▶ Ableton Live 9 Review


The first thing that hits you is the browser.  That and the new color scheme.  The pervasive Futura font and extensive rebranding effort.  Push.  Ableton is working overtime trying to convince the forward thinking music making community that they’re at the forefront of Music Technology – still at the top of the game they started back in 2000.  The fact remains that there are very few tools as versatile as Live.  Name another program that you can mix and master rock in that you can also DJ with, let along program your own audio effects.  The threat of newcomers like Bitwig and Studio One hasn’t fully materialized, and Ableton still owns the future.  My first impression is one of the transition from plucky startup “outsider” status to elevated, confidant front runner status.

Among professionals who create original electronic music, Ableton controls the zeitgeist.  Anyone who is serious about their audio production uses Live – there is little need for Ableton to hire spokespeople to sell their product.  In fact, the spokespeople they do use on Ableton.com are of the super-elite variety.  Think of how easy it would have been to pick the low-hanging fruit of asking someone like Skrillex or the Glitch Mob to endorse their product.  Instead they choose obscure but revered in their niche artists like Hecq and Nosaj Thing to show off the complicated Byzantine depth to which an artist can use Live.  DJ’s and producers use it, but make no mistake – Live is an Artist’s tool.

So how does a company keep this type of person attracted to the software?  While some prefer to simplify apps to bring in new customers, and others succumb to feature bloat, Ableton remains quite lightweight in look and feel, evoking the feel of a blank canvas moreso than in any other software I can think of.  Let’s look at how Ableton achieves this rare balance of new features, niche exclusivity and yet lightweight simplicity.

UI Changes

Ableton’s new brand image extends deep into this release of Live.  Of course there is a new color scheme (there has been for every major release of Live to my knowledge).  Beyond this is an extremely simplified browser.  In the top left we no longer have the mysterious “circle” buttons, or folders with numbers on them.  Instead we get a neatly organized mega-browser, with tabs for common needs like Drums, Instruments, Plug-Ins, and Max for Live smartly with its own tab, rightly segregated from the other categories.

Another great addition is the preview loops in the instrument browser.  When you click on, say “808 Classic” Live will play a tiny drum loop demonstrating the sounds you can expect from that instrument.  A small, but highly appreciated addition.

I think a few people will miss some of the more important UI changes made in version 9, as they come in the form of Device revamps.  For instance, the Compressor effect now has three possible views: Basic, Graph, and Timeline – the Basic makes it looks like a Limiter (kind of a “set-it-and-forget-it” view).  The Timeline on the other hand shows Gain Reduction over time, with a visible Threshold.  Quite nice, and slightly more useful for sidechaining than the old view – you can really see how much you’re squashing your sound with this device now, which is welcome.

An interesting change in practice has been the new Session Record button.  It takes some getting used to, but is quite handy:  Before, if you’re performing live and have a track armed *and* hit a scene trigger, your jamming gets recorded and looped.  Kind of annoying next time you go to hit that scene.  Now, Scene record is a separate function, and need to be armed in addition to the track to record in session view.  Overall this is a good change, which allows for more intentional control over looped live performances.

New Features

Some new features are licensed new instruments, such as the Glue Compressor (which looks great, but apparently I need to mess with it more to see how exactly it is distinct from the regular compressor).

Other features are hidden away, like the Audio to MIDI feature.  I’m not totally sure what to make of this feature, except that it seems like a hacker’s version of Logic’s Drum Replacement function.  Instead of drawing clear lines around what the feature should be used for, Ableton (true to form) defines the function loosely, probably expecting that it will be used in new and interesting ways that are yet to be seen.  Implementations like this make Ableton a joy to use for pros and a bit frustrating for people used to Logic or Pro Tools.  On the other hand, beginners (like the students I teach) will probably see features like this and simply accept them as standard features without question.

Max for Live is almost seamlessly baked into Live.  With the exception of the splash screen that appears when loading a Max instrument (and the Max icon when you’re editing an instrument) it’s difficult to tell where Live ends and Max begins.  I think the inclusion of Max is still a stroke of pure genius.  Max has long been popular in academic circles and artiste cliques (like those occupied by Gerhard and Robert  when they were designing the first versions of Live), and Max for Live essentially brings those difficult and lofty methods to the masses.  In fact, this version of Live includes far more examples and “usable” M4L patches that are relevant to Live’s core audience.  The “Instant Haus” MIDI effect is a great example of M4L being used in a way that will appeal to many Live users that would not normally attempt to use Max.  Now they can open this plugin, see the code, fiddle with the patterns and hopefully go on to try to create their own version in the future.

When deciding what  programming language to learn, a CS major might base their decision on current tech trends, installed base and community support.  After all, learning programming is a big time investment which would be sorely wasted if spent on a flash-in-the-pan scripting language.  Max/MSP has decades of support and followers, and bringing this huge legacy into the fold makes Live so much more useful as a long term tinkering environment than other programs’ attempts at this.  Ableton was extremely smart in including Max inside of Live.

Push and More

I haven’t yet been able to try Push, the Akai-built instrument promising quick and seamless songwriting using Live.  The price is high to be sure, but if you knock off $100 (the price of the included Live Intro) it makes more sense.  It also is nice to see a standardized set of buttons for songwriting – the LaunchPad and APC series shoehorn you into specific methods that Live may or may not adhere to in the future, but Push seems smartly designed to work with this version of Live, and probably later versions as well.  The layout also seems to account for multiple methods of beatmaking, performing, tweaking, DJ’ing, editing, etc. and I think it can appeal to a wider base of professionals (not amateurs yet- at least not at this price).

Live 9 strikes me as an iteration of an already great product, but I think the message from Ableton AG is clear: 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”.  In a way, Live 9 completes the story, and sets the standard for the next generation of music software.