When it comes to real-time music creation, Ableton’s Live is in a category all its own. Live performs many of the functions of digital audio workstations such as Apple’s Logic and Digidesign’s Pro Tools – but in real time. Instead of recording in layers (stopping between takes to make adjustments or render audio changes) you can click on Record in a studio or begin a performance and construct entire songs without ever hitting the Stop button.
Musicians and DJs have made Live their tool of choice because of its simplicity, its powerful beat-matching and looping tools, and the fact that you can use all its functions without interrupting audio output – this makes it ideal for live gigs and improvisation. With the addition of MIDI and virtual instruments, Ableton addresses a primary shortcoming of previous versions of the program.
MIDI and virtual instruments
Earlier versions of Live focused entirely on audio loops; without MIDI support, recording and editing individual note data was impossible. Some Live devotees were wary when they heard that Ableton was adding MIDI and virtual-instrument support to this version: was Live departing from its signature simplicity, trying to be something it was not?
Their fears were unfounded – Live 4 does for MIDI what the original Live did for audio loops. Live’s clip-&-slot concept, in which individual clips can be looped, edited, time-stretched, and triggered individually or in groups called “scenes” for instant arrangements, now applies to MIDI note values as well. You can sketch MIDI patterns with the pencil tool in the program’s Clip view, record them from a MIDI device, or even jam on your Mac’s QWERTY keyboard. You can also drag in saved MIDI clips from Live’s Browser, and Ableton includes a healthy supply of dance music-oriented clips to get you started.
Live 4 ships with two basic instruments: Impulse is an eight-slot drum kit, and Simpler is a sample-playback instrument. The simplicity of these instruments is part of their appeal. You can instantly drag in audio from slots in the Session view to create quick instruments on-the-fly: drag eight audio clips onto Impulse for an instant drum kit, or drag an audio clip onto Simpler and trigger transposed versions of the clip with your MIDI keyboard. Live 4 also bundles several real-time MIDI effects, including the Scale and Chord effects, which constrain notes to a scale and harmonize them, respectively.
In previous versions, some VST plug-ins didn’t work properly, but support is much more consistent in this release. We tested a variety of audio and instrument plug-ins, from Native Instruments’ plug-ins to Green Oak’s freeware synth Crystal, without a hitch.
Arrangement and routing
MIDI support may be the big draw, but Live 4 offers many other noteworthy improvements and added features. Whereas arrangements created with previous versions could be dry and repetitive, Live 4 has new arrangement features, called follow actions, that allow for more variety. Instead of each clip looping endlessly, each clip can trigger any other clip – once it has finished playing or at a location you specify – so you can create orderly or random chains of events. Live 4’s scenes are more dynamic, too: they can now store tempos and advance automatically.
Routing and monitoring have also been reworked. Additional sends and returns per session make effects routing more flexible. And you can now route audio between tracks, resampling audio, creating sophisticated submixes, or layering multiple instruments. The addition of new monitoring settings provides both automatic track monitoring and the ability to monitor tracks individually. Complex routing can be confusing in any software, but Live 4’s new implementation is surprisingly intuitive, with helpful input monitors throughout the interface that show audio and MIDI signals at a glance. Live’s signal routing is labelled in plain English; you can simply select From or To to send audio where you want it to go.
Live does all its time-stretching in real time, so computer speed is important if you’re using many tracks at once. Our 1GHz PowerBook G4 with 512MB of RAM was more than sufficient. Because Live must record and play back from the hard drive in real time, we recommend a fast external drive for laptop use; a 7,200rpm FireWire 800 drive from WiebeTech easily outperformed the PowerBook’s internal 4,200rpm drive for audio reliability.
Live 4 may not replace traditional digital audio workstations such as Logic for extensive studio editing, but that’s beside the point. True to its name, Live remains the best tool available for on-the-fly remixing, composing, arranging, and performing. With the long-awaited addition of MIDI and virtual instruments, more-powerful arrangement features such as follow actions, and expanded routing capabilities, this version delivers. If you’ve been waiting to buy or upgrade Live, now is the time.