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Ableton Live 4 Review

May 26, 2005
Ableton's Live 4 best seller software is a fantastic application that radically changed the way musicians perform and/or create music... We are proud to collaborate with and offer this very complete - exclusive review of Live 4 written by Douglas Edge. Enjoy!
What is Live?
    Live is a software package from Ableton designed for audio sequencing, recording, and processing with a focus on -you guessed it -"live, loop-based performance". When I first read about Live it was billed as the "Acid" program for the Mac for its ability to automatically match loop tempos of different samples in real time. Actually, Live is available for both the PC and Mac, and Ableton explains the heart of the program as "a Time-Warping engine that automatically compresses or expands audio as it is being read from the hard drive".

    With the 2.0 version Live also took on the role of a multi-track recorder as well as adding new features like the X-Fade tool. Version 3 built upon the foundation of version 2 –extending the automation abilities to individual clips, adding new effects, and incorporating MIDI key ranges to individual clips for chromatic control. Now, we have Live 4 and this is the version that has answered everyone's question since Live hit the Streets in version 1 –"Will those masterminds at Ableton add MIDI sequencing and virtual instruments?". Yes, they have and it is a beautiful thing.
    Before We Begin
      Before we begin it must be understood that Live is a program that is highly regarded by different types of musicians, DJ's, Producers, Film Composers, etc., and they all are passionate about the direction the software development is headed. Some feel that adding new features like MIDI sequencing and support for soft-synths will make Live too bloated of a program and lose the clean and easy to use interface. For others MIDI sequencing and support for soft-synths are what they have been waiting for since Live debuted. The nice thing is that you can always keep using an earlier version without the new MIDI features getting in your way if you prefer, but you would be missing out on other improvements. I admit that I was weary about Live incorporating MIDI and becoming a less streamlined application. In the end, the true success of Live 4 depends not just on what new features they have added, but how seamlessly it has been integrated into the elegant GUI of previous versions of Live. Lets check it out.
      The Nuts and Bolts

        Live consists of one main window, of which the majority is dedicated to the Document Area -which shows either the Session View, or with a simple click of the Tab key -the Arrange View. On the right of the main window is the Browser Area, which allows access (and demo) of your samples as well as effects (both VST and Live's internal FX). At the bottom of the main window are parameter settings for samples/clips, effects, as well as the newest addition –MIDI sequencing tools and virtual instrument support. The top of the main window (as seen in the graphic above) holds controls for tempo, time signature, transport controls, punch-in and out settings, and MIDI learn. The bottom left has a helpful Info View pane that can display information about what control or function button your mouse is hovering over.

        The Two Views
          - The Session View :

          The Session View is were you improvise with Live. The Session View is comprised of a grid of boxes that hold clips and sit on top of mixer tracks. Clips (individual loops), are stacked vertically with the mixer channels into tracks, while Scenes (groups of clips), are arranged horizontally. In other words, the vertical clips correspond to an individual, monophonic mixer track (only one clip can play at one time) with volume, pan, and sends; while Scenes are a horizontal grouping of multiple mixer channels (i.e. tracks 1-8) which can easily be selected and played as a group. Scenes are a great way to break up a song into individual sections (Intro, Verse, Chorus, etc.) that can be triggered on the fly.

          Each clip or scene can be triggered by a MIDI input, a key from your QWERTY keyboard, or the mouse. The loop always comes in, and plays back, in time with the other loops at the selected tempo and quantization value. For instance, you may want the clip/scene to start playing on quarter notes only–regardless if you trigger the clip/scene a bit early. Of course, you can also leave the clip triggering completely free so that the clip starts to play immediately after you trigger it.

          - The Arrange View :

          The Arranger View is basically the sequencer window for Live. It represents the linear timeline of the loops, when they start, change to another loop, or end, for each individual channel. This is the representation of what you have "performed", and recorded, from the Session View. The Arranger View captures the loops you play, the real-time effects you use, and other automation data. It is clearly laid out with the Clips in block form and they can easily be moved, cut, copied, and pasted to re-arrange your sequence. Another great aspect of this view is that each channel has a clickable arrow icon that drops down a time domain waveform under the sample blocks so that you can "see" and edit your audio and automation data. This makes for an uncluttered, yet powerful, way to view your arrangements.

          Diving Into the Track View
            When a clip is selected a graphic representation can be seen underneath the Session or Arrange section. This Track View will show you a detailed picture of the individual clip (either MIDI notes or an audio sample) you have selected. You can also drag VST/Audio Unit effects and instruments, or the built in Live effects and new soft-synths into this area of Live.

            Clip View:

            The Clip View is one of the most useful aspects of Live displaying info about either an audio or MIDI clip.

            MIDI View:

            With MIDI clips you can import MIDI files, program your own sequences, and edit MIDI notes and parameters like note velocity in a Piano Roll style editor. To "hear" your MIDI sequences you simply select a VST/Audio Unit instrument or use one of the two new instruments built into Live –Simpler (a sampler), or Impulse (a drum sampler). See more on the new MIDI features in Live 4 below.

            Audio View:

            With audio clips you can change the loop's pitch, redefine the loop's in and out markers, switch out one loop for another, edit the loop in a graphic editor of your choice, choose the Launch Mode for a loop, as well as a choice for High Interpolation which will better eliminate digital artifacts due to tempo changes at the cost of eating up more CPU resources. You can also manipulate Warp Markers; these are the markers that Live uses to match the tempos of individual clips to the master tempo without changing the pitch. By adjusting Warp markers you can "clean up" a sloppy drum track, humanize a rigid electro beat, or completely mangling a clip until it sounds nothing like the original sample file –all in real-time and non-destructive.

            Launch Mode
              The Launch Mode allows you to define how a Clip will start and stop looping. The various choices include; Trigger, Gate, Toggle, Repeat, and Loop. Between these choices it is easy to define how a clip is triggered on or off with respect to MIDI note on/off or mouse click input.
              Warp Mode
                Ableton introduced different Warp methods in Live 2 for changing the tempo of your loops and samples. I really liked being able experiment with these settings and since the Warp methods utilize granular re-synthesis for time stretching you can get some musically interesting results from making the "wrong" Warp settings. Here's a quick overview:

                - Beats -for rhythmic samples
                - Tones -for "clear" pitch structure/monophonic sources (solo instrument and voice)
                - Texture -for complex noise and atmospheric sounds
                - Re-Pitch -no time stretching, adjusts the sample playback rate. If your loop is at 80bpm and you double it (160bpm) you'll actually hear the sample playback one octave higher.

                You can also bypass Warping altogether in Live, but not if you plan on looping the sample as this only works if the clip is set not to loop. Also, if you completely mangle a clip by messing with it's Warp markers and Warp settings you can save the clip with those particular settings for use in other projects. Of course, this doesn't change the actual sample on your hard disk and you can get back to the original settings by clicking the Reset button.
                Effect View
                  The Effect View allows you to simply drag effects (Live's internal effects, or VST/AU effects) from the Browser Area into the Clip View so that you can introduce effects "on the fly" within your performance. This is one of many areas where Live really shines.

                  The VST/AU effects can be opened and toggled between either its own standard interface (in a floating window) or in Live's own interface. Live 3 introduced the ability to have multiple plug-in windows open with their own standard interface. All the effects benefit from a X-Y window that allows user defined effect parameters to be assigned and you can drag a ball around with your mouse in this X-Y plane –it's like having a virtual Korg Kaos Pad. Lastly, it must be said that the effects are meant to be drag and dropped as well as rearranged as the music is playing -taking effect in time with the loops. You can record and overdub your real-time effect meddling and it will be represented by automation data in the Arranger View, which can then be further edited.

                  Virtual Instrument View
                    Live 4 has incorporated virtual instrument support and this view is where you can drag and drop your virtual-instruments from the Browser window, just like the plug-in view.

                    The great thing about Live 4 is how they incorporated the new support for virtual instruments seamlessly into the way Live worked in previous versions. As you can see in the graphic, you are able to drag and drop MIDI effects (like Velocity or Chord) before the virtual instrument, and just as easily drag and drop audio effects, to further process the audio output, after the virtual instrument –very cool.

                    With Live 4 we have two new built in virtual instruments accessible from the Virtual-Instrument View –Impulse and Simpler.

                    Impulse is a great Drum Sample player that lets you drag samples from the Browser View onto any of the 8 cells. These can then be triggered via MIDI (the samples are automatically mapped to you keyboard –starting at C3), or programmed from the MIDI View sequence editor. On top of dragging samples on the fly and programming your sequences, each sample can be manipulated by changing the sample start time, pitch, stretch, saturation, filter, decay, and pan. You can also "Tap", or route, each individual drum sample to its own track for specific processing, like placing a reverb on just the snare or a low boost eq for the kick drum.

                    Simpler is a sample player with synth parameters like envelope, filter, LFO, volume and pitch. The cool thing about Simpler is that it is easy to drag the sample of your choice and then define what part of the sample or loop you want to play. You can also define the loop region and amount of fade. It was easy to take a Fender Rhodes loop, isolate a single note with the Start and Length knobs, select a loop section and adjust the fade so that I had a smooth Rhodes sound I could play on my keyboard from an audio loop. Pretty cool.

                    Hard-Disk Recording
                      With Live 2 multi-track recording was introduced and in Live 4 there are some definite improvements. Recording in Live has always been a relatively simple process, but one problem was that Live always assumed you were going to record a stereo track. If you wanted to record a mono signal of say a vocal or guitar track you had to go to the Buss Assign window and Link the track to make it mono, then go back and select your mono track to record. In Live 4 you can set up which inputs and outputs of you audio interface you want Live to identify in the preferences pane (both mono and stereo) and from then on they will always be available to you when you are ready to select an input for a track. The new, flexible audio routing is probably the single biggest improvement in Live 4 outside of the new MIDI and virtual instrument features.

                      Live also provides for Punch In/Punch Out recording, send tracks, and return tracks that allow you to "buss" multiple tracks to a single track for overall volume control of say a drum mix. Of course, Ableton wasn't satisfied with just adding "traditional" recording to their live, performance-based software. You can record into Live while it is playing back an arrangement and if you hit the clip record button a second time (this time to stop recording) Live will immediately start to playback and loop what you just recorded –this is great for Live performances.
                      The Coolness of Live
                        Here are some other features of Live that really stand out.

                        X-Fade It

                        Cross Fading is another feature introduced in Live 2. On the bottom of each track (including Send tracks) an A/B icon can be selected and then the X-Fader at the bottom of the Master track will cross fade DJ-style between the two selected sounds. My only problem with this function is that it wasn't easy to control with a mouse and the arrow keys on my QWERTY keyboard moved the cross fader too slowly. You'll definitely want to hook this up to a physical MIDI control fader/knob, and once you do you'll be an X-Fade addict.

                        Clip Envelopes

                        In Live 2 you could automate parameters like pan, volume, and effects for tracks in the main arrange window. Live 3 expanded this capability to include individual samples and loops themselves. In the Clip View window you can now draw pitch, volume (mute), warping, mixer, and effect parameters. This allows you to mangle your loops even more than before. You can produce various morphs and sounds all from a single sample. You can even copy and paste your favorite envelope presets –turning your fast "auto-pan" envelope into a stutter-type muting effect.

                        MIDI Control

                        One of my favorites things about Live is how easy it is to take control of the program with either MIDI control or using your QWERTY keyboard. All you do is click on either the MIDI or Key button and you are free to assign keystroke, MIDI knobs and faders, or MIDI notes to control clip triggering, fader and pan values, tempo, effects and virtual instruments, and a whole lot more. It's simple and it works.

                        More MIDI

                        My favorite new addition to Live 3 that continues on in Live 4 is the ability to assign MIDI key ranges for chromatic control of your clips -and of course you can do this without changing the timing of the loop or sample. For instance, you could take a drum loop and mangle it with say, a granular synthesis based effect to give it some melodic quality. Assign your key range and now you have a very strange sounding "arpeggiator".

                        With Legato mode engaged for a clip you can basically "toggle" between clips. The Legato mode enables you to create breaks and improvise on the fly. When you're done triggering the legato clips Live returns to the original clip in the track –all the while your song stays in sync. This is a great addition for performing live with Live. You can also set individual clips to play from RAM instead of streaming from disk. This can help out if you are having trouble with playing clips in Legato mode.


                        Another great feature that debuted in Live 3 is the ability to consolidate multiple tracks and clips into a new single clip. This can be great if you use different drum loops to make up a track -muting sections of one, applying FX's to another, and then once your happy with the end result you can turn your multiple drum loop tracks into a single concise clip. This is a great feature that can help you keep your arrange window nice and organized as well as simplify triggering Live if you use the program for live performance.

                        Insert Scene

                        Not too far off from the new Consolidation feature is the Insert Captured Scene command, which debuted in Live 3. This allows you to "capture" all of the clips you are currently playing on different scene levels and move them all to there own new single horizontal scene row. This can be a real time saver. Say you load up a bunch of different samples and the groove you like has clips from different scene levels –instead of having to physically move the clips to one single scene to trigger all the clips at once, this command does it for you in an instant. Now that a new scene has been created you can trigger that improvised groove of multiple clips with the press of a single button.

                        GUI Greatness

                        In Live 4 Ableton has made it much easier to customize what you see on the screen in front of you. By including clickable icons on the right hand side of the Session View you can quickly hide and show things like Sends, I/O, Faders, and the X-Fade tool. For instance, if you are just jamming with some loops and aren't concerned about Sends or the X-Fade tool you can hide them and have more room for that big stack of clips.
                        Other New Features of Live 4
                          - Swing and Groove: Audio and MIDI clips support variable real-time swing and individual groove parameters.
                          - Automatic Jamming. Audio and MIDI clips can be set to produce customized or even random sequences of loops or samples in Live's Session View. Great for generating new ideas, beat making, or advance preparation of a DJ performance.
                          - Sample Reverse: single button can reverse any audio clip in real-time.
                          - Session View scenes can change the project tempo.
                          - Session View scenes can be set to advance automatically.
                          - Audio performance has been optimized for Macintosh computers.
                          Things Live 4 could still use
                            -A true Undo History window
                            -Being able to map the Transpose value of a clip to a MIDI knob
                              Live 4 has to be the most versatile DAW program out there with its MIDI sequencing, loop-based production, virtual instruments, effects, and two great instruments –Impulse and Simpler. It's not the most powerful audio editor or MIDI sequencer out there. Yet, for most musicians, myself included, it takes care of all your needs in a simple but flexible program with a revolutionary GUI that keeps everything within reach -without drowning your screen with multiple windows. In my opinion, Ableton has incorporated two huge new features, MIDI sequencing and support for VST/AU virtual instruments, without losing sight of what Live has always been –a slick interface and addicting program to not only record, but improvise and perform your music.

                            This article has been proposed to you by MacMusic in association with AudioMIDI
                            AudioMIDI is a leading US relleser who also provides great information about a plethora of products commercially available for creating and recording music with a computer.
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