Review: Live 9 Suite by Ableton
Ableton Live can’t be compared with any other DAWs that are on the market at the moment. They are simply not the same. See what’s behind our reviewer making such an assertion.
by A. Arsov, Mar. 2014
This review could be done in just one sentence: “Trentemoller” uses Live as his main DAW, so if it is good for him, then it should also be good for us.
I presume that some of you haven’t heard of the musician and producer performing under his real name “Trentemoller,” so we should do it in a bit more proper, profound way.
In most reviews I’ve read about Ableton Live I’ve noticed two main points: The first one is about the fact that Live is a bit different compared to other DAWs, and the second one is that all reviewers try to compare Live with some of the other main DAWs. After spending a month with Ableton Live, watching almost a zillion tutorials which I found on YouTube, I became a bit addicted and have already made a few songs. After all that quality time, I figured out one thing – Ableton Live can’t be compared with any other DAWs that are on the market at the moment. They are simply not the same. During all those years of making music, I came to the conclusion that the work-flow has the biggest influence on the end result. Different approaches and different tools will simply lead to the different results.
Ableton Live is a DAW for the 22nd century. If you intend to record a country band or a symphonic orchestra, then choose Cubase, Logic or Pro Tools. It can be done also with Ableton Live, but this is not the point of that software. If you want to write a whole song on a plane, from a sketch to the finished product – the professionally produced, up-to-date modern song – then Ableton Live is your tool.
Ableton Live is absolutely the most advanced tool for modern contemporary production. Cubase, Logic and Pro Tools are the most advanced recording studios that money can buy, and they offer everything you need to start and finish your song on a highest possible level, but for all sorts of modern mixture of electro genres (Hip hop, IDM, Electro, Dance, Trance, Chill, Dubstep etc.) Ableton Live is unbeatable. At the end of the line, if you are listening to the UK Top 40, you will notice that those genres occupy more than 3/4 of the chart. One thing is for sure, Ableton Live is not just a four-on-the-floor machine. You can produce anything you want with it, the sky is the limit; it just offers a different working approach and different tools and a very adorable, handy work flow that will bring fresh air into your production, where everything can be done more intuitively, without breaking your creative process.
Intro, Suite and Standard
I got Ableton Live 9 Suite, which is a bit pricey, but when you sum up all the things that you get along with main software, you will soon figure out that it is very fairly priced. Ableton packed all things that you will ever need in Suite, a whole symphonic orchestra that doesn’t sound cheap at all along with all sorts of live and dead drum packs, a zillion loops, various retro and contemporary instruments, and Max for Live with an impressive arsenal of tools along with two convolution reverbs. Also the Suite version brings us some additional Live instruments that really make a difference – Operator and Sampler. All in all you’ve got 54 GB of included material and 3000 sounds instead of 4 GB and 700 sounds in the standard version. After browsing through those packs, I’ve noticed that you actually get everything you need to start production. So, if Ableton Live Suite is the first thing that you have ever bought, it could easily became also the last one, not to mention all those free packs that comes almost daily on Ableton blog site. Some of them are really good. All included tools, effects and instruments are high-quality enough so that you don’t need any third-party things to achieve professional results.
Most of you have probably heard about the Scene view in Ableton Live, which is always pointed out as the main difference compared to other DAWs; but to tell you the truth, most producers don’t work much in the Scene view. It is the perfect tool for live playing; also, it is unbeatable for trying different combinations, but the main strength lies in the arrangement window which at first sight looks similar to the other arrangement windows in other sequencers. When you start layering things you will notice the difference very soon.
After watching all those tutorial video clips, I made my first composition in a less than half an hour. I browsed through my base of free drum loops that I have compiled over the years, and after finding the right one, dragged it to the MIDI track. Ableton asked me if this is a harmony, melody or drum clip. After I selected the “drum” option, Live converted the loop into a MIDI file adding a TR 606 drum rack as a starting point. I dragged the same loop to an additional audio track (all loops are automatically stretched to the sequencers speed), pressing the button for converting the speed to half time, then cut some low ends with Live EQ, making a nice background rhythmical noise out of a normal rock loop. (You simply cannot believe what you can get out of a boring drum loop.) I dragged Operator onto a new lane, and using the default settings, playing some bass line, then added another plucked preset from the Sampler, making some sort of lead line. After that I made additional copies of the MIDI drum loop I’ve imported before, arranging it over the time line (you can’t make variations if you just stretch the loop) while adding some snare variations on the way. In the end, I spiced up the arrangement with a few additional sound effects, put a few effects on the main output, added a ping-pong delay to the default reverb and delay send section, and that’s it. My first Ableton piece is done.
You could even try to make a song without touching the keyboard: Convert one orchestral loop to a MIDI clip, taking the lower part for the bass in combination with Live arpeggiator and taking the mids and highs for the lead line Operator. Spice it up with one drum loop, also converted to a MIDI clip (till now, it is a two minute business and the background is almost done), then add a few appropriate additional chords. Now add a catchy vocal line and…. Does it sounds familiar to you? Maybe, like a number one U.K Top 40 hit from January 2014? Like Clean Bandit featuring Jess Glyne in the song Rather Be?
Ableton Live has a bit different approach to the MIDI and audio lanes. You can simply select any part of a loop or phrase, then delete or just copy and paste it anywhere else in project. It is like ripping a piece of paper out and gluing it onto some other place. This method allows you to fine-tune any loop, combining various parts together on different lanes. If you use a drum rack, then you can just select the appropriate pad and add any effect you want to just that pad. Reverb and compressor to snare, EQ to hi-hats, EQ and bass buster to kick, along with shaping every separate hit in very tiny detail with the included controllers inside the drum rack. Contemporary music is all about the beat, but this is not big news; that is the case with all music for the last 50 years. Good drummer, good band; bad drummer, bad band. With Ableton Live you can really make your beat rocking.
Sidechaining in Ableton Live is pure joy. Just add a compressor and choose which track will be the carrier. That’s all. In less than a minute you can sort all sidechains for all tracks. Ableton Live 9 brings one additional compressor, Glue Compressor, which I initially thought is just another toy with a fancy name, but after seeing it in action (video tutorial) and trying it inside my arrangement, I figured out that it can really add a pro-sounding touch on a drum group channel (yes, you can group tracks in Ableton) or on a buss channel, the same as on the main channel.
The most interesting thing with most of the Ableton Live effects is that all of them give great results even with the default setup. Ping-pong delay is already filtered properly, so in the most cases you just need to set up the amount of the effect, and the same goes for all other effects. I’ve collected so many different pro reverbs during the years and ended up with the Ableton one.
The next extraordinary and unique feature is the way you can manipulate audio or MIDI sounds. Doing a standard pop production, your vocalist can save the day, but when you try to make some instrumental stuff, you suddenly find how some static background can sound so uninspiring and dead. With Ableton Live you can go absolutely crazy filtering, automating, changing and evolving sounds from second to second. Everything can be linked to almost anything, and if you are too lazy to do some automation, just insert an LFO Filter effect as an insert effect, set the treshold frequency and rate. Your basses, pads or whatever will go crazy, rhythmically filtering to create a desired sound. Adding any effects is a one-second job. Just drag it to the arrangement lane or to the bottom of the main window. At first glance, you’ll get the impression that there are too many parameters in every tool that Live offers, but soon you will realize how handy are all those knobs. The most used ones are always close to the main graphical window, while lesser used and additional ones are in a rank after the most used, so if you just grab the first one near the main window, you will do the job, at least in most cases.
O.K. Here we come to the point where my dear fellow David always asks the critical question: “And what about MIDI?” At first, I was a bit disappointed, as you definitely can’t do all the tricks and things that we are used to from some of the other before-mentioned DAWs, but after spending some time with the MIDI editor, I’ve realized that I can do things much faster than I was used to in other sequencers. Also, I found some unique functions like reverse all MIDI notes in a clip, allowing me to record a MIDI loop, reverse the loop with one click, render as audio, then reverse the audio back to normal getting sucking sounds where attack is at the end of the note. Simply brilliant, and it is a matter of a less than a minute. Also, it takes one click to halve the speed, another to double the speed. Drawing one note over another automatically deletes overlapped notes (very handy for making pads out of some syncopated notes). The Legato function makes all notes legato with one press. There is an Invert function and various others like selecting a range and changing it with one move. The most fascinating MIDI function is the Stretch note function: Select few MIDI notes and you’ve got two markers between them, and if you press somewhere between the notes at the top of the editor window, you can drag those notes like bubblegum. A handy trick for the 22nd. century. So, all in all, not your everyday beggary of MIDI tools you are used to, but pretty different ones that you need some time to learn. As I told in the first part of this review, you simply can’t compare Ableton Live with other DAWs.
In the past, I was never to keen to program synths, but after I saw a few video clips about Operator, I changed my mind and started tweaking various things inside this simple-looking, ultra-powerful synth. Creating crazy, Skrilex-like pulsating, evolving, wobbling basses is shamefully easy with Operator. (For a pure wobbling bass, you can always use an LFO limiter as the audio effect on any instrument or sound.) So drag Operator onto a MIDI lane. The default sound will be just more than perfect. Record some simple bass line, and then just start moving the level knobs that are nearest to the main window. There are four level knobs for the four oscillators. You don’t need to move the one which is at the bottom, as this is the main, first oscillator. A few trials and errors later, you will have your first Skrilex-style bass line.
Sampler looks simple (not so simple as Simpler) but please don’t be fooled with your first impression. It is a fully featured sampler where you can go mad multi-layering various sounds, just to get more buffed sound or to rank them through various velocity ranges. Making all sorts of gymnastics with samples is pretty easy, selecting the loop range or toying with start, decay, release or anything else sample-related.
The next thing that is very user-friendly (after you get used to it) is the browser where you get all your sounds, internal tools, external tools, or whatever you define, ranked in a very tidy way. All loops can be previewed at the host tempo, and all sounds can be previewed before you drag them in, the same for drum kits where you can even hear some basic drum loop to listen to the various elements in the kit as you audition it.
I’m surprised that Ableton Live doesn’t have any audio pitch-correction plug in implemented, as obviously they developed very powerful algorithms for that purpose, according to the audio-to-MIDI converters. I presume this will be implemented in the next version. The only other function that I miss is a “comp” function for choosing the best take out from your recordings, but the truth is that Ableton Live has such a powerful warp function implemented automatically in every audio clip that you can make your best take even out of your worst take. I nailed my bass and guitar take with Complex Pro warp algorithm so heavily that my sloppy playing skills ended like a Van Halen line in a Michael Jackson’s album. Very impressive – my playing skills, of course. 😉
Yesterday I tried to make a mastering rack out of Ableton Live’s included effects and ended up very close to the results that I got with Izotope Ozone. I use compressor (Mix gel preset), EQ Eight which has a very nice mono – stereo option where you can fine-tune separately the mono and stereo signals using up to eight bands for every one (preset that I’ve downloaded for free), Multi-dynamic compressor, where you can easily see what it is doing so fine-tuning is a piece of cake, along with Limiter. I put in group all that and added it to my user library directory.
Obviously Ableton Live 9 is a tool that invites you to start your traveling without any idea what you will do during the flight, lending with a mastered masterpiece two hours later at some other destination. Just you, your notebook and Ableton Live 9 suite. It is a full-featured DAW which brings a total different approach to the world of music making, a tool which can inspire you even when you don’t have any inspiration. With Ableton Live you can do literary everything, but not in the same way as you are used to doing. Different approaches brings different results. A perfect tool for the next century (and we barely started this one). It is like a Mary Poppins bag. Everything you will ever need is there. The only third party addition that you will need is you.
Ableton developed Push, a good-looking, handy pad controller for Ableton Live which could possibly be the only controller that you will ever need. It has a bunch of small pads and various menu buttons aside which allow you to attach various functions to those pads, like choosing a tonal scale, so you can even play keyboard solos with it. Programing new drum patterns is a piece of cake, the same for adding new scenes or tracks, recording and manipulating clips, and adding or even deleting notes.
It looks very impressive and as soon as my bank account shall recover, I promise that you will get a detailed review. It is a piece of hardware that makes you slobber.
At the Ableton site you can find the Packs directory where you can hear demo clips for more than one hundred packs. Some are free, other are cheap, a few are more expensive, but all in all there is a bunch of a good choices for every taste. From orchestral through the exotic ethno ones, then on to drums and ambient sounds, real instruments, fake instruments – it is almost like being in a supermarket. There are even packs from well-known sample companies like Project SAM, Soundiron, Soniccouture and few others.
The truth should be told, that there are many more additional Ableton Packs which are not presented directly on that subsite, but you can find trails through the Ableton blog. Some of them are really adorable, so it is not such a bad idea to spend some additional time searching around the site.
Liquid Notes for Live
A few days ago I got a new toy from my friends at Liquid Notes. It is a version of their harmonizing software specially made for Live.
Upon installing the program and copying two files into your Max directory, you get a new powerful tool integrated directly into the sequencer. Following the instructions from the video tutorial, I got my first results after a few minutes of suspense (did I set everything right or not?). Actually when you got it, it is really easy. So, what is it all about? Liquid Notes is a harmony assistant which can analyze your file, implementing harmonic changes on the fly following your commands while you tweak using two sliders and pressing two knobs. All you need to do is to create some simple phrase using a chord or two, and then add a bass line along with any other instrument. Liquid Notes will analyze that, and then you are free to go. I’ve recorded a few of my manipulations, and after few trials and errors, I got some very interesting results that exceeded my average knowledge of harmony. So, it is an ideal tool which can help you to develop your few-bar loop into a full composition. No, it can’t make Beethoven out of you, but it can give you a good starting point where you will need to change this and that, adding few things on a top; but all in all, it can take you far away from where you first started.
The only thing I miss in this Liquid Notes for Live version is the ability to define the number of bars for unchanged harmony, but knowing the team, I’m sure it will be in a future version.
Liquid Notes also have a version that works with all other sequencers that are on market.
7Aliens Catanya 2
This one is not strictly made for Ableton Live, but Ableton Live is just the most perfect match for this piece of software. It is a pattern generator. Add Catanya as a plug in to the MIDI track. Play four long chords, add four legato notes for bass, open an additional MIDI track, add an instrument of your choice and then connect it with Catanya 2. Open Catanya 2, browse through the impressive number of presets, and ten minutes later you will have your first Trance, Dance, Rave, Pop hit. Catanya 2 brings patterns for bass (from Blues, pop till techno, dance trance), drums (a bunch of nice hi-hat grooves among other ones), Piano, Strings (very good ones, specially staccato phrases), Synth (various phrases and lead lines for many genres), Pads, Brass and Guitar patterns. You can modify those patterns, adding new ones and then saving them in the User directory of the browser or just abusing them, using them for some other instruments. I made a basic Trance song in less then five minutes using just Catanya 2. It is also a perfect tool for adding some patterns to your existing song, finding a solution that you would never think of yourself.
Prices and links:
Ableton Live 9 Suite €599 EUR / $749 USD ( Max for Live included)
Ableton Live Standard €349 EUR / $449 USD
Ableton Live Intro €79 EUR / $99 USD
Ableton Push ( the controller ) €579 EUR / $599 USD special normally $698 USD
Max for Live €149 EUR / $199 USD
Re-Compose Liquid Notes for Live €69 EUR/ $69 USD until 16 March 2014, normally €79 EUR/ $89 USD
7 Aliens Catanya €45 EUR / $68 USD
A good starting-points tutorials from Justin Sadowick that will lead you from start to final composition: