In October 2001, Ableton released one of the first software applications designed specifically for live performance, Live 1.0. Now, with the imminent release of 1.5 and notable performance enhancements, Ableton is hoping to show the world what can be accomplished by their lean, green, “sequencing-instrument” software. And just what is a “sequencing instrument”? Well, I'll tell you, but first I should say what it's not. Live 1.0 is not a traditional sequencer with MIDI Out capability or piano roll-style editing. And it is definitely not a software-based sampler, although it can act a little like one. Instead, Live 1.0 is an original. It bolsters sample (.WAV or .AIFF) playback and is the kind of live performance tool fans of Sonic Foundry's Acid and Propellerhead's Reason have been waiting for. Live can synchronize loops in terms of tempo or pitch, play one-shot or looped samples, edit those samples, add cool effects (even VST), record new audio into your performance and synchronize that audio with the project tempo. Better yet, all of your triggering, recording and other sonic exploration are recorded for later Acid-style editing, rendering to other applications (new in Version 1.5) or for the encore to your show. Of course, Ableton encourages you to try out Live 1.0 live onstage, but before we are so bold (because we've all cut our teeth on MIDI), let's get things working at home first.
Minimum system requirements for Live include a Mac G3 or faster with 128MB RAM, CD-ROM drive, Mac OS 9.04 or later, monitor with 800×600 resolution, 256 colors and OMS 2.3.8 or later. And for PC: 400 MHz, 128MB RAM, CD-ROM drive, Windows 95, 98, NT4.0/2000XP, monitor with 800×600 resolution, 256 colors, and a sound card with Direct X or ASIO drivers preferred. After installing the program on a Mac or PC, Live greets you with an authorization (copy-protection) screen prompting you for a response code and providing individual serial and challenge codes particular to your machine. You can obtain this code via Ableton's Website (www.ableton.com) or by contacting the company by phone, e-mail or fax within a several-day grace period. I should point out that the license is per machine, so if you want to install your version on a second computer and wish to obtain a second response code, the charge is $175 (vs. the original price of $299). Also, check Ableton's “Download” page and fetch the most recent upgrade. And, while we were unable to test Version 1.5 (available April 2002), it is rumored to contain several marked improvements including a new reverb effect, render-to-disk functionality, and improved compatibility with Cubase, Logic, Reason and Digital Performer. Live 1.1, the version used for this review, can run on OS 9, OS X and Windows.
LET IT FLOW
Once the program is registered, the screen will vanish and you will encounter the program's very tidy and extremely green frame-like interface. If you're not into the green motif, no worries; Ableton supplies a few extra skins (I like the orange one), and I imagine more are on their way. There are two main screens in Live: a Session view and an Arrange view, though there are several sub screens and tabs that include a sample browser, the Ableton plug-ins and your own VST plug-ins (which need to be copied into Ableton's VST plug-in folder). At the bottom of the screen, you may chain as many of these plug-ins as your computer can handle. They can be inserted pre- or post-fader, on up to four aux buses per channel, or the master mix.
The Arrange view is the live recording/editing segment of Live and looks a little like Sonic Foundry's Acid Pro or even Cakewalk's Sonar. But unlike those two programs, Live is built for live performance or, at the very least, live arranging/remixing. To do this, most of your time will be spent in the grid-like Session view where the vertical columns represent channels, complete with a stereo mixer, and horizontal rows that allow you to organize your musical arrangement. Looped or one-shot samples can be dragged from the Live Explorer window and dropped into the vertical columns that represent mixer channels. All samples can be individually triggered or re-triggered (via mouse, keyboard keypad or MIDI keyboard). Entire rows of samples (also called a scene) can also be played at once to form musical sections and add structure to the piece at hand.
To test the overall musicality of Live, I loaded up a batch of pre-cut loops from a Sonic Foundry Loops For Acid CD (www.sonicfoundry.com). Live can handle 16- and 24-bit .WAV and .AIFF files, but unfortunately, no MP3s (at least not yet). Once you have a set of samples you like, Live can save these samples to load with the corresponding “Set” by saving the session as a self-contained project. This makes a copy of each sample in a folder automatically given the song's title — a well-thought out file-management tool! Next, I distributed a good mix of loops around Live's Session matrix and clicked on the right-hand row marker and, voilá, orchestration. All of the loops commenced at the same time and tempo. The synth bass and drum loops, which were previously not in sync, played perfectly in time together at 130 bpm, Live's default tempo setting. As I adjusted Live's project tempo, and the loops slowed down in real time, the overall sound quality was excellent. Also, Live allows for real-time transient editing to adjust how loops feel or how they are interpreted by the software time engine. This means that Live can put a snare that was originally played on the 2 on the 3, etc. And with one mouse click, you can make Live play a given loop at double, half or quadruple the speed of the original tempo. One negative, at least for this version, is that Live won't allow you to turn off this transient detection, allowing for the occasionally undesirable natural playback (sans pitch correction).
Compared to Sonic Foundry's Acid Pro 2.0, Live does sound better in terms of its ability to slow down loops. I found that a groove recorded at 120 bpm could be slowed to about 100 bpm before any transient shaping (aka, sonic degradation) could be detected. Keep in mind that Live can also alter the loop's pitch independent of tempo. You owe it to yourself to download the demo and try playing your favorite synthesizer loop against itself, de-tuned by a few cents. Live can re-pitch a loop ±36 semitones (half steps) or three octaves. The fine-tune range is ±50 cents.
LEARN TO LIVE
While Live's screen size and windows are fairly set, even downright stingy at times, you can configure MIDI and even keyboard key commands to trigger samples, adjust parameters (like EFX send) and change volume. Version 1.5 promises to respond to controller boxes with “endless knobs” or motor faders to control Live in their own customizable way. I loved how Live can do this customization without arresting audio playback. You can assign a sample to a key by simply pressing the MIDI button (upper right-hand corner), selecting the desired sample with the mouse cursor and then playing the corresponding key, all while Live is playing. This is a great feature for bold laptop jammers who need to make changes on-the-fly. MIDI controls also can be mapped and re-mapped as much as you like, even within the same tune without you thinking about pausing the groove. Also cool is that the function keys act as channel mutes, so if you want to drop out the bass line or aux percussion section, you can do so quickly by pressing F1, F2, etc.
With Live's quantize setting on the whole-note setting, I found it easy to “play” or trigger row one, then row two, and back again while playing individual (one-shot) samples on top of the groove. I should point out that I first had to adjust Live's latency settings (in Live's preferences) to ensure that the samples triggered were performance-accurate. While the analog Live manual does have a few holes (like the sparse index), this latency procedure is documented in step-by-step detail. Luckily for us, Ableton has also added a handy, integrated (and easy to hide) Info window that flashes explanations about each icon, button or control the mouse moves over. Hey, learn while you rock!
LAPTOP LOOP SHOP
Still not sold on the idea of Live loop music? Okay, check out the included effects. Each is automatable and, I'll say it again, innovative. Of course, you can continue to exploit any of your favorite VST plug-ins by simply copying them to Live's VST folder, but you'll be hard-pressed to find such cool-sounding delays (there are four: filter delay, pingpong delay, grain delay and simple delay), along with well-designed sonic degradation effects, for less than the cost of this software package. Also included in the batch are a pretty good EQ, chorus and a tidy compressor. Additionally, Live 1.5 adds a new rich and lovely reverb to this group of 10.
Live's effects can be inserted pre- or post-channel (fader), assigned to an aux bus or applied to the overall (master) mix. This can be done smoothly during playback or in the editing pro-cess. Note: Ableton recommends testing all foreign VST plug-ins at home first in a variety of situations (before you drop them in at the gig) because of the wide range of developers, applications and situations beyond Ableton's control and testing budget. (I should point out in the name of VST that Live does not really support VST instruments. Though I was able to call them up and even play them within a song, you cannot create editable MIDI tracks nor save any VST instrument settings.)
One application that does work well with Live is Propellerhead's Reason. If you open Live first and then fire up Reason, you can use the ReWire software-based interface to route Reason's virtual channels through Live's mixer. Not only is this a great way to record and edit your Reason tunes, but it is a clever method for using VST effects (something Reason can't do yet), Ableton's own track/effect automation and even record your own audio tracks for your Reason compositions. Keep in mind that running both programs can be processor-intensive. You may need to beef up your computer's RAM or upgrade your processor. To give you some idea, my 800MHz Athlon could barely keep up. This, too, is supposed to be improved in Version 1.5, which also promises that Live will be able to run as a MIDI sync master or client (slave). This could make Live the perfect partner for Logic or Cubase MIDI projects in need of synchronized loops.
So, who would have guessed that laptop computers would migrate from the briefcases of the business world and into the clutches of musicians? It seems like that only a couple of years ago, I was upgrading my desktop with a faster processor, adding more RAM and installing a third hard drive, only to find that by the time I got home, the price had dropped. Now, for less than a $1,000, you can get into a PC laptop or Powerbook Ableton Live 1.0 Software and take your show on the road. So whether you are creating loop-based remixes or looking to add live audio tracks to your latest Reason jam, you owe it to yourself to at least check out the Live 1.0 demo. After a test drive, you just may agree that Live is one of those special applications that doesn't exactly fall into a category like “digital audio workstation” or “software synthesizer,” but is better understood when described as next-generation software with state-of-the-art tempo matching and an inspiring group of effects, created with the performing artist in mind.
Former Seattle multitasker Dave Hill Jr. is composing, drumming and writing in New York City. He is a regular contributor to Remix, Mix and Modern Drummer. Please seewww.bannervision.com/davehillfor more information.