March 6, 2013

My Five Favorite Features In Ableton Live 9

Is Live 9 the ultimate cure for your writer's block? Ableton sure seems to think so...

Is Live 9 the ultimate cure for your writer’s block? Ableton sure seems to think so…

Ableton Live 9 is officially available for purchase as of today. This has, naturally, been a long and hotly anticipated update to a beloved DAW that has become synonymous with so many of the artists who champion it over the years. While the Push surface is only available for pre-order (and appears to be around 2 weeks away from shipping to users), today’s launch has had a lot of anticipation specifically around the new control. Understandably so, as Push promises to turn Ableton into a hands on instrument focused around the generation of ideas.

That’s great and all- but what about the program itself? More than a few Ableton users have been quite happy before Push, but have still been awaiting the program. As for me, I will be picking up Push because I think it will be useful for replacing some other odds and ends around the office- and give me a nice portable environment. However, whether Push changes my life or not, I have expectations for Live 9 to be a significant upgrade.

As it happens, so do a lot of other folks. The usual places are buzzing with accolades and complaints in equal measure. The upgrade is not free and there are folks out there who expect an awful lot to pay to upgrade Suite. I was just looking at one thread where a user calls everyone “sheep protected by wolves,” so, obviously, clear heads are prevailing today.

In the end, I think the question for users not planning on picking up the hardware side of today’s upgrade, the question of whether to buy will revolve around work flow. I think some of the changes will be more obvious to long time and advanced users, as the obvious inclusion of some new paradigm shifting virtual instrument is not there. As far as I am concerned, this was the best news in the world. I use Ableton completely with hardware synths and am more interested in MIDI and audio manipulation than VSTIs. I typically use the Drum Racks, Sampler, and Operator for noises and effects, but many of the other things that came with suite over the years weren’t knocking my socks off.

In preparation for a series of videos, and because I waited around three years for this update, I have been working with the beta version for the past few weeks and have come to really love a lot of the new features. While I will certainly be putting Live 9 and the instruments that are a part of Suite through the paces for future material, I know other hardware based users who haven’t had time to work with the beta have questions about how Live 9 will integrate into their setup. Since I have been integrating it into my own studio, today’s look at Live 9 will focus on how well the new features play with my existing work flow. There are a number of more comprehensive feature reviews out there, so these are my five favorite features in Ableton Live 9.

File Browser Improvements

There are a load of sample library management options on the market- but for the quick and dirty warriors out there, Live 9 has built a sufficient system for tracking your favorite "meat and potatoes" samples just left of the action.

There are a load of sample library management options on the market- but for the quick and dirty warriors out there, Live 9 has built a sufficient system for tracking your favorite “meat and potatoes” samples just left of the action.

Admittedly, I don’t do a whole lot with presets accessible from Ableton. I do, however, use the Drum Racks and subsequently Simpler and Sampler a good deal. In the new version, the Drum Rack presets have been moved to their own “Drums” menu. Drum racks can be previewed here, and users of suite will also see the Drum Synth kits here so long as they install Max for Live and the Max for Live Essentials live pack. We’ll talk more about that shortly. In the meantime, sounds, clips, MIDI effects, audio effects, instruments, VST/Audio Units, and Max for Live Devices can also all be accessed from the categories section of the left browser.

My favorite change, however, is the places menu. As opposed to the three selectable folders previously available in the bottom area of the Live file browser, after Packs, User Library, Live 8 Library and Current Project, users are now allowed to add custom folders of their choice. This is great for storing favorite grab bags of iTunes snippets, or accessing the most used folders of your sample libraries. This has been a massive improvement for my work flow as the preview audio and quick location factor get projects up and running faster than ever. Even when using Maschine, I am finding this to be my favorite way to browse samples.

The LFO Tool

Whether you are grabbing control messages for your hardware units or just messing with other plug ins, the new LFO tools offer inspired craziness without the usual envelope drawing muss and fuss.

Whether you are grabbing control messages for your hardware units or just messing with other plug ins, the new LFO tools offer inspired craziness without the usual envelope drawing muss and fuss.

One of the drawbacks to hardware oriented synthesizers in the modern world is that hardware units often lack the comprehensive modulation matrix that appears so commonly on the stuffed to the gills super plug ins of today. Even when using VSTIs, there are often occasions when an outside LFO can be a lovely, modular problem solver.

With that in mind, now included in the Max for Live Essentials pack are LFO generators in both the Max Audio Effect and Max MIDI Effect folders. While seemingly identical, the differences between the two make themselves known in the form of oscillation speed and an additional side panel on the LFO Midi unit. When twirled out, this panel offers access to basic keyboard controls: Keytrack, Velocity, Mod Wheel, Aftertouch, Attack and Retrigger. Most significantly, below this a panel offers access to a control out with a drop down accessing all the midi cc messages that can be sent to your hardware unit. With very little effort, the simplest synth tone can become a rhythmic raging hell pad.

Add this to the multitude of other envelope shaping, sound following goodies included in the attendant Max for Live suite and you have yourself a series of upgrades for those synths that were getting stale on the shelf.

The Drum Synth

Who doesn't love having a quick solution for drum synthesis tacked on as an extra?

Who doesn’t love having a quick solution for drum synthesis tacked on as an extra?

Another slick inclusion in the Max for Live goodies that come with the Suite upgrade is a flexible drum synth device. Fit neatly with drum pads and macros, this device offers a treat that goes well beyond the sound manipulation of Roms and samples. It’s also very pleasant to look at. There are plenty of drum samplers out there, but only a few drum synths. With hardware options often being a bit pricey, and plug ins often heavy on resource use, this tidy little device is a welcome addition to the Ableton arsenal. Even as fuel for sampling to drum racks, this device offers a solution that is nice to have simply included amongst so many other feature updates.

Session View Automation And Overdubbing

While to some it may seem an extra step, many of us are very happy to see the record enable button come along to the session mode alongside the ability to automate things we had previously only been able to effect in Arrangement mode.

While to some it may seem an extra step, many of us are very happy to see the record enable button come along to the session mode alongside the ability to automate things we had previously only been able to effect in Arrangement mode.

One of my most persistent complaints from previous versions of Ableton Live was that my favorite type of automation (grab parameters and wiggle ‘em to the beat) was only available in session mode. This lead to a lot of jumping back and forth when composing in session mode. I think a lot of users are quite content with assembling pieces in session mode and then laying out their arrangement as a performance before going back through and editing for tightness/ adding in transitions and other bells and whistles. I am no different, and regularly write in session mode. One of the saving graces of my hardware studio is that I have been able to grab knobs and record them into clips, but it also meant I had to be diligent about making sure the track wasn’t armed if I didn’t want these adjustments to turn into automation. I typically would forget and end up scooting through and deleting automated envelopes after making a series of mistakes with the tracks armed.

Live 9 solves both problems with a single button. Just to the right of the filled red circular record button we have known for so long, there is now a hollowed out red circle that enables automation recording. Something that might take a bit of getting used to is that once a clip is created, this also has to be engaged to add to it. However, I love this as it has already saved me from accidentally adding notes to a track about 100 times. I love this feature because I had always wanted it, but i hadn’t even thought about the “aw crap” time it would save me until I was using it. Kudos to the Live team for implementing this so well… even if they made us wait for it.

Intelligent Clip/Pattern Length

Screen Shot 2013-03-06 at 10.02.18 AM


This is another one that, at the time of announcement I was kind of indifferent to. However, once I set to recording I immediately saw I had been giving yet another time saving gift from my favorite Berlin based DAW: Intelligent clips. Now, when recording clips in Ableton Live, let’s say you are playing a part for a 2 bar phrase but you hit the stop button not quite at the 9 mark- Live finishes the measure for you. No going in and adjusting the size, the clip is ready to play. Conversely, if you work by double clicking your clips into life, then step sequencing with the mouse or whatever you prefer, doubling the clip is as simple as clicking the loop (that selects all within the range of time) and pressing command + D (ctrl in Windows land, I believe.) When you double the loop, as opposed to the old result of adding a loop behind the original and moving the loop handles to the new loop, you will now see a double size version of your original clip with the loop handles automatically expanded to hold the full sequence.

On paper, they just don’t sound so impressive. There’s no getting around that. However, in my work flow, these features, combined with the above mentioned time savers have had a MASSIVE impact on my speed and flow. I think the appeal of Ableton Live, for me, was always the flexibility of the system and the speed with which it allowed me to work. I can’t qualify this beyond telling you so, but I am almost 99% certain that there are some ideas I have managed to reach complete track status with in the past few weeks that I feel like would have lost their steam in other circumstances, but I was just working so damn fast it didn’t matter. These ideas that might have been over-thought before seem to be closer to my original idea when sitting down to write than a majority of results in the past. It’s kind of hard to be dismissive of anything that is delivering that kind of result.

Grab Your Copy and Tell Us What you Think

I feel like a jerk a bit, because my gut reaction to a lot of the rage posting about the version 9 not being change laden enough for the long wait between 8 and 9 is not in favor of the people posting it. Over and over again I feel like I am seeing people who are waiting for a button that says “make me sound like Skrill/Mau5/Noisia/Com Truise/Tiesto/(Insert your FOTM here.)” In other cases it seems like some complainers aren’t entrenched enough in their Ableton Live work flow to notice the deeper adjustments to productivity that seem to be the real substance of this upgrade. Turns out there are a lot of folks buying programs expecting instant tunes and Ableton Live has definitely lured in a lot of the folks with that mentality.

However, I am fully prepared to accept oversight in this matter. I am honestly eager to hear from other working producer types about how they feel about the update and whether or not they see anything that has them figuring out which pennies to allocate for the cost. Please let us know how you like Live 9. I’m excited about it and looking forward to seeing what people get up to with the new version.

I only covered a handful of the features and updates (leaving out “ooh and ahhh” worthy additions like the compressor upgrade and the new Glue Compressor.) There are several in depth reviews of Live 9 out there and Peter Kirn at Create Digital Music has just posted his long look at the Push controller itself. Take a look to get brushed up on the list of additions to Live 9. While I know a lot of folks will make the upgrade online, I know a lot of others like a nice reassuring box to go with all those dollars they spent. For those of you that fall into that category, don’t forget that we are a Live dealer now and have several versions available for purchase and our speedy shipping options are at the ready. Here are the links to buy Ableton at UniqueSquared:

Ableton Live 9 Suite

Ableton Live 9 Standard

Ableton Live 9 Intro

Ableton Live 9 Suite Music Production Software (Educational Version)

 Ableton Live 9 Standard Music Production Software (Educational Version)


So that’s all for today. Keep an eye out as we have some feature oriented videos coming up in the near future, and imagine we’ll be talking about Ableton Live 9 for the foreseeable year to come. It’s not every year this program gets an upgrade, so we, like everyone else, are excited. Maybe that’s the Ableton strategy in taking so long to update. If it is… well… it’s working.