Ableton Live 11 in music education

Ableton has recently previewed Live 11, a significant update to the DAW software that has increased its influence in educational markets since I first wrote about version 9 back in 2013. Back then I wrote:

Live is here to stay, and is the ultimate standard in electronic music making.  “Everything you need to make great music can come from us”.

If Ableton’s major releases oscillate back and forth between updates for the professional market and updates for the prosumer/beginner market, this would put version 11 on schedule to appeal to that more professional market that Live 9 was focused on. Live 10, with Capture (a method for remembering casually produced MIDI), Wavetable (a very easy to use synth), pictorial devices like Echo (very easy to use tape delay), and the improvements to visualization and step sequencing on Push 2 seemed focused on broadening the base. New users could approach these features as a way to jump into music making more quickly. Live 11 includes a couple of these features that I detail below, but the bulk of the updates are squarely focused on the professional market. Some features like Comping feel long overdue, and were a standout missing feature for users coming from other software like Logic Pro. Other new features like the global use of MPE in MIDI clips and software instruments is more focused on those with the hardware resources to employ those kinds of features (MPE also enables new expressions on Push controllers, but is best experienced on 3rd party controllers like the Roli Seaboard.) Rather than deep dive all of the new features, I’d like to focus on a few that I think will make a real difference for music educators using Ableton Live.

Scales

“Finally.” In version 11, Ableton Live lets the user choose a global scale for the project. This feature has actually been available on Push for the last couple years, and has scale settings from Push have been saved inside of Live projects since version 9.5. But now, there is a proper interface for viewing and folding by scales on screen and the scale menu matches those available on Push. This is a huge benefit for anyone making tonal music but especially for those unable to do complex transpositions or key signature troubleshooting. Simply press the “scale” button next to “Fold” and Live will only show in-key notes.

Minor quibble: It would be really nice if this data somehow also could highlight in-key clips in the browser. Maybe some kind of Logic-esque metadata, or even better: key analysis of incoming clips could take advantage of this?

Fun detail: You can now set the MIDI piano roll to show Sharps, Flats or both note names for accidentals. It still defaults to “Sharps only” which I find charming.

That’s a C Major scale.

Probability

I love getting lots of mileage out of short, simple MIDI sequences. Live now allows probability to be adjusted per-note in the MIDI editor. This is a great way to humanize drum patterns and liven up bass sequences, and I expect it to become a key feature of writing in Live. Set up an interesting and complex MIDI clip, record its output to an adjacent Audio track and let the machine jam until it produces the best pattern. Note probability is an excellent “happy accident” feature and I’m really glad to see it this accessible and upfront in the UI.

These notes will only play about half the time. Will they or won’t they?

Take Comping

On the surface, this is a feature catching up to other DAW programs that have had take management built in for years. The idea is simple: Record over the same spot several times and each loop the recording will add a sub-track. You can then quickly composite these recordings into a perfectly spliced take. It’s a method borrowed from tape-based recording and a really good example of how computers have sped up the studio process.

Takes done the old way, with multiple audio tracks grouped together for clarity.
Takes done the new way, with one audio track. Draw mode is used to select portions used in the composite take, with Live automatically handling crossfades.

Of course, Ableton could have added this feature long ago. Instead of simply adding a similar feature, they opted to give take comping in Live 11 a bit of Ableton-y quirk. Arbitrary recordings can be comped together after the fact, making takes a very quick editor for chopping up and scrambling samples. MIDI clips can be comped together, as can video clips (!) I’m excited to see the off-kilter creative possibilities of this implementation down the road.

Video in particular is interesting to me. The feature is still very much in beta (Live segfaulted when I tried to demo on the Electronic Music School stream), but if the feature works as advertised it would seem that multi-camera clips could be spliced together very easily here. While Live is not intended to be a video editing app, it can be used as a utility app for quick retiming and now for quick synced camera cutting. Will I use Live to cut an interview? Not sure about that, but I might use it to create interesting background visuals for my next DJ set, which brings us to…

Video in Session View

Another “Finally!” Before, add-on tools made this possible, but usually added significant demand to the machine. With modern codec support and much improved video acceleration on the horizon for laptops (thank you, Apple M1) I can see session view video being an easy visual upgrade for lots of laptop musicians. Simply add your clips, trigger the scene and the video changes. Hook up a projector and throw that popup window on a second screen (and for the first time in your life, be thankful how that window pops up without standard UI controls).

Conclusion

Even as an “under the hood” release, there is a lot to be excited about Live 11. Years ago I wrote about Live 9 being a similar release, laying the groundwork for huge leaps forward. We have seen Ableton’s influence in education bloom in recent years. Professional-level academics now have the tools to make experimental and procedural music baked right into the same app DJ’s and producers are using to perform on stage. Pro-level changes that will benefit smaller scale uses will end up exposing new audiences to things like MPE and Max programming. When I wrote the review of version 9, VJ Manzo and I were still writing Interactive Composition. Now, there are high schools using it – we never envisioned that book for high schools but the inclusion of advanced tools made it possible.

So if Live 11 looks uninteresting at first blush because the features may only interest pro-level users, consider that for many young musicians this will be their first DAW. Things like MPE and note probability may end up just being an expected feature for them, and will again change the way the average person makes music.

Author: Will Kuhn

I teach music technology to high schoolers. I do some other stuff too. @willkuhn on Twitter.