“Where have you been all my life,” is not a phrase I’d normally associate with software. In fact, up until now, it’s been reserved for the moment when Destiny’s Child, Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie arrive simultaneously at my front door…bearing a platter of cold meats… but I’m making an exception for Ableton’s Live 5, which is close to being the music making application of my dreams.
Clearly I’m not the only one with this view, as, over the last couple of years, Live has not just become synonymous with, but completely redefined DJing, taking it to a level completely unobtainable with conventional hardware.
Not that Live is just a DJing app, by any means…in fact it was never even intended for DJs. Originally it was a loop based sequencing application for musicians, in the vein of Sony’s Acid. Unlike Acid, however, because it was geared to live performance (hence the name), DJs were quick to realize its potential for mixing and beat matching on the fly.
As more and more DJs heard the word, Ableton wisely embraced their needs, adding tools such as crossfaders and DJ style EQ, whilst simultaneously developing the product for musicians. Now a fully fledged Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), it is equally at home on a laptop at a club, or as the epicenter of a studio.
Various factors conspire to make Live 5 great, but above all, is its simplicity. In stark contrast to some DAWs, which have as many as nine different windows to contend with, Live has just two…the arrangement view and the session view.
The former is the classic arrangement style window you would expect to find in any common or garden DAW and to all intents and purposes, works in exactly the same way. It is the latter that gives Live its killer functionality.
The session view is laid out like a mixing desk, in which each channel strip represents either a MIDI or audio track. You can record directly to these tracks and/or drag and drop clips from the neighbouring browser window. Place more than one clip in the same track and each successive clip is stacked vertically, in its own slot, next to its own unique play button…and tempo matched…or not…it’s your choice.
Together, these buttons form a matrix. Viewed horizontally, each row is, in Live parlance, a ‘scene’, e.g. a chorus/verse/intro. Viewed vertically, each row is simply a track. Their sum is an arrangement, which can be viewed conventionally in the arrange window and played in either window.
At the far end of the mixing desk, is the master channel, which has its own set of labelable buttons. Click one and all of the play buttons in the corresponding horizontal row will be triggered.
Now imagine you are playing live…live… Your arrangement reaches a chorus, the audience are waving their gunz in the air like they just don’t care and you want to keep the vibe going. Simply click the button in the master channel, (that you previously) labeled chorus and Live continues playing the chorus until you press the return to arrangement button…or the one you’ve labeled ‘breakdown’…etc.
But that’s just the beginning… Remember the play buttons next to each individual clip? You guessed it…click one and it will takeover from whatever was previously playing in that track, allowing you to spontaneously improvise a remix, by combining, for example, the bass from the chorus, with the drums from the verse…and the new clips that you have dragged from the browser, and dropped into completely new tracks…whilst playing!
But why stop there? Why not record your remix…as you are improvising it…then convert the results into yet more clips…or view the resultant recording in the arrange window…where you can rearrange it still more….
And that’s still only part of the story, because Live ships with a comprehensive array of audio and MIDI effects, any number of which (as per processor power), can be dragged from the browser and dropped onto each track… in real time, whilst performing/remixing. Do so and they appear beneath the session window, where they can be tweaked to your heart’s content and since they are fully automated, all tweaks can also be recorded.
Naturally you can use your own plug ins, which appear in a separate tab of the browser, complete with little icons to indicate whether they are instruments or effects. Unfortunately, these icons are a little small, so personally, I would prefer there to be two separate browser tabs, one for instruments and the other for effects.
There are also a couple of bundled virtual instruments, ‘Impulse’, which is an eight channel drum sampler with numerous audio processing options and ‘Simpler’, a sampler/synthesizer hybrid (‘Sympler’, surely?), plus a demo version of Ableton’s FM, subtractive hybrid, ‘Operator’.
Click at the top of any channel strip (in its name field) and the effects/instruments assigned to that channel/track display in a window situated immediately below the session view. Click an individual clip and its MIDI/audio data and corresponding parameters such as envelopes, time stretching modes, warp tabs, etc., are displayed in the place of your virtual effects/instruments. You can toggle between these two views via two tabs in the bottom right hand corner of the screen. Although this is perfect for those with smaller screens, those of us running two 30” monitors, would appreciate the option to display both sets of data simultaneously (either side by side, or stacked horizontally on top of each other).
But that’s still only part of the story, because built into each channel strip are powerful routing options that allow you to quickly route pretty much anything…pretty much anywhere (making the use of plug-ins dead easy). Furthermore, at the bottom of each channel strip are two buttons labelled ‘A’ & ‘B’, which correspond to either side of the crossfader in the master channel, allowing you to crossfade between multiple tracks simultaneously, either with a mouse or with an external controller.
In fact all that’s missing is the ability to scratch audio (which would be at the very top of my wish list for version 6)…though I’d also quite like to see DJ style EQ integrated into each channel strip and I know that many people would like to see tighter integration with the major VJing apps.
But that said, everything about Live 5 screams buy me. Not only does it fulfill the promise of Acid…it also liberates electronic musicians from the dictates of their DAWs, allowing them to once again create electronic music the way it was traditionally created…with patterns…and from version 5.2, it’s Intel Mac compatible. I’d go so far as to suggest that Live 5 will take over the world…if I didn’t have first dibs…
More info: www.ableton.com
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