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ABLETON Live 5 (Mac/Win)

January 1, 2006
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Live users have come to expect fingertip access to essential performance and tracking tools, but a few areas have long needed streamlining. Although Live 5 has no shortage of useful new features, it's the software's working environment improvements that stand out. Among other things, browsing and library management have been completely reworked, MIDI and audio clip editing have been significantly improved, and plug-in operation has taken a giant leap forward.

EM reviewed previous versions of Live in the June 2002, June 2003, April 2004, and December 2004 issues, so I'll devote this review to the enhancements in Live 5. But Live is significantly different from other digital audio sequencers that you may have encountered. For those unfamiliar with Live basics, I suggest reading the earlier reviews, all of which are available on www.emusician.com.

FIG. 1: Live 5 allows you to import the contents of Live Sets and the contents of standard file-tree directories on your hard drive.

Browse Awhile

Live 5's browser is organized into five pages: Live Devices (Live's built-in instruments and effects), Plug-in Devices (VST and AU plug-ins), and three Files pages. The three Files pages are for importing audio and MIDI files into Live, and because a Live set may combine files from many disparate areas of your hard drive, you'll frequently navigate through its file tree. Having more than three Files pages would be useful, but a new search function, enhancements to Live's library structure, and convenient drag-and-drop exporting have improved things significantly.

Live's factory library is located in a single folder on your hard drive, and the browser has a button to take you there immediately. The library is split into three sections: Sets, Clips, and Waveforms. The Sets section contains a variety of Live demo songs, but you can store your own Live Sets there as well. It's also a handy location for templates and other songs that you use frequently.

The Clips and Waveforms sections contain Live's MIDI and audio factory content and, as with Sets, storing your own clips and waveforms there will allow for speedier access to them. Live 5's browser now also displays and lets you navigate through shortcuts (called Aliases on the Mac). Placing shortcuts to other directories in the factory library is another way to expedite the navigation process.

The factory library is delivered in categorized archives called Live Packages, which can be installed and uninstalled individually. As in Live 4, most of the factory content is from Big Fish Audio. All Packages are included on the Live CDs and can also be downloaded from the Ableton Web site. Additionally, packages are starting to appear from third-party developers such as TrackTeam Audio (www.trackteamaudio.com).

Cliptomania

The new Live Clip format includes all clip settings, any clip envelopes that have been defined, and all effects and instrument settings for the track that's holding the clip. Saving an audio or a MIDI clip in Live Clip format is as simple as dragging it from a track in Session view to the browser. Live still uses analysis files for basic audio-clip settings, but the Live Clip format is much more comprehensive, and you can save the same audio or MIDI material with different settings in multiple Live Clip files.

Clips are automatically saved in Live Clip format as part of Live Sets. Sets can now be expanded to reveal their tracks in the browser the way standard file-tree directories are, and tracks can be further expanded to reveal the individual clips on those tracks (see Fig. 1). Any clip, track, or even a whole Live Set can be dragged into the current set. Clicking-and-dragging to an existing track that already contains devices will leave those devices unaltered, whereas clicking-and-dragging to an empty track or to an empty region in the Session view will import any devices saved with the clip.

FIG. 2: The Browse Presets button reveals all presets for a device or a device group. Use the computer keyboard''s arrow keys to step through presets.

You can import whole tracks or sets and export them (just as you can with clips) by dragging them to the browser. The beauty of that system is that you can easily create archives of matched material (for example, a collection of bass, drum, and guitar loops in a particular style, key, and tempo). In short, you can now use Live Sets as archives and song construction kits rather than having to save and reload individual clips.

Clever Devices

Live's device management has been improved in two ways: presets are now accessed from the browser, and devices can be saved in groups. At the moment, only Live's built-in devices can belong to groups, and browser preset management works only for built-in devices and most AU plug-ins (not for VST plug-ins).

Each eligible device and device group has a Browse Presets button. When you click on the button, it brings up the relevant presets in the browser (see Fig. 2). You can use the arrow keys on the computer keyboard to step through presets and use the Return key to load the selected preset. Conveniently, loading a preset does not exit browsing mode, so you can continue auditioning presets until you find one that you like.

Ableton has added a much requested MIDI arpeggiator and five new audio devices (Beat Repeat, Phaser, Flanger, Auto Pan, and Saturator). In addition to Converge, Diverge, and three random modes, the arpeggiator offers ten variations on up and down. My favorites, the Pinky and Thumb modes, repeat the top or the bottom note, respectively, while arpeggiating the rest. In addition to controlling rate and note duration, you can make the pattern automatically transpose as many as eight times in steps ranging from a semitone to an octave, and transposition can be scale corrected to any major or minor key. Velocity decay and automatic retriggering round out the arpeggiator's controls.

Hold That Beat

Beat Repeat is the most interesting of the new audio effects; it grabs chunks of audio and repeats them. You can control the interval between chunks, the location within that interval from which Beat Repeat grabs the chunk, how large a chunk it grabs (which can be randomized), and for how long the chunk is repeated. The chunks can be pitch-shifted as they repeat and can be automatically pitch bent over time. The output can be a mix of the input and the processed audio, the processed audio only, or the input with processed audio inserted as it occurs.

Beat Repeat can be used with a variety of material, not just percussion as the name might suggest. Web Clip 1, for example, uses Beat Repeat to process an arpeggiator's output.

Live's Simpler and Operator software instruments have also been upgraded, fulfilling a number of user requests. Simpler now has separate filter, amplifier, and pitch envelopes. The LFO has an attack control for fading it in, and it can be applied to pan for tremolo effects. Glide, portamento, and stereo spread controls have also been added. Operator has gained a couple of retro waveforms, and the LFO can now be routed to filter cutoff. Best of all, you can copy and paste Operator envelope and oscillator settings.

In Session

Live's Arrangement and Session editors have not been left out in this upgrade. You can now select multiple clips and edit their common parameters, such as trigger mode, Follow Action, transpose, level, and Warp mode settings. You'll appreciate that addition after you've tediously made the same change to 20 clips individually.

Clips can be temporarily deactivated, letting you toggle them out of Arrangements or Scenes without removing them. Notes can be individually muted in MIDI clips.

A new Warp mode for audio clips, called Complex, can warp mixed media clips when none of the other modes produce satisfactory results. Complex mode is useful, for example, for warping whole song sections when importing them into a new song at a different tempo. Additionally, there is a preference setting for automatically warping long audio files when they're imported. The results of automatic warping usually required some tweaking; nonetheless, it's a useful addition.

Complex mode significantly increases the CPU load, but a handy new Track Freeze function in the Arrangement view can be used to retrieve those CPU cycles. Track Freeze is also useful for reducing the load when using CPU-intensive instrument and effects groups.

FIG. 3: You can scrub audio and MIDI clips by clicking either in the clip''s waveform display or in the Arrangement. Scrubbing is looped at the current quantize setting which, in the above example, is one bar.

By Special Arrangement

Locators and intelligent scrubbing have been added to the Arrangement view. Locators can be placed on the fly, and MIDI and computer keyboard triggers can be assigned to them.

Scrubbing is looped at the current quantize setting, but when quantizing is turned off, scrubbing works in the standard way. Quantized scrubbing, which is also available in the Clip editor, is great for ferreting out problems in a single beat or measure. In a nice touch, Clip editor scrubbing of a clip selected in the Arrangement view also scrubs the arrangement from that point forward in the clip (see Fig. 3).

Stepping Up

Live 5 is a must-have upgrade. Live is about speed, and the few things that could slow you down have now been vastly improved. Live's already excellent documentation has been expanded with a 40 percent larger printed manual and more interactive lessons. Ableton has clearly been listening to its users.

If you are not a Live user and have a favorite digital audio sequencer, you may want to try Live's different approach to performance and arrangement. It may be just the thing to spark your creative juices. Live is easy to learn and integrates nicely into your current environment as a ReWire slave or master. A full-featured demo can be downloaded from the Ableton Web site.


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

PRODUCT SUMMARY

ABLETON
Live 5

digital audio sequencer
$499 (new CD)
$149 (upgrade CD)
$119 (upgrade download)

OVERALL RATING (1 THROUGH 5): 4

PROS: Completely redesigned browser. Intelligent scrubbing with quantized looping. Plug-in preset management in the browser. Launchable locators in the Arrangement view. New arpeggiator and Beat Repeat effects. Improved clip editing.

CONS: GUI setup remembered on a global rather than a per-song basis. Browser could benefit from more Files pages.

MANUFACTURER

Ableton AG
www.ableton.com

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