Ableton Live review: This digital audio workstation does it all

Some of the best software for creating and recording music, as well as live performance. A bit pricey, but worth it.

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Note that this article was amended on 2/13/2019 to reflect program updates and subsequent experiences.

As a track-based DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, i.e. a MIDI and audio recorder/editor) guy, my first look at Ableton Live elicited from me a rather long-winded “huh?” It was familiar-looking, but at the same time not. However, befuddlement soon gave way to stark admiration for the program’s easy-to-use interface and abilities.

I wrote the above paragraph during my first review. But while I admired Ableton, I kept going back to the DAWs with workflows I was familiar with such as Studio One, Cubase, Sonar, and even Mulab, even though they all irritated me in one way or another. I could just never get over the hump of Ableton’s unfamiliarity. A real shame, because once I was fully on board, for the first time in my recording life I was relatively free of DAW-envy. 

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Live’s Arrangement mode is for both recording and arranging clips into songs.

Why? Three reasons: workflow, simplicity, and a resizable interface. Ableton Live is by far the simplest DAW to navigate and record with—once you know what you’re doing. It’s not necessarily intuitive to those coming from other DAWs, which is why it took me so long to get with the program. However, the program’s methods make so much sense once I find them, I never have to struggle to remember where something is or how to use it.

When I say simplicity, I’m not saying Ableton Live lacks power or sophistication—it has those in spades. But, despite the myriad of feature requests you find in the Ableton forums, they’ve kept things simple, and relegated what might be niche features to Max for Live. Max is a framework/interface to the inner workings of Live that allows the development of third-party plug-ins and utilities.

Live’s interface is re-sizable because it’s rendered using drawing commands, or simple stretchable bitmaps, not “realistic”, static-sized bitmaps. Switching to an Ultra UHD display? Open preferences and set the interface to 150% or even 200%. The resized text and controls keeps things legible where smaller, constant-size bitmaps disappear into obscurity. My older eyes truly appreciate this, though it would appreciate it more is the actual preference dialog scaled with the rest. And to be fair, most other programs are now adding support for higher-resolution displays.

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Ableton Live in Arrangement mode with the effects, content and grooves panes open.

When I originally reviewed Ableton Live in 2010, I talked a lot about the paned interface, but other programs have largely caught up with what was at the time, a rather unique approach. No one, however, has caught up with Live’s keep-it-minimal and straightforward controls. Tiny icons, visual clutter, and poor feature delineation are my problems in several major DAWs.

Another thing I love about Ableton, is that it’s not modal. That is, you don’t select specific tools to enter notes, delete them, split parts, etc. though there is a draw mode for mass note entry. Modal, which works well in art programs where there are huge numbers of tools, has always driven me nuts in music programs. Given any particular context, there are only a very few things you might want to do with a note, part, or clip, so Ableton puts the commands in a context menu and/or assigns them to a keystroke.

Why users like it

Ableton Live’s appeal for many users is the part-oriented (parts are called “clips” in Ableton vernacular) arranger that makes electronic live performance, creation, and improvisation very easy. But Live is also very good at track-based recording, which is what I do. There are a couple of foibles, but for the solo artist, the ease of getting a track laid down more than makes up for them. Coming from other DAWs, I kept saying “Why doesn’t Live do this?” only to discover there was a different, and often better way.

Though no longer unique among DAWs, another outstanding feature of Ableton Live is its audio warping, i.e. manipulating the rhythm, tempo, and pitch of audio (or MIDI). This can be used for anything from matching tempos of dance songs while DJ’ing at a night club, to fixing timing problems in a recorded performance, to breathing life into robotic computer music by applying human-like grooves. Ableton can also extract grooves from existing audio material. If you want that feel from your favorite recording, you can have it.

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The green tags at the top of the waverform are warp markers that may be dragged about to change the timing of audio events automatically detected as transients. You can also manually insert them.

Ableton Live supports VST instruments and plug-ins; the MIDI editing is excellent, and the built-in instruments, sounds, and effects are top-notch. Automation of everything is seamlessly integrated, and the included sampler instrument imports a variety of formats. 

One area where Ableton might still be considered lacking is in traditional destructive audio editing. You can do a lot with the parts derived from audio files, but if you need to do something such as strip the silence or delete parts of the original file, you must send it to an external editor. I use the free Ocenaudio, Izotope RX, and occasionally Melodyne. I wish you could choose from several programs from within Live, but it only lets you define one. It does however, show you exactly where the file is on disk so you can open others on your own without too much hassle. 

Note that Live will seamlessly resample audio if you change video resolutions. Also, it's the only DAW I've tried that works will with projects stored on a NAS box.

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Ableton lets you close unused panes and concentrate on just the tracks in Arrangement mode.

Ableton Live comes in three basic flavors: Suite ($799), which offers a lot more of everything including sounds, effects, and instruments; Standard ($499), with its basic set of sounds and effects; and Intro ($99) which is limited to 16 tracks and has far fewer instruments. I could probably make do with Intro, except it lacks the “Complex” and “Complex Pro” audio warping modes that I sometimes use to fix recorded instrument audio tracks. 

Ableton also markets a $799 dedicated hardware controller for Live called Push (now Push 2) which has a lot to do with the programs continuing popularity for live performance. The Max for Live programming environment, formerly $199, was rolled into the main program as of version 10. There are also scads of content packs for users who like to shape and manipulate more than record.

Stagnant no longer

Ableton didn’t offer a major update for several years, starting right after I previously reviewed it in 2010. But the company has again found its mojo and updates are arriving regularly and a major revision every year. Most recently, version 10.1 (in Beta) adds support for VST3 format plugins (a very long-standing request) and nested folders appeared in version 10. Importantly, updates are arriving regularly without screwing up the program’s stellar usability or adding needless complexity.

Conclusion

The only way to truly appreciate Live's abilities and easy workflow is to use it. But the learning curve is steep, and you might have to set aside the prejudice that "advanced capabilities require a complex bitmapped interface." To be honest, the look which is a bit primitive in spots, isn't for everyone. I still occasionally have to remind myself why Live is the quickest and easiest by spending time in other programs.

There are a couple of other DAWs I use for final mixing (Cubase) and realistic instruments (Logic with its fantastic horns), but  for quick tracking, recording, or anything synth-based, Live is still my go-to. As it is for just about every artist doing live performance. 

What can I say? When it comes to getting an idea down to paper (musical), there's simply nothing better.  

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