Ableton Suite 8

Ableton Suite 8 packshot

Ableton Suite 8 is 50 percent live performance instrument, 50 per cent digital audio workstation…and 50 per cent remix tool. If that sounds like 150 per cent…it is! Based around the latest release of Ableton’s now legendary ‘Live’ application, it adds into the mix no less than ten instruments and sample libraries. If you’re not already familiar with Live, either you’re an Alpha Centaurian Ostrich, or a member of Status Quo. Either way, you can familiarise yourself with what it is and does here.

So what’s new? ‘nuff stuff! Warping audio has always been at the heart of Live and not content to sit on their laurels, Ableton has introduced a brand new warping engine sporting a reworked interface featuring an enhanced ‘Beats’ mode with improved transient analysis, new transient loop & envelope controls and an improved ‘Complex Pro’ algorithm that uses Z Plane’s ‘Elastique Pro‘ for complex polyphonic material. Both algorithms offer noticeable improvements, though, having tested them with a wide range of material, I’d suggest that for extreme speed ups of complex polyphonic samples with a strong rhythmic element (aka nicking other people’s tunes for mash ups), ‘Beats’ can offer the best results.

Ableton claim its reworked warping interface is more intuitive. I agree. Not that you’ll need to use it much, as Live is extremely good at doing the dirty work for you, but where adjustments are needed, you can simply drag the Warp Markers you’ll find pinned to your sample, along a fixed timeline.

If you zoom in (using a simple click and drag) you’ll see mini markers denoting the location of the transients. Mousing over these creates a pseudo ‘Warp Marker’, which can be double clicked or dragged to create a real one.

Another headline feature is Live’s new Groove Engine. Clicking the library button displays the grooves folder, which contains ten sub folders full of grooves. Drag one onto your (audio or MIDI) clip and like so many thing in Live, et voilà. You can even extract your own grooves by right clicking on an audio or MIDI clip and selecting ‘Extract Groove(s)’. All grooves used in your set, appear in the Groove Pool, which offers opportunities for further manipulation. The kicker is that rather than just offer their own grooves, Ableton have included all of the grooves from Logic, Notator (which made me glow with the warm haze of nostalgia), the SP1200 and…wait for it…Akai’s MPC! This is serious news for anyone working within the realms of hip hop. Pair Live/Suite 8 with a control surface offering 12 or 16 drum pads and you’ll only be a pistol whipping away from triple platinum…dawg.

According to Ableton, one of the most requested features for Live has been a looper, so they’ve created one that is characteristically simple to use, yet which offers advanced functionality including endless overdubs, remote operation with a footswitch and automatic sync between multiple loopers. Best of all, dragging and dropping your loops into the clip view automatically creates clips and vice versa, though, somewhat annoyingly, reversals and pitch alterations do not get carried across when you do this. Expect to see laptops running Live at the feet of every solo performer in a pub near you soon.

Six other new effects are also included, chief amongst which must be the one that has been most conspicuously absent for the longest time…a vocoder. Offering 40 mono/stereo bands, a carrier that can take an audio feed from anywhere in live, use an internal noise generator, a monophonic pitch tracker or the modulator itself (for self vocoding) and an interesting variety of other controls including a knob for changing the frequency range of the filter bank, this is not your mamma’s vocoder!

Next up comes ‘Multiband Dynamics’, which in addition to offering excellent multiband compression, includes some nicely funked up effects such as ‘Broken Antenna’ (a few more of which wouldn’t go amiss).

‘Frequency Shifter’ combines frequency shifting and ring modulation (for all the budding Dalek impersonators out there). ‘Limiter’ offers brick wall limiting and ‘Overdrive’ apparently ‘models the circuits found in legendary stompboxes,’ though quite which stompboxes are a mystery to me, since there are absolutely no clues. Nevertheless, it does the business.

There are a number of workflow enhancements, the biggest of which has to be the ability to group audio and MIDI tracks into Group tracks which can be folded and unfolded at the click of a mouse (in both the arrangement and session views). Nice!…As are the accompanying group launch buttons which launch all of the group’s contents simultaneously. Jamming on the same theme, when you have multiple tracks selected and you adjust one mixer or routing parameter, the same parameter is adjusted in all of the selected tracks.

Another key enhancement is the ability to create crossfades (with adjustable slopes) between adjacent clips in the arrangement window. The MIDI Editor has been reworked to offer a more consistent editing experience. A zoom slider has been added that allows you to zoom Live’s screen to anywhere between 50 and 200 per cent. This works very well and would be extremely useful if it wasn’t buried in a preferences menu. Why Ableton can’t just stick a zoom box on the main interface (as found on every bit of image editing software I can think of) is beyond me?

Other useful enhancements include a mini scrubable waveform display in the browser window and colour coding for pretty much everything – tracks, scenes, macro controls, even rack chains. Like, psychedelic man.

But wait…that’s just what’s new in Live 8. As I said, Suite 8 bundles Live with ten instruments and sample libraries. Of these, ‘Collision’ is the new kid on the block. A physical modelling instrument designed to re-produce real percussive sounds, it offers offers a large hadron collider full of xylophones, glockenspiels, marimbas and percussion, though it can also be used to create otherworldly sounds. You can, amongst other things, change the beater material (glass, metal wood, nylon, or rubber) and your beating tool (beam, marimba, string, plate, membrane, pipe, or tube), though I couldn’t find any options for crop, cane, whip, leather or PVC.

Although it takes a little getting used to, Collision is capable of some really powerful sounds, including, with a bit of lateral programming, some earth shattering basses. What’s more, its resonator section has been spun off into a separate effect, called ‘Corpus’ that can be used to mess with your audio and the tuning of which can be controlled with a MIDI sidechain.

‘Operator’, Live’s FM synth, has been completely overhauled and now sports loads of new functionality including extra filter types, improved envelopes, new modulation options and user definable waveforms courtesy of a new waveform editor that allows you to roll draw your own, all of which takes it to the next level.

The other instruments included in the bundle are ‘Sampler’, which offers powerful sound design possibilities, can read almost any sample format you can think of and which integrates seamlessly into the Live workflow; ‘Electric’, which uses the same technology found in Applied Acoustics’ ‘Lounge Lizard’ to physically model the sound of Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos; ‘Tension’, which is to stringed instruments what collision is to a good beating; and ‘Analog’, which is American for Analogue and is, unsurprisingly, a physically modelled analogue synthesizer.

The ‘Essential Instrument Collection 2’, or EIC2, as they’re calling it in hip circles, is a sample library (developed in conjunction with SONiVOX and Chocolate Audio) so huge that listing everything it has to offer would double the size of this review…and then some. Suffice it to say that it runs the gamut from acoustic to electric and back again, via an orchestra or two and does so extremely well.

Sitting halfway between EIC and and the aforementioned Ableton instruments are ‘Session Drums’, which aims to obviate the need for a session drummer, ‘Drum Machines’, which offers a variety of classic beatboxes and ‘Latin Percussion’, which will have you doing the conga around your bedroom in less time than it takes to say ‘Ai Carumba!’

Each uses Live’s ‘Drum Racks’ functionality to combine meticulously sampled and extremely convincing individual drums/percussive instruments into kits that are easily programmed from a keyboard, drum pad, or on screen using Live’s MIDI editor. However, as Ableton state, ‘the greatest instruments in the world are no good unless you know how to play them’, which is why they’ve created and included accompanying MIDI clips and grooves. If you browse to the Clips>Drums folder, you will find three sub folders (one for each pseudo instrument) populated with Live sets containing all of these elements. Alternatively, each element can be accessed and used individual, by browsing to the appropriate folders.

Latin Percussion excels in this department, with 50 breathtaking Live sets encompassing everything from Brazilian to Afro-Cuban and African, that are dripping with authenticity.

Drum Machines offers 40 Live sets that are very good, but which lack some of the ‘patterns’ which one might expect, for example, of four 909 patterns, only one could be described as ‘House’, though not in the classic 909 sense. Depending upon your perspective, this may be a good or a bad thing. Some people might suggest they already have enough such patterns provided by other software, while others may feel that relying upon third party software to provide what could be included here is defeating the object and that Suite 8 would be improved with the inclusion of more than just four Live sets for each of the ten drum machines on offer. Whichever camp you fall into, one thing is for sure, given the sheer quality of Session Drums (which has been massively multi-sampled using a multitude of micing techniques) the inclusion of just 17 Live sets for it (most of which have a limited number of variations) is a little disappointing as it barely scratches the surface of what one can or might want to do with a kit.

Session drums and EIC2 are only available with the boxed version of Suite 8 (not the downloadable one) and increase the price by 150 euros, which I’d say it’s well worth the difference. However, if you’re going to go for it, make sure you have enough time and hard drive space available as it took several hours to install (from three compressed dual layer DVDs) and occupies 45GB of hard drive space!

Finally, the big news is Max for Live, which builds the functionality of MSP’s Max programming environment directly into Live itself. This is an optional extra which must be purchased separately and one which I expect I’ll review in due course, but for anyone using Max, this is a huge deal.

Do I have any complaints? Unusually, just one. When installing Live 8, you are not given any choice of where the default library is installed. Instead, it is automatically installed as a sub folder in whatever location you specify for the program itself. This is all very well if you are running everything from one non partitioned hard drive, but if you want to install your sample library on a separate partition or drive, you must first let it install within the delegated sub folder, then go into the ‘library’ tab of Live’s preferences, then tell it you want to move the library, then tell it to copy the library to the new destination, then delete the old library. If that sounds onerous…it is! Ableton tell me they have removed the ability to specify a separate location for the library during installation that existed in Live 6 & 7 because it was confusing inexperienced users, which only goes to prove you can’t please all of the people all of the time… unless, of course, you provide simple (default) and advanced installation options, which is what I have suggested they do.

And so to the verdict. Ableton have managed to inject a raft of relevant and important new functionality and enhancements into Live 8 without affecting its legendary ease of use. The new effects range from the useful to the must have, the changes to Operator take it to the next level, Collision is a classic in the making, Drum Machines and Latin Percussion are excellent and the EIC and Session Drums significantly expand the scope and appeal of this package, making Suite 8 a killer product.

More info: Ableton, Novation (UK Distributors)

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