Ableton Live 9 Reviewed
By Francis Preve
Fri, 3 Jan 2014
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Following its introduction 12 years ago, Ableton Live quickly developed a cult following because it was the first DAW that let musicians improvise their productions. Not to be confused with improvising on your instrument—we all do that—Live let you overdub, loop, edit, produce, and perform as you composed, without ever hitting the stop button. After a three-year hiatus, Ableton has returned with the latest incarnation, in which they’ve delivered a slew of new features that you won’t want to live without but never realized you needed.
 

PROS: Flexible audio-to-MIDI conversion. Improved integration of Session and Arrangement views. Upgrades to compressor, gate, and EQ. Automation now includes curves. Huge sample and preset libraries. Max For Live now in Suite. Dual display support in Live 9.1.

CONS: Converting audio files to MIDI requires extremely clean material.

Bottom Line: An absolute must-have upgrade for Live fans and an addictive gateway drug for newcomers. 

Live Standard: $449 | Live Suite: $649 | ableton.com

 

Interface

 

The overall look and feel of Live remains intact. If you’ve used previous versions, you’ll be right at home in Live 9. That’s not to say that everything is the same—there’s a bit of adjusting to do. But the transition is generally pleasurable, since every change is an improvement, right down to details like the ability to adjust the brightness, hue, and color saturation.

Live 9’s new browser is a thoughtful revision to the way your production tools are represented. Everything from Live’s devices to samples to loops is now neatly categorized. A new “Places” section in the browser sidebar helps keep your third-party and user-created content—stuff like Live Packs, loop libraries, and frequently accessed projects—more clearly organized. 

 

Also, Live’s indexing system works transparently in the background to keep everything searchable. As I was configuring Live 9 for my own workflow, I added my folder of go-to soundware to the Places area and in about five minutes, Live had completely indexed that content. Typing in words like “conga” returned intelligently organized results, clearly indicating the source of each of these samples. While search has been available in Live for several versions, this new iteration feels much smoother. This is essential for keeping track of everything in any Live user’s constantly evolving library of presets, samples, and clips.


New Effects

The Standard version of Live 9 includes improvements to several key effects devices, along with a brand new compressor called Glue (see image at left). I’ve been using Glue for several years since its original release by Cytomic, and it’s a stunning recreation of an SSL-style bus compressor. The Live 9 version of Glue is sonically identical. Without a doubt, Glue has become my secret weapon for absolutely massive drums. Between its punchy sound, sidechain options, and wet/dry mix knob for parallel compression tricks, this compressor is so addictive that it’s tempting to put it on all your tracks. Of course, that’s overkill. The best approach is to use instances on your drum bus and master bus. Glue will give your mixes “that sound” with a minimum of fiddling.

Distinct from Glue, the new Compressor and Gate devices now include a cool scrolling visual display of the dynamics of your signal, with bright orange lines that clearly indicate threshold levels and the overall relationship between processed and original signals. It can’t be overstated how much more intuitive the dark art of dynamics processing immediately becomes when using these tools. The new interfaces clearly reveal how compressors and gates actually work, in a way that makes dialing in your desired results with extreme precision an educational process.

There are also a few new parameters in each of those devices. Gate now includes a Return setting that can finesse the threshold and release behavior of the device. In practice, this lets you take a busy drum loop from a sample pack and fine-tune the gate to take out certain percussion elements when the Return knob is at one value (leaving just the kick and snare, for example), and then reintroduce the other percussion with a simple twist of the knob. (For the technically minded, the Return parameter is a hysteresis control under the hood, i.e., a secondary threshold that determines when the gate should close.)

In addition to the new scrolling visual mode, Live’s Compressor device includes some subtle variations on the previous version. For example, the old “Opto” option has been replaced by an “Expand” mode, which does some nifty inverse compression tricks. Additionally, the arcane FF1, FF2, and FB types have been replaced by the ability to switch the envelope response between logarithmic and linear. There’s a wet/dry knob like in Glue, so parallel compression is a breeze here as well.

EQ Eight also gets a makeover that’s more intuitive and musical. It now includes an integrated spectrum analyzer that lets you quickly pinpoint frequency ranges that require attention. You can also pop the EQ into a larger window for more precise mouse control of your EQ bands. Rounding it out, there’s an adaptive Q (bandwidth) feature that narrows each EQ band based on how much cut or boost you’re applying, which is exactly how pros approach this process. Using the adaptive Q in conjunction with EQ Eight’s new “Audition Mode” feature—which solos just the band you’re adjusting, so you can hear exactly what you’re doing—makes the process of EQing a track in the context of a mix an absolute joy. With the oversampling (f.k.a. “Hi-Quality”) option enabled, the EQ also seems to sound cleaner. But maybe that’s just because getting great results is now a lot quicker.


Max For Live

The now standard inclusion of Cycling ’74 Max For Live with the Suite bundle makes it an irresistible choice for sound designers and electronic music producers. By now, Max For Live has achieved an almost sacred status among synthesis geeks, and covering its features in depth warrants its own review. It’s essentially a toolkit of DSP “Legos” that you can hook together to customize your own audio and MIDI processing tools from scratch. Because of this modular approach, beginners can start out using pre-configured modules (like LFOs, filters, delays, and envelopes) to build their own unique plug-ins, while master programmers can dive deeply into coding, creating unique effects that they can then optionally share with the user community.

With Max For Live, Ableton has included a massive array of additional instrument and effect plug-ins that increase its production value immensely. For example, there are two convolution reverbs that are capable of both realistic acoustic spaces and otherworldly effects. I used a sample of a herd of cows mooing as an impulse source that resulted in a softly undulating “reverb” that would have been impossible to create using any other method.

Another Max device that makes Suite a worthwhile upgrade is version 2 of its notorious Buffer Shuffler effect, which is a bit of a cross between iZotope Stutter Edit and Live’s Beat Repeat device. With Buffer Shuffler 2.0, you can crank out those chopped vocal effects that are so popular in trance music with ridiculous ease. It’s also capable of rhythmically gated pads and ReCycle-like drum loop tricks.

On the synth side of Max, Live Suite now includes a collection of ten or so drum synths, optimized for everything from gorgeous TR-808 claps to kicks to Karplus-Strong twangy bits. If you dig the sound of vintage drum machines, you’ll be in hog heaven.

Those are just a few of the tricks in Max For Live’s bag. Other free Packs from Ableton’s website include harmonizers with integrated frequency shifters, multi-tap delays, LFOs and envelopes that can be used on almost any parameter within Live, a few nifty synths optimized for creating bells, and even basic additive synthesis. Honestly, that’s just scratching the surface.


Audio-to-MIDI Conversion

Ableton went to town on Live 9’s MIDI implementation, introducing features like audio-to-MIDI tools that almost feel like magic when used judiciously. For example, there are two pitch-to-MIDI algorithms—one for melodies, another for chordal passages—that can convert audio loops and samples to MIDI data for further editing and transformation. There has been some debate about the accuracy of these “translations,” and for this review, I’ve done a lot of experimentation. Here’s what I’ve found.

For either melodic or chordal pitch conversion, you need clean source material. Vocals drenched in reverb or delay are going to confuse these algorithms. Ditto for chorus and flanging. That’s not Live’s fault, really. Think about echo for a moment. If you have an instrument with repeats in the background, the algorithm has to figure out what to do with those extra audio events. In such cases, results will vary. The same goes for singers who use a lot of vibrato and pitch sweeps . . . or trombones.

On the other hand, if you give Live a well-recorded dry instrument, whether from a library or recorded in your studio, you’ll get much more useful results. For example, I took a very famous, very dry a capella vocal—making sure it was warped and looped correctly—and Live turned it into an exact MIDI transcription, with only one extra grace note (which was easy to delete in the editor).

For the harmony (chordal) converter, I fed it a clean boys choir progression and the resulting output actually added some lovely piano nuances that weren’t in the original. That was fine with me, since blending the two components created something extremely cool that I would never have composed on my own.

There’s also a Drums-to-MIDI tool that works beautifully on recorded kit material, accurately focusing on the transients of snares, hats, and toms while keeping the feel of the original groove. But feeding it elaborate mixes of drums, congas, timbales, and shakers was more than it could handle. Again, this is hardly surprising.

So, do these tools work? Absolutely, and when you think about what they’re actually doing, they work exceedingly well. But as a producer, you have to meet them halfway and feed them clean material.

Even so, feeding in “messy” material is a great way to generate loops and riffs that are extremely original once you’ve applied a few of Live’s other new MIDI features to them. For example, in the MIDI Clip View window, there are several new tools for transforming your riffs in musically intelligent ways. The new Legato button extends every MIDI event to the beginning of the next event, so that there are no gaps between notes. If you’ve ever manually extended each chord in a pad progression to line up with the following chord, you’ll appreciate this feature.

There are Reverse and Invert buttons as well. Reverse is self-explanatory, as it takes your MIDI clip and reverses the notes, keeping their original durations. Invert is a bit subtler, as it flips your sequence “vertically” so the highest notes become the lowest and vice versa, with all of the notes in between aligning and with the original rhythm and phrasing intact.

I found the Invert function incredibly useful. Many times, I’ll come up with a rhythmic riff that’s melodically interesting, but doesn’t quite go all the way for a track I’m developing. Hitting Invert may not automatically deliver hooks, but it’s quite useful as a “happy accident” generator, especially when working with material created by the audio-to-MIDI functions.

 

Included Content

Ableton has made some changes to how content is stored. Previously, both factory and user content comingled in its library, making things a bit complicated for musicians with large collections of custom material. Now, the factory data lives in its own folder, while user content is located elsewhere, which helps greatly with backing up your own data without affecting the factory presets—and there’s a truckload of factory data in both the Standard and Suite versions.

The 11 GB Standard version has received a facelift and tilts strongly toward pop, rock, dance, and urban styles. Drums and percussion both acoustic and electronic abound. There’s a ton of synthesis material in here as well, ranging from samples of found objects to waveform data for building your own presets. Traditional instruments like grand piano, guitar, and bass are well represented.

While Live Standard is a great starting point for electronica, Live Suite’s 54GB of content delivers the goods for scoring and rock/pop production. The orchestral content includes strings, woodwinds, brass, and symphonic percussion, and it’s all good stuff. Suite’s drums are equally strong, with excellent session kits and Latin percussion. Rounding out the package is a selection of sampled vintage synths from Puremagnetik.

As for soft synths, the differences between Standard and Suite remain the same, with the standard version focusing on sampling (from Simpler and Drum Racks) while Suite includes the full monty of FM, virtual analog, expanded sampling, and physical modeling synths.

 

Automation

Live’s automation tools have also received a lot of attention, bringing the Session and Arrangement operations into much closer alignment. In previous versions of Live, automation clip envelopes (for doing tricks like rhythmic filtering and morphing delays) were separate entities from timeline automation in the Arrangement window This was due in a large part that automation proper didn’t exist in Session clips—until now. In Live 9, if you drag or copy an automated clip from the Session view into the Arrange view, its envelope is converted to timeline automation for further editing in your overall composition. This feature works in both directions, of course, and Live 9 can also convert arranged tracks into discrete Session scenes, which is going to be a boon for live performances and DJs.

Another huge improvement is the inclusion of curves. Yes, Ableton took this long to implement this, but it’s here now. Better still, applying curves is an incredibly straightforward process, using a small collection of key commands and bypassing those fiddly Bezier levers.

Naturally, all of these new DAW features have had an impact on other user interface elements, most notably the transport controls. Most of these changes involve simply moving the elements to other visible areas, like clip quantization (which is now in the tempo section) and the indispensable Back-to-Arrangement button that now lives by the locator markers in Arrangement view. There’s also a new overdub button in Session view for adding MIDI material or recording your clip automation in real time. 

As if all of these upgrades weren’t enough, the recent free Live 9.1 update includes two power-user features: dual display support and improved sample rate conversion for rendering mixes. This update was a public beta at press time, but in our tests, these worked properly.


 

Conclusions

After spending a few weeks digging deeply into Live 9 Suite, I honestly regret putting off upgrading from version 8 as long as I did. Live 9’s new features have thrown my productions into warp drive. The new gate, compressor, and EQ have truly improved my mixes, the tools in Max For Live are inspirational, and the audio-to-MIDI functions have given my loop libraries a new lease on life. As to the software’s reliability under fire, in eight years of performing electronic music live and DJing, Live has only crashed during my set once. My advice: Go for Live Suite. Its synths and effects compete with those bundled with many other DAWs. If you haven’t been indoctrinated into the Cult of Ableton, Live 9 could well push you over the edge. The sheer musical thrill of improvisational composing is nothing short of addictive.

 




 
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