Ableton once again delivers a compelling update to their always imaginative music creation software suite, Live. Version 10 feels like an addition of significant fit, finish, and refinement to what has become a game-changing DAW. Of course, Live isn't just a DAW in the conventional sense; although it can be capably used to record audio and MIDI within (or outside of) a linear timeline, Live excels at being a platform for musical inspiration and idea generation. With the last two updates, in particular, it seems as if Ableton has focused on expanding that principle, while also building in workflow refinements that allow users to complete and deliver on those inspired ideas. In other words, Live has always helped you start cool new ideas and now includes even more smart tools, better enabling you to finish those ideas as well.
Although there are a ton of new features, in honor of the version number milestone, I'll focus on ten key aspects that have made the most significant improvements to my workflow (in no particular order). The first is a simple one; the addition of Collections to Live's browser helps keep your favorite devices, effects, .alc (Ableton Live clip) files - basically anything that is viewable within the browser - in a tidy, color-coded list that's also accessible from Ableton's Push [Tape Op #21, #97]. Although not a comprehensive contextual tagging system (à la NI's Komplete Kontrol [Tape Op #108]), the Collections "system" significantly focuses workflow. Among other techniques, I use Collections to constrain my available selections to a particular set of instruments and effects when writing new music, which helps to sharpen my attention and focus on the feel I want to obtain.
Second, the addition of a super useful new feature called Capture, which automatically grabs the last few measures of whatever you've played on your MIDI keyboard or controller, without having to press record. I can't count how many times I've paused when playing something spontaneous or inspired to hit record, only to then lose the idea (or the motivation). Capture squashes that mental bug. Now if I'm playing along with an existing session (or trying to start something new) and hit on something nice, I just press Capture after the fact and move on.
The third essential (if a bit "unsexy") addition I find myself using quite often, is the new ability to edit multiple MIDI clips simultaneously. With a quick shift-select of multiple clips, I can see the piano rolls of each clip in an editor view that allows me to gain a more comprehensive understanding of where my harmonic relationships are aligning or clashing - and it works in both the Session and Arrangement views. This enhancement is yet another way that Ableton is making editing smarter - if I want to see the relationship between a complex chord, a bass line, and the kick drum, I can shift-select the clips and adjust as needed or experiment to satisfaction.
Fourth, you can finally assign custom names to your I/O in Live's preferences. While this should have been implemented a while ago (ahem), I'm glad it's finally been added! I still wish Live could read the Core Audio driver names from MacOS - but hey, there's always Live 11.
Fifth, again, not a super shiny feature, but the tweaks to the Utility device are massive - the Bass Mono switch and frequency selector help to keep mixes clean by converting the low frequencies in your mix to mono. When inserted on the master bus, I found that having this option helped to clean up stereo imaging and added extra power to flabby mixes. It's nice to be able to quickly solo just the bass elements in a given subgroup or mix as well.
Sixth, the new Drum Buss audio effect sounds flat-out rad. A catch-all rack, featuring compression, transient shaping, harmonic distortion/coloration options, and a tunable sub-bass emphasis tool, Drum Buss is an instant go-to for drum tracks and loops. Invariably, this rack found its way on to just about every two-bus or drum subgroup I could drop it on - such an easy way to add character and punch. The "Boom" sub-bass emphasis offers a means to quickly tune a kick drum to the key of a song: the frequency knob controls the impact of the resonant low-pass filter and is measured in Hz, but the tuning display below that knob displays the corresponding MIDI note value. The dedicated Bass meter helps to keep the Boom in check and is a nice visual if you're, say, mixing away from your favorite subwoofers.
Seventh, Wavetable is a super deep (yet accessible) new virtual synth that allows for the creation of evolving multitimbral textures, sound effects, '90s' Toto-esque "cheese," ripping bass or lead instruments - it can do way more than we have space to cover in this review. With two oscillators (plus a sub-oscillator), a gaggle of flexible envelopes and LFOs, a clean and seemingly infinite modulation matrix, and an entirely new expanded view that occupies the majority of Live's window when toggled, Wavetable begs for experimentation. While wavetable synths seem to have some harsh preconceptions around their "digital" sound in some synth nerd circles (perhaps mainly due to the prevalence of the Korg Wavestation sounds of the '90s), this instrument brings wavetable synthesis into a refreshing new context (kinda like Live's Operator did for FM synthesis before it).
Eighth is Echo. Live's built-in delays always struck me as a bit "vanilla" until paired or grouped with other devices. Echo is the badass delay unit I didn't realize I needed in Live, until now. Echo has replaced just about every instance of the older (included) ping-pong delay in my Live sets. To my ears, Echo has far more organic vibe and atmosphere than any of Ableton's previous included delay devices. It certainly has more options too, with the ability to clip input signals (emulating analog delay behavior), and tons of modulation and sound shaping opportunities - low CPU footprint too!
Ninth, improvements to the GUI bring a cleaner look to Live overall, most notably on my Retina MacBook Pro. Every aspect of the interface looks sharper and easier to read, and there are fresh new skins to get your custom "look" on. Tons of Arrangement view editing enhancements are another bonus.
Tenth, but not least, are the multitude of improvements to Ableton's controller/instrument Push 2 [Tape Op #115], including some incredibly helpful visualizations workflow enhancements for EQ Eight, MIDI clips/notes, Compressor (real-time gain reduction visuals!), as well as new sequencing and pad layouts. No joke: my Push 2 felt like a new instrument after the update.
Are we at ten highlights already? I didn't even get to new free Live Packs (or the clever new built-in "store-within-the-browser" for said Packs. As a Live user since version one in the early 2000s, I'm particularly heartened by the last two thoughtful and mature updates from Ableton. Not only is Live here to stay, but it clearly keeps getting better with age.