Ableton Live 9 review
2013/03/23 No Comments »
Does Live 9 live up to the expectations?
I’ve been playing around with Live Suite 9 for quite awhile now during the beta period, and at the time of writing this – two days after the release – I’ve installed all the Suite content I’m interested in for the moment and the latest version of LPC-Live for my Launchpad. I decided to write down some thoughts on Live’s latest incarnation and how I feel it has progressed since version 8; it can be quite hard to keep track of all your thoughts and impulses during a beta test phase, so I think it’s time for me to see if I can form a more “big picture” view of it all.
When the feature set of Live 9 was first announced, I know that a lot of people were disappointed, feeling that the really big wow factors lacked. I can understand that point of view – there are no mindblowingly awesome, flashy new devices or anything like that. We’ve gotten a new compressor and a few device upgrades, but that’s it, really. But this upgrade has been more about what’s under the bonnet than the paintjob, if you will excuse my rotten car analogy. From what I understand, the entire programme has been rewritten from the ground-up, in order to provide for important changes to the browser and to the Session view, which can now record automation. I will have a pro/con look at some of the major changes and also briefly mention what hasn’t been included in Live 9 as of yet:
THE REDESIGNED BROWSER has a new “Category” view, which lets you easily browse included content and packs, with a somewhat clever and ultra-fast preview feature. This is a very welcome change from having to use hot-swap to and load patches one by one in order to preview them. Instead, you can now simply click the patch in the browser, and a pre-rendered audio preview will play. Furthermore, the browser sorts sounds in its “browser content pane” based on folder names, instead of a tagging system in the veins of Native Instruments’ plugins (e.g. Massive, Kontakt). The three user locations from previous versions have been replaced by a section called “Places”, which houses your User Library, your included and purchased Packs, as well as any number of hard drive locations, which you can add freely.
- The preview function is really good for getting a quick idea of how a patch sounds, even though it only plays a pre-recorded note or loop (depending on the type of patch).
- The categories are nice and self-explanatory, and Ableton’s categorisation makes sense to me.
- If you want to be able to browse your hard drive from within Live’s browser, you have to let Live index your entire drive by dragging it into the “Places” section. A simple hard drive icon would be preferable to this. It’s not a big deal to me personally, as I keep all my audio content in one place, but others have complained about this.
- It’s quite a challenge getting user content to show up in the Categories section: first of all, you need to sort things into folders whose names conform to Ableton’s taxonomy, and sub-folders are currently not supported. This means that your folders must reside at specific levels within your user library and folders (e.g. “Drums” must be at the top level in your library – the folder won’t show up when you browse for drums if it’s a sub-folder in e.g. your “Samples” folder. In other words, you probably have to do some major house-cleaning in your library, which might result in missing sounds when you open previous projects.
- You cannot use folder names as makeshift “tagging” – only the folder names used by Ableton will serve as subcategories. This means that “Guitar and Plucked” will work as a subcategory, but “Slartibartfast” – or whatever you choose – will not, nor will a sub-folder within “Guitar and Plucked.” This seems pretty half-arsed on Ableton’s part.
- User-added content lacks the preview function. This is because the preview is simply a rendered audio file. A feature to allow the user to optionally render a preview file when adding new content to the browser has been suggested in the beta forum, and Ableton apparently liked the idea. We’ll see what the future holds.
- The “Clips” and “Samples” folders in the Category view simply list all clips or samples in the library, respectively. It’s quite meaningless to have an enormous list of alphabetised samples.
SESSION VIEW: Session Automation is a gigantic leap forward, and is the implementation of one of the most wanted features over the last years. The inability to record automation into clips has been a bit of a workflow killer and source of confusion, so it is a very welcome addition, indeed, and makes Live’s primary function (Session view) more or less complete. I and many others are a bit puzzled by the fact that the “Follow Actions” section in individual clip settings hasn’t been augmented with a “Play clip from start to end, followed by (X)” function. This means that if you want to e.g. launch an individual track’s clips in an automatic sequence (i.e. when one clip ends, play “next/first/last/previous”), you still have to painstakingly specify each clip’s length in bars and beats. An annoying omission.
MIDI AND AUTOMATION EDITING: There have been many small changes in this area, included curved automation, simplified automation envelope editing and some changes in MIDI clip editing.
- Curved automation is accessed by pressing alt while dragging the line between two breakpoints. This is great for creating smoother automation ramps.
- Single-click breakpoint addition and removal. This takes some getting used to, but I find it a lot more precise than double-clicking to add or remove breakpoints. There is a certain “hot-zone” around the envelope in which you select the entire envelope when you click; when you get close enough to the envelope, a click will add a breakpoint instead. It’s more important than ever that the skin you’re using is non-ambiguous. Personally, as a colour vision impaired user, I find it somewhat hard to see the tiny blue dummy breakpoints when you hover over the red automation line.
- Editing MIDI notes in clips has been changed so that dragging a note carefully to the left or right “delays” its snap-to-grid behaviour, presumably to let you add some manual swing/groove without deactivating snapping. This is a strange feature to me, as pressing and holding ALT while you drag the note turns off the grid momentarily, as it has always done. This is a classic example of trying to fix something that wasn’t really broken, and it seems that Ableton are finally reconsidering this feature, based on a quite negative reception on the beta forum. There are also some other minor additions, such as “MIDI stretch markers” (similar to the familiar audio warp markers), which is a feature for “[scaling] notes proportionally in time” – one I’ve found zero use for yet, and a new transpose box, which mysteriously is NOT available when multiple clips are selected, but instead only works on selected notes in a single clip. This baffles me, as note transposition on a per-clip basis has always been as simple as selecting the notes and dragging them up/down or using the up/down arrow keys.
- AUDIO TO MIDI: This is a cool addition that converts audio files to MIDI notes as “harmony,” “melody” or “drums” – with varying degrees of success, depending on the complexity and accuracy of the audio material – similarly to Celemony’s dedicated Melodyne software. I tried it out briefly during the beta, and this can come in handy for quickly humming or whistling a tune and instantly have it available as a MIDI sequence, or for grabbing drum/groove patterns or chords from recorded music.
- DEFAULT TRACKS: This is a welcome time-saver, which lets you set up a MIDI or audio track as a template for all new tracks, meaning you can have default levels for the volume fader and send effects, as well as any devices you’d like on every new track you create – such as the Track Control effect rack I’ve posted earlier 😉
DEVICE CHANGES: The new Glue Compressor is (yet another) analogue-modelled compressor, originally developed by Cytomic. It’s a nice addition to Live’s arsenal, but any seasoned user probably has a plethora of third-party alternatives readily available. Some of the old devices have had minor changes and improvements, including spectrum/level displays and improved processing for Compressor, EQ Eight and Gate.
- INCLUDED CONTENT: While the library has been updated, there isn’t any earth-shattering change to the standard edition: you get some downloadable Packs of patches and audio material. The Suite edition, however, is another matter. You get pleeeenty of your giga-mo-byte Pack action, including Ableton’s Orchestral packs and Session Drums, plus a lot of varied and inspirational audio material, out of which a lot is drum centric. Last, but not least: Max for Live is now a part of Suite, and opens up a whole new dimension of opportunities. I’m not going into detail on Max for Live, but you can find more info here, and of course there are heaps of user-created stuff at Maxforlive.com.
WHAT’S MISSING? Well, there will always be left-out features, changes that weren’t made and the inevitable comparison to other DAW’s. There are a couple of things that baffle me:
- Multiple monitor support This has been requested for a long time, and was among the most commented and supported requests in the beta forum. Live is first and foremost a performance application. That’s how it started, anyway. But when Ableton took the plunge several versions ago and turned Live into a full-fledged DAW with MIDI sequencing capabilities, it was also a studio tool. This means that the argument for a single display is no longer valid. In the studio, some users prefer the dual monitor setup, and this should be recognised by Ableton. Granted, a lot of users are perfectly happy with simply tossing all their VST displays onto that second monitor, but it would make a lot of sense to allow Live’s own GUI
to be split up in different ways, to allow the user to decide for herself how to best utilise the available screen space. I’m still hoping for a “fluid” and modular display that lets you resize and reorder the various sections however you want, including splitting the view to keep one part on a second monitor. This isn’t a huge deal for me any longer, but I still think it should be implemented.
- Mo’ macros! Also a highly popular feature request: allow the user to add more “macro” knobs to Instrument Racks, available for Instant Mapping. Why they’re still adhering to the rigid “philosophy of eight” is beyond me. Yes, eight is a nice number that goes well with plenty of MIDI controllers and traditional devices, but it’s time to let users decide for themselves how to set things up, rather than having to work around unnecessary constrictions.
- Speaking of which: a proper GUI-based extensive mapping feature is way overdue. Ableton should completely overhaul the “User Remote Scripts,” which is a feature that’s buried deep inside the AppData folder in Windows, and make this accessible and easily understandable to the average user.
- A few basic MIDI editing tools, like the ability to transpose several tracks at once, are also still absent. I cannot understand how Ableton could rewrite the entire application and neglect things like this.
- Live still lacks surround audio support. To me, Live is absolutely great for scoring to video, and even for foley and sound effects, its no nonsense barebones video feature is great. If you want to mix surround sound, you have to export stems or rewire to another programme. A DAW with video support in 2013 needs a surround solution. I’ve been tempted to purchase Reaper for its surround capabilities, but I really want to be able to do everything in one programme.
- Audio editing. Live still doesn’t have any way to do destructive edits to your audio files (which sounds a lot more draconic than it actually is). You have to do your edits in an external application, which is fine for more complicated tasks, but basic editing tools should be doable “in-house.” The most pressing issue to me personally is a way to dynamically chop long audio files into smaller segments and have them stored as multiple files. This is typically something you’d want when you’ve frozen/flattened a track: you’re left with a file that spans the track from its first to its last activity. If you’ve got several clips laid out in your arrangement, with silent parts in between, it would be extremely helpful if you could trim and split the huge file into smaller sections (i.e. getting rid of the silent parts, but keep the smaller files laid out in arrangement). This is a topic that deserves more attention than a list item here, though, so I’ll have to get back to that.
CONCLUSION: Live9 was probably meant to finally put a definitive end to all the problems that emerged with Live 8 (which has been more or less constantly patched since its release through the first half of 2012) – a sort of Phoenix to rise from the ashes (that’s a ridiculous metaphor, by the way) – but has not been able to do so convincingly. The browser needed a change, but I’m not sure it has gotten the change it needed. The lack of any real change in the GUI department reeks of a stagnated product: yes, I love Live’s no-nonsense interface, and I don’t want to see it turned into an epilepsy-fest a la Reason, but the interface needs to depart from its rigid layout; it needs to be user-adjustable and fluid. We should be able to move sections around, have the device chain scroll vertically on a second monitor, drag and drop sections, move the browser to the right side, zoom the interface without having to go via the preferences and so on. I was disappointed to see that a complete re-write did not prompt any change here. I am not sure if Ableton have been scared into pushing the release, in order to stay ahead of the emerging competition from Bitwig, but unless this means that major changes can be brought forth in free 9.X updates, there is no excuse for releasing a half-baked product. To me, it seems like Ableton have been a little too focussed on Push integration and enhancing the browser for their own content, and forgotten that there are users who create their own patches and use third party controllers. Overall, I really like Live 9 and particularly the Suite content – it’s just that I don’t know if 9.0, objectively, contains enough changes to warrant a full upgrade (price). One thing’s for sure: Ableton will need to consider their next steps carefully; with a copycat rival that seems to aim at implementing all feature requests that have been neglected in Live (yes, I’m talking about Bitwig), Ableton can’t expect “loyal” users to keep throwing money at them. The imminent release of Bitwig has seriously upped the ante.
If you have any thoughts on Live 9 – what’s good, what’s bad and what’s missing, feel free to share them in the comment section below!