Ableton Live 8 (Mac/Win) Review

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FIG. 1: Convert transient markers (small triangles) to Live''s Warp markers by double-clicking.

Ableton pulled out all the stops with the release of Live 8 and the premium content in Suite 8. Workflow enhancements, redesigned audio-clip warping, and vastly improved MIDI recording and groove management make it easier, faster and more fun to get the job done with Live. Live's library is bristling with fresh content, and you'll find a bevy of new effects along with some significant improvements to the old standbys. Suite 8 adds six premium instruments and four impressive sampled-instrument collections.

Three coming attractions not covered in this review will impact many users. Live Share, currently in beta testing, lets you quickly upload your Live sets to Ableton's servers for sharing with collaborators. Max for Live, developed with Cycling '74 (, gives Live users and third-party developers the tools to create audio and MIDI plug-ins in Live's format. Look for lots of new tools when it is released later this year. The new Akai Ableton Performance Controller (APC40) is a control surface designed especially for quick and tactile clip and scene triggering. Check out my Quick Pick review on page 64.

Warped Perspective

Bending audio clips to your song's tempo and groove (called Warping) has always been a Live hallmark, but many users, myself included, found creating and adjusting the associated Warp markers counterintuitive. The process has been completely overhauled in Live 8, and the new process is easier to grasp, more flexible and better sounding.

The new system adds transient slicing to Live's previous time-grid and Warp-marker slicing. That lets you implement ReCycle-style loop slicing and slice sequencing directly within Live (see Fig. 1). And you can quantize audio to the time grid or to the groove of any other audio or MIDI file using the new Groove Pool, a repository within each song for timing templates (see Web Clip 1). Check out the details in the sidebar “Warp Speed,” available at //

MIDI note editing in Live is now similar to other DAWs, as well as to clip editing in the Arrangement view. The Clip view's note editor sports a position marker and time-range bar, which you use to focus clipboard operations (copy, paste, cut, insert, etc.). When no notes are selected, the left- and right-arrow keys move the position marker in increments specified by the time grid. When notes are selected, the arrow keys move those and, in a nice touch, holding Shift lets you transpose by octaves.

Ableton has finally implemented MIDI step entry using the insert marker and right-arrow key. When the Preview (headphones) button in the note editor is on, play and hold a note or chord and press the right-arrow key as needed to create notes of the desired length. You can MIDI map the note-advance function but only to a MIDI note, which inconveniently takes that note out of play. Ableton is looking into that problem. Mapping note-advance to a footswitch and implementing an auto-step function would make MIDI step entry much more useful.

Leg Ups

Important GUI improvements include zooming, group parameter adjustment and better macro knob labels for instrument and effects racks. The zoom range is 50 to 200 percent, enough to give you a good global view of a session or arrangement or to zero-in on a minute detail. Unfortunately, the zoom setting is in Live's Preferences, making it a little inconvenient.

Group parameter adjustment lets you select multiple channels to change matching parameters. If you've ever been stuck changing a basic setting such as output routing one at a time for many channels, this will make your day.

When you map a plug-in parameter to an instrument or effects rack macro knob, it shows the parameter name as the macro knob's label and calibrates its units appropriately. That's another huge time-saver.

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FIG. 2: Drag the top handles to create fades and crossfades. Drag the lower handles to shape the fade contour.

Third-party plug-ins no longer have preconfigured and fixed automation mappings. Plug-ins with only a few parameters have them preconfigured, but you can re-arrange them to manage how they appear on a MIDI control surface or parameter list. For plug-ins with many parameters, you configure them one-by-one in the order you want by simply clicking them in the plug-in GUI. Moreover, the Device On button no longer hijacks the first knob on Live-supported control surfaces.

Arranging audio takes a big step forward with the introduction of fades. When fades are displayed, each end of an audio clip gets a handle that you drag to create a fade-in and fade-out. To create a crossfade, you drag the fade handle into an adjacent clip. In either case, a handle in the middle of the fade curve lets you adjust its shape to change the contour of the fade (see Fig. 2).

Track grouping is another major improvement. Select several tracks (not necessarily adjacent), choose Group tracks from the Edit menu and the tracks will be moved to adjacent positions and routed to a new Group track created on their left. The Group track has master controls, and once you have your submix set, you can fold the group to save space and to suppress the individual track controls in supported control surfaces.

Plugged In

Live 8 comes with six new audio effects plug-ins. The three self-explanatory effects — Limiter, Multiband Dynamics and Overdrive — fill gaps in Live's bread-and-butter effects processing. Looper, Vocoder and Frequency Shifter are new special-purpose plug-ins.

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FIG. 3: The audio effects plug-in Looper emulates classic tape loop–style overdub recording.

Looper is an audio recorder optimized for classic tape loop-style overdubbing. You insert it directly on an audio track or as a send effect, depending on how you intend to use it. It can record whether or not Live's transport is running. If Live is stopped, then Looper will either guess the tempo from your playing or set the tempo based on a number of bars you specify (see Fig. 3). Tape-like features include pitch-shifting speed adjustment, reverse playback and feedback amount. A convenient multipurpose button that you can map to a MIDI footswitch lets you cycle through record, overdub and play modes. You can drag audio from Live tracks to Looper's record buffer for overdubbing, as well as drag recorded loops from the buffer to Live tracks.

You insert Live's vocoder in the track that is playing the modulator signal (voice in the standard usage) and then choose another track or an internal source (noise, the modulator or a pitch-tracking oscillator) as the carrier. An additional noise generator provides the source for unvoiced sounds, which is essential for speech clarity but often missing in low-end vocoders. You can set the vocoder's resolution from 4 to 40 bands, limit its detection stage's frequency range and threshold and vary the bandwidth from very narrow to broadly overlapping.

The Frequency Shifter (aka, single-sideband ring modulator) performs a linear shift of the frequency spectrum of audio being processed, thereby distorting harmonic ratios and producing dissonant, metallic effects. Live's model doubles as a standard ring modulator with built-in distortion and includes a dual LFO for modulating the modulator frequency.

Suite Enhancements

Among the virtual instruments in Suite 8, the FM synth Operator has been significantly reworked, adding new filter types, more robust modulation and wavetable synthesis. Four other instruments — Sampler, Electric, Tension and Analog — are carry-overs from Live 7.

The new entrant is the physical-modeled mallet instrument Collision, developed with Applied Acoustics Systems. An expanded version of Collision's resonator section is included as the audio effects plug-in Corpus. Although billed as a mallet instrument, Collision is extremely versatile. Among its presets you'll find keyboard emulations, plucked-instrument models, sound effects and evolving sounds. Corpus is great for spicing up sampled keyboard, mallet-instrument and percussion loops without mangling them beyond recognition (see Web Clip 2).

Latin Percussion is the new addition to the sampled instruments. It comprises a large collection of sampled Drum Racks and 50 Live sets in a variety of styles, along with groove templates for the Groove Pool. The sampled instruments are superb and the sets offer plenty to get you started. Suite also carries over the Drum Machines sampled-instrument collection.

Box It Up

Both Live and Suite come in downloadable and boxed editions, and when purchased directly from Ableton, the boxed editions give you access to the downloads. Aside from the printed manual, the only difference between download and boxed is the audio content. For Live, that includes a substantial selection of audio loops and the Essential Instrument Collection of sampled instruments. To that, Suite adds the sampled-instrument collection Session Drums. The same plug-ins and features come in both editions.

Version 8 is an across-the-boards winner. For Live aficionados, the move up is a no-brainer for the audio-warping and MIDI-editing features alone. Considering the redesigned Operator, the new Collision and Corpus plug-in combo, and the sampled Latin Percussion, the upgrade to Suite 8 is very attractively priced. And for those unfamiliar with Live, the modest entry fee for Live LE merits serious consideration.

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

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