Ableton Live 4.0

Got MIDI? Now the answer is yes
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By Craig Anderton
Let's get a few things out of the way. First, I use Live for live performance and in the studio, so yes, I like it . . . and Live 4 trumps Live 3. Second, you can download a demo that does everything but save, render, and resample, so in some ways, a review is redundant.

Or is it? Live is actually a somewhat controversial program, with some pretty far-out claims being made both for and against the program by partisans and detractors. So rather than just cover the nuts and bolts, let's address the new features, then zoom out and consider what Live is all about.

If you joined the party late, Live is a digital audio (and now MIDI) program that has two main views: Session and Arrangement. The loop-oriented Session view is optimized for live playing and improvisation, and is laid out as a matrix. Columns are like tracks, and Rows are called "scenes." Each intersection is a "slot." You drag clips (audio or MIDI) into a slot. Once there, you can trigger, loop, mute, and modify the clip in many ways.

Only one clip can play at a time from a track, but Live's Hugely Powerful Feature is that selecting a scene simultaneously triggers all the track clips in that row, with start times quantized to whatever rhythm you desire.

For example, suppose Track 1 has DrumLoop1 in the top slot (which would be row 1) and DrumLoop2 in the slot below (row 2). Track 2 has nothing in the first row, but BassLoop1 in the second row. If you trigger the scene representing the first row, DrumLoop1 will start playing, and continue playing if you've looped it. If you trigger scene 2, DrumLoop1 will play to the end of the loop (or to the end of whatever rhythmic quantization interval you've set), then DrumLoop2 and BassLoop1 will start playing.

For live performance, this is awesome: Set up combinations of loops that work well together, and trigger them as desired by calling up a scene. You can still trigger additional loops individually while a scene is playing,

and do real-time manipulation like altering the track levels, pans, effects, etc. Furthermore, Live's audio engine is virtually gapless. You almost have to crash the computer before the audio will hiccup.

Better yet, if you hit Record prior to doing a performance, all your moves (well, almost all - more later) will be remembered. Press Play and hear a replica of your performance, and/or render it as audio to disk.

And where were these moves remembered? In the Arrangement view, which looks like most DAWs - you see tracks, automation curves, fader levels, etc. This makes it easy to touch up your Session view performance, but some Live users start from scratch with the Arrangement view and treat it more like a DAW. The Arrangement view has been beefed up over time, making it better suited for those who live mostly in a more traditional working environment.

Other Live high points are the clean and unified interface, "elastic audio" that allows pegging any audio file to a tempo (e.g., I brought in a file that wasn't played to click, defined measure markers in Live, and was able to accompany it with loops), a solid complement of processors and the ability to host VST plugs, a great help facility, and super-easy remote control setup.

Live also has lots of key equivalents, short cuts, and other "power user" techniques that are worth learning (it's called "read the manual"). So while on the surface Live is easy to navigate, as you get more proficient you can do correspondingly more amazing things.

Much has been made of Live 4 adding MIDI capabilities, as if it's now positioned against programs like Performer, Logic, Sonar, Cubase, etc. Yet Live always handled ReWire well, so you could use Reason, Project5, or other MIDI-intensive programs as adjuncts. My take is that there are two important aspects about how Live has added MIDI:

• Miraculously, Ableton managed to do this without making the program more bloated, or the interface significantly more complex. Live 4 does not have a "creeping featuritis" vibe.

• MIDI has taken Live further down the path it was already going; it's made Live a better program that remains consistent with its design goals. MIDI doesn't feel "tacked on" so marketing types could say "now we compete with big sequencers."

I feel the Live interface has always been very simple, but not necessarily intuitive - there is a difference.

Because its roots are different from standard sequencers, if you apply standard sequencer thinking, you may not get the desired result. So you look at the manual, and instead find there's some simple, obvious procedure to do what you want.

For example, you can drag MIDI files into a track or a clip slot to create a track. So I opened up a folder on the desktop, and tried to drag a file in. Wrong: You drag from Live's Browser, which is 100% consistent with the way you pretty much drag anything into Live. (As a bonus, the Browser shows each track in the file, which can be dragged in individually.) That's what I mean by not intuitive, but simple. Everything related to MIDI works almost identically to how things work with audio.

Adding a soft synth is equally simple; just drag it in as you would an audio effect. To add a signal processor to the instrument, drag it to the right of the instrument (i.e., at the output). How about a MIDI effect? Drag it to the instrument's left (the input). If you drag the MIDI effect onto the instrument itself or where audio processors are supposed to go, you get a message that says "Insert MIDI Effects Before Instruments" and the display shows a red line where you're supposed to drag it. But get this: It then goes ahead and puts the effect in the right place anyway, even if you dragged it to the wrong place! I love programs that just go ahead and do what you wanted anyway, even if you did it wrong.

In Session view where you would normally see an audio waveform, with MIDI tracks you see a piano roll editor. There are four "panels" for working with MIDI: Clip (set time signature, swing, clip color, name), Launch (determines how the clip will be triggered and quantized, among other things), Notes (choose banks and programs, do note editing, set loop characteristics), and Envelopes, which work like envelopes for audio except they're MIDI controllers. You can show/hide these panels to allow less/more room respectively for editing.

In addition to this type of Clip Overview, there's also a MIDI Track Selector. Like audio tracks, this is where you process the virtual instrument (VSTi or the ones included with Live) driven by MIDI. This also shows the virtual instrument parameters, and any MIDI or audio effects.

And that's pretty much it for MIDI - what you need in a compact interface. In Arrangement view, MIDI tracks look as they would in most any digital audio+MIDI host sequencer.

There are two bundled instruments: The Impulse 8-pad drum module (with a decent library of hits), and a sample playback module called Simpler - drag in a sample (again, several are included with the package) and adjust envelope, filtering, etc. It won't put MachFive et al out of a job, but it's handy.

Other MIDI goodies include Standard MIDI File import/export, the ability to generate MIDI notes from your QWERTY keyboard (attention laptop fans), some MIDI effects (love the randomizing one), and an overdub-oriented "drum machine" mode for creating patterns.

Other major and minor improvements include AU support on the Mac, groove settings for audio and MIDI clips, the ability to copy warp markers across multiple tracks (good if you've imported several tracks for a remix - if the tracks are the same length you only have to warp one), storable tempos with individual scenes (yes!), and more. Rather than kill more trees just to describe features, surf to the Ableton web site for details.

Last but not least is better busing, including more sends and returns (now up to 12 per Live set), and more flexible track routing and monitoring - great for "re-sampling" processed tracks, or recording MIDI tracks as audio.

I've seen some online discussion about the audio engine's sound quality. "It's much better than my main sequencer!" "It's not as good as my main sequencer!" Well, they're both right - it depends on the source material and skill of the user.

Live does not interpret acidization markers or REX slices, but has a flexible stretching engine with different algorithms. Matching the source material to the right algorithm produces the best quality; I suspect the people who don't do this are most vocal about Live's supposed "shortcomings." However, the "beats" algorithm - probably the most used one - has fixed rhythmic markers, which is a more rigid process than acidization's ability to position markers at specific transients.

For example, assume an eighth-note rock drum pattern but at one point, an open hi-hat sustains for one beat while nothing else plays. With acidization, you would place a marker at the beginning of that beat, and another at the next beat when another drum hits. With Live, you would specify eighth-note markers, but this means a marker would end up in the middle of the open hi-hat. This can produce a small, but noticeable, discontinuity.

Granted, all looping methods - acidization, REX files, and Live - have strengths and weaknesses. What's good about Live is not that there are situations when it doesn't work perfectly, but rather, that it works well for most program material. When truly acidized files are essential, I ReWire Live into Sonar. Of course, if you repitch with resampling or don't stretch, artifacts aren't an issue. As to whether digital summing, level changes, panning, etc. affect the sound, that's a controversy that relates to all digital audio hosts - so let's not go there.

This is another topic of online comments, and again, the answer is yes and no. If you need a video window, REX/Acid file support, or surround, Live won't qualify. On the other hand if the Session view fits your style of working, no DAW will cut it for you. There are other issues: Metering in Live is rudimentary, as there's no numeric indication of how much a signal peak is above or below clipping. And for those who must have a hardware mixer-type look (not me, though), you won't find it here.

My only real beef when using Live for loop-based live performance is that you can't record solo button moves as part of the automation. Ableton is aware of this issue and will address it, but haven't said when.

What Live does offer is something unique, and I think comparing it to DAWs misses the point. Live may be optimized for creating loop-based music, but even the most dedicated loop fans feel the need to add linear tracks of audio or MIDI instruments - just as those who record mostly linear tracks are discovering the value of throwing some loops into the equation. Live 4 provides both facilities with the same ease, grace, and simplicity with which it does everything else.

No, I'm not getting rid of my DAW. But I'm using Live instead of it more than ever, because just as DAWs are ideal for certain applications, Live is the program of choice for others. And when you ReWire Live together with a DAW, you can pretty much control the universe as we know it.

If you're a Live fan, Live 4 will make you jump for joy. And if you're not, Live 4 may be the rev that turns you into a convert.