From the day of its inception, Ableton Live has revolutionized the music industry with a true, multipurpose digital audio workstation. As both a capable mixing tool and a high-powered live performance companion, Ableton Live has provided engineers, DJ’s, and producers with a powerhouse of audio software.
Ableton Live has come a long way from the original release in 2001. Although not much as changed visually, there are a few core updates to the software that makes Ableton Live 10 one of the most powerful tools for music production yet.
Ableton Live 10 exists as three different pricing tiers: Intro ($99), Standard ($449), and Suite ($749). While Intro is essentially the same software as Suite, the full version comes with a whole host of precision editing tools, virtual instruments and software synths that make it worth the splash for those with the money.
Table of Contents:
Download & Setup
Ableton Live is available for both Windows and Mac. To get started, register an account on the official website or a 3rd party vendor, download the software, and begin. Once installed, the Ableton website offers additional software instruments for download. To install the additional plugins, download and then drag and drop into the DAW for automatic installation.
For Windows users, select ‘Ctrl’ + ‘,’ to launch the preferences window, where you can select your audio drivers, any MIDI controllers, and your sample rate and buffer size for the project.
Audio Device Preferences
Visual Layout & Interface
Once you open the program for the first time, there is not a lot to look at; there are no floating windows, endless sidebars or controls, but a basic view of the timeline, transport, tracks, and a side panel with instrument selection.
Although the layout of Ableton Live isn’t as exciting or eye-popping as other programs, the minimal approach comes in handy when trying to preform a lot of tasks quickly. Whenever I create new music in Ableton, I can generate ideas on-the-fly without much effort.
Between Ableton 9 & 10, there are few visual differences. The text is a bit slimmer, and some of the window graphics have been changed to make the DAW a little more sleek-looking. However, one useful addition to Ableton 10 is the Collections feature, found in the top-left corner.
Basically, Collections is another menu containing quick-access to favorite user presets, instruments, and plugins, all organized by color. You can add an item to Collections by right-clicking and selecting a color. This can save you a lot of time scrolling through all of the menus to find a specific preset you are looking for.
There are 3 different types of tracks in Ableton Live: MIDI, Audio, and Return tracks. All tracks have adjustable outputs, a Mixer Section, and the ability to load plugins. However, only Audio and MIDI tracks can be record enabled.
Audio tracks can edit any audio file with a waveform. In Ableton, you can directly drag-and-drop audio files from your computer into the program, and it will automatically create a new audio track. By default, Ableton warps all incoming audio tracks to the session tempo, so you must deselect this option or unclick the warp button.
As the name implies, audio tracks can only edit Audio waveforms, not MIDI. However, frozen MIDI tracks can be dragged and dropped into audio tracks, which can be useful if you are using resource-consuming software plugins. As a film composer, I often use virtual instruments that are over 10 Gb per file, so the ability to edit frozen MIDI clips in Audio tracks is very useful.
In some programs, you need a separate MIDI & Instrument tracks to host software instruments & audio effects. In Ableton, both of these functions are wrapped up into MIDI tracks. MIDI tracks can host both MIDI and audio effects, which appear in Clip View beneath the timeline.
Mixing & Editing
In Arrangement view, all of the tracks can either be edited in free time or snapped to a Fixed Grid by right clicking. You can use the cursor to drag clips across the timeline, extend boundaries of clips, or create adjustable crossfades, a new feature in Ableton 10.
If you double-click on a clip, it gives you an option for click view. In click view, you can create warp points, adjust the waveform properties, and more.
Sub-groups are a new feature in Ableton 10. users were restricted from nesting sub-Groups within Groups, but Ableton 10 has removed this restriction.
I find myself using the sub- grouping feature all the time. When I write film scores, I will often create a large group for all of the brass instruments, and then a sub-group for each of the trumpet parts. If the trumpets get too loud, I can lower the volume of the trumpets without altering the whole brass section, and vice versa.
Like other programs, Ableton can warp audio and quantize MIDI. The process is very streamlined in Ableton Live and takes minimal effort to create a good-sounding warp effect. In clip view, warp points can be inserted into specific sections of an audio file. Let’s say that you only need to time-stretch a 3 second segment, but don’t wish to alter the while clip. You can simply double-click anywhere in the waveform to instantly create warp points, and then drag the markers to time shift the audio clip.
The process is even simpler for MIDI. Select the notes or clip you wish to quantize and press ‘Ctrl’ + ‘U’ to instantly quantize to your selected grid.
One of the great features of Ableton Live is the complete control over adjustable MIDI parameters. Basically, anything that has a knob, a button, or a fader can be mapped to a control on your MIDI input device. The Mixer Panel, as well as the transport, and any of the controls in Clip View can be assigned to a MIDI controller with the press of the button.
Most controls can also be mapped to keys on your computer keyboard. A configuration that I often use is mapping the ‘L’ key to the ‘Set Locator’ button in order to quickly add or remove locators (also referred to as markers) in Arrangement View.
Unfortunately, an important feature Ableton lacks is the ability to process audio tracks destructively. There is an option to freeze a track, but this still preserves the waveform. Sometimes, you need to edit a small chunk of audio, such as an errant guitar scratch or a vocal pop, and for this purpose, it would be helpful to have a ‘Process’ or an ‘Audiosuite’ function for quicker workflow.
A possible workaround is to slap a plugin on your track, and then automate the bypass function. But this can be tedious and clunky if there are several places to edit.
Automation, on the other hand, is a breeze in Ableton. In Live 10, there are no dedicated automation lanes or windows you must select, but an automation view mode. This can be quickly toggled with ‘A.” Just as with MIDI, almost any parameter can be automated, even the individual plugin controls in Clip View. To automate a parameter, first activate automation mode, and then click the control you wish to automate, say the output gain in a compressor.
Session & Arrangement View
In Ableton Live, there are two main views: Session View and Arrangement View, both of which can quickly be switched back-and-forth by pressing the ‘Tab’ key. In Arrangement view, the DAW displays the tracks horizontally in a timeline. This view is primarily used for precision tasks: overdubbing, mixing, editing waveforms, and arranging audio and MIDI clips. This is where Ableton Live functions like most traditional audio programs.
Session View is completely different, and this is where a lot of newer Ableton users get confused. Session view looks very similar to the mixing board-style view in other programs where the tracks are displayed vertically. However, the main feature of Session View is the Clip List.
Session View displays clips from Audio and MIDI tracks in a matrix. The vertical columns represent all of the clips within a track, and the horizontal rows represent all of the clips in a single Scene.
A Scene is a group of horizontal clips across separate tracks that play at the same time. By default, Ableton has 8 rows of Scenes loaded into Session View. The Scene numbers are located on the master track, where you can launch or stop an entire row of clips simultaneously by pressing the ‘Play’ button. Individual clips can also be played or paused by pressing the ‘Play’ button within each clip.
One of the biggest changes from Ableton Live 9 to 10 is the Wavetable Synth. The Wavetable Synth is a powerful synthesizer with basic controls such as envelope adjustment and LFO Modulation, as well as more complex controls such as time-based waveform modulation. Unlike some of the other synthesizers, the Wavetable is a true Swiss army synthesizer; it can achieve almost any sound, static or evolving over time.
However, Wavetable is only available in Suite, not in Intro or Standard. Ableton Live 10 Intro has a limited number of plugins & sounds, but the Suite version comes with the full package, albeit at a hefty price tag. A full comparison of the versions can be found here.
Suite comes with the most VST’s, plugins, and sounds by a long shot. Many genres are included here, from the bedrock 808 machine, to Latin percussion sounds, to quality orchestral sounds.
Every sound included in Ableton is usable in some capacity, depending on your genre and how you use it. Ableton Live 10 is a goldmine for producers. You will spend many hours exhausting the full extent of what Live offers before you turn elsewhere.
For many users, the sounds in Ableton Suite are more than enough. Granted, additional sounds from Native Instruments and Eastwest are always a great addition to any producer’s toolbox.
Some of my personal favorites are the drum and piano sounds. There are a myriad of modern and vintage acoustic kits, there are electronic kits, there are entirely synthesized drums, and there are old school hip-hop sounds.
The piano sound is also a very usable, musical sound. It fits well into most pop and rock music with little adjustment. It tends to cut through and a have a little more edge without being too harsh. If you have a darker sound, there are options for Mellow, Equal, and Bright. If used correctly, it can also sit will in orchestral music and film scores.
If you are looking for a stunning, detailed piano sound to use on your next solo classical piano album, however, I would look into spending a little bit more on a dedicated piano sample library.
The samplers in Ableton Live are wonderful tools to work with, especially for remixes. The drum rack is a versatile instrument that allows you to load your own samples into a custom drum kit.
My personal favorite, the Simpler, comes with all versions, including Intro. Simply drag-and-drop any audio sample into Simpler, and then it will automatically re-pitch your sample into musical notes when you play them on the keyboard.
Ableton Live 10 includes a variety of standard audio effects, such as EQ, Compression, Reverb, and others. My favorite effects are Glue Compressor by Cytomic, which works wonders for mastering and parallel compression, the multi-band EQ, which displays a moving graph of the frequency spectrum, and the Convolution Reverb, which is a beautiful, natural-sounding reverb that comes as a brand new addition to Ableton Live 10.
Ableton has the ability to work with video. To get started, drag & drop a video file from your computer into the timeline. The audio from the video should be imported onto a separate track, and the video should start playing from a separate window.
While Ableton cannot edit video directly, you can still splice different clips together and export the project as one video. Be cautioned that you must use an uncompressed format such as H. 264, or else the playback will be choppy. If used correctly, Ableton Live is a great tool for scoring films or editing audio from a video.
Ableton Live 10 is a highly-functional DAW that can be used for many purposes, both live and studio. Despite the hefty price tag, all of the built-in sounds, plugins, and effects are a producer’s dream. The main strengths of this program in 2019 are:
- The intuitive, simple layout
- The user customization
- Session view lets you quickly create loops
- Seamless warping & quantization
- Powerful virtual instruments
- Solid plugins
- Reliability & MIDI setup
- Speedy workflow
One of the most important strengths a program or piece of equipment can have is reliability. Rarely have I ever experienced a crash in Ableton. MIDI devices are instantly recognized, and I can even change audio drivers mid-session without requiring a restart. Whenever I am trying to experiment musically and create something new, Ableton is always my go-to.
While Ableton Live 10 may lack some of the precision waveform editing tools in other software, it remains the standout choice for music production in a crowded field of DAW’s.