Recently, we reviewed the Windows-based audio sequencer Acid 3.0 by Sonic Foundry. To our opinion the best you can buy in this field. For Windows that is..... there is no Mac version of Acid. I wrote: "Wish there was an Acid for Mac".


    Hoist the flags, blow the trumpets and start the party: the problem has been solved. And how. Ableton, a German company based at Berlin, gave the Macintosh world their innovative product Live. By doing so, Ableton booked two records in one stroke. The first one being the very first professional and truly full featured real time audio sequencer for the Mac platform under OS9. And secondly: being the first to bring this functionality to the OS X platform. Where it works without any problem or hassle, and looks complete identical. With this result, Ableton is good for the Guinness Book of Records, as far as I am concerned.


    First of all, version 1.0 (for OS9 only) was delivered to our doorstep in the box shown above, containing a CD-ROM plus a good produced handbook of 130 pages help information. A lot of other manufacturers leave you with a Acrobat PDF file, and let you find a printer all by yourself if you want to have a hard copy. Thus putting the costs of toner and paper on your plate, not theirs. Not so Ableton. The manual is ringed, so easy to use, and well and clear written. It is these kind of details that make a product glow confidence.

    We just had started with the testing, when an e-mail came in, announcing the birth of version 1.1, both for OS9 and OS X. Of course, we rushed to our Internet connection and downloaded the stuff. And yes: it works under OS X. Joy! Oh yes, I almost forgot: a Windows version goes in the deal as well. On that platform, Live supports FX plug ins as well.

    Global description.

    Now, what does Live? It's an revolutionary audio sequencer, that -to start with- enables you to quickly arrange a composition. For that, you can use downloadable samples (Live has a menu function for that), but you can also use your own recordings, samples, or any sample in WAV or AIF format. We "borrowed" some of the Acid samples (WAV), and they behaved fine in Live.

    Live can be used in several ways. If you are in the performing or DJ business, you can use Live live on stage. Hence the products name, of course. Live has all provisions to be a good companion in such a situation. It is flexible, and changes can be performed in real time while your composition is playing. You even can compose real time, using the session window (see later in this article). You also could do some pre planning, and build your performance on stage further upon that. It's all possible. Plus: you can use Live for sample recording.

    Another way of using Live is in the studio, where it is a very strong composition or arranging companion. Remember e.g. the pitch, attacks and volume changes, you can record in midi sequencers? Focus for a moment on how you can do that in real time, using a midi sequencer. Have that in focus? Well, Live has comparable functionality for audio sequencing. When you play an arrangement, you can hit the record button on the fly, and record volume changes, panning, and any change you do in any plug in, in let's say just a small part of your composition (or the whole one, of course). Hit the record button again, and Live stops recording and just continues playing. No stop-restart needed. So: you can create a fully automated mix, including automated effecting. In real time Oh boy.... top! And you can undo of course, if you do not like the result. Besides that, Live can be used as a full featured multi track recorder. And more: Live can be triggered using MIDI. Could it be more complete? Don't think so.

    Arranger.


    * The Live Arranger window.

    In the Arranger window, you would drag and drop audio files from one of the three file browsers (upper left in the screenshot). Each of these three can hold a certain folder in sight. So you can quickly switch between folders containing audio clips (even over a network), thus making digging through folders no longer needed. You can drag and drop your samples directly in the Arranger screen. Or drag it to a certain position in the Session screen (below). In the Arranger, you can extend samples by dragging it's right corner to the desired length. So you drag in once, and use many times looped if you like. The bunch of parameters in the right half of the Arranger window enables you to adjust volume and panning, and some stuff more. You can rename your tracks here too.

    The Devices and VST Plug ins can be dragged and dropped from their subsequent lists in the upper left square to the lower half of the screen. First you would activate the track where the effects should be applied (in the screenshot you see that the third track from above is white, while other tracks are gray: the white one is active and "receives" the Plug ins you drag). You can expand a plug in with one click, thus bringing up the plugs parameters (lower right in the screenshot). All changes, you make here, can be recorded too!

    Session.


    * The Live Session window.

    The Session window brings you another approach of composing. In every column, a sample can be activated, while Live plays. When you click another sample in the same column, this sample will start playing at the first upcoming start of the measure. In the screenshot above, we activated 7 columns, so 7 samples can be played at the same time. The number of columns is virtually without end, up to the limitations of your computer of course. When you hit the record button here, Live records your choice and appearance of the samples in the columns, thus recording your composition in real time Get the idea? Strong concept, right? In the Session window, again parameters for panning, volume and the like are present, which can be recorded too.

    Of course, the more plugs you use, the heavier your computer has to do its job. But of course: there is a part in the screen where you can quickly check how much horsepower is left: the little green parameter at the top right gives you the processor load in %. We used quite a lot of Devices to see how far we could go: more than far enough to give you all arranging and effecting freedom. The Ableton Devices do not demand a heavy load on your processor. The VST Plug ins we used are very ":heavy", and made the little green thing rush to the right more quickly. But even then we had enough room to work towards a nice peace of music with enough effects to make it complete. To a certain extent of course: the limits of your computer (we tested on a G4/500 with 512 MB). Good.

    Real time help information, user interface.

    Even the help function in Live is real time Notice the lower left square in the screenshot above. It is the real time help area. As soon as you move the cursor over a certain part of the screen, the according help information appears. So you can quickly find out what each and every function on the screen is used for. Very nice and handy when you start using Live. And you certainly will need some help at the beginning on all those functions of Live. One thing you will have to get used to on your own: the user interface. It is not Mac standard, and therefore maybe somewhat difficult. It took me an hour to dig through all none standard user interface parts, but after that I saw the logic behind this concept quickly. Now that I have worked with Live for about 10 hours, I almost find my way with eyes shut so to speak.

    Clip.


    * The Clip section, where you can alter all kinds of parameters per audio clip, such as pitch, duration of the sample loop, and volume.

    You think that's all? No, there is much more. Let's have a short look at the clip window. Where earlier in this review the VST Plug ins and Devices were located, is now the Clip screen. Here you can alter the sample in a lot of ways. Timing, tuning, volume (gain) and panning, among others. Loop length, start, end and offset can be changed here as well, thus giving you the tools to pinpoint and tune samples in the composition very precisely. This part of Live gives you an extra boost in flexibility, I find one of the strongest functions in audio sequencing anyway. Live has it: well done.

    Devices.


    * The Plug ins (called Devices), that Ableton delivers with Live.

    The Plug ins or Devices that come with Live are somewhat basic, but good enough to get you started. They work real time, which means that you can even record all changes you apply while playing your composition. The memory hunger of the Devices is low, so you can use a lot of them before the green memory indicator goes over 90%. We only would appreciate a simple reverb, which is not part of the standard Devices pack. A reverb would make the set of tools a true complete startup set. Well: after a while you probably want to switch to the more featured VST plugs from e.g. Waves on Mac, of the FX plugs by e.g. Sonic Foundry on Windows. Live can handle them all without any problem. We tested a lot of them on both Mac and Windows, and Live never failed. Superb. I must underline here that Live on both Mac and Windows makes a steady rock impression. It just works, smartly, fast, swift. No hanging of the software, no clicks or ticks. Very good.

    VST Plug ins


    * Ableton Live supports VST Plug ins, as shown above. We copied a set of plugs by Prosoniq and PSP (all tested and reviewed elsewhere in AudioMac.net, see reviews-index).

    Plug in user interfacing.


    * The Prosoniq VST plug in Dynasone, as it appears in Live.

    The parameters of VST Plug ins are presented in a total different way then the original one, such as the Dynasone plug in by Prosoniq in the screenshot above. This approach matches the overall layout and interface approach of Live very well, and it proves that the software engineer(s) at Ableton apparently know what they are doing. E.g.: Dynasone has so many parameters, that they will not fit in an average Windows space. Ableton found a nice solution: notice the small representation of the interface screen at the bottom right (red arrow), where a slider (the black square) will bring the rest of the parameters of Dynasone in sight. If you would like to stick with the original interface of your VST plug in: no problem. Just click the "Edit" button which is at the lower left bottom of the plug in It calls the original interface of the plug in, as shown in an example below (the original Dynasone interface). It's up to you which one you like best.



    Preferences.


    * The Live Preferences window. Here you set the overall parameters for Audio, Midi/Sync and -shown- the Misc. parameters. The preferences window gives you all parameters to modify Live the way you want. Colors for parts can be altered, you can tell Live where to find your VST Plug ins, among others. The audio tap gives you parameters for audio device, desired audio quality, etceteras.

    Pro's and con's

    I gave you a lot of pro's until now, but are there maybe any con's? Well, maybe a few little ones. The challenge-response protection scheme works fine: Ableton reacted within a few hours on our mail with the response. And even quicker the second time I asked for a response: I was so stupid to take a part of the serial number by mistake and noted that down as the second half of the challenge. That is what happens when a musician goes tech ;-).

    The disadvantage of this protection system is that you can only install Live on one computer. You would not be able to put Live plus production on a CD and pop that into a Mac elsewhere for e.g. a performance. Live won't run. Well, basically not big deal, as most DJ's carry around portable's or PC's in flight cases, and the Mac in my studio never moves an inch. So no problem there either.

    Another small problem is the cursor under OS X: it hangs from time to time in the "waiting clock", so you think Live is still performing some task, but in fact didn't return the cursor to the normal state and is waiting for you. While doing some task, the cursor does not move either, even when you move the mouse. So: when after a while you discover that Live is doing nothing, your click is activated somewhere you don't expect, and this could cause actions you do not want. A small but somewhat annoying problem, that should disappear in the next release, because in can cause unwanted actions.

    The biggest con I found is the fact that it is not possible to save your mix as WAV or AIF directly from Live. You will have to use another recording application to get this result. Which most probably means another Mac or PC, as a fat composition in Live will run smoothly but hardly will allow you to load another heavy application into memory. Maybe it's a smart idea to build this kind of export function into the next version. Or is there a way to export I didn't find? The handbook didn't tell me a word about it. But OK, Live is positioned as an audio sequencing instrument, and a sample recorder, not as a true multi tracker.

Conclusion.

    With Live, Ableton brought us very flexible, rich featured software, that can be used at live performances on stage, steady studio environments, and any situation in between. Install Live on a portable Mac or PC, and you are able to record, arrange and perform anywhere you like. It is loaded with features and functionality, and it is the very first rock steady audio sequencer for the OS X platform. It;s user interface is one you must get to know, but that happens rather quickly. Soon you will discover it's splendid intuitively concept. The software is no longer in the way of creativity, and that is the way we musicians wanna work, right? A very well done job. On the Mac, Live has no competitor, and has it all to become THE standard. On the PC platform, I predict a "battle" between Sonic Foundry's Acid and Ableton's Live, both packages being absolute top. Without any hesitation, I rate Live a bold 10. For it's ease of use, it's stunning rich functionality, for it's rock steady performance, for it's very interesting concept and innovative character, and for being the audio sequencer we Mac users have been begging for so long. We at AudioMac.net strongly advise you to at least download the trial version from Ableton's website, so you can see and try the stunning concept of Live for yourself. I bet after that, your next download will bring Live into your shopping cart. You don't wanna miss this new era for audio flexibility.

    Addendum on version 1.5 (08-05-2002).

    At the Musik Messe in Frankfurt, Ableton showed a new version of Live: 1.5. Version 1.5 became available for downloading at the end of april, a few weeks later then announced. We downloaded, installed the new version and tested. If the quality of the new features caused the delay, I didn't mind waiting a bit longer at all.

    First of all, now you can render your production to hard disk (AIF, WAV), up to 24 bits/96 Khz. This feature fulfills one of the two main open wishes we had after reviewing version 1.1. Adding this feature makes Live a full equipped power tool for arrangement work in your studio too.


    Render to disk is easy: you select the portion (or in this case the whole production), including some "space" before and after, so that you can do your exact "whites" timing afterwards in en editor like sonicWORX. Then you choose "Render to disk" in the File menu. You get options to choose Khz and format.

    Our second major wish is implemented as well: a reverb plug in the standard package. With most software, the free reverb you get isn't that good. Not so with Live: it is one of the best reverb plugs we've ever heard. Really stunning. Nice, smooth fading reverb, no bad quality whatsoever. To convince you, I made a quick arrangement with several reverb effects in it. Please note the "ping" and the end and it's very good reverb quality.


    LiveTest_v15.mp3
    (2,1 MB)

    Isn't that good? (Please note: you have a MP3 copy: the original file sounds even better (of course).

    Other new features include the Rewire function (master or client): Live 1.5 now runs in good harmony with software like Cubase, Logic or Digital Performer. A midi sync (master or client) guarantees good sync with midi hardware. The knobs and faders care "endless" (meaning large ranges) to provide better control. There are now localized version in Japanese, German and French too (where's the Dutch version ;-) ?). And, important too, this version has less heavy charges on the CPU, so you can add more plugs to a production.

    Conclusion on v1.5.

    The
    10 we gave version 1.1 still stands. The new features rendering and reverb are of great value: they promote Live to an even better absolute winner then it was in version 1.1. I am very, really very happy to have Live in my studio. It not only works great, it also saves money in production costs: you really work much faster, thus reducing production time, thus reducing the costs, thus bringing some more profit in the joint. Get the message? Live v1.5 is an investment that will pay itself back in almost no time.

    Final remark: I am really curious what the tech guys at Ableton will come up with in version 2 (if that ever comes, I don't know). Making the best thing better....? I wouldn't know how. Eh.... well.....: maybe a very good MP3 converter. For web publishing. And.... eh.... yeah: SD II as additional format when rendering would be nice too. And...eh.... oh yeah: some sort of content management module, so that the never ending search for lost audio files and samples on huge hard disks will be put to an end. I mean: iTunes is nice, but... OK guys at Ableton, back to work ;-).


    Pricing and availability info can be found at that manufacturers website:
    http://www.ableton.com/.


    All reviews in AudioMac.net are written by Peter J. Bloemendaal. All rights reserved.

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    20-12-2002