Review of the Ableton Live
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Review of
the Ableton Live

Adds Acid and Sonar like Loop facilities to Cubase and Logic

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by Rich the Tweakmeister
Pros:
  • Works in ReWire Hosts
  • Excellent Effects with real time control
  • Works "On the Fly" and would be great for Live Shows
  • Works great in Mac OS X and Win XP.
  • As of version 5 MIDI is well implemented and you can use a variety of software synths and samplers in Live projects.
 
 
Ableton Live  The Live is an audio sequencer that you can play like an instrument. Whether on its own or with other musicians or DJs, live on stage or when remixing in the studio, all you need is Live and a Mac or PCTweak:  I have heard too many great things about this program.  It got a "Key Buy" award from Keyboard.     This is a real-time music sequencer that uses loops, audio files and MIDI and outstanding effects that you can use LIVE.  Works with ReWire hosts too, like Sonar, Logic and Cubase.  My update to V5 just arrived.  It is awesome!   
 

There are lots of programs that deal with loops these days on the PC platform.  Of particular note is Sonic Foundry's ACID, which is a  mature excellent application.  You might wonder if any company could top ACID, for it's flexibility and sheer ease of use. Along comes the Ableton Live, a relative newcomer, distributed by Midiman. (Though the product is marketed by M-Audio does not mean you have to have an M-Audio card to run it. It will run on any soundcard that works in your system.  Back to Acid, At first glace, the products look similar.  Both let you paint loops along a track; both automatically compress and stretch the loop to fit the project's BPM (tempo) and have a facility for auditioning loops from hard disk.  Then I peered a little deeper into the Live, started tweaking stuff up, using the FX, bouncing tracks around, recording and tweaking audio and using the extensive MIDI trigger functions.

This program is a tweaker's delight.  ACID can't touch it in terms of this.  The depth and intensity of the effects and their ease of use--real time, or automated--gets five gold stars from me.  If you are into loops and need to be on the cutting edge, the Ableton Live is for you.
 

Click to enlarge this Screen shot of the  arranger view in Ableton Live 1.1.  The loops are collapsible to save space, and the bottom pane, here showing the plugins assigned to the highlighted track, can also show a loop editor, mixer.  Automating effects is as easy as grabbing the little circle in the plugin boxes and moving it around when in record mode.

 Effects

One of my favorite features is the Live's effects.  They are truly of outstanding quality, and different than the stock effects you get with other applications.  Pictured above you see the Auto Filter and Grain delay  Other notables are Erosion, EQ 4 and Filter delay.  Now that Live 3.0 is released there are even more.  There's also a standard delay, chorus, compression, ping pong delay, and vinyl distortion.  In one of my experiments I had the 4 little circle chasing each other over the frequency grid, as the audio rippled like waves in response.  While there are only 10 effects, each sounds great and is infinitely malleable.  For DJ's, you can get in quick to automate a filter, go to the next track and tweak a delay, the next and so on.  You can also use VST plugins in the Live.  You can't use direct X plugins. 
 

Drag N Drop

You can audition loops over headphone that the audience won't hear. Or you can listen along with the output if in the studio.  File drop-ins were fast and painless.  You can select any 3 directories as "root" directories to load samples from.    You can also drag and drop files in the Session View.  The session view is a horizontal set of boxes for each track.  You can put a clip in each box, and trigger them from a midi keyboard.  Because each track is monophonic, as soon as you start another clip the earlier one stops on that track, right on time.  You can easily fill every key of an 88 key controller.  The way this works, say, on a gig, is that you have your basic tracks made up in the arrange view press play, switch to the Session view and add the spices, tweak the clips with FX, automate a mix, sample the audience if you want.  You never have to hit stop for any of these activities.
 

ReWire, Reason and Rebirth

The Live's rewire implementation works quite well.  The Propellerhead's applications pipe right in.  Reason channels can be bounced to audio files if you want, and you can apply the Live's great effects to your reason tracks  The Ableton Live extends Reason and Rebirth by allowing you to use loops.  While this is

 

The Ableton Live's Mixer, here shown in ReWire mode.  The Live runs as the ReWire master and Reason and Rebirth are slaves.  1.5 is said to allow the Live to run in Slave mode with Logic and VST

 

possible with Dr. Rex, it is not so easy to set up.  In reason, you can't import a wave file without using Recycle to may it an RC2 file first.  The Ableton will work fine with .WAV files, including acid loops, so it's easy to get more diversity in the project. 

I am using the Live 1.5.1 on my Win XP system and the application is running OK, most of the time.  I had some crashes in rewire mode with Logic and Cubase SX. There appears to be a graphic bug when I try to put the application on the right monitor in my 2 monitor setup. Sometimes I find the program will not load its graphic shell properly.  I have written Ableton about this but as is typical with software companies, they have not yet responded.  I am using it with ASIO drivers stand alone where it works best.  There is also an option to use MME/ Direct X drivers, but I have not tried those.  I'm getting 8ms latency on my Delta 1010 and might be able to get it a notch lower, but this is fast and fine. 
 

The Live Mix

The faders, effects, sends, returns and the clip start and stop times are all automatable.  You can do it from the mixer view or draw envelopes in the arrangement view, though working in a live show you will probably choose the mixer view as its a bit faster.  You can put the program in loop mode and just tweak a few bars at a time if you want, then move the locators and do the next set of bars--this is really cool, because your audience can watch and listen to you transform the mix right before their ears, and there is never a glitch.  The Ableton is like the ultimate sample on the fly, tweak on the fly, and mix on the fly tool.  Of course, you can press stop if you want, work carefully and slowly if you want. 
 

How does it sound?  

Bottom line is sound for me. It's Unique. It can turn average sounding audio loops into sound objects of art. In many other loop programs I sometimes feel I am cheating because the program's loops do the music, and the composer just arranges blocks.  However, with the Live, that sense is gone because one is intensely interacting and is mentally engaged in the sound creation process as one tweaks. Your end product may sound vastly different from the source loops.  The stuff I have tweaked up reminds me of Chemical bros and Future Sound of London, due to, no doubt, the psychedelic nature of the effects. For dance and trance music, it offers some tweaks that will truly give one an edge of authenticity.  The Lowpass and resonance is good and the delays have a certain quality to them that you will wonder why your other delays don't sound like this. 
 

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