Ableton Live is a comprehensive suite of music recording and production software for PC and Macintosh. At the time of writing, the latest version is Live 8.
Ableton is an integrated application which has many parts:
- a multitrack audio recorder and MIDI sequencer, which operates in two views - "Arrangement" and "Session"
- a whole load of synthesisers, samplers and a looper (introduced in version 8)
- many audio and MIDI effects, with heaps of presets, arranged into 'racks'
- lots of ancillary management tools, such as a key mapper, file browser, and so on
The last three are things which you find in most music production packages. They work very well in Ableton, but they are not what makes it special. The prize for that goes to the Session/Arrangement idea, which I will describe next.
Arrangement and Session views
In Arrangement view, your work looks like a normal multitrack recorder - one track per instrument, audio or MIDI clips shown in each track, and playback advances left to right along the timeline. Linear.
In Session view, things change radically. The display looks a bit like an audio mixing console, each vertical channel being one track from the Arrangement view. The resemblance is superficial, however. Each channel is cut into horizontal slices, each slice containing (or not) audio/MIDI "clips" which may either loop indefinitely or work in a "one-shot" mode. In fact, you can think of Session view as being a group of "samplers", which are linked together control-wise - but please don't confuse this analogy with the sampler instrument which exists in Ableton (it's called Simpler, in fact).
Each horizontal strip is a "scene", and you advance from scene to scene manually. You can also playback clips from different scenes at the same time - the restriction being that each channel (sampler) may only playback one of its clips at any time.
If you are used to the usual linear multitrack paradigm, this is a bit confusing at first. When I first got Live, I tried using Session view, but did all of my recording in the familiar Arrangement view. Now I am finding out the real power of Session view.
You can set up a number of patterns, of different lengths maybe, and loop them simultaneously. You can also record new clips (even adding new channels, which will become Arrangement view tracks), and it's easy to edit them to set up the loop. So, you build a palette of sound elements, and combine them in different ways. This allows you to concentrate on how they interact, while not yet dealing with the structure of your piece. As ideas evolve (and they will), you can cut, paste and play until you get what you want. This makes Ableton an effective and provocative aid to musical composition and arrangement.
Session and Arrangement are not separate - you move between them with the tab key. Once you have the clips that make up your tune, you manually trigger them in the order that you want, recording them into the Arrangement view. You can then tweak the Arrangement as you want (for instance adding fills, or other non-looping ideas) onto it. You can also copy/paste clips between Arrangement and Session view at will.
Of course, you can easily create multiple alternate arrangements from the clips as well.
If you import clips into your tune from your libraries, Ableton will attempt to warp them to your song tempo. I tend not to use this much because I like to record most of my tunes from scratch rather than remix from existing elements, but I can understand that it is a great feature for the DJ.
Instruments and Effects
Live has a huge collection of these, and they work pretty well. Not all instruments come with the basic package, some are add-on extras. The effects are very usable, and many of the presets (for example, for voice, or guitar) work very well. There doesn't seem to be too much system load, even when lots of them are stacked up on each track. Of course, you can easily use external MIDI instruments if you want to.
Looper is particularly worthy of mention - this allows you to play a pattern into Live, starting and stopping with a footswitch. Live will then figure out the tempo, and let you overdub onto it. You could pull in other samples and play them on top of your loop after if you wanted. This could be a very neat performance tool.
There is a big online culture for Live, with many people making Youtube tutorials, blogs and writeups, and some DJs even put their complete Live sets online for you to use. The manuals are quite comprehensive, and there are many tutorials included.
Ableton has gained a reputation as being a DJ tool, but in fact it is much more than that. It is really a turbo charged piece of music production software, which can equally be used for recording, songwriting, live performance and remixing. It is not cheap (though there is a Lite version) and it takes a bit of getting used to - but it is very powerful indeed. It is the kind of thing I dreamt of when I began home recording 20 years ago.