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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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