As I'm a track-based DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, i.e. a MIDI and audio recorder/editor) guy, my first look at Ableton Live elicited a rather long-winded "huh?" However, my befuddlement soon gave way to stark admiration for the program's interface and abilities.
Ableton Live is by far the simplest DAW to navigate--once you know what you're doing. It's not necessarily intuitive; no DAW this complex could be. However, there's none of Cubase's or Sonar's icon/menu/tool overload and the learning curve isn't bad at all. The program's methods made so much sense that once I discovered a function, I never had to struggle to remember how to do it.
A large part of my infatuation with the Ableton interface stems from the fact that unlike Cubase, Pro Tools, Sonar and the like, there's no maddening stack of cascading or overlapping windows to sort through. Ableton hides, shows, maximizes, minimizes, and stretches its abutting work areas while constantly maintaining an optimal arrangement. Any work area is only a single button-press away and may be resized to your preferred size. Even better, work areas are context-sensitive, e.g. the MIDI editor appears only when you select an MIDI clip or track. There's also a lot of drag-and-drop, which I truly appreciate. Alas, my old eyes found the anti-aliased font rendering hard to read; I wish there were a way to turn it off.
Ableton Live is at heart a step-based, part-oriented (parts are called "clips" in Ableton vernacular) arranger but it also does track-based recording extremely well. As a matter of fact, I kept looking for things that I like to do that the program doesn't, but the only thing I truly missed was notation and scoring (I often enter music the old-fashioned way). Every other time I thought something I wanted was in absentia, I discovered the feature in the manual or in one of the online video tutorials at the company's site.
Ableton Live supports VST instruments and plug-ins. The MIDI editing is excellent, as are the built-in instruments and sounds. Automation of everything is seamlessly integrated, and the sampler imports a variety of formats. Everything may be done in real time, which makes it ideal for live performances. Suffice it to say that this is the first program that has me seriously contemplating switching from my present DAW. Anyone who's spent the countless hours that it takes to become facile with a DAW knows that that is no small consideration.
The Ableton Live demo includes a fair number of sounds, which makes it a hefty download. The demo as downloaded won't save projects, presets, etc. However, there is a 14-day trial license you can get to from the opening splash screen that allows saving. Ableton Live comes in three basic flavors: Suite 8 ($699), which includes a lot of sounds; Live 8 ($449), with its basic set of sounds; and Live 7 LE ($139) which is much cheaper, but an iteration behind and lacks 8's improvements, such as new groove and warping engines.
Words can't do this DAW justice. The only way to truly appreciate its abilities and ease of workflow is to use it. If you're among the uninitiated, you really should download the Ableton Live demo and take a look.
Note: This link takes you to the vendor's site, where you can download the latest version of the software.
--Jon L. Jacobi