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electronic MUSICIAN

ABLETON Live 3.0 (Mac/Win) loop sequencer

By Len Sasso | April 1, 2004

The Ableton team has come up with another stellar upgrade to Live. The big news here is in the automation department, where Ableton has added individual Clip envelopes as well as improved drawing and editing tools. Other improvements include more flexible MIDI and computer-key Clip triggering, the ability to play Clips from RAM as well as from disk, new rendering and Scene-capturing capabilities, and more quantization options.

The Live loop library has been reworked and expanded, and four new DSP effects have been added. For a detailed look at Live from the ground up, see the Live 2.0 review in the June 2003 issue of EM and the Master Class “Going Live” in the December 2002 issue (available at www.emusician.com). In this review I'll give a brief overview of Live, then concentrate on the new features.

Live is a standalone audio sequencer especially designed for performance, but it's also well suited to recording, arranging, and remixing. It is available for all recent versions of Windows on the PC and for OS 9 and OS X on the Mac. It supports ReWire, functioning as either master or slave (but not both at the same time), and it hosts VST effects plug-ins.

Live runs in one window but has two views corresponding to two modes of operation. The Session view (see Fig. 1) is laid out like a standard mixing desk with channel-strip controls along the bottom. Unlike a mixing desk, however, Session view has a Clip Pool in the center for recording and triggering audio clips. In a performance you would trigger individual audio clips or whole rows (called Scenes) using MIDI, a computer keyboard, or a mouse. The Arrangement view is laid out like a typical audio sequencer, with audio tracks running horizontally. You can capture a Session-view performance in the Arrangement view, drag clips there and arrange them manually, or record live performances there.

The Session and Arrangement views are connected in two ways: they share audio channels, and both are always active for playback, even though only one is visible. Initially all audio channels play Arrangement-view tracks, but as soon as a clip is triggered in the Session view, that view takes control of its audio channel. That lets you set up an arrangement of a song and then substitute clips from the Session view in real time — a key difference between Live and other audio-sequencing software. Live's unique setup offers many other performance, composition, and recording options as well.

CLIP AUTOMATION

In previous versions of Live, automation was limited to the Arrangement view, where any mixer or insert-effect parameter can be automated. That method, commonly called track-based automation, is great for mixing and overall effects automation, but it is not particularly well suited for sound design on the individual Clip level, because any automation would need to be moved, copied, or re-created each time the Clip is used. In Live 3.0, you can draw automation envelopes directly in the Clip view, and that automation follows the Clip as it is moved or copied to other locations (see Fig. 2). If you move a Clip with effect automation to a new track that doesn't contain the effect, the automation is lost. That makes sense, but it would be nice if the automation were preserved and restored if the effect was again applied to the Clip.

Clip automation differs from track automation in several ways. For one, Clip automation is applied relative to current settings and to track automation. For example, if you automate track volume on the Clip level by setting alternate eighth-note segments to half volume, and then move the track volume slider or automate it on the track level, the alternate eighth-note volumes will always be half the current volume setting. Another difference is that Clip automation loops with the Clip, so if you stretch the Clip in the Arrangement view, causing it to repeat, the automation repeats as well. In effect, that makes Clip automation a form of nondestructive DSP.

In an interesting and useful twist, you can unlink the automation from the Clip, in which case the automation gets a complete set of position and loop parameters of its own. That lets you apply an automation loop of a different length than the Clip's loop length. Alternatively, you can create a long automation sequence applied to a short, looping Clip. The online MP3 example ResoDrum applies Sample Offset and Volume automation to a one-bar percussion loop, which is then processed by Live's new Resonators effect (see Web Clip 1).

On the Clip level, you can automate all track parameters, including plug-in settings. That includes Clip parameters, which can't be automated on the track level, such as Clip Volume, Transpose, Sample Offset, and — in Tone and Texture Warp modes — Grain Size and Flux. By automating Transpose in unlinked mode, you can adapt a short, looping musical phrase to match harmonic changes in other Clips. Sample Offset automation is intended for quickly rearranging the beats in a beat loop. Although limited to 16th-note steps and a one-measure range, it is quite effective. Using an automation loop of a different length than the Clip loop produces especially interesting results.

Other automation improvements include a Draw mode, which lets you draw stepped curves, and the ability to freely copy and paste automation between parameters. The new automation drawing tool creates automation steps the size of the selected quantization. You can copy and paste different parameters within the same Clip as well as between different Clips.

ALL KEYED UP

Another important new feature in Live 3.0 is the ability to assign a range of MIDI notes to trigger a Clip. Previously, only individual notes could be assigned to Clip slots. This change enhances Live's functionality as a multisample player, as does the new Clip Velocity parameter, which determines the extent to which Velocity affects Clip volume. But beyond standard multisample playback, Live's automatic time warping makes the ability to assign note ranges an ideal tool for live groove transposition. By assigning a range of notes to a looped groove, for example, you can transpose the groove without affecting its timing.

A new Legato option makes it possible to change Clips without retriggering. When Legato is engaged for a Clip, triggering another Clip on the same track in the Session view, or triggering the same Clip with a different MIDI note, starts playback at the current time position rather than at the beginning of the Clip. That feature is especially effective when applied to an evolving ambient Clip over which you've defined an unlinked automation loop; it transposes the ambience relative to your key selections while keeping the animation and Clip playback continuous and in sync.

A number of improvements have been made to Live's already excellent user interface. The quantization options have been expanded to include triplets and lengths greater than one bar. Samples can be dragged directly from the File Browser into the Clip view. This replaces the audio data while preserving all Clip settings and automation, which effectively allows Clips to function as automation templates. Management of VST banks and programs has been improved, and multiple VST plug-in windows can be open for editing at the same time.

Live now offers a play-from-RAM mode, useful if your disk drive is too slow to stream all the tracks in your song. This can also improve performance in Legato mode. The Consolidate command quickly renders the current Arrangement view selection into new Clips on a per-track basis. Rendering the entire song or loop is, of course, still available. And there is a Session-view Capture command that creates a new Scene from all currently playing Clips.

SOUNDS, EFFECTS

Four new effects have been added. Compressor II is a compressor/limiter with look-ahead capability. EQ Three is a DJ-style 3-band EQ with 24 and 48 dB rolloff. Utility is a multipurpose output utility with controls for gain, stereo channel suppression (allowing either channel to be sent to both sides of the stereo mix), stereo width, and phase inversion for each channel.

Resonators is a bank of five resonators, four of which are tuned to intervals relative to the pitch selected for the first resonator (see Fig. 3). You can use the effect to create chords as well as enharmonic sounds from pitched and unpitched material. Applying Clip automation to the individual resonator frequencies opens up a whole new range of possibilities. The resonators are preceded by a multimode filter allowing you to resonate only part of the signal, and the output has wet/dry balance, gain, and stereo-width controls.

The Live 3.0 sample library (available only with the boxed version) is packed with new samples from Big Fish Audio and PowerFX. As is typical, these collections contain examples from larger libraries available from those providers, but there are enough samples in each category to keep you busy. Especially notable is the PowerFX samples CD with over 500 MB of samples in virtually every instrument and style category.

The Live 3.0 download upgrade comes with the manual in PDF format, which is a big improvement over the HTML format used in previous upgrades. The boxed version has a printed manual, but as in previous versions of Live, neither manual has an index.

LIVE AND LET LIVE

If you're already a Live user, there's no question that this upgrade is an incredible bargain. You can hardly afford not to get it. If you use other loop-based audio-sequencing software or are looking into Live for the first time, it should definitely be high on your list of packages to consider.


Len Sasso can be contacted through his Web site at www.swiftkick.com.

Minimum System Requirements

Live 3.0

MAC: G3/266 MHz; 256 MB RAM; Mac OS 9.2 or OS X 10.1.5

PC: Pentium II/400 MHz; 128 MB RAM; Windows 98/2000/XP

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Ableton

Live 3.0 (Mac/Win)
loop sequencer
$399
upgrade $69 (download), $99 (boxed)

FEATURES 5.0
EASE OF USE 4.5
QUALITY OF SOUNDS 4.5
VALUE 5.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Clip-level automation. Key-range Clip triggering. New Clip-render and Scene-capture options. Sophisticated mixing of real-time and tracked sequence playback.

CONS: Manual has no index. Must open preferences to change Browser warp mode. Clip automation only available in Warp mode.

Manufacturer

Ableton/M-Audio (distributor)
tel. (800) 969-6434 or (626) 633-9050
e-mail info@m-audio.com
Web www.ableton.com

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