When the first version of Ableton Live hit the shelves in 2001, it instantly found a hardcore audience of music makers desperate for a flexible arranging tool with an emphasis on playful experimentation. Today, with version 4's addition of MIDI and virtual instrument support, Ableton Live has become an indispensable application for musicians seeking an alternative from the rigid, linear grids of traditional multitrack audio/MIDI sequencing programs like Pro Tools, Logic, Sonar and Cubase.
On paper, the technical features of Live may not come across as extremely radical. Things like loop-based sequencing, sample envelope automation, and instant time-stretching algorithms might sound novel, but chances are, these features alone won't get your heart racing with anticipation. The essential difference, the heart of what makes Live unique among it competition, is its focus on user interface and a distinctly unique philosophy on creating music.
For instance, when the first Apple Macintosh computer was released in the 80's, it caused a revolution-not because it was faster or had better programs than PCs, but because it visually organized the information in your computer in a way that was easy to understand and much more useful than the prevailing, linear command-line system. The same can be said about Ableton Live. It is an application sold very much by a "think different" philosophy.
Open up any traditional multitrack audio/MIDI program, and you'll find each feature tucked away into a separate window. You'll have a window for the mixer, audio pool, send effects, insert effects, master fader, VST instruments, and on, and on-usually totaling a dozen or more windows that you need to call up, spread around the screen, collapse, move to the back... whatever. In Ableton Live, there is only one window. Just one. The design for Live's user interface is so clean and well conceived that all of the same functions I've mentioned coexist in one sizeable window that can hide or reveal any number of features depending on your need. Anyone who has tried to operate a multi-window program on a laptop with a small screen and a poor trackpad can certainly appreciate this feature. Like anything, it takes some getting used to, but once you become comfortable with the layout, it is a very efficient interface.
As I mentioned, Ableton Live differs philosophically from its competition as well. On the whole, audio recording and sequencing programs make some assumptions about the song you'll be constructing. They will presume that before you hit the record button, you are certain what tempo you want the song to be and that you have a good notion of how you'd like the song to sound in the end. For instance, no one in their right mind would record a 130 BPM rock anthem into Pro Tools and later decide they want the recording to sound like a 90 BPM jazz ballad. It's just not done-at least not without spending the better part of an afternoon watching progress bars inch their way across your screen. You may as well just rerecord the damn song.
In the world of Ableton Live, your song's BPM can be an afterthought. The pitch, tempo, and character of everything you record can be altered drastically and non-destructively in real-time. As the name suggests, the real-time focus of Live means you will never see a crawling progress bar. In fact, no action, function, or adjustment of any sort will force your song to stop playing. You can listen to your arrangement and decide on a whim to hear what your drums sound like pitched up a semitone. There's no rendering, no waiting, no stopping your song while you try out your "crazy idea." Just click on your drum part and adjust the pitch dial, and the program instantly tweaks the pitch and intelligently stretches the audio to stay in tempo. Nothing is sacred; everything can be changed on a dime. This fundamental philosophical distinction is at the core of what Ableton Live has done since the beginning.
Up until version 4, Ableton Live still had an Achilles heel compared to its competition-it couldn't sequence MIDI. While the program had been revolutionary from the outset, it wasn't comprehensive and left users juggling between programs for their MIDI and virtual instrument needs. Not only does Live 4 finally add MIDI programming and playback ability, but as expected, it handles them in a way very unique from its competition. Like most sequencers, MIDI note information is displayed on a standard piano scroll-type grid, which can be edited note- by-note and quantized to varying fractions. MIDI note transformation functions, however, are handled by MIDI- specific plug-ins which can be dragged and dropped onto a track. Tasks such as note transposition, fit-to-scale, chord creation, and others are all controlled by a small suite of these plug-ins that can be added and configured in any way you like. This MIDI plug-in system allows the program to hold true to its emphasis on real-time manipulation and uninterrupted improvisation.
Virtual instruments have been integrated easily as well. By just dragging the VST or AU instrument you want from the browser window onto any available MIDI channel, you can begin playing right away without stopping playback. The software comes packaged with two basic, but useful virtual instruments designed by Ableton: Simpler, a sample-based ADSR style synthesizer; and Impulse, a multi-sample percussion instrument. Be warned though, that because Ableton Live draws a good deal of processor power to handle all its real-time stretching and pitching resynthesis, virtual instruments that worked fine in other sequencers (Cubase and Logic) became sluggish in Live simply because I didn't have enough processor power to spare on my 600 MHz Mac G4. On the 1.2 GHz Mac G4 I have at work, the processor problem seemed to disappear. Ableton lists the minimum system requirements as G3 (Mac) or 600 MHz PC, but if you want to take advantage of virtual instruments, VST effects, or the ability to use Rewire to run Live's output into another program, then you'll definitely need a system with more power.
Live has always been a tremendously unique and useful program. Version 4 unquestionably takes the program to another level with the inclusion of MIDI recording, sequencing and editing, along with a well thought out system for virtual instrument support. For anyone who's felt stifled by the inflexible and linear systems of most recording and sequencing software, I highly recommend downloading the Live 4 demo from Ableton's website and seeing if it clicks with you. If you already own a previous version of Live but weren't sure if the upgrade was substantial enough, it really is. A brand new boxed copy will run you about $400 street, but registered users of previous versions can get a download- only upgrade for much less. ($499 MSRP, $119-$149 for various upgrades; www.ableton.com)