Mobile Musician: Ableton Live Reviewed

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Date: Friday, April 26th, 2002, 09:59
Category: Archive

There was a time not so long ago when live interactive electronic music meant carrying a Hammond organ the weight and proportions of a Volkswagen — or, more recently, turntable musicians who could be mistaken for pallbearers. No more. Ableton‘s new Live software means entire gigs can be performed on a PowerBook or iBook. It’s simple and streamlined enough that musical newcomers will be creating their own tunes — and simple enough for us more advanced computer musicians to abuse to create wild, unpredictable new noises. Like much revolutionary version 1 software, it’s not without flaws, but even some of its bugs are fun.


There was a time not so long ago when live interactive electronic music meant carrying a Hammond organ the weight and proportions of a Volkswagen — or, more recently, turntable musicians who could be mistaken for pallbearers. No more. Ableton‘s new Live software means entire gigs can be performed on a PowerBook or iBook. It’s simple and streamlined enough that musical newcomers will be creating their own tunes — and simple enough for us more advanced computer musicians to abuse to create wild, unpredictable new noises. Like much revolutionary version 1 software, it’s not without flaws, but even some of its bugs are fun.

Anyone who has used software like Pro Tools, Digital Performer, and Logic understands the need for something like Live. With traditional multitrack audio programs, it’s possible to create beautiful, nuanced mixes with nothing more than a laptop. But what happens when it’s time for performance? Hit the “play” button and suddenly various features in the software are disabled, or cause the playback to skip. Some musicians have taken to “performing” with these applications on stage by cheating — premixing the sounds and aside from tweaking a knob or two, letting the audio run. But where’s the fun in that? The joy of performing is reacting to an audience, making mistakes, and having music sound different each time. Even composing is less fun this way: lay out sound files, then play the back, then go back and adjust, etc.

Live seeks to solve these problems, by creating a “sequencing instrument”: that is, it lets you “perform” all those different audio files in real time. Cue audio files in a file browser, then drop them into your channels and trigger them with the mouse, keyboard, or MIDI. You can loop files, add effects from Live’s built-in plug-ins, or add VST effects. You can even solo audio through headphones to cue or audition files before the audience hears them if you route two channels through separate outputs (requires a multichannel audio interface like the MOTU 828 or Emagic emi 2|6).

Performance is flawless: as long as you keep an eye on CPU utilization (which has improved a lot in the new 1.5 beta), you can do almost anything in Live without so much as a hiccup in audio output. DJs could store source material as files and mix an entire evening with just a blank canvas to start out with, dropping in new files and tweaking effects as they go. And even without an audience, Live finally makes the creative process feel improvisatory. You will want to take CPU use seriously, of course: be careful adding effects. The best way is to create dedicated effects sends and route any channels using an effect to that send, especially with CPU-intensive effects like delay and reverb. Even then I’ve occasionally maxed out the processor on my G4/400, so it’s worth practicing your mix before you go to a gig!

Fans of beat-based music and newcomers will have a field-day with Live’s beat features. Every sound file can be stretched to match the master tempo (which is adjustable in realtime), and adjustable “warp markers” allow you to maintain beats in a beat-based sample. Beginners can get started right away even if they’ve never made music before, and there’s an extensive sound library from Sonomic and Big Fish Audio with techno and hip-hop sources to get you going. Most effects, like the fabulous Autofilter and Ping-Pong Delay, can be beat-synced. Be careful: these great-sounding effects are addictive!

Unfortunately, Live’s most appealing feature is also its single biggest drawback. For reasons which mystify virtually everyone who uses Live, it’s not possible to turn off Live’s tempo-guessing / beat matching features. That means you’ll often hear distortion in audio files that don’t match the master tempo as Live tries to digitally stretch them (whether you want it to or not). Ableton needs to fix this problem as soon as possible. I don’t care how much beat-based work you’re doing. There isn’t a user who won’t occasionally want to turn this feature off. What happens, for instance, if you want to add a quick text soundbyte or vocal?

Now the good news: sometimes technology’s strangest bugs can be a creative boon. Why use Live’s time-stretching capabilities the way you’re supposed to when you can abuse and misuse them? The guess tempo feature allows you to adjust the guessed tempo by multiplying or dividing it by 2. (Another complaint: why not direct tempo entry?) Setting an improper tempo and adjusting the quantization value can create some wild stuttering effects. The results are unpredictable, but that’s half the fun: misusing turntables was how record scratching got started, after all.

Even in its current form, Live is very usable in performance. This weekend at the Improvised and Otherwise festival I set up a 20 minute Live set in which I cue about 50 different source files to improvise my accompaniment to modern dance by Kathy Westwater, all from my PowerBook’s keyboard, all in OS X. I’ve made extensive use of beat-matching and time stretch distortion capabilities, and liberally took advantage of some of those great raunchy sounding digital plugins and cool delays. Now that Live 1.5 (still in beta but very reliable) supports both host and client ReWire mode, it’s possible to integrate Live with your other tools. Even MAX die-hards will likely love using Live for some tasks — and they’ll appreciate that Live’s initial development and prototyping was in MAX, created by MAX-loving electronic musicians. Now, if Ableton will just add direct entry of tempi for soundfiles, independent adjustment of tempi to allow multiple simultaneous tempi, and most of all, the ability to turn off time stretching individually for sound files, Live will have widespread appeal as the revolutionary tool it is.

Let me know how you’re using Live: drop me an e-mail! And if you make it Saturday to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I’ll be happy to meet you!

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