Ableton Live 7 (Mac/Win)

Live 7 is the latest version of the sequencing and performance software.BONUS MATERIALRead about Analog, Electric, and Tension in Live 7.Web Clips: Click for audio clips and videos that accompany the March 2008 issue of EM.
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FIG. 1: Drum Racks map plug-in instruments to individual pads triggered by MIDI notes. Racks have their own send effects and submixer.

With the release of Live 7, Ableton implements numerous user requests, improves audio and MIDI performance, and introduces a powerful new rack variation called Drum Racks. Three instruments — Analog, Electric, and Tension — join Operator and Sampler as premium add-ons to Live. The boxed version (as opposed to the download) comes with an improved Essential Instrument Collection (EIC 2) as well as the Unnatural Selection package of loops and construction kits from Puremagnetik. New premium percussion packs Session Drums and Drum Machines round out the content. You can get all the premium instruments as well as EIC 2 and Unnatural Selection in the Ableton Suite boxed bundle ($799).

For this review, I installed Live 7 on my dual 2 GHz Power Mac G5 under Mac OS X 10.4.11 and my 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 notebook PC under Windows XP. Performance on both machines was excellent. You'll need to budget roughly 50 GB of hard-drive space to install all the content including the premium packages, but Live now lets you maintain alternate libraries on different hard drives. You have browser access to only one library at a time, but Live songs can use data from multiple libraries as long as the hard drives containing them are mounted.

Drumroll, Please

Drum Racks combine the features of an Instrument Rack with a drum-machine-style trigger-pad front end (see Fig. 1). You drag audio clips or virtual instruments to Drum Rack pads to add chains to the rack. If you drag a clip, a Simpler is inserted in the chain with the clip as its source. You can extend chains by inserting MIDI effects before and audio effects after the virtual instrument.

By default, a chain receives only the note corresponding to its pad, and the chain responds by sending note C3 to the devices in the chain. But you can set any chain to send a different note or to receive and send all notes. For example, you could drag a virtual instrument with a tuned-percussion preset to a pad, set the resulting chain to receive all notes, and then use a Pitch plug-in to restrict the note range within the chain. You could then use pads outside that range to trigger other drum sounds. You can embed Instrument Racks or Drum Racks within Drum Racks for variations on that theme.

Drum Racks accommodate as many as six send effects. Once you insert an effects plug-in in the effects section at the bottom of the rack, all chains sprout a send-amount slider. You can route the return to the rack output or to any of the send buses in the main mixer.

Both Instrument and Drum Racks have a foldout Session-view submixer with a channel for each chain in the rack. The channel strip controls mirror the controls in the rack's Chain list, but it is often more convenient to view and use them in the Session-view submixer. You can drag submixer channel strips to a new track to split off individual chains, and when you do that with a Drum Rack, the notes in any MIDI files on the main track that apply to the dragged channel will follow, creating new MIDI clips on the new channel.

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FIG. 2: You can export video along with audio and even choose format and compression settings.

Although a Drum Rack has pads for all 128 MIDI notes (C-2 to G8), only 16 are visible at a time. A convenient slider to the right of the pad display selects which pads are visible. In a nice touch, if you use a MIDI pad controller with native Live support, its pads will follow the slider selection.

Live now automatically slices REX files as well as files with embedded Live Warp markers. (When you drag a REX file to a clip slot or Arrangement-view track, Live uses the REX-file slices rather than its own Warp markers.) You can then select Slice To New MIDI Track from the Insert menu or the clip's context menu, and Live will create a Drum Rack with a slice on each pad and generate a MIDI clip to play the slices with the proper timing.

Hello, Fodder

One of the best things about Drum Racks is the use Live has made of them in two of Ableton's premium content offerings. Drum Machines, by Ableton content developer Puremagnetik, is a collection of Drum Racks sampling classic drum machines from Roland, Oberheim, Sequential, and others. The racks come set up with send and insert effects, mapped Macro controls, and several MIDI clips to get you started (see Web Clip 1).

At the other end of the percussion spectrum, Session Drums is a sample collection of multimiked acoustic drum kits that have been developed in collaboration with Chocolate Audio. Like Drum Machines, these are delivered in well-crafted Drum Racks. Each kit includes samples played with sticks, Hotrods, mallets, and brushes. These kits do not come with embedded MIDI files, but you can download a free collection of live-played grooves by session drummer Shawn Pelton that utilize the kits (see Web Clip 2).

The Essential Instrument Collection 2, developed in conjunction with SoniVox and Chocolate Audio, contains one kit from each of these drum collections for you to try. Other than that, the EIC 2 content is similar to EIC 1, but presets have been optimized for sound quality and load time, and they take advantage of Live 7's new features.

Sequencer Enhancements

Live 7 allows time-signature changes in both the Arrangement and Session views. In Arrangement view, you add time-signature markers by right-clicking in the Scrub area or by using the Insert menu. In Session view, you enter Scene time signatures as part of the Scene name just as you do with tempos. In a nice improvement, Scene names with time and tempo information can contain other text — “Intro 176 BPM 5/4,” for example.

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FIG. 3: Multilane automation makes entering and comparing automation curves a breeze.

You can now export video as well as audio using the Export Audio/Video dialog box (see Fig. 2). Live lets you choose the video format as well as video and audio compression settings. All installed QuickTime codecs are supported, which typically includes QuickTime Movie (.mov), MPEG-4, iPhone, iPod, and many more. Although you can't do any true video editing, you can combine several video clips in the same rendering. The lowest video track in the Arrangement-view tracklist that contains an active clip is the one that is displayed and rendered.

Multilane automation is another welcome Arrangement-view enhancement. The top lane is primary — that's where you select an automation parameter, create lower lanes, and fold or make them visible (see Fig. 3). You can edit automation in any lane.

A common sequencer feature that I've missed in Live is the ability to store text notes. That's usually implemented as part of the sequencer's timeline marker scheme, but Ableton has a better idea. You can tag almost any element of Live by selecting Edit Info Text from the contextual menu that appears when you right-click on the element. The text in the Info view, if any, is replaced by what you type in. That's invaluable when you want to remember what purpose a track or marker or region or plug-in is serving.

Another nice addition is intelligent soloing. If one track's signal is routed into another track and you solo either track, the other track is automatically soloed as well, so you never lose the sound. That makes grouping tracks much more user friendly.

Click to continue reading the review of Ableton Live 7.

Plugged In

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FIG. 4: The Spectrum plug-in displays a real-time spectral analysis, which can be expanded to the full width of the Live window (top).

Version 7 introduces a number of improvements to Live's built-in effects and virtual instruments. The new Compressor replaces the two compressors in previous versions, and it provides a graphic of the compression curve along with real-time visual feedback showing how the signal is being affected. You get soft-knee compression and three envelope-follower modes (Peak, RMS, and Opto). Three Model types (FF1, FF2, and FB) correspond to the old Compressors I and II and a new feedback-compression model. A sidechain input, complete with multimode EQ for processing the sidechain signal before it reaches the compressor, rounds out Compressor's bag of tricks. The Gate and Auto Filter plug-ins also have sidechain inputs.

EQ Eight has improved graphics and, along with the Operator, Dynamic Tube, and Saturator plug-ins, a 64-bit antialiasing Hi-Quality processing mode. You access that mode by right-clicking on the plug-in control panel.

The new Spectrum plug-in (see Fig. 4) performs real-time frequency analysis, and you can place it anywhere in the signal path. You choose the block size and refresh rate (accuracy), channel (left, right, or both), style (line or bar graph), and scale (linear, logarithmic, or semitones). For a larger display, toggle the spectrum graphic to occupy the space below the mixer. It then resizes with Live's window.

The virtual instruments Analog, Electric, and Tension are versions of instruments by Applied Acoustics Systems (AAS) modified to fit Live's look and feel. For details, see the online bonus material at and Web Clip 3.

If you're already a Live user, you will undoubtedly want this upgrade. The price is modest, you'll definitely use some of the new features, and you'll need it if you want any of the new premium content. If you haven't tried Live, you have two easy options to find out what it's all about: you can download a demo of Live 7 or buy the less expensive Live 6 LE ($149) from the Ableton Web site. Live's unique approach to integrated live performance and sequencing has gained a lot of fans for a reason.

Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. For an earful, visit his Web site


digital audio sequencer$499upgrade$159

PROS: Drum Racks (yes!). Content available to suit any taste. Many user requests implemented. Direct REX file support with automatic slicing.

CONS: Purchase alternatives are a little perplexing. Access to multiple libraries could be smoother.

FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5 EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5 QUALITY OF SOUNDS 1 2 3 4 5 VALUE 1 2 3 4 5

Helpful Resources

Applied Acoustics Systems, collaborator in designing Live's premium virtual instruments Analog, Electric, and Tension

Chocolate Audio, collaborator in designing EIC 2 and Session Drums

Puremagnetik, purveyor of Micropaks for Live, including the factory Drum Machines library

SoniVox, collaborator in designing EIC 2

Read about Analog, Electric, and Tension in Live 7.
Web Clips: Click for audio clips and videos that accompany the March 2008 issue of EM.