Live is a difficult program to describe, because it can be different things to different people—DAW, DJ tool, musical instrument, and even signal processor. It has two personalities living in one program: the pattern/loop-oriented Session view, which is a matrix of “cells” optimized for loading, playing back, and arranging loop-based material on-the-fly; and the Arrangement view, whose linear recording paradigm more closely resembles a traditional DAW. While basically just two facets of the same program, the ability to switch between them at any time—for example, create a rhythmic bed with loops and then overdub on top—helps differentiate Live from other programs.
To experience what Live’s all about, download the fully-functional (except you can’t save/export) demo from the Ableton web site. (This is actually great for pros as well as those testing out the program: If your laptop blows up on tour, as long as you have your data you can download the demo, load your set, and carry on with a live performance.)
THE DAW DIFFERENT
I use Live’s Session View for live performance (and press “record” before each set, so what I do gets recorded in the Arrangement View—cool!), so I’ve always appreciated that aspect of the program. Over the past few revs, though, Live has added more “DAW-like” features (such as a video window and the ability to add external hardware effects), and now version 7 displays individual lanes for automated parameters that you can “fold” and “unfold.” Furthermore, you can treat Session View almost like a console view, as the mixer became far more configurable in version 6.
However, these changes do not really alter the program’s core workflow. An analogy is that it’s like seeing the program from different perspectives: It’s still the same program, but useable in more ways.
WHAT’S NEW IN VERSION 7
You can now do multiple time signatures in Live, and it also performs 64-bit computations on its mix bus for better resolution. There are tempo-nudging controls that are very helpful if you’re trying to hand-sync Live to something else. And remember the video import feature added in version 6? Now you can export the movie with the soundtrack you create.
My favorite “fun” feature is the slicing (and REX file) support. You can open REX files inside Live, and better yet, take any piece of audio and slice it up REX-style with different slices triggered by different MIDI notes. This allows for a lot of re-combining different elements of loops, extracting portions of loops for dropping into instruments, and the like.
Live 7 also incorporates a feature called “SmartPriming” that de-allocates RAM from samples that aren’t being used. This is not a new concept, but it’s particularly important with a program like Live, where lots of sounds may be going on at the same time. At least for laptop performances, you often want these stored in RAM so there’s not endless accessing of a 5400 RPM hard disk.
You’ll also find sidechaining for the Gate, Auto Filter, and the new Compressor that replaces the older Compressor I and II models. I’m particularly glad to see sidechaining on the Auto Filter, so you can control filtering on one instrument with a different instrument. Speaking of signal processors, EQ Eight has been updated as well, including an optional 64-bit high-res mode.
Ableton has also introduced several optional-at-extra-cost instruments, developed in association with Applied Analog Systems: Analog, Tension, and Electric, which resemble AAS’s Ultra Analog VA-1, String Studio VS-1, and Lounge Lizard, respectively. These work only with Live, not other hosts. Of them, my faves are Electric—great electric piano sounds—and Tension, which provides modeled, plucked/hammered/bowed string effects. Another “instrument” (actually it’s more of a sample library, but comes in the form of presets that take advantage of Live’s new Drum Racks feature), consists of excellent samples of vintage drum machines. You can also buy Session Drums, a collection of drum samples à la Reason Drum Kits. Finally, there’s the Essential Instrument Collection 2 (done in conjunction with Sonivox), which comes with the boxed version and Suite, but is otherwise available for purchase if you bought the downloadable version.
The bottom line is that Live lets you take an à la carte approach to adding instruments, but if you need instruments, consider the Ableton Suite: Getting all the above instruments, plus Sampler and the FM-based Operator synth (introduced in previous versions) adds about $500 to the Live 7 download price—very cost-effective.
People ask me three main questions about Live:
- I can’t decide between Live and [pick a DAW]. Which do you recommend?
- I’m currently using [pick a DAW]. Will Live do everything it does?
- I just can’t wrap my head around Live. What am I missing?
As to (1), I need both. Various DAWs have some features that Live simply doesn’t have—for example, being able to edit Acidized files, or lock sample starts to particular SMPTE times. Conversely, Live has attributes DAWs generally don’t have, such as encouraging improvisation and being able to capture multitrack live performance gestures.
If all DAWs disappeared tomorrow except for Live, I wouldn’t lose too much sleep. I’d miss some pretty important features, but Live can serve as a DAW for many, if not most, users. On the other hand if you don’t need Live’s unique features, it’s more expensive than some other DAWs, which may take care of your needs more completely anyway.
Regarding (2), thinking of Live as a replacement for what you’re doing instead of as a supplement is limiting, particularly because you can ReWire Live (which can serve as a client or host) into most DAWs. Then again, if you compare Live’s feature list with what you’re using from your current DAW, you may not need more than what Live has to offer.
As for (3), Live represents a different take on the musical process that’s optimized more for composing/improvising than simply capturing a performance. As a result, its interface may seem odd, and take some getting used to. If you’re not into loop-oriented music, Session View probably won’t make much sense but for me, Session View is the coolest part about Live—once I figured it out! And when you do figure it out, it’s all very logical.
Live is an original, unique program that has carved out its own niche—and been rewarded with much success, as it can be used by many different types of musicians for many different applications. Of course, this review only scratches the surface but downloading the program will answer any questions you have in far greater detail. Live impressed me when it first appeared; over the years, it’s only impressed me more.
Product type: Digital audio/MIDI sequencer with groove and live performance orientation.
Target market: Laptop musicians, DJs, audio-for-video, remixing, live performance, recording studios.
Strengths: Unique paradigm encourages improvisation. Effective, built-in time stretching. Supports multiple time signatures. Good roster of effects and instruments. Video export. Some effects support sidechaining. SmartPriming uses RAM more efficiently. 64-bit resolution for mix bus. Inspiring.
Limitations: Still can’t record solo button presses. Optional-at-extra-cost instruments add up. MIDI editing, while fast and useable, lacks depth compared to most DAWs.
List price: $599 boxed (including Essential Instrument Collection 2 content) or $499 download with no EIC. Ableton Suite (Ableton Live 7 and six instruments, EIC, and Session Drum sample set) $999; for other options and upgrade prices, see the Ableton website.