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Ableton Live 7 Suite

January 5, 2010
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Screen shot of Ableton Live 7

Ableton has really shown itself to be, well, able. Those übercreative and hard-working Germans are back with the revamped and re-energized Live 7 Suite, which keeps Live on the cutting edge of technological advancement and user demand without sacrificing its intuitive nature and flexibility. As with previous versions, Ableton ran a massive beta testing campaign that enlisted enthusiasts to fine-tune what was already a major upgrade to Live's core. With Live 7, Ableton rebuts any naysayers' complaints about fidelity, accuracy or other qualitative points in previous versions. With a revamped audio engine, improved MIDI timing, jitter reduction, dithering and 64-bit summing, Live 7 is all about sound quality; every user should notice a marked increase in clarity, even with old sessions. Also on hand are some hot new instruments, updated devices, expanded sound banks and other user-requested features.

I tested Live 7 Suite — which includes Live 7; the Operator, Sampler, Analog, Electric and Tension instruments; and the Essential Instrument Collection 2 (EIC2), Session Drums and Drum Machines sound libraries — on a MacBook Pro 2.2 GHz Intel Core Duo with 2 GB of RAM running OS 10.4.10. Many users have reported speed gains of up to 10 percent using the newer OS 10.5 Leopard, and Live 7 is also compatible with Windows XP and Vista. Installation was a snap; once the installer was complete, it auto-checked Ableton's Website for updates and took me directly to the download page for version 7.0.1. Authentication is achieved through the use of a challenge/response system.

GET THE FACTS ON YOUR AUDIO

The name of the game in Live 7 is accuracy. Ableton spent much of its upgrade efforts improving the audio and MIDI engines. In the process, the company carefully tested and analyzed Live's fundamental performance. This data is presented in the new audio and MIDI “fact sheets” delineating which actions are “neutral operations” (causing absolutely no change in the data) and which are not. Although Live's internal audio system operates at 32-bit resolution, the new engine uses double-precision 64-bit summing at all points where signals are mixed, offering nearly neutral operation at the Master track, all clip/return track inputs and summing points inside Racks. Other verifiably neutral operations (zero change to the incoming signal) include un-dithered rendering to disk at 32 bits, un-stretched warping (where Warp is on but the clip's bpm matches the session's), bypassed effects, internal signal routing and split clips.

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The included MIDI fact sheet is enlightening. Ableton clearly put a lot of effort into improving the overall timing accuracy and reducing Live's internal jitter. I definitely noticed a subjectively tighter feel when auditioning MIDI clips from version 6, and virtual instruments tracked more tightly even with complex automation. Also, MIDI input recording to clips is more accurate, especially at high levels of CPU usage. Live 7's new memory management scheme seems to be successful as well; I definitely noticed complex Sampler banks loading faster than before, patch changes happening in less time and each virtual instrument instance tapping the processor a little less than in version 6.

SLICE IT AND PUT IT ON THE RACK

The one new instrument included with the Live 7 basic install is the incredible Drum Rack, a device so powerful it deserves its own review. Initially resembling an MPC-style interface with 16 “pads” arranged in a square, it can get a lot more intense. Each pad is really a Chain that can hold any number of instruments, effects, presets or even whole, nested Racks. Running vertically along the right-hand side of the pads, a small graphic overview shows all 128 MIDI notes, each representing its associated pad. Click anywhere on the overview to edit nearby pads; the handy overview uses gray dots for empty slots and black dots for those in use — very easy to comprehend at a glance. With 128 Chains in a Drum Rack and infinite nesting possibilities, there is no limit to the potential complexity.

Each Drum Rack has an internal mixing system with volume, pan, mute/solo, MIDI input filtering, output assign, Choke Groups and even internal effects sends for each Chain. In Live's Session view, a Drum Rack's track can “open” to reveal a vertical track for each Chain. Chains can be hot-swapped from others in the Library, and there is a handy Auto-Select that keeps currently active chains visible for editing amid the masses. Dragging one pad onto another will swap Chains with that pad directly — fun for moving samples around while a MIDI drum loop plays. You can drop Clips from the Session view, Arrangement view or the browser onto a pad; Ableton will create a Simpler instrument on that Chain and insert the Clip into it, ready to be triggered. Dragging multiple samples will create a Pad Chain with a Simpler instrument for each.

Live 7's new Slicing feature works similarly to Reason's Dr.Rex device; it automatically divides a sample into smaller chunks in a Simpler and then drops each onto a different Pad inside a Drum Rack. Samples may be sliced according to a variety of beat resolutions or according to the Clip's Warp Markers (if there are any). Once sliced and auto-placed, Ableton creates a MIDI clip for the track that is loaded with chromatically ascending MIDI notes; when triggered, it will play back the original Clip sounding intact. But once you start to move those notes around or replay them with a MIDI controller, the rules change completely. Beat producers and remixers, now is the time to rejoice.

EMULATION IS FLATTERY

Ableton connected with physical modeling trailblazers Applied Acoustics Systems (AAS) to translate some of AAS' best work into three powerful new emulation-based instruments for Live: Analog, Electric and Tension. Each is sold separately as an add-on to Live 7 for $159 each or are all included in the Live 7 Suite.

Analog is a detailed classic synth emulation based on a physical model of subtractive synthesis techniques — mathematical equations describing how physical circuits function. It uses no samples or wavetables, which creates an alias-free atmosphere; sweeps of all kinds sound flawless and clean. Two oscillators, a noise generator, two multimode filters routed to two amplifiers with ADSR envelopes for each, two LFOs and a rich Global section make Analog ripe for synth heads. I was truly impressed with its level of clarity and real-sounding flavor, and I'm already going to it first for synth sounds over Operator or even my favorite VSTi synths. It's my favorite of the three emulator instruments, thanks to its great sound, flexible architecture and fast interface.

Electric is a vintage electric piano emulator that again uses no samples or wavetables, relying on algorithmic reproductions of the physical behaviors of classic EPs. As someone with a lot of electric piano experience, I was excited to try Electric, and it didn't disappoint. The level of detail is impressive, with rich and adjustable models including Mallet, Tine and Damper settings; Magnetic Coil Pickup types; and Tuning/Voicing details. When played alone, it was slightly less engrossing than some sample-based EPs, but the advantages of a sample-free instrument undeniably make up for that: artifact-free tone-switching and deeply adjustable tone with reactivity well beyond what sampling can do. From classic Rhodes and Wurlitzer sounds to outlandish, unheard-of bastardizations, Electric is flexible, fun and sounds great in a mix.

Tension is the third emulator in the trio, dedicated to the re-creation of string instruments. With adjustable Excitators (two types of hammers, a pick or a bow), a String modeler, fret/finger interaction modeling, a Damper model and a modeled Soundboard with adjustable types and size, Tension should be capable of extremely realistic results. However, I thought it was the least successful of the three in this area and not nearly as realistic as Logic Studio's similar Structure instrument. Almost every preset patch sounded more like a synthesizer than the real thing, and I would choose Ableton's EIC2 string patches over Tension. However, for creating otherworldly or bizarre sounds, Tension takes the cake, with its ability to create unique attacks and sometimes unpredictable results that sound beautiful and haunting.

ONLINE EXTRA SECTION: WHO NEEDS A DRUMMER?

The Ableton Suite includes three massively rich sample banks totaling 33 GB. The incredible new Session Drums (available separately from the Suite for $179) collection alone is two whole DVD''s worth of stereo and multimic drum kits fully set up and prepared for use within Drum Racks. Presented in both 24-bit Full and 16-bit Lite versions, the kits were meticulously recorded by Chocolate Audio and arranged into detailed instruments that are easy to use and sound great. The stereo kits feature macro controls for tuning and decay, while the multimic kits have added Snare Bottom, Overhead and Room mic mixes with individual sends for each drum. Fully prepared for electronic drum kit control, each multimic kit also includes several variations on each drum and can auto-switch between related samples to cure the machine-gun effect.

Updated for Live 7, the EIC2 (available separately from the Suite for $119) has a wide spectrum of sampled instruments and presets ready for use with Live''s array of software instruments. It features Keyboards, Orchestral Strings, Brass and Woodwinds, Plucked Instruments, Mallets and selections from the Drum Machines and Session Drums sets, presented in Full and Lite versions. Also included is the killer Drum Machines (available separately from the Suite for $79), a carefully arranged group of sample sets created in partnership with sound designers Puremagnetik to emulate several classic drum machines to a T. Each Drum Machine was created inside a Drum Rack with tone controls and effects on macros and sounded sparklingly clean and great in a mix.

FREQUENCY SEE, FREQUENCY DO

In keeping with the sonic accuracy improvements, Live 7 features Spectrum, a new real-time frequency grapher for measuring and analyzing incoming audio. Settings that balance graph resolution with CPU usage help Spectrum fit happily into the Ableton scheme. You can toggle the graph into a larger view above the Devices, and when you roll your mouse over the graph, a handy position readout pops up. You can also zoom the view by clicking-and-dragging from the graph's left-hand legend. For precision mixing, Ableton couldn't have offered a better tool.

EQ Eight, Live's high-precision 8-band parametric EQ, features an expanded layout and a new 64-bit Hi-Quality mode that taxes the CPU a bit more but improves the sound quality even further — most noticeably at low frequencies or when working at high sampling rates.

Dynamic control has increased with the new-and-improved Compressor. Now with a graphical visualization of the current settings, Compressor has the previous feed-forward models (making it backward compatible with old settings), as well as a new vintage-style Feedback model and three EF (envelope follower) modes: Peak, RMS and Opto, each offering a slightly different dynamic quality. The powerful new sidechain is also the kind of quality enhancement that defines Live 7, making it possible to perform many dynamically interactive effects that were previously impossible in Live. Sidechain monitoring, detailed input filtering and Pre/Post options make Compressor very flexible.

Sidechaining is also available for the Gate and Auto-Filter — great for creating all sorts of internal triggering effects. Also, the same 64-bit High Quality modes on the EQ Eight appear on the Dynamic Tube, Saturator and Operator synth (in Live 7 Suite or as an add-on). The new External Instrument and External Effect devices allow routing to and from external units with detailed gain, phase and latency controls (in milliseconds or samples), which helps integrate Live into more complex studios.

GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT

Addressing users' needs, Ableton implemented several new functions in Live 7. Powerful Dithering options in the Render menu offer three varieties of POW-r algorithms. Live now supports time-signature changes, which are automatable in the Arrangement view like Markers or in the Session view via scene trigger labeling. The excruciatingly awesome Tempo Nudge gently adjusts the session bpm up or down momentarily to help manually sync Live to an external source on the fly — priceless for DJs. The new Multi-Lane automation lets you simultaneously view several automation curves for a single track. Live 7 also supports REX files, opening it up to masses of sound banks with the ability to use REX metadata for warping. Also, Live's rendering abilities have been expanded to include video export for saving your warped or edited video clips.

Ableton Live 7 Suite admirably extends what was already one of the production world's most groundbreaking tools. By staying abreast of current trends, in cahoots with the most talented people and in constant dialog with its users, Ableton has created the best Live yet and secured a key place in the industry.

For more on Live 7, as well as exclusive instrument demos, go to remixmag.com.

ABLETON

ABLETON LIVE 7 SUITE > $799 (DOWNLOAD), $999 (BOX), $339 (UPGRADE)

ABLETON LIVE 7 > $499 (DOWNLOAD), $599 (BOX), $119 (UPGRADE)

Pros: Improved audio and MIDI engines with overall sonic improvements throughout the program. Great new instruments and devices greatly expand the available palette. Session Drums and Drum Machines sound great.

Cons: Tension doesn't sound very realistic. No brickwall limiter device. No 64-bit mode for Compressor. Needs multitake management solution.

Contact: www.ableton.com

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

Mac: G4, G5, or Intel (recommended); 512 MB RAM (1 GB recommended); OS 10.3.9 or later

PC: 1.5 GHz; 512 MB RAM (1 GB recommended); Windows XP/Vista

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