Review: Ableton Link

March 18, 2016

This month, I examine a free technology that will definitely change the way you work with iOS apps, especially if you’re on a Mac and/or using Ableton Live. While this technology is blissfully straightforward to use, it requires a bit of forethought to make the most of it.

Ableton quietly released Live 9.6 during the 2016 NAMM show. Although the update offers some excellent new Push 2 integration features, the real news is the official release of Link, an open platform for WiFi sync. While this is great for Live users, Link is thoroughly transformative for iOS itself, with support reaching back to iOS 8. Even more surprising is the fact that Link is hardware compatible all the way back to the iPhone 4S!

In a nutshell, Link serves as the basis for the creation of non-hierarchical synchronization networks over WiFi. By non-hierarchical, I mean that there is no master-slave relationship between synchronized devices. There’s not even a start/stop protocol. Instead, Link simply distributes tempo information, along with the location of the downbeat of every bar. In practice, this allows apps to jump in and out of a groove without disturbing it. What’s more, since there is no master app, any user can change the tempo of the Link network, allowing for truly improvisational performances.

Because Link is an open platform coordinated by Ableton, you don’t even need Live to use it. Any supported iOS app is compatible. For example, if one performer is using Korg Gadget (korg.com) and another is improvising beats on MoMinstruments Elastic Drums (mouseonmars.com), the rhythms will line up flawlessly. While a full list of supported software is available at the Ableton website, noteworthy apps also include Akai iMPC Pro (akaipro.com), Korg’s iElectribe and Kaossilator, and one of my all time favorites, Alexandernaut’s Fugue Machine (alex andernaut.com; read my review of Fugue Machine at keyboardmag.com.)

In testing Link, I decided to ride it hard and see if I could break it. To this end, I fired up Korg’s Sync-Kontrol app on my iPhone 6 and connected it via the headphone minijack to the Korg Volca Beats, then synced that to Live over WiFi. Instantly, the Volca snapped into alignment and everything flowed beautifully until I got a text message alert that decided it needed the headphone output, too. To be sure, I tested this setup again, this time with the ringer off, and no additional hiccups occurred.

Taking things a step further, I resumed with the Volca synced via iPhone to Live and fired up Fugue Machine on my iPad: Three devices—and to be clear, one was using analog sync—and everything remained locked until I gave up at the 15-minute mark.

If you’ve got a collection of groove-oriented iOS apps, head over to the Link app list on the Ableton site and update everything that is supported. You may not have a use for it immediately (unless you’re a Live user), but considering how rapidly the protocol is being adopted, it’s a sure bet that drum circles just entered the 21st century. Link truly feels like pure magic.

Snap Judgment

PROS Free! Very stable, even over extended periods. By adding Korg’s free SyncKontrol app, you can also sync analog gear such as the Volcas and SQ-1 CV step-sequencer. Also works over Ethernet between two instances of Live on computers or laptops.

CONS At this time, Ableton Live is the only computer-based DAW with Link compatibility. Incompatible with VPN-based networks.

Bottom Line

Link is the start of a new era for iOS groove apps and sequencers.

Free
ableton.com

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