(click thumbnail)Ableton Live has been widely acclaimed since its release back in 2001. Now with the release of version 5, the program has made the move from being solely a loop and performance tool to being a full-fledged audio and MIDI workstation. Live is the only music production solution that allows the user to spontaneously compose, record, mix, improvise and edit their musical ideas all on the fly. The program combines digital audio recordings with acoustic, electronic and virtual instruments into a single easy to use interface allowing the operator to focus on the music rather than the software.
Fast FactsApplications: Studio, live performance
Key Features: Mac, Windows; 32 kHz, 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 96 kHz, 192 kHz sample rates; 16, 24-bit; SoundManager, CoreAudio, DirectX, MME, ASIO, VST, AU; WAV, AIFF, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, Ogg FLAC and FLAC; DSP effects; waveform editing
Contact: Ableton/M-Audio at 626-633-9050, www.m-audio.com.
Live 5 ($499) is compatible with Mac OS 9 (9.2 or later), OS X (10.1.5 or later) and Windows (98, 2000 or XP) machines. It can be purchased from virtually any music store or directly from Ableton's website at www.ableton.com. There is special accommodation pricing to recent buyers of Live 4 as well as an upgrade path from Live 1, 2 and 3.
Live 5 supports internal sample rates of 32 kHz, 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 96 kHz, 192 kHz with an internal resolution of 16 or 24 bits. The program supports SoundManager, CoreAudio, DirectX, MME and ASIO drivers and it supports VST and AU audio plug-ins. It plays both uncompressed file formats (WAV, AIF and SDII) and compressed file formats (MP3, Ogg Vorbis, Ogg FLAC and FLAC) and it exports WAV and AIF audio files.
It would take a book to list all of Live's features so rather than attempt to condense them into this review, I've decided to focus on more the features new to Live 5. These features improve functionality yet keep the Live environment simple, stable and inspiring to use.
Live 5 now includes Freeze, Plug-In Delay Compensation, and Launchable Arrangement Locators. Freeze lightens the load on the computer's processor and makes it easier to transfer projects from one computer to another. If a track is selected and the Freeze command is executed, Live creates a sample file for each clip in the track, calculating and freezing the contribution of devices and clip parameters.
Plug-in delay compensation minimizes latency issues by automatically compensating for delays caused by Live and plug-in instruments and effects. The compensation algorithm keeps all of Live's tracks in sync, regardless of what their devices are doing, while minimizing delay between the player's actions and the audible result. Launchable Arrangement Locators allow the access of quantized markers using keystrokes and MIDI commands.
Live 5 includes a host of new remix oriented features including MP3 support, Auto Warp, Complex Warp, and improved clip scrub, nudge and transport controls. The new Auto-Warp algorithm makes longer samples and entire songs available for integration into a project. If a long file is dragged into Live, the program, by default, auto-warps the clip. Complex Mode is a warping method designed to accommodate composite signals that combine the characteristics covered by other Warp Modes. It works well for warping entire songs, which usually contain beats, tones and texture.
The program's new organizational tools feature simple tools for saving, previewing and accessing any idea on your hard drive. The "Live Clip" file format provides better browsing, new preset management, Device Groups, and a new library.
Live 5 introduces a selection of improved and/or new instruments and effects. Included are Beat Repeat, Phaser, Flanger, Auto Pan, Saturator, Arpeggiator, the updated Simpler (Ableton's software sampler) and Operator. The Beat Repeat feature allows for the reorganizing and shredding of beats and vocals. The Auto Pan feature provides for the LFO-driven manipulation of amplitude and panning and the Saturator provides subtle-to-drastic distortion effects.
The Operator is the most intriguing to me of these features. Operator is an advanced synthesizer that combines the concept of frequency modulation (FM) with classic subtractive synthesis. It utilizes four multiple waveform oscillators that can modulate each other's frequencies, creating very complex timbres from a limited number of objects. It includes a flter section, an LFO and global controls, as well as individual envelopes for the oscillators, filter, LFO and pitch. The full version of Operator is not included with the standard version of Live, but is a special feature available for purchase separately.
My first introduction to Live was by session keyboardist and programming guru Tony Miracle who has been a longtime user of the program both in the studio and on stage with his band, Venus Hum. Miracle's recent studio side project, Satellite City, incorporates Live on every track. The Satellite City project began with hours of audio that Miracle had captured on a MiniDisc recorder from all over the world. He fed long streams of this audio into Live, picked out pieces and made segments from them. He then used the warp markers to change the timing and envelopes to alter the pitch that transformed the random audio into musical parts – pretty amazing. Miracle also used Live for recording most of his guitar parts, "Once you have audio in Live, anything is fair game editing-wise, there are parts that started as guitars or swingsets or scraps of paper and wound up as something that never existed before."
Ace session drummer Will Denton is another Live user that convinced me of the program's significance. Denton is currently on the road with Steven Curtis Chapman where he uses Live running on a 1.25 GHz Apple G4 iBook on every song during the show. He uses an M-Audio Oxygen controller to fire the tracks by assigning each key to a master Scene Launch in Session mode. Every song is available at any given time which allows for on the spot set changes.
Denton explained that often an artist will be married to the tracks that were created in the studio while recording the album and they'll want to utilize those exact sounds in their live show. If it was as easy as flying the tracks into a DAW and pressing play it wouldn't matter but Denton's experience is that when the band gets into rehearsals, there will almost always be slight tempo and/or key changes. Before Live existed this was complicated, sounds had to be resampled, time-stretched, and reflown which was a time-consuming process. With Live 4's elastic audio capabilities Denton can speed things up in real time with no discernible loss in audio quality.
Denton has also found Live to be an irreplaceable tool in the studio, where he frequently creates drum loops on the spot, allowing him to create something that is completely unique to the project. He typically records two to four bars and then begins to experiment with various plug-ins, the Compressor II, Vinyl Distortion and Redux are among the most used. Denton explains that the Warp Marker feature alone made Live 4 worth its price, "If I create a loop and then discover that the snare drum on beat four was just a tad on the backside of the click, the Warp Marker feature saves me time and preserves audio quality as well." He explains, "instead of chopping up the audio file, moving the snare drum's waveform forward a couple of hundred samples, and then dealing with the resultant necessities of crossfading, smoothing, and so forth, I simply take the corresponding beat four Warp Marker and move it to the waveform instead." He adds, "Live, in a sense, allows you to move the 'time' instead of the performance, with no destructive editing, no geeked audio, and it plays it back smoothly allowing for the perfect looping and syncing of your human-feel grooves."
After digging into Live 5 myself, I found the environment to be surprisingly simple and easy to use. Being such an encompassing program, I surprisingly only have a couple of complaints. First, there's no surround support. Between SACD, DVD-A, film and TV mixing and video games, the surround market is definitely growing. The ability to work in surround while mixing in Live would be nice. I'm also disappointed that you can't simultaneously edit multiple tracks. This makes editing a full drum kit recorded on twelve tracks a bit slow.
Live does a tremendous job of providing a means for easily composing, recording and/or mixing audio and MIDI information. The program is relatively easy to use and it is extremely powerful. Whether it is being using as the backbone of a performance or recording rig or to compliment a Pro Tools, Logic, DP or other DAW based studio, the program should be a serious consideration to anyone wanting to build their creative palette.
Live 5.2 Update
As this was going to press Ableton announced the release of Live 5.2 The updated version adds native Intel Mac support making Live 5.2 one of the first pro audio applications on the market to run as Universal Binary thus taking advantage of Apple's new Intel Macs.