.com

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