Ableton Live 3.0

This unique software continues to amaze
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By Craig Anderton
When Live 1.0 appeared at the Winter 2001 NAMM show, there were two basic reactions: “This is incredible!” and “Huh?”

Which is understandable. Live created a new paradigm, that of a loop-based program that was a live performance instrument as well as a studio tool. Was it like Acid? Well, yes, sorta, but whereas Acid was more about assembling loops into a composition, Live was more about manipulating those loops in real time to create a composition. Oh, so it’s live performance software? Well, sorta, except you could record all your moves and go to a view where you could edit everything with envelopes, plug-ins, and the like. Okay, so it’s a DAW? Well, not really, because there’s no MIDI sequencing or VSTi support . . . but you can rewire Live into a program that does speak MIDI sequencing, and end up with far more than the sum of the parts.

So let’s just leave it at this: Live is one of the most original, creative, and exciting pieces of software I’ve had the pleasure to use. It’s not for everybody — for straight-ahead recording of rock bands and such, a traditional DAW may get you where you want to go faster — but if want to combine loops, digital audio, live performance, hardware control, and ReWire, this is the program to beat.

(Full disclosure: When Ableton was sbout to ship Live 2, they needed someone to “Americanize” the manual. I spent a few hours doing so, got paid for it, and recommended that in the future, they bring the process in-house. They did, which ended our business relationship.)

The Ableton site has a demo and PDF manual, so it seems silly to talk too much about details here — for a little download time, you can find out for yourself. Instead, I’ll give an overview so you can decide whether you’re interested in the program, then cover what’s new in version 3.

First up: the interface. Live was one of the first programs to put everything in one full-screen window with several views. But the screen is dominated by either the Session View, which is optimized for live playing and on-the-fly arranging, or the Arrangement view (hit Tab to change from one to other), which shows the results of recording your “moves” and allows comprehensive editing options. These include envelope-based automation, copying and splitting of clips, and the like.

The other views are identical whether the main view is Session or Arrangement. The left side shows a hideable browser for auditioning files and dragging them into the Session or Arrangement (curiously, though, it won’t show files on the desktop). A hideable strip along the bottom has a permanent info screen on the left, which is like a “mouse rollover” hint function on steroids; it almost makes the manual superfluous. The rest of the strip has three tabs that choose among a view of the selected waveform (along with loop, stretch, pitch, envelope, etc. information), track/send/master effects, or bus routing and metering.

Session view looks somewhat like a mixer, with level, pan, and similar buttons along the bottom. But each track consists of a series of slots, arranged as a column, into which you load loops, one-shots, or even complete pieces of program material (more about this later). Only one slot can play at any time within a track, but there are multiple tracks. A “master” channel lets you click on a row of slots (called a “scene”), which plays all the audio loaded into that row, for all the tracks.

For example, suppose you’re building a composition with a drum loop, then a bass loop, then a rhythm guitar, then some vocal one-shots, then you want to drop back to only the drums. Each instrument would have its own track, and you would arrange scenes to play back the desired combinations of loops.

When you select a scene, it begins playing on the next selected quantization interval (typically a bar), so the transition is always smooth. In fact, one of Live’s outstanding features is that on anything but the most performance-challenged computer, the audio never stops, no matter what you do: drag in loops, add effects, manipulate effects, browse for material, mix, whatever. This is a real-time engine that just keeps purring.

Note that Live is not a synthesizer, so it doesn’t have the same kind of instant gratification as something like Reason. A common way of working with Live goes something like this: Choose the pieces of audio (clips) that will make up your composition Start running Live, experiment with combining different clips, and arrange them on tracks into scenes Load in any effects you want for tracks, buses, and the master Set up a MIDI control surface to adjust faders, effects parameters, etc. This is optional, but recommended: You can run Live with a mouse, but you can also drive a Porsche no faster than 15 MPH. You really don’t want to do either. Start recording and creating a song. Live remembers all your fader movements, effects changes, everything. Record traditional, linear-style audio tracks if desired. When you’re done, switch over to the Arrange view, and if needed, edit your work.

But that’s just one way of working. . . .

The Arrange view is a great safety net when you’re working on a Session. If you do a fantastic piece except for one horrible glitch, just edit it out. When everything is just the way you want it, render to disk as a complete song.

But you can also treat the Arrangement view the same way as you would when building a song in Acid — by dragging over files, looping them, stretching them, and so on. This can be a completely non-realtime activity, but of course, you can also combine performance elements with it.

Live’s interface is so drop-dead simple that it’s easy to think that there are a limited number of ways to use the program. Not so. Live is extremely versatile, and it encourages coming up with your own way of working. In fact, one of my favorite uses of the Arrangement view is to take advantage of “elastic audio,” introduced in Live 2. This warps loop markers into something far more flexible: Placing markers does time compression or expansion on the space between the markers to fit a particular rhythm.

For example, for one Live project, I took a dance-oriented song I did in 1982 called “Modern World,” which had a dismal (trust me on this) scratch drum track, complete with “four on the floor” kick. I wanted to add drums using the Discrete Drums loop library, so I brought the entire tune into Live as a clip, adjusted the warp markers (it took a couple minutes to warpify the file), and ended up with a loop-compatible song. From here, it was a piece of cake to add the drums.

In the Arrange view I dragged over loops, split them, threw on some effects, and tweaked until the tune was reborn. I used none of Live’s performance aspects; this was all handled like a regular hard disk recorder, with envelope automation. You can hear the end result. It’s pretty interesting to be able to take a song over two decades old and seamlessly update the rhythm track.

However, using Live in Windows XP (I also tested it on a G3 Mac running 9.2) was not a totally crash-free experience. This seems to have a lot to do with VST effects. Use the minimum number you need, avoid public domain freeware, and make sure no VSTi devices live in the plug-ins folder. As soon as I copied over a select group of plug-ins to the Live VST folder rather than just point to the Steinberg VST folder (which has all kinds of stuff in it), the system became extremely stable.

Live 3 takes the idea of envelope-based automation (as used on tracks), and applies it to individual loops and clips. These are subsets of the track envelopes. For example, if you create a clip volume envelope, the track envelope acts like a “master volume control” for the clip envelope shape.

You select and edit envelopes in clip view. As with track envelopes, breakpoint editing or envelope drawing options are available. There are two pop-up menus for selecting envelopes; the top one shows clip, mixer, and each automatable effect loaded into the track.

With clip selected, the lower pop-up shows volume, transposition (yes! real-time pitch-shifting and retuning!), sample offset, etc. With an effect selected, the lower menu shows the various effects parameters. VSTs that support automation (most do) show up here as well. With mixer selected, you can edit volume, pan, and the two send controls.

There are also three shortcut buttons for clip transposition, volume, and track pan. What all this means is you can mute individual beats from a loop, or take a portion and send it to an effect while leaving the rest of the loop unaffected, apply echo only to the first (or whatever) note of a loop . . . it’s really amazing to have this degree of micro-control. Just by bringing different sections of a clip in and out, or processing them, you end up with almost a completely different clip. The transposition envelope option is particularly wonderful: Modulate a clip that’s in one key to a different one anywhere within the clip.

To take the clip envelope feature even further, you can unlink the envelope from the clip itself. For example, suppose you have a two-bar loop. Normally, you would draw an envelope that would cover those two bars. But when unlinked, you could change the loop length to, say, eight bars. Those two bars will repeat four times, but you now have eight bars on which you can draw an envelope over those four repeats. So you could, for example, fade out the four repeats over eight bars, or “chop” the amplitude in different ways throughout the extended envelope.

The clip envelopes are the big addition to Live 3, but there are also four new effects: Compressor II. This uses sidechain EQ to provide frequency-selective compression — just the thing for kicking the bass into the megathrob zone, or doing maximizing if you put it in the master channel. EQ Three. A three-band DJ style with 48 dB of filter band separation. Resonators. These are five parallel resonant filter structures that add tonality and resonance to sounds. Try them on drums, or white noise for that matter. The effect is similar to putting a bunch of flangers, set for a fixed delay and high resonance, in parallel. Utility. It’s not glamorous, but if you need stereo width, phase, and gain controls, here you go.

Of course there’s more, but you can discover the additional MIDI keyboard modes, DJ-type crossfader, and other goodies when you download the demo version.

Live can no longer be dismissed as just something for loops, DJs, or electronica. The new features have been integrated in a way that is both unobtrusive and seamless; Live 3 has the same unity of feel and operation as Live 1. While it still excels as a live performance instrument, it’s increasingly a studio creature as well.

And rather than upset the balance by adding MIDI, Ableton has wisely chosen to go the ReWire route. Reason and Live make a particularly potent combination — a virtual rack of soft synths coupled with loops — but rewiring Live with Sonar, Cubase, etc. gives me MIDI sequencing, the ability to throw backing tracks together quickly in Sonar, and Live’s unexcelled improvisational talents on top of the whole thing.

Indeed . . . third time’s a charm. Live 3 retains everything that was good about the original version, and adds significant extra capabilities without adding complexity. It truly occupies the sweet spot where ease of use meets sophistication.