A Complete 4-Part Series
Issue 71



July 15, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 2.25.08 PM

The latest Ableton Live update keeps the live side simple while adding plenty of production prowess.

Review: Tim Shiel

our long years since the release of its last major product revision, German developers Ableton are back in 2013 with the eagerly anticipated Live 9. While some of the software adjustments this time around are a little more subtle than previous iterations, there’s a lot to like about Live 9 for both seasoned Ableton veterans and brand-new users.
Initially a tool primarily for electronic artists and live performance, over the years songwriters and producers from across all genres have gravitated towards Ableton for its jack-of-all-trades approach and idiosyncratic creative workflow. Almost accidentally adopted as a mainstream DAW, Ableton Live now finds itself catering to a broad church of users, who utilise the software for a variety of applications both in the studio and on stage — and as a result, some users are likely to get more out of this upgrade than others. Those interested in using Ableton as a writing and production platform benefit from a wide range of tweaks to existing components (including session automation, updated EQ and compression tools, and more advanced MIDI note editing capabilities), while those who use it as a platform for live playback and performance might feel there is not a lot new here.


Session View still stands as one of Ableton’s most defining and idiosyncratic features, and while some veterans of the software swear by it as a creative workspace, others will play with it once and then retreat to the more linear Arrangement View, never to return to that grid of colours and loops. For the former, Ableton has finally introduced the long-requested feature of Session Automation, which allows you to capture the details and nuances of performance inside clips and loops in Session View. Previous incarnations of Live have allowed you to get around this oversight by recording relative modulation values into a clip. But it’s now straightforward to record the same absolute automation data into a Session View clip as could previously be recorded into an Arrangement View envelope, making it much easier to move clips (and their embedded automation) between Ableton’s two views — a godsend for some.


There is a lot to like for production nerds in Ableton, with the developers addressing some core devices that were in need of some attention, particularly Ableton’s foundation equalisation plug-in, EQ Eight. Criticised by some for having a flat and artefact-y sound, many producers with keen ears have for some time avoided Ableton’s native EQs in favour of third-party options. To combat this, Ableton commissioned analogue-modelling specialists Cytomic to rewrite the algorithm for EQ Eight from the ground up, and the results are instantly noticeable, with EQ Eight sounding clearer and more musical. Cytomic was also brought onboard to develop Ableton’s only new native device in Live 9, the Glue Compressor, which is built around the algorithm from Cytomic’s award-winning compressor, The Glue. Styled on classic ’80s SSL bus compressors, Glue Compressor is useful for ‘glueing’ together disparate elements across a mix, which makes it great for drum buses. But its clean, simple interface and rich driven sound make it a useful compression option for stand-alone sounds too. For those who have in the past avoided Ableton’s EQ and compression options because of their lack of depth and character, these revisions finally make Ableton’s native devices a good alternative to third-party solutions.


EQ Eight, as well as Ableton’s core Compressor and Gate plug-ins, also benefit from some visualisation improvements that fold neatly into Ableton’s distinctively simple aesthetic. Each device’s GUI now includes real-time visualisation of the processed audio. In EQ Eight this takes the form of a real-time FFT spectrum analyser overlay, which can also be expanded into a breakout display for a more detailed view. In the Compressor and Gate, scrolling real-time audio peaks are juxtaposed against a graph of the gain-reduction envelopes, which is hugely handy when dialling-in musical attack and release settings.
These are the kind of no-brainer improvements that instantly yield results, especially for rookie producers still getting their heads around the very vital concepts of equalisation and compression. Matching an EQ or compression adjustment with a visualisation of the change makes the whole act instantly less arcane and much more welcoming to novice producers. EQ Eight also benefits from a new Audition mode which allows for quick and easy auditioning of individual EQ bands. For those who would prefer to use Ableton’s inbuilt audio effects rather than third-party solutions — Ableton’s devices remain remarkably CPU-friendly in comparison to some other options — these tweaks will result in much smarter and more efficient use of EQ and compression.


Live 9 comes in three versions: a stripped-down Intro edition that really is only suitable for those wanting to test the waters; Standard edition; and the full Suite. Suite comes in at a few hundred dollars more than Standard, but it’s where many of Ableton’s most creative features can be found: Instruments like Analog, Collision, Electric, Operator, Sampler and Tension, as well as audio effects such as Amp, Cabinet and Corpus, and a host of sample and preset packs. But the main reason for making the jump to Suite is to get access to Ableton’s modular development environment Max for Live, previously a standalone add-on to Ableton but now integrated completely with every purchase of Suite 9.
Still a revolutionary concept even three years since its release in late 2009, Max for Live truly separates Ableton from other DAWs, giving you hands-on control over the building blocks of Ableton’s workflow. In theory, musicians now have the tools to build whatever it is they need, engineer solutions to problems or develop wildly creative new instruments and devices. In practice, many will never enter the programming environment and will leave it to others to do the dirty work. So far the Max for Live (M4L) community has been a little slow off the mark, but with the numbers of the M4L community about to swell dramatically, we should see an acceleration in the release of new plug-ins. In the meantime, 26 new Max devices ship with Suite 9, including a useful Convolution Reverb and a quirky drum synthesiser.
Handy functional tools such as standalone LFOs that can be mapped to parameters, and Envelope Follower — an audio analysis tool which allows you to easily link the automation of a parameter on one track to the rise and fall of a parameter on another track — hint at M4L’s capabilities as a workflow Swiss army knife. In terms of user-built devices, Robert Henke’s granular synthesis patch Granulator has had a revision and remains a great tool for the creation of ambient textures — wrangling Ableton’s audio warping engine to slice an audio sample into a stream of cross-faded grains, which can then be modulated in a variety of unlikely ways.


Ableton has also expanded its range of multi-sampled instruments and sample packs. The Standard edition of Live 9 gives users access to basic packs that include your standard classic drum machine samples (TR-808, TR-909, LinnDrum, DMX, etc.), alongside a multi-sampled grand piano, percussion samples, and more boutique packs from reputable sources such as Cycling ’74 and Soniccouture. But the scope of sonic possibilities widens considerably with the purchase of Suite 9, with access to over 50GB of downloadable packs. It’s not so much the quantity of sounds that’s impressive but the consistent quality — the presence of boutique sound design company Soniccouture as a primary contributor to Ableton’s core sample packs is testimony to the curatorial smarts of the Ableton team.
Soniccouture’s multi-sampled instruments truly deserve special mention and are a worthy addition to Suite 9’s core offering — take for example the eBow Guitar patch which offers a variety of articulations of sampled bowed strings for acoustic and electric guitar, coupled with smart and very creative modulation options built into each preset. Other idiosyncratic sound packs include the Tingklik, a Balinese bamboo percussion instrument realistically rendered from original samples, and The Forge, an experimental patch fusing classic IDM sounds with elements of modern cinematic sound design. These sonic options provide an intriguing counterpoint to the expected sample packs of retro synths and classic drum machines, and intuitively designed to push more open-minded producers to make bold, unexpected choices during the creative process.


One thing you could never accuse Ableton of being is boring. Its three new audio-to-MIDI conversion tools included in Live 9 — Drums-to-MIDI, Harmony-to-MIDI and Melody-to-MIDI — which promise to “give you unprecedented flexibility to extract musical ideas from samples,” have probably raised as many eyebrows as they have opened wallets. When these features were announced I was immediately reminded of the Groove Engine which was one of the lynchpins of Ableton’s Live 8 release — a tool designed to analyse rhythmic loops or samples and extract their ‘groove’ which could then more-or-less be dragged and dropped onto other loops and locked to that groove using Ableton’s trademark warping engine.
On paper, Groove Engine sounded revolutionary — unlock the mysterious and unique swings and grooves of your favourite players and drag ’n’ drop them into your own compositions — in practice, it proved a useful creative tool for some but not quite the jaw-dropping ‘magic key’ many hoped it might be. Similarly, anyone hoping to unlock the composition secrets of their favourite tracks with the new audio-to-MIDI conversion modes might be disappointed with the results — a test run to see how these modes would deal with Art of Noise’s 10-minute art pop epic Moments in Love, for example, resulted in a barely listenable mess of conversion errors and garish rhythmic horrors. But as long as you keep your expectations in check, and are prepared for some manual post-conversion editing, this could be a very useful tool — particularly if Ableton continues to refine the conversion algorithms in future software patches.
As they say, you can’t un-bake a cake. But over time these tools will be useful to those who are working with their own recorded material. Extracting MIDI from an existing piano or guitar stem is straightforward, and with Ableton’s ever-expanding array of inbuilt instrument presets, it makes doubling parts very straightforward. For the vocally adept, quickly turning a beatbox rhythm into a loop played by a full drum kit, or a whistled melody into a synth lead with only a handful of clicks is definitely a realistic application of these new features. It should be noted that these conversion modes don’t operate in realtime — hopefully this is on the developers’ to-do list because live audio-to-MIDI tracking inside Ableton, if attainable, would be a wonderfully creative tool for live performers.


Despite the wealth of production workflow improvements, there’s not a lot of love for live performers in this upgrade. A revision of Ableton’s MIDI Mapping features seems long overdue. The simple touch-and-go mapping remains intuitive and quick, but a more extended mode for advanced users would be welcomed by those with more sophisticated live MIDI setups. For example, I would love to have manual MIDI map editing to be able to manually enter note, CC (Control Change) and channel assignments, or have the option to easily map multiple incoming CCs to a single device parameter — something that still can only be achieved in Ableton using workarounds. Crafty programmers no doubt could build Max for Live solutions to allow more sophisticated MIDI routing, but with MIDI assignments still at the core of most Ableton rigs both in the studio and on stage, it would be nice to see this area expanded as part of the core program.


A well-kept secret to even its most regular users, Ableton’s implementation of video playback was snuck into the system many years ago in Live 6 and has not changed much since then. Charmingly basic in its capabilities — drag a video file into Ableton’s arrangement view and you can cut, warp and loop it with the same editing tools used audio — it’s a rudimentary video sequencing tool that many users find only by accident. But it allows for quick and efficient video editing for those looking to avoid complicated video software suites. It’s also useful for scoring and can be used for live performance if you can manhandle Ableton’s finicky video playback window.
The creative manipulation and meshing of audio to video would seem like fertile ground for Ableton’s wily developers — with artists increasingly integrating video into their performances. And since Ableton is a regular fixture on stages big and small, it seems a missed opportunity for Ableton to not have paid any attention to this cobwebbed corner of their software in Live 9. Perhaps consciously leaving it to some ingenious Max for Live developers to build a more robust video playback platform for use inside Ableton.


There are a host of other subtle functionality improvements that make Live 9 a smoother, more transparent environment to work in. An improved browser integrates sounds, devices and project files for quick Spotlight-style searching [it’s a Mac thing – Ed]. Envelope curves have been introduced for those who are looking for a little more flourish in their automations, while a number of new MIDI editing features allow for quicker transposition, transformation and duplication of bulk MIDI notes.
Despite many months in beta, not all of the creases have been ironed out of Live 9, and so anyone using Ableton in a critical environment such as on stage is probably wise to hold off for a few software patches to come through before making the leap. I’ve been using it as my production DAW for a month and have come across a few quirky non-fatal bugs, display errors and odd behaviours that are best described as nuisances. Other friends have reported latency issues and the occasional audio errors.
If you’re impatient like me, or mostly use Ableton for production — the vast array of new production options and sound packs, combined with a range of workflow tweaks (many so subtle that you won’t notice how much impact they’ve made until you dive back into Live 8 for some reason) make the upgrade to Live 9 too enticing to resist.


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