The whip-smart team at Ableton have finally released the long-awaited update to their sequencing, composition, and performance DAW, Live 9. New feature-sets include 64-bit support, Session View automation (with curves), easy audio- to-MIDI conversion, enhanced effects, a slick new browser, and tons of other workflow enhancements over Live 8 [Tape Op #72]. Ableton have also introduced Push, an innovative controller/instrument platform designed specifically for idea and song creation from scratch. We haven't gotten our grubby hands on Push yet, but hope to have a review unit soon.
There are three flavors of Live: Suite, Standard, and Intro. Depending on what product you are upgrading from (or to), the upgrade pricing schema can be a bit complex. Ultimately, it is similar to previous upgrades in relative cost. If you log in to Ableton's newly redesigned website, it presents you with a number of upgrade paths, many of which have detailed comparison sheets and customized pricing based on the licenses associated with your account. The least expensive downloadable upgrade will run existing Live 8 users around $240. For first-time users jumping into Live, an Intro version with a limited feature-set is available for only $99, and there are Standard and Suite versions available for $450 and $750, respectively. Suite is also available as a 30-day demo, and a number of add-ons are available à la carte for Standard, like Max for Live [Tape Op #76], which comes bundled with Suite. Live 8 was released in 2009, so for me, this upgrade is definitely well worth the relatively small cost. And I do appreciate the effort put in by Ableton to make their web- store experience painless - the user-experience of the new site is killer. But enough about all of that - on to the shiny new stuff! This isn't a comprehensive analysis of every single bell and whistle, but I'll try to outline a few of the new features and refinements that really stood out to me.
Right out of the box, I had a lot of fun with the audio-to- MIDI conversion features. Basically, you can extract musical information from any audio clip, and Live will quickly convert it into a MIDI clip on a new track with an instrument voicing assigned to it. When you right or control-click on any clip in the Session, Arrangement, or Clip view (or in the browser), you are presented with three options - Convert Harmony, Melody, or Drums to New MIDI Track - each of which analyzes the pitch and timing of the notes (as well as the timbre for Drums to MIDI) within the audio clip. You can also drag-and-drop audio clips to existing MIDI tracks, and if the track already contains at least one device, a dialog box opens, asking you which of the three types of audio material you are trying to convert to MIDI. Convert to Melody generally works best with monophonic material, and polyphonic source material is best served by the Convert to Harmony selection, but I have had sonically interesting results from mixing and matching the two. The conversion isn't always perfect, and your mileage may vary depending on the source material, but Ableton has some great tips and tricks on their website for using these new conversion tools. Converting stale drum loops with the Convert Drums to MIDI feature instantly expanded my sample library's potential by a factor of "Holy Crap!", and having worked with a number of non-musically adept artists, having the ability to hum a melody into a mic and then instantly turn that into a warpable synth or string lead is really cool - and timesaving. (Who hasn't waited around for the singer to pluck the right notes out on a keyboard?) Other DAWs offer audio-to-MIDI conversion, but Ableton has once again set a gold standard for ease of use and efficiency with this feature. Plus, it's really fun to "break" the feature in compelling and creative ways. Remix engineers, songwriters - you need this! It's actually kind of scary when you extrapolate how this could be abused - stealing classic vocal melodies and folding them into an otherwise crappy song as pitch-perfect keys, for example. Remember, with great production power comes great production responsibility! Any tool can be a force of good or a force of evil in the studio.
Many of the refinements in Live 9 are thoughtful re- imaginings of features present since version 1. The best example of this is the browser, which has been redesigned to provide a clearer overview of your devices, presets, sounds, plug-ins, and directories. The browser sidebar is now organized into Categories and Places. The Categories browser dynamically catalogs all items of a given type, regardless of where they are in your library - think instruments, samples, plug-ins, effects, etc. - whereas Places shows you the contents of folders on your hard drives. Places are customizable; you use it when you want to access a particular source such as a folder you've added or an add-on third-party Pack. I also like being able to add my external drives to Places, as well as subfolders of oft- used samples.
Another cool browser addition is that the Preview Tab now previews Live's included instrument presets (in addition to samples and clips). When you select a factory preset, you'll hear a short audio sample of it. Unfortunately, this preview feature does not work with third-party Packs or plug-ins; but combined with the other browser enhancements, it is extremely useful in making informed choices without having to load the full instrument or rack every time you want to audition it against your track or arrangement.
I'll quickly mention a few other awesome features in Live 9. Session View automation can be recorded in both audio and MIDI clips. Automation envelopes appear within the clip's Envelopes box, just like manually modulated clip envelopes. And Live finally has breakpoint curves available in all envelopes (just hold down Alt/Option when drawing curves). Additionally, there are enhancements to MIDI editing (MIDI note stretch and reverse led me to a number of new ways to iterate some of my melodies); plus a new contextual command for Arrangement material called Consolidate Time to New Scene, which makes it super easy to select and collect material in the Arrangement view and then drop in back into the Session view as a new scene - a sort of super-grouping- meets-remix feature. Many of the built-in effects have incredible new changes, including in-window spectral analysis plus per-band soloing in the EQ Eight effect and a well- designed graphic activity monitor within Compressor and Gate. The new Glue Compressor is styled after the famous super-fast SSL bus compression sound and is really well-executed, adding a lot of even openness to the master bus. Unlike some other common bus compression plug-ins, it doesn't have that annoying "clamped-down transients" quality.
All in all, there are tons of new and creative ways to interact with audio and effects in Live 9, as well as a number of workflow changes that could yield huge time savings for remixers, sound designers, or engineers. Of course, I'll still find minor things to gripe about, like the lack of detailed waveform editing (I don't like having to rely on external tools for detailed edits), but overall, Live continues to once again boldly go where no DAW has gone before. We look forward to reviewing Live 9's integration with the Push hardware - hopefully with less nerdy Star Trek references.