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ABLETON Live 4.0 (Mac/Win)

December 1, 2004
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FIG. 1: In Ableton''s Live 4.0, all three overdub passes of a one-bar recording are kept in the same MIDI clip, allowing previous takes to be selected using the loop markers.

Ableton has once again knocked the ball out of the park, this time with its Live 4.0 digital audio sequencer. The big news with Live 4.0 is the addition of MIDI clips and virtual-instrument hosting. Beyond that, a number of less dramatic but still noteworthy improvements have been made and features have been added, such as easier and more flexible signal routing, Automatic Jamming, tempo control on the Scene level, and automatic Scene advance. The new and upgrade prices are a bit higher than those of previous versions, but that seems well justified by Live 4.0's magnitude of change.

EM has given full coverage to Live's unique approach to real-time audio-clip sequencing, so I will concentrate on the new features for this review. For previous reviews see the June 2002, June 2003, and April 2004 issues of EM. You'll also find a Master Class article about Live in the December 2002 issue. All are available online at www.emusician.com.

As the minimum requirements suggest, Live is CPU efficient. Nevertheless, to take full advantage of Live's real-time audio capabilities, you'll need a relatively fast computer. A good dose of RAM is also recommended. Although Live streams audio from disk by default, using its optional Clip RAM mode is more efficient, especially for machines with slower hard drives, such as laptops. For this review, I used a Mac dual-G5/2 GHz with 2 GB of RAM running OS X 10.3.4.

MIDI IN, MIDI OUT

Live sports a reasonably sophisticated track-based audio sequencer and recorder, but its claim to fame is as a real-time audio-clip triggering device. Clips can be triggered individually or in groups, called Scenes, and MIDI messages and computer keys can be assigned to trigger clips and Scenes.

Clip management is carried out in Live's Session environment, which is organized in columns resembling mixer channels. (The columns are called tracks, because they correspond to the tracks in Live's time-based environment, called the Arrangement.) Ableton has taken all the tricks it developed for manipulating audio clips and applied them to MIDI. Along the way, Ableton made some obvious and not-so-obvious adaptations to improve MIDI and audio-clip management.

FIG. 2: Live''s Simpler (top) and Impulse (bottom) are enough to get you started with virtual ­instruments. The Chord, Random, and Scale MIDI effects manipulate incoming MIDI in real time.

MIDI clips can be imported from Standard MIDI Files (SMFs), recorded using a MIDI controller or the computer keyboard, or entered graphically. Surprisingly, there is no provision for MIDI step entry, which would seem to be a natural inclusion.

Live has implemented a slick version of MIDI-file import that allows you to import individual tracks from most SMFs. If the MIDI-file tracks have been usefully labeled, it's a breeze to mix and match tracks from several MIDI files. The one thing you can't do is audition MIDI files directly from the Browser — the ability to do that would be a real time-saver.

RECORDING LIVE

As with audio, MIDI input can be recorded directly in the Session or Arrangement environments. In either case, you can choose to have the incoming notes quantized on the fly, and you can undo the quantization. Overdub recording is also possible in both environments; the specifics differ slightly, however, between the Session and the Arrangement.

When overdub and cycle recording are enabled in the Arrangement, each new cycle extends the length of the recorded clip, and the new section contains a copy of the previous recording along with the new material. That allows you to go back and forth between takes by moving the clip's loop markers (see Fig. 1). In the Session environment or when cycle recording is off in the Arrangement, overdubbing works by adding the new material to the old. In that case, you need to use the undo and redo functions to move between takes.

You can record multiple tracks at the same time, and Live's flexible input and output routing makes that feature even more useful. Any MIDI track can take its input from any MIDI port and channel and from all ports and channels simultaneously. (One of the available inputs is the computer keyboard, which is automatically mapped to MIDI notes.) In addition, any MIDI track that does not contain a virtual-instrument plug-in can direct its output to any other MIDI track. That makes it easy to bounce several MIDI parts to one MIDI clip. MIDI output can also be directed to any port and channel (hence, to external MIDI devices) and to any Propellerhead ReWire bus.

CLICK AND DRAG

Live provides tools for graphic entry and editing of MIDI data. Although they are not on par with high-end digital audio sequencers, there are some interesting twists. Editing can be performed only in a piano-roll editor; however, key commands allow you to quickly switch between the editing and entry tool, and to manage the quantize grid. Note entry is drum-editor style — clicking on an empty space adds a note, and clicking on an existing note deletes it. Note editing includes moving, resizing from either end, and changing Velocity.

The Clip view, which doubles as the MIDI editor, is resizable and has a handy Fold mode that displays only pitches that contain notes. Fold mode is especially useful when you want to restrict note entry to certain pitches, as is commonly the case with drum parts, but it is also useful for pitched instruments (see Fig. 1).

As with audio, MIDI clips have associated clip envelopes that can be looped and sized independently. Clip envelopes are additive to track automation and can be used to control any mixer or plug-in parameter as well as any MIDI controller. With just a few mouse-clicks, you can, for example, create a one-bar LFO loop and apply it to pan position over a longer MIDI loop.

SIMPLER IS BETTER

MIDI clips wouldn't be of much use without instruments to play them, and Live can host both VST and Audio Units virtual-instrument and effects plug-ins. To get you started, Live 4.0 has a basic sample player called Simpler, a drum sampler called Impulse, and a collection of basic MIDI effects.

FIG. 3: Live''s robust signal-routing scheme allows MIDI tracks to take their input from and send their outputs to any other track as well as any hardware or ReWire MIDI device.

Simpler combines a polyphonic single-sample player with the modules found on basic synths: a multimode filter, a multiwaveform LFO, and an Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release (ADSR) envelope generator. The sample can be looped or played as a one-shot. You can set the sample start, sample end, and loop start, but oddly you can't set the loop end (the loop always extends to the sample end).

As a pitched instrument, Simpler performs best when loaded with a single or multicycle waveform, as the 18 factory presets illustrate. But you can get a lot more out of Simpler by dragging clips from the Browser to its sample-display window. You can then use MIDI notes to trigger the clips, rather than triggering them from Session Slots. More importantly, you can use Simpler's tools to focus on and process parts of the clips. For example, if there's a particular note you like in a bass loop, you can use Simpler to turn that note into a bass instrument.

Impulse is an 8-pad drum sampler. The pads are automatically mapped to the white keys from C3 to C4. In Fold mode, the MIDI editor shows the drum names assigned to the pads, which greatly facilitates graphic note entry. Each pad holds its own sample with settings for Sample Start, Tune, and Stretch. Each pad also has its own Filter, Distortion, Decay, Pan, and Volume settings. Finally, the pads' outputs can be separately routed to other audio tracks for independent effects processing. As with Simpler, you can go way beyond the intended use by dragging clips from the Browser to Impulse's pads.

Live comes with five effects for processing MIDI notes: Chord, Pitch, Random, Scale, and Velocity. Others will undoubtedly be added in the future, and an arpeggiator and delay would be obvious choices. Pitch changes the pitch of incoming notes within a user-defined range, Velocity is a MIDI Velocity compressor, and Chord allows you to add as many as six notes to each incoming note to produce chords. Random allows you to randomize incoming pitches with control of probability, pitch range, and pitch step size. Scale operates on pitch classes, allowing you to either block an entire pitch class or map it to another pitch class. (A pitch class has all notes of the same name, regardless of their octave.) For example, you might use Scale to throw away all incoming notes whose pitch, in any octave, is C, or you might use it to change any C to the D just above it. Random and Scale work nicely together to produce kaleidoscopic, nonrepeating patterns within a fixed tonality.

Fig. 2 shows Simpler and Impulse with the Chord, Random, and Scale MIDI effects. Web Clip 1 makes use of both instruments together with those effects. Web Clip 2 uses MIDI routing and the Chord effect to apply four-way close harmony to a random melody (see Fig. 3).

MAKING THE SCENE

Scene- and clip-playback management take several leaps forward in version 4.0. Each Scene can now have its own tempo, which offers a lot more flexibility in real-time tempo control. (Scene tempo changes are given when recording the Session into the Arrangement.) An optional auto-advance preference causes the next Scene to be selected when a Scene is triggered, allowing you to use the Return key to launch a succession of Session's Scenes.

A new set of clip parameters called Follow Actions can be used to automate clip changes within groups of consecutive clips on the same track. Actions include replaying the same clip; jumping to the next, the previous, the first, the last, or a random clip within the group; and stopping track playback. The time between actions is set in bars and beats, and you can specify two different actions along with their relative probability. With those features (which, taken together, are called Automatic Jamming) and careful clip selection and grouping, Live becomes an effective tool for automated composition (see Web Clip 3).

You can now swing-quantize audio and MIDI clips. Each clip can have its own swing mode setting — straight, eighths, 16ths, or 32nds — and a global swing amount setting then controls the amount of swing applied. That introduces additional time warping for audio clips, so make sure that the clips warp well and are set to the best warp mode. Within those constraints, swing is a welcome rhythmic addition.

One inconvenience when using any of the clip options is that they must be set individually for each clip. You cannot select multiple clips and adjust common parameters either absolutely or relatively. Because a lot of Live action is in the clip parameters, that can slow things down significantly.

DOCS AND PERCS

Live is very intuitive for all its complexity, but like any sophisticated software, it takes a while to master its finer intricacies. To make things easier, Ableton has provided an excellent manual, implemented rollover help, and included seven interactive tutorials with matching QuickTime movies.

If you know nothing about Live, following the tutorials, which are special Live projects with an attached text window, will quickly get you up and running. Even if you are a seasoned Live user, completing the tutorials gives you a great refresher course and is a good way to learn the new features.

The manual comes in PDF and printed format (with the boxed version). The PDF manual has the advantage of being searchable and has copious links between topics. Both versions contain a complete index and table of contents.

As with previous versions, the boxed version of Live 4 has a CD full of royalty-free loops (more than 650 MB) in various styles. The entire collection is from Big Fish Audio and is organized by instrument and then by category, making compatible material easy to find. Some instrument offerings, such as the six horn loops, are minimal, whereas others, such as the 200 drum loops, are more generous. Overall, the collection is not as extensive or varied as it was in previous versions, but it provides ample material for learning and enjoying Live.

The addition of MIDI and virtual-instrument hosting is a giant step in Live's evolution. It transforms Live from an excellent audio-loop manipulation tool to a full-fledged performance and composition environment. Live's unique integration of real-time multiple-clip recording and playback with track-style arranging differentiates it from conventional digital audio sequencing software and all-in-one studio software with built-in sequencing. It may not be the best of either world, but it's definitely the best of both worlds in the same package.


Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. He can be contacted through his Web site at www.swiftkick.com.

Minimum System Requirements

Live 4.0

MAC: G3/400 MHz; 256 MB RAM; Mac OS 9.2 or OS X 10.1.5

PC: Pentium III/600 MHz; 256 MB RAM; Windows 98, 2000, or XP

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Ableton

Live 4.0 (Mac/Win)
digital audio sequencer
$499
upgrade: $119 (download), $149 (boxed)

FEATURES 4.5
EASE OF USE 4.0
QUALITY OF SOUNDS 4.0
VALUE 4.5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: MIDI clip recording and playback. Virtual-instrument hosting. Extremely flexible audio and MIDI signal routing. Automatic Jamming.

CONS: Can't simultaneously adjust multiple clip parameters. No MIDI step entry.

>Manufacturer

Ableton/M-Audio (distributor)
tel.: (800) 969-6434 or (626) 445-2842
email: info@m-audio.com
Web: www.ableton.com

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