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electronic MUSICIAN

ABLETON LIVE 2.0 (MAC/WIN)

By Len Sasso | June 1, 2003

Ableton clearly listened to its customers when designing the Live 2.0 upgrade. In addition to numerous user-interface enhancements, the company has added three time-warping options and the ability to turn time-warping off; multichannel, tape-style recording; and a tempo track. There's also beefed-up automation and MIDI control, some new effects, and a rewritten manual. The downloadable upgrade ($69) requires a Live 1.0 serial number; you can request a boxed version for an extra $20. The box contains the rewritten manual (which comes in HTML format with the download) and the installation CD, which contains roughly 250 MB of new samples.

Live is a standalone audio sequencer especially designed for performance but also well suited for recording, arranging, and remixing. It runs under all recent versions of Windows and both Mac OS 9 and OS X. It is ReWire aware and can function as either master or slave (but not both and not as a slave in OS X), and it will host VST effects plug-ins. For those new to Live, you'll find a review of version 1.1 in the June 2002 issue of EM and a master class on version 1.5 in the December 2002 issue. For this review, I'll provide a brief overview of how Live works and then get straight to the new features, of which there are plenty.

Although Live runs in a single window, it has two separate-but-linked views corresponding to its two modes of operation. The Session view is laid out like a standard mixing desk, with channel-strip controls along the bottom (see Fig. 1). Unlike a mixing desk, there is 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, the computer keyboard, or the mouse. The Arrange view is laid out like a typical audio sequencer, with audio tracks running horizontally (see Fig. 2). You can capture a Session-view performance in the Arrange view, drag clips there and arrange them manually, or record live performances (a new feature in 2.0).

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

WARP FACTOR

Perhaps the biggest change in version 2.0 is the inclusion of three new time-warp algorithms. Time-warping is the method by which Live keeps audio clips of different tempos in sync. In previous versions, Live simply sliced a clip into equal-sized pieces and sequenced the slices at the master tempo, time-stretching or -compressing the individual slices to fill the allotted time. That method, with occasional manual adjustments to Live's inferred tempo and beat count, works very well for highly rhythmic material such as drum loops and dance tracks. For melodic or ambient material, it is less satisfactory, and for sound effects, which you usually don't want to be warped at all, it is a major nuisance.

Live now has four time-warp modes as well as the option to turn the feature off. Beats is the original mode, just described. Tones is a granular method best suited to melodic material such as vocals, leads, and bass. Live uses pitch analysis to determine the optimal grain size relative to an average grain size that you specify. Texture gives you absolute control over the grain size as well as an amount of randomization around that size. It is best suited for pads, ambient sounds, and complex instrumental textures. Finally, Re-Pitch uses classic resampling and is similar to changing the speed of a tape or record. It is the method to use for DJ-style, variable-speed turntable effects and for time-stretching to match a desired pitch shift. The MP3 example Warped compares the Beats method with the others.

As mentioned previously, turning time-warping off entirely is useful for material such as sound effects, horn stabs, orchestral hits, and individual percussion sounds, all of which should be played as is. If you load such hits into the Clip Pool with time-warping turned off and assign MIDI notes to trigger them, Live becomes a basic sample player. Turning time-warping off is also useful for long audio files, to which you would like to match Live's tempo (instead of the other way around).

The time-warping method can be set individually for each clip in a song, whether the clip resides in the Clip Pool or in the Arrange view. Furthermore, you can use the same clip at different places with different settings. A preference setting lets you choose whether warping is activated when a clip is added, and that setting also determines whether warping is used when clips are auditioned in Live's Browser. It's a little inconvenient to have to open the Preferences window to change that option, and Ableton intends to add it as a panel feature in a future release. In any case, it's great to be able to browse with time-warping turned off.

Two other new features — tap tempo and a metronome — are very helpful when setting up a clip's time-warp markers. Tap tempo allows you to use the computer keyboard or any MIDI controller to tap in Live's tempo to match the tempo of an unwarped clip. (If you try to tap in the tempo of a time-warped clip, you'll be chasing your tail as Live tries to sync the clip to your tapping.) In a nice touch, tapping can also be used as a count-in to start Live playback and recording. The metronome provides a quick way to hear if you've set up your loops and warp markers correctly, although you can use a simple drum clip for the same purpose.

FOR THE RECORD

Audio recording has always been a key feature of Live, but until now, it has been limited to the Session view. Version 2.0 allows tape-style recording in the Arrange view and also includes separate input-monitoring buttons. (Previously, all or only record-enabled channels were monitored for input.) Tape-style recording is multitrack, and remote commands (MIDI and computer keyboard) can be assigned to toggle recording of individual tracks. Unfortunately, you can't toggle recording and monitoring with the same remote command, which makes manually punching in and out a bit difficult. Recording in the Session view is, of course, still possible, and in either view you can simultaneously set the tempo and initiate recording by tapping a four-beat count-in. You can also use the metronome in either view.

The difference between tape-style (Arrange-view) and Session-view recording is that in tape-style recording, clips are time-stamped — the clip is placed in the arrangement at the time it was recorded. Although you can toggle recording on and off in the Session view, each recorded clip is simply placed in the Clip Pool without any reference to its time position in the overall recording. Tape-style recording also supports punch-in and looped recording. In the case of looped recording, all takes of a given track are recorded in a single audio file, within which you can single out the desired take in Live's Clip view (see Fig. 3).

Live also provides automation recording, in which all clip-triggering activity in the Session view and all mixing activity (including effects parameter changes) in either view are recorded in the Arrange view. Among other things, that allows you to convert a Session-view recording of audio clips to an Arrange-view recording after the fact by simply triggering the recorded clips at the times you want them to play in the arrangement. In short, almost any way that suits your performance and recording preferences is accommodated by some combination of Live's recording schemes.

One other recording note is that Live accepts input from three sources: your audio interface (meaning the outside world), other ReWire slave applications running simultaneously, and Live's own output (meaning any of the outputs to your audio interface and any of Live's send buses).

Multitrack recording is especially useful with ReWire applications (such as Propellerhead Reason) that have multiple outputs, because it allows you to take a multipart loop and turn it into an extended multitrack recording. The MP3 example TenDrum was made from a one-measure ReDrum loop in Reason by routing each of ReDrum's ten drum pads to separate tracks (see Fig. 4). Recording Live's own output is useful for splitting off different parts and send effects in a multitrack recording. When you simply want to bounce an arrangement, Live's Render function is faster and easier.

ODDS AND ENDS

Enhanced time-warping and tape-style recording are the main buzz in the 2.0 upgrade, but there are also numerous small improvements and additions to make life easier. User-interface improvements include resizable Arrange-view tracks, a compact Session view in which the Clip Pool is suppressed to make more channels visible, and a full-screen mode. MIDI and keyboard remotes have been added to change Scenes and to launch the currently selected Scene. Audio clips can now be renamed and deleted directly in the Browser, and all clips recorded in a Live set are placed in an automatically generated set folder.

Live now offers a choice between true solo switches, which mute all other tracks, and Pre-Fader Listen (PFL) switches, which route selected tracks to an alternate output (headphones, for example). Previously, soloing was accomplished by routing the PFL output to the master output. The new method is an improvement, but it's hard to imagine why the same switch is used for both modes, making it necessary to choose between them with a menu option.

Automation has been improved in several ways. You can now lock automation, which prevents it from changing when a clip is moved. Automation selection has been simplified by the addition of parameter menus, and as mentioned, individual tracks can be resized to better view and edit automation by hand. A new, automatable crossfade parameter has been added, and tracks can be individually assigned to either side of the crossfade. Finally, there's tempo automation, which is especially handy when applications that don't support tempo changes (such as Reason) are slaved to Live.

In the effects department, the most notable addition is support for presets for Live's built-in effects. (Previously, only VST effects could have presets.) The two new effects, a gate effect and Redux (for bit-crushing and downsampling), are handy but unexciting. New bandpass and notch modes are announced for the Auto Filter but have not been implemented as of this writing.

Live's new manual is a great improvement over the original. It includes a 40-page getting-started tour and a very helpful section on time-warping. Unfortunately, it lacks an index, and for some reason, the key-commands summary was left out of the printed version. A PDF version would be more convenient than the HTML version provided with the download, but that serves the purpose. The 250 MB of new samples and loops are also a welcome addition to Live's already excellent factory sound library. Most of those are in the PowerFX collection of piano, organ, bass, drum, and orchestral clips, and they are quite nice.

Live has gained a well-deserved reputation as a unique tool for real-time audio sequencing and recording. It is equally at home in performance and desktop composition. The upgrade (I recommend the boxed version) is incredibly cheap for what has been added, and the full package is certainly fairly priced.


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

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Ableton
Live 2.0 (Mac/Win)
loop sequencer
$399
update from version 1.0
$69 (download)
$89 (CD and manual)

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

PROS: New time-warping options. Tape-style multitrack recording. Seamless ReWire integration. Easy file management in dedicated Browser.

CONS: Manual has no index. Must open Preferences window to change Browser Warp mode. Can't toggle recording and monitoring simultaneously.

Manufacturer
Ableton/M-Audio (distributor)
tel. (800) 969-6434 or (626) 445-2842
e-mail info@m-audio.com
Web www.ableton.com

Minimum System Requirements

Live 2.0

MAC: G3/233; 256 MB RAM; Mac OS 9.1 or OS X 10.1.5

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

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