Ableton Live 6

I’ll admit it: It’s only with great trepidation that I install a new version of Live. Is it because I’m afraid the program will crash? No, Live is ultra-stable. Incompatibility issues? Not that either — Live works with pretty much any modern computer that can wake up in the morning. Fear of a learning curve? Not at all; once you’ve figured out the basics, Live is easy to use.
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It’s just that Live invented a unique paradigm and stuck to it over the years, and I’d hate to see that get lost in “feature bloat.” At the Frankfurt Musik Messe a couple years ago, Gerhard Behles of Ableton mentioned that version 4 was going to include MIDI. I was highly skeptical, and didn’t see how they could add MIDI without destroying the program’s sleek interface. But Behles was insistent: “Don’t worry, we’ll add MIDI in the Ableton way.” And they did, integrating it as smoothly as they had everything else up to that point.

I’ll also admit it took me a while to really “get” Live. It made sense intellectually, but I didn’t experience the full impact of it until I hooked up a control surface and was able to make it do my bidding in real time, improvising and composing as I went along.

So this review takes a bit of a different tack. After all, you can download a demo version of the program for yourself; and you don’t need me to tell you whether you like it or not. Instead, let’s look at the “big picture,” and how Live fits into the world of DAWs and hosts. Really, Live 6 is like none of them . . . but in some ways, like all of them. Here’s why.

THE TAO OF DUALITY: INTO THE MATRIX

Live’s most important aspect is that it offers two different ways to interact with the program, Session view and Arrangement view. You can use one, the other, or switch between the two. Arrangement view is like working with a conventional DAW, as there are tracks for audio and MIDI, visible waveforms, envelopes, automation, etc. Session view is what sets Live apart: This is a matrix of tracks (arranged as columns), and scenes, arranged as rows. Each row/column intersection has a clip slot into which you can drag audio (usually loops, but one-shots work too) or MIDI files from a Browser pane, located toward the left of the program’s window. You can also record audio or MIDI data into a slot.

Each track plays only one slot at a time, so if you want multiple clips to play simultaneously, you put them in the same row but on different tracks. Then, when you click on a row’s “Launch” button to turn on the row, any audio in that row — on any track in that row — begins playback. The ability to trigger a bunch of loops instantly and simultaneously by launching a row is very powerful.

Additional details, such as timing, make this matrix concept even better. Loop playback can be quantized to any of several rhythmic values, so that, for example, if quantization is set to 1 measure, you can launch a row up to several beats before a measure starts — the loops won’t trigger until the precise start of the next measure.

For figuring out arrangements, this is brilliant as you can set up individual rows to be sub-sections of the tune (intro, build section, verse, second part of verse, solo, etc.). But you’re not limited to triggering wholesale groups of clips, either. In fact, you can play any piece of audio in any track at any time, in addition to whatever’s playing in a row (within the constraint of one piece of audio per track, and with a start consistent with whatever quantization you’ve selected). For example, you can select a row, then add in audio from a track that doesn’t have audio in the selected row. Or, build a song a loop at a time: Enable a loop in track 1 to start, then another in track 3, then another in track 5, then switch to a more complex loop over in track 1 . . . then select a completely different row with a whole other collection of loops.

Want to turn off a track? Click on an empty track slot to stop a track from looping. Or, let the loop run, but mute the audio; and if you want a quick breakbeat, hit the solo button for that track.

This may sound confusing in print, but in practice, you have a very hip playing field laid out in front of you that is extremely flexible. I’ve done songs in Live with 30 or 40 rows, with each row representing a particular section of a song, and gone from row to row — sometimes in order, sometimes skipping around depending on how the audience reacts — but I’ve also done tunes with a single row containing multiple loops that I enable or disable as needed.

And that’s only how I use the program . . . some musicians use it to build up songs, a loop at a time, then improvise on top of what they’ve created. I’ve also played with musicians who used it as a sort of “ultimate JamMan” signal processor; Live is one of the few pieces of software I’ve seen embraced by rockers, avant-garde types, rappers, groove-oriented musicians, and DJs alike.

AND NOW, TWO MISCONCEPTIONS

Misconception #1: “The sound of Live’s audio engine isn’t as good as other programs.” Well, it’s 32-bit with sampling up to 192kHz, so it’s on a par with most other programs. The reason for this misconception is that Live will take just about any file you can throw at it, and “warp” it to the project tempo (much like how Acid or Sonar can stretch clips automatically). This requires DSP-based time stretching, and even though Live’s stretch algorithms are extremely good, they’re not perfect; and as you have a choice of algorithms, there’s no guarantee the default one is best. If you play back a clip without “warping” it (i.e., at the tempo at which it was recorded), it sounds just fine.

Misconception #2: Live is a DAW. That’s partially right, because Live can serve as a DAW — particularly because over the past several revs Live has beefed up its DAW-oriented features. Those who use Live primarily as an instrument/live performance program, and switched to a DAW for other projects, most likely don’t feel they need to switch any more.

Still, there is a fundamental difference. Almost all DAWs are based on a recording paradigm, much like a virtual tape recorder. Live is based on a performance paradigm, where to me, it’s more like a musical instrument disguised as music software. This is a program with which you can create music, not just record it.

VERSION 6: WHAT’S NEW

Again, you’ll find out soon enough if you download the demo, but let’s cover the highlights.

Video: One of the biggies is a video window, which for the first time, breaks Live’s “single window” philosophy. No problem; it’s resizeable and you can put it anywhere. Unfortunately, though, you can import MOV (QuickTime) format only; no AVI, WMV, etc.

Live itself is well-suited to soundtrack work, but the big bonus here is that you can make the video the “warp master,” and by adding warp markers to the video, any loops you add to create a soundtrack will follow along. This greatly simplifies audio to video sync, and matching hit points. I suspect it won’t be long before audio-for-video types realize just how well Live suits their needs.

Device Racks: You can combine instruments with MIDI and audio effects into a single, saveable object. This recalls the “track presets” in other hosts, but Live’s take is more comprehensive: In addition to instrument racks, you can have MIDI or audio effects racks, and you can even have racks within racks — for example, use a rack of audio processors along with an instrument rack, as well as have a rack that consists of parallel chains of devices (yes, parallel) or even other racks. One result is convenience: If you come up with a configuration you use a lot, save and it’s there whenever you want it. However, there are also eight macro controls you can assign to “strategic” controls of your choice within the rack, as well as have a control affect multiple parameters simultaneously. And of course, these can in turn be assigned to external MIDI control. You could even come up with “Kore”-like assignments so that particular macro controls trigger the same parameter in different racks (e.g., Macro 1 always controls resonance, whether it’s a synth filter or flanger).

Dynamic Tube Effect: If you’re a guitarist, don’t get your hopes up too much; it’s more for adding a nasty distortion characteristic, without the niceties of a cabinet or EQ found in guitar amps. It has its uses, but it didn’t make me go “wow.”

Sampler: This is an optional-at-extra-cost instrument that can import Akai S1000, S3000, GigaStudio, EXS, SoundFont, and (non-encrypted) Kontakt presets. A few features that really appeal to me are easy cross-fading with multisamples, filter morphing, and the ability to stream samples from disk or stuff them into RAM. It may not be worth it if you already have a really good sampler plug-in; but if you don’t, $199 is excellent value for money.

Essential Instrument Collection: These are from the Sonivox library, and come as instrument racks that load into Simpler (you don’t need Sampler to use them). However, if you want to take advantage of Sampler’s features, just right-click on Simple’s title bar and select Simpler > Sampler. Very smart.

The sounds are, well, “essential”: piano, harpsichord, organ, electric piano, orchestral strings, orchestral bass, orchestral woodwinds, guitar, bass, harp, mallet instruments, and choirs. You can save $100 by not installing the EIC (you can always add it later for $119 if you change your mind), and if you already have a great sampler and set of samples, you probably don’t need this. However, the sounds really are quite excellent, and there are “CPU-friendly” versions that can be invaluable when doing complex live laptop gigs. I can easily see those weaned on the groove aspects of Live getting into EIC and sampler as a way to branch out into new sonic areas.

There are other additions too: a more configurable Session view mixer for those who want something closer to a traditional mixing environment, native support and mappings for various hardware controllers, multiprocessor support, freeze that allows for a goodly degree of editing on frozen tracks, better browsing, improved file management, more routing options, and more.

CONCLUSION

Live 6 retains what always made it cool, but has managed to add new functions that don’t get in the way of what made the program great in the first place. Whether it’s an essential upgrade is hard to say, because frankly, there’s not a lot wrong with Live 5 (or Live 4, for that matter). But it’s hard to imagine a hardcore Live fan who wouldn’t enjoy the new features, all wrapped up in that same elegant interface. Bottom line: Ableton has done it again.