Ableton Live – First Impressions

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So I’ve recently started dabbling in Ableton Live. Lots to learn. Here are some of my initial thoughts and first impressions.


Why the move from Logic? After all, Logic is like second nature for me. Well, there are many reasons:

  1. The most important reason is personal. I’ve been on Logic for 11 years now. I wanted change because it’s just good to push beyond your comfort zone sometimes. Discover new territories and find new inspiration in the process. Simple as that.
  2. My search for better workflow. In the recent times I have noticed myself putting more and more thought on improving my workflow. I am constantly trying to find better ways of doing things. This involves a lot of trial and error. NI Maschine changed a lot of things for me in the past year. The plunge to Ableton is another experiment in this never ending quest. And I’m already glad I took it.
  3. The third reason is that I feel Apple have simply taken too long without any substantial updates to Logic. They’re really falling behind in features. Now don’t get me wrong Holmes. Music is not a race. Logic 9 is a really good DAW, and if you’re happy with how things are working out for you then there’s little reason to look elsewhere. But let’s face it – you can’t really call Logic innovative these days. Logic 10 is coming and I really hope they are taking a good look at the competition and making it stand up. But right now I felt it was a good time now to take a look at what Ableton has to offer.
  4. Performing. I am working on new ways to perform my music. Ways that go way beyond traditional DJ:ing. Native Instruments Traktor is the heart of my setup, but combining that with Ableton gives me a whole another world of possibilities. I am definitely welcoming that, so I’ll be experimenting with adding Ableton into the mix. We’ll see how things shape up.

Ableton Live

So here’s a few observations. Please note at the time of writing this I have only been using Ableton Live for a couple of weeks. So excuse the newbie talk. Also while I don’t want to make this a feature comparison post, I can’t really avoid comparing to Logic at points as that’s where I come from.

 

It’s Snappy

Ableton Live feels snappy and lightweight. I am not a programmer but I can’t help but think there must be some smart design and clever coding at work behind this thing.

It hardly makes you wait when loading up instruments and effects (of course, 3rd party plugins can be a different story as always). It responds very well to any user action.  It’s simply a joy to use.

It’s not until now that I realize how clunky Logic actually feels. Also Logic crashes more. In fact I’ve only been able to make Live crash once so far and that was clearly due to an unstable 3rd party plugin.

 

Bundled Content

I have the Ableton Live Suite 9 Beta now. The quality of bundled sounds, effects and instruments you get with it is great. Logic Studio comes with good factory effects and instruments too. But the real difference here is in the bundled sounds. The many gigabytes of Apple loops that you get with Logic were never of any real use to me. In fact I don’t even have those installed anymore. But the sound libraries in Live Suite 9 are posh. There is some pretty generic stuff in there too, but I do find a lot of the bundled content quite useful and yes, even inspiring.

What is also nice about Live is the way they handle the sound content. There are loads of packs and you get to download just the ones you want and need. I work on a laptop so I don’t want anything useless taking up space. If I ever need the Grand Piano, I can grab it then. It’s also easy to uninstall any sound packs that you are not using.

 

Clever Interface

I won’t hide the fact that it took me a while to get my head round how it works (of course I still have loads to figure out). My main initial difficulty was fully understanding the relationship between session view and arrangement view. To be fair though, that kind of thing is always to be expected when getting into new software. And now that I do get it, I see the purpose and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When I found out Ableton comes from Germany I wasn’t surprised. Everything about the interface seems really well thought out and honed to perfection. Everything has a purpose. Gotta love that attention to detail.

It’s clearly made from ground up for electronic music production and that makes all the difference for me. Where as Logic is something for everyone, Ableton Live really zooms in and goes deep on electronic music.

 

Good Integration With My Gear

I use a Presonus Faderport and NI Maschine, and they both integrated easily with Live. Can’t say the same about Logic unfortunately – yeah I’ve managed but not without problems. So I was very happy to see these beloved pieces of kit working in Live nicely out of the box.

 

Ableton Live Makes Me Listen

It really seems somehow Live makes me look less and concentrate more on listening to the music. Which is always a great thing and has a pretty profound effect on the music. Maybe it’s the minimalistic and rugged looks of the interface  that causes this effect. Whatever it is I like it.

 

Some Mad Features

Some of the features in Live 9 Beta are just crazy. Especially the audio-to-MIDI functionality. I am talking about some proper black magic vibes here. I was pretty skeptical when I first heard about it. Once I tried it though… Woah!! Converting complex harmonic audio content to a MIDI synth instrument or a beatboxed sample into a drum sampler track… Just magical. I would not have thought this would be possible. Voodoo time.

They have also done some great work with some of the basic plugins like EQ8 and the compressor in Live 9. Without going into detail, they’ve clearly taken a look at the some of most cutting edge plugin developers out there and brought in some great features.

 

Conclusions

I downloaded the 30 day free trial, made 2 new tunes in the first 2 days and on the third day I bought the full version. That pretty much sums it up I think.

For mixing work I keep using Logic for the moment. Who knows if my opinion will change, but I still think Logic has mixing and audio editing covered better than Ableton. Other than that, it’s hard to think of any negative things to say.

Right now I think it’s safe to say Live is going to be my future workstation for creative work – combined with Maschine. Push is coming out soon too. It looks very promising so I’m definitely keeping an eye on that.

In general I’m very impressed and inspired with Live at the moment as you can probably see.

What are your thoughts? What do you like/dislike most about Ableton Live?

 

  • zyence

    Ease of use is absolutely where Ableton excels and that’s why it’ll always be my go to digital audio workstation. It’s so quick to jump into and get creative and as you said, the interface is very intuitive.

    I started off producing in Reason and more recently demoed Presonus S1 but I keep going back to Ableton Live for the workflow. It really can’t be beaten. Though I may add, this workflow is radically different from the likes of Logic/Cubase. But once you’ve learnt the basics, it’s so powerful.

    It’s interesting to note your comment about going back to Logic for mixing down tracks. It’s a comment I’ve heard from a lot of producers who’ve made the switch. I don’t know if this is simply a case of ‘what you’re used to’… From a non-professional point of view, I’ve always found mixing in Ableton to be a straight forward process.

    Although it’s still missing a few fairly standard DAW features I’m definitely looking forward to Live 9!

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Cheers for the comment. Regarding mixing…. What I am missing in Ableton Live compared to Logic specifically, is a mixer screen that shows not only all tracks but also all of their plugins at once. Right now you have to hop between tracks to get their effects and plugins to show. Also that screen should have bigger volume faders as right now they are a bit too small for precise editing (although I do have the Faderport which covers that). The clip view I don’t need while mixing so it would be a nice thing to have a third view with tracks and plugins only and maybe some other dedicated mixing features/metering.

      Also I find in the mixing stage I often want to do little audio editing, and I think Logic just excels in that. It could be just a case of being used to the audio editing in Logic. There is still lots I haven’t touched down in Ableton.

      • ThreeLeggedMessiah

        You can resize the faders in Live. You are right about the plugins, though.

        • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

          Oh wow, thanks for that. Like I said it seems there is nothing the germans haven’t thought of!! It’s almost scary.

      • Martin

        http://sonicbloom.net/de/ableton-live-insider-tips-options-txt-part-1/

        maybe this is interesting for you… create a txt-file with the line “-ShowDeviceSlots”, call it “Options.txt”, put it in the right directory.

        There are some hidden features, actually I don’t know why they are hidden, because they are quite usefull.
        Have fun with Live… I love it!

        • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

          That is exactly what I’ve been missing!! Many thanks for sharing.

  • BOW

    I bought Ableton Live 8 last month and I’m very happy with it. I find it easy to use but I’m missing some sample editing and the editing of automation that I had in Cubase. I’m pretty sure that Live 9 will solve these problems.
    Would you tell us what is your workflow on Live? I feel like I’m not using it at 100% of its potential. I’m still struggling to understand the relationship between session view and arrangement view and I tend to use just the arrangement view as any other sequencer.

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Live 9 has improved on automation – there’s clip automation as a new feature and also the ability to draw curves.

      What I’ve been doing now is jam out the ideas in Maschine, then drag&drop the patterns as clips into the session view in Live. I then try different things with the clips, create variations, etc.. And arrange the clips into different scenes which represent different parts of the arrangement. Then to create the actual arrangement I just hit record and play the different scenes I’ve created, which records everything into the arrangement view. Then basically just finish in arrangement view, work on some automation etc.

      That seems to work well for me, but I’m still exploring different ways of course.

      • BOW

        Thanks, yeah, maschine and now Push seem to be very interesting to jam out ideas. I’ll try something similar to your workflow.
        Cheers

  • http://www.facebook.com/mavscientific Mies / Mav

    Good article ilpo! Definitely love ableton live. i have version 8 and been using it mostly for sound design projects. production-wise mostly for the timestretching which remains awesome, especially for beats. Renoise is my main sequencing program now (yes, finally switched from Buzz to something else :)) but thinking of trying to sync it with ableton live. Think that’s gonna be a deadly combination :)

    anyway, good luck with your ableton live discoveries !

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Ah nice one Mies, yeh it’s all about finding those combinations that work best for your own workflow.

  • http://www.darkarps.com Dark Arps

    I’ve been a Logic user for 15 years, Live about 7. Both certainly have their strengths and weaknesses. As you say, Live is a much faster DAW; it’s very quick and easy to structure your ideas… and there’s some powerful automation and modulation features, macros, racks and so on allow very complex control in a very simple fashion. And yes it crashes much less frequently, and when it does it often successfully recovers your work. Also, it’s clearly streets ahead when it comes to live performance (I’ve never tried Main Stage and have no intention of starting) Now with the various additions and improvements in Live 9 (particularly Max for Live, automation curves and LFO generators) it looks as though Ableton are taking the lead over Logic.

    However there are still a couple of crucial areas where Logic still has the edge… I don’t know if they’ve sorted this out in Live 9 but the inability to have “breakout” editor windows to make use of a second screen baffles me. And MIDI editing is kind of horrible compared to Logic’s Matrix editor. I find it much slower and more fiddly to finesse my MIDI programming in Live – it gives me a headache. There is also a theory out there that Ableton has a “sound” and songs that are produced entirely in Ableton suffer from a certain “sameyness” – Truth be told I’m not entirely sure how true this actually is but I suppose each platform has it’s own algorithms for processing and playing back audio, so it could be true.

    But really the point of this response is to say that you don’t actually HAVE to choose one over the other. They work very well together, through the joy of Rewiring. I have been using Live and Logic together harmoniously for years: In production, Logic is the Rewire master, Live the slave. Live effectively becomes a very powerful plugin instrument with very simple to use multichannel outputs into discrete channels in Logic. I can use Live for what it’s good for – particularly warping and slicing – and route the audio into Logic, and then use Logic’s (superior imo) EQ and dynamic processing plugins. The main disadvantage is that you can’t use AU/VSTs in Ableton when Logic is the master, but as you say, Live’s proprietary plugins and effects are so good that it’s not that much of a disappointment. Using Logic as the “front end” I edit/engineer/produce until I get to a point where it’s time to bounce stems, and then mix stems entirely in Logic… OR, if I intend to work these productions into a live performance, I take the stems into Live and slice them up into cells.

    Anyway, sorry for rambling ;)

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Thanks for the excellent and insightful commentary.

      Very true that often the “best of both worlds” solution is king. I definitely need to try your approach.

      Cheers

  • http://www.sonicjar.com Dilpreet Bhatia

    You are up for a great adventure with Ableton, Ilpo. Especially for DJs its heaven and I agree that apple has not pushed some nice update to logic. I do most of my production on Nuendo, and have heard that new Cubase is one rocking piece of DAW too. I tried to use logic many times, but there is not even a single full project I could finish on it.

    Good Luck with Ableton. Hope to share good tips with you!!

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Yup it’s an adventure for sure! Cheers to that and all the best.

  • BIREN

    You mentioned using a laptop. I have the trial of live 9 on a iMac right now and experiencing crackling sounds with only 8 tracks running in session view. Not sure why? Thoughts? Also what’s the ideal config for Mac for ableton live 9? Thanks in advance.

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Hey,
      Haven’t had such problems myself so don’t really know. Maybe problems with your audio interface? Just a guess. You should get in touch with Ableton Live’s tech support here: https://www.ableton.com/en/help/

      I’m sure they’ll be able to help you much better.

    • http://Www.darkarps.com Dark Arps

      If you’re experiencing crackling in your audio you may have your buffer size set too low. Try setting the buffer size to a higher value, and go with multiples of 128, ie 128, 256, or 512. You’ll experience higher latency but this may solve your crackling issues.

      • biren

        Ok, will try that. Another question, do you need to use an external audio interface to prevent such crackling issues or is the one in the mac sufficient if you are just using pre-recorded loops and midi sounds in ableton?

        • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

          You won’t need an external interface, so no worries there. You should definitely be able to operate without such problems with just the built in audio interface on your Mac.

          • biren

            thanks mate!

          • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

            You’re welcome!

  • supated

    Yo! Guys good comments, really helpful to me. Actually been on ableton for about a month and I’m really getting to understand most of the basics.. Now this comments are really helping me learn more. I’m from africa and I’ve been writting loads of afro pop on this baby! Nice

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Good to hear, thanks for the comment and stay at it!

  • christian

    Not only does ableton comes from germany, Logic was also from germany before apple bought them, then Cubase/Steinberg is also from germany and Traktor/NI too. :-O

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Haha yes very true… What is with those people?

  • Charlie

    Hey Ilpo,

    I know this is an old post but I think it’d be good to see how your doing things now you’ve had more time with ableton. I’ve been using ableton for a year and a half and in that time I’ve been switching up the way I’ve worked in it workflow wise to find what suits me best. I was jamming in session view to start tracks off but wasn’t getting enough finished, so am now just using arrangement which gets me thinking in a linear fashion to begin with, then using session to jam with new elements once the bulk of a track is together but am interested to hear how your using it now you’ve settled into it.

    It’d be cool to hear in more detail about your workflow and how you utilise the software when coming up with ideas and following them through to finished tracks, maybe a full post to follow on from this one would be nice!

    • http://www.resoundsound.com/ Ilpo Karkkainen

      Hey Charlie,
      Surprisingly my workflow within Live hasn’t changed much since that last comment I made about it. Partly it’s because I’ve still been working a lot in Logic, finishing off old projects and trying not to start too many new things.

      So there’s still a lot for me to learn in Ableton and I always look forward to working on a tune in Live which is great!

      Anyways thanks for your comment, I’ll keep that in mind and maybe an update post is in order in a while.

  • Mav

    Just to let you know, you may find it interesting:
    I’ve now switched to Ableton Live as main sequencer and syncing it with Renoise (using the built-in re:wire in both programs). This is truly the nicest setup i’ve ever worked with. Ableton for melodies and sequence, and Renoise as ‘slave’ where I do the more ‘need-to-do-some-quick-tracking-stuff’ things which take more time in Ableton. You can let each channel in Renoise sync seperately to a channel in Ableton and apply ableton-fx over the renoise channels. Works like a charm :)

    Can also recommend something else for doing collabs, which is a little syncing program called RTPmidi (google it). Not sure if you know it? Lately I make music together with PRPLX and Mobility under a new name “Skylab”. What we do is come together once a month and using this RTPmidi prog we sync all our laptops together. One guy is the master and the others are slaves (ugh that sounds nasty :)). Basically all of us then have our own setup with our own samples, plugins, etc, but we all work on the same loop at the same time (over the same set of speakers). One guy does the beats, the other the bass, the other melodies, the other FX, or something like that. All simultaneously. It may sound chaotic, but i can tell you: it’s the best way of making collabs ever :) .. not as chaotic as it sounds at all really. Once you’re bored with one loop after a few hours, you move into the next loop of 8 blocks or so. before you know you have enough parts to make a track. then the power of Ableton comes in, allowing each of us to press “Collect & Save” on our individual laptops. We save everything inside a shared dropbox folder and then load everything into the master-PC where we do the final sequence and mixdown. We do about 2 tracks each weekend that we meet. Works seriously fast :)

    • http://www.resoundsound.com/ Ilpo Karkkainen

      Wow, the power of technology these days!! That’s crazy. I’ve done the rewire thing between Live and Logic in the past, maybe I should try it again, but then I kind of like the simplicity of doing everything in Live. Sometimes I bounce stems off a Live project to mix in Logic.

      That RTPmidi thing sounds seriously nuts though. I’ll check it out, thanks.

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