What makes Ableton Live a unique DAW?
Ableton Live, often abbreviated to simply ‘Live’ is a popular Digital Audio Workstation among both professionals and hobbyists alike. It has a multitude of functions; the basics you’d expect from any DAW; audio recording, MIDI programming, sample editing etc, but there are also features that are unique to Live.
If you’re considering switching to Live, or are already a user hoping to gain more insight about how it works or what you can do with it, stick around.
In this article, we’ll dive into a few of those unique features, how they work, and what makes them so useful in a music production context in an attempt to detail what exactly makes Ableton Live a unique DAW.
1) The Manual
While it may seem like an obvious point to make, there can’t be enough praise for Ableton Live’s Manual. As you may have guessed from this article, Live is a complex program featuring a whole host of unique features, and the detail with which these are explained in the manual is second to none. There are also a selection of Lessons contained within Live itself, accessed via the Help menu.
Available as a pdf download, or simply just a section on their website, Live’s Manual contains everything you need to know to become a master of Ableton. There is a section on First Steps, a place for the uninitiated to get to grips with the basics, as well as more advanced sections on the likes of Clip Envelopes and even Working with Video. Everything’s covered, and it’s an invaluable resource.
The best section if you’re new, however, is Live Concepts. This section takes a deep dive into the various aspects of Live and introduces the core concepts. It touches on Session and Arrangement view (more on those below) as well as Live’s Browser, Live Sets, Audio & MIDI and more. Everything you need to know about Live is in the Manual, and though at 700+ pages it may seem a daunting task, there’s no better way to learn than to read it!
2) Arrangement View & Session View
One of the first things a first time user will notice about Live is that it has 2 distinct views.
Arrangement view is the one most will be familiar with, as it’s a common layout of most DAWs, Logic and Pro Tools, for example, both share this horizontal layout, with tracks going from one side of the screen to another. It’s familiar, so there isn’t too much daunting content on the screen to start off with.
Where Live really differentiates itself, though, is in Session View. Live started as a basic loop-triggering program, but has since evolved into a fully fledged DAW. Session View is where this loop triggering functionality lives.
While on the first glance, it looks similar to a basic DAW mixer, there's much more functionality to be found in this view. Compare Logic's mixing panel, the tracks are arranged vertically, showing plug ins and effects in each column. While Live's Session View looks similar, the vertical tracks contain Clips, organised horizontally into Scenes. There's a reason Live is the most popular DAW amongst electronic producers, and that's clips.
Session View works like a looper; MIDI & Audio clips are stored on tracks (vertical) and can be arranged into scenes (horizontal). This creates a great environment in which you can experiment with arrangements, creating Intro, Verse, Chorus sections on scenes. It allows a much more hands on approach to the creation of music. In a way, Live almost feels like an instrument in itself. (See here for more details)
As mentioned above, Live’s Session View puts a heavy emphasis on allowing users to perform with Live. The layout of the clips and scenes lends itself perfectly to a range of MIDI controllers; the grid layout is a popular one, featured on the like of the Novation Launchpad, but Ableton have kicked things up a gear by releasing Push and Push 2.
Push brings the power of Live into a hardware set up, and is packed full of features that allows hands on music creation or performance using Push’s interface. The goal was to encourage the flow of musical ideas without having to take breaks to touch a computer. Drawing in MIDI notes, or editing automation with a mouse and keyboard is fine, but sometimes you need to feel the music as you write, and that’s what Push allows you to do.
The first iteration of Push had a relatively basic screen, but Push 2 improved on this greatly when it was released in the back end of 2015. Push 2 features a rich full colour pixel display, allowing much greater detail when viewing things such as Wavetable or Echo, and spectrum analysis when you’ve got an EQ loaded in.
Simply put, the screen (and controls) on Push marry with whatever device you have selected. So if you’ve selected your Compressor, the controls along the top of Push allow you to edit everything you need to do, putting the power at your fingertips.
4 )Ableton Racks
Most DAWs have the ability in some form or another to save channel presets to make your workflow faster and more efficient. Especially in a situation where you want to be spending more time creating and less time fiddling with parameters, being able to quickly load your favourite or essential channel preset is a useful feature. Live takes it one step further than this, with what are called Ableton Racks.
The Ableton Manual summarises an Ableton Rack as ‘a flexible tool for working with effects, plug-ins and instruments in a track’s device chain.’ The device chain, for the uninitiated, is where effects are applied to each track, displayed horizontally on the bottom of the screen. What Racks allow you to do is group together instruments, FX and plug ins to create a simplified device with your core controls mapped how you want them.
There are four distinct type of racks; Audio Effect, MIDI Effect, Instrument or Drum racks. Each serve their own unique purpose, from creating a unique instrument, to creating an FX bank. The entire contents of an Ableton Rack can be thought of as one single device. Through using Macro Controls, you can highlight individual parameters from the various devices in your Rack. These are then mapped to macro controls, and then the view can be collapsed into a small pane showing 8 macro knobs.
Let’s put the idea into practice. The image above shows Live's built in 'Washed Out' device. This is a combination of the following effects; Phaser, Ping Pong Delay, Filter Delay and a Compressor. These effects work together to create the overall sound of this device. As an example of a macro control, the 'Complex City' knob controls the Dry/Wet control of the Ping Pong Delay.
You can create your own devices similar to this, by loading a group of effects, and grouping them together. This can be done by selecting all of them and Cmd/Ctrl + G, or right click, and select 'Group'. You can check assign macro controls based on what you want your core controls of the device to be.
For a more in depth look at Ableton Racks, check out Section 18 of the Manual.
5) Ableton Link
Despite being a relatively new feature in Live - it was first offered in Beta in 2015- Link is a revolutionary one, and it gets to the roots of what Live is all about: live performance, looping & jamming and on the fly music creation. As mentioned above, at times, Live can feel like an instrument in itself, and Link allows that instrument to join a multi-instrument conversation.
Link is a technology that allows multiple devices to sync and keep in time over a wired or wireless network. This means that two (or more) instances of Live can join and sync tempos, which is a great feature when collaborating, but Link isn’t exclusive to Live.
There are now a growing number of iOS/Anrdoid applications, software and hardware devices that can sync with Live through Link, and create a virtual orchestra of electronics. Examples are Algoriddim’s Djay, KORG Electribe Wave as well as the Akai MPC Live and MPC X models.
When connected via Link, each device can start and stop playback independently of every other device, and everything will remain in time, as well as maintaining the correct positioning in relation to everything else. Link is enabled by selecting the Link control in the top left of the screen. When enabled, a number shows the amount of devices connected, as well as the global playback position.
Link truly is a huge step forward in the integration of electronic music devices.
6) Max for Live
Max for Live will definitely be familiar to any users of Max MSP, Cycling ‘74s visual programming language. Max for Live is an add on product co-developed between Ableton and Cycling ‘74, and it is built into Live 10 Suite from the get go (though it is not included in the Lite, Intro or Standard Editions of Live).
Max for Live puts the power of almost unlimited creation at your fingertips. It can be used to create devices for use inside Live, and the possibilities range from synthesisers to samplers, Convolution reverbs to vocoders, and pretty much everything in between.
As well as providing this toolkit to build devices, Max for Live also comes with a collection of pre-made instruments, effects and tutorials. The seamless integration within Live allows these devices to be used no differently than Live’s built in devices.
Max devices can be daunting, so to help with this, Cycling ‘74 have included an extensive collection of documentation and tutorials built into the Max for Live environment. Simply select ‘Max Help’ from the Help menu in any Max window to access this.
There are a number of lessons which provide detailed and step by step tutorials for the creation of Max devices. These are available through Live’s Help View, which is accessed from Live’s Help menu.
Possibly one of the most exciting features of Max for Live, however, is the ability to download and use a whole range of user made Max Devices. This is especially enticing if you aren’t interested in the diving down the rabbit hole of Max programming, but still want to use its power in your productions. There is a worldwide community of people creating Max devices, ranging from curious hobbyists to professional designers. These include everything from effects, to in-the-box modular recreations, and even video synthesis tools.
Ableton’s website features an extensive look into Max for Live, so head there for all the info you’ll need.