October 09, 2015  

The Ableton Live Story

Berlin-based Ableton is one of the biggest movers and shakers in music technology and their flagship product, Live, is perhaps one of the most forward-thinking DAWs on the market. Now synonymous with music production, live performance and digital DJing, each release seems to go from strength to strength.

But how did it go from being perceived as a niche looping tool to the market leader in innovating how musicians think about composing, sampling and performance in just fifteen short years?

The History

In the latter half of the nineties, DAWs were almost unrecognisable to what we’ve now come to know. Running a large number of audio tracks or even using VSTs was reserved for DSP-laden Pro Tools studios. The likes of Logic – still owned by Emagic at the time – and earlier incarnations of Steinberg’s Cubase were mainly used to sequence MIDI for external hardware, as home studio PCs were not optimised for audio. And you can pretty much forget about real-time time-stretching like Logic’s Flex Time mode!

Sonic Foundry’s Acid Pro – now owned by Sony – was arguably the closest DAW you could say is a precursor to Live, with its CPU-light time-stretching algorithm that preserved pitch and timing information. Though the sequencer itself was actually quite basic, with particularly rudimentary MIDI capabilities, it was further removed from the classic composer-centric Logic, Cubase, Cakewalk and so on. And much to the frustration of many Mac users, it was PC only.

Meanwhile in Berlin, Gerhard Behles, Robert Henke and Bernd Roggendorf – the former two of experimental dub-techno outfit Monolake – were working on what was to become a game-changer in terms of how we think about sequencing and live performance.

Henke was more interested in progressing the technology role in music making than replicating the past. “For us, the computer was not a replacement for a tape machine in a studio but a tool to improvise with on stage and as part of the creative process.” Ableton Live 1.0 was released in 2001. Initially thought of as solely a live performance tool, allowing users to seamlessly incorporate loops and tracks into their performance, the program didn’t make huge waves with the studio producer crowd.

What Live lacked in MIDI implementation it more than made up for in its user-friendly interface, excellent audio handling and great sounding effects. The piece de resistance, though, was the unique warping tool, allowing any audio to be treated as elastic, malleable putty, to be moulded to fit your application.

How it Grew

“Ableton is special to me because it’s one of the only sequencers I can use both in the studio and live on the stage, which is a major plus when it comes to cross compatibility between my Mac and PC setups. I never felt more comfortable experimenting live on stage with such an application – I even trigger my visual system from Live!” Deadmau5

Live was different to other DAWs. You could sequence, record and manipulate audio, but what really separated it from the masses was the Session View: a dedicated interface for live performance, DJing or just auditioning ideas together, previously impossible in linear time sequencers. With the Session View, you can loop clips ad infinitum, trialing verses with choruses, drums from one section with chords from another, juxtaposing just about anything. Then, record your experimentations into the Arrangement window, edit to your heart’s content and seamlessly move back into Session mode for live performance or further manipulation.

“I was never a stellar student, but with Live, I always feel ahead of the curve. When I decided to start using it, I sat down in my studio, and a week later emerged from the rabbit hole a better musician…”

Behles had previously worked on granular synthesis for Native Instruments Reaktor, and parallels can be drawn with Live: a key feature of its engine is that you can manipulate the flow of time and pitch on the fly. This was an alien concept in music sequencers of old which had simply emulated tape machines; Live took the real-time concept and flew with it. Interestingly enough, its lack of ‘destructive’ audio editing was actually listed as a ‘Con’ in tech magazine Sound On Sound’s review of Ableton 1. Now, non-destructive editing is the standard in almost ever DAW.

Something else Live offered was some really intuitive yet experimental effects. The likes of the Grain Delay, Erosion, Resonators and Beat Repeat are synonymous with the Live sound but were groundbreaking ideas, more closely associated with Cycling 74’s Max/MSP and miles away from the bundled plugins in Logic or Pro Tools.

“Live is one of the most transparent and creative software I have ever used. The whole process is easy, simple and fun, yet with accessible sophistication and professional results.” Thomas Bangalter, Daft Punk

The clever routing in Ableton, too, makes it simple to quickly record MIDI to audio, resample multiple channels, self-oscillate sends and returns, group tracks together and more. Live supports ReWire technology, too. It can be both a host sequencer (to Propellerhead’s Reason for example) or a slave (to Logic, ProTools, Cubase etc).

However, it wasn’t always accepted by the wider community as a tool for composition. Outside of a few key super users, Live was largely misunderstood by the mainstream. Perhaps one of most notorious early-adopters was Richie Hawtin, who began to use Live around the time of his Decks FX 9 album ‘Re-edit’.

Max for Live

Ableton and Max/MSP have always had an intrinsic relationship, with a dispelled rumour that Live was originally written in Max, though developers have admitted testing ideas out as Max patches before moving them over to Live. In 2009 Ableton announced Max for Live (or M4L) – a fully integrated and editable platform for users to create devices from scratch to interface with Live in a whole new way.

Max for Live has not only gone under the hood and introduced the world of programming to musicians but also allows users’ own creations to be shared throughout the community, much like Reaktor’s ensembles (probably the closest analogy). The devices achievable with Max are way beyond those traditionally associated with effects units: the ordinary modulations and spatial effects are replaced with randomisers, granular mashup tools, convolution reverbs, MIDI tools, sequencers and glitch effects.

ather than pigeonholing themselves within the already crowded digital DJ market, Ableton saw what it did well and how it could work with other products. In 2010 they partnered with Serato to introduce The Bridge, a way of incorporating the vinyl emulation technology of Serato with Live’s fine-tuning and editing facilities. With endorsement from the likes Hudson Mohawke, Questlove (The Roots) and Kenny Dope it’s strange to see why nobody saw this synergy sooner. But after a rocky start, support for The Bridge in the latest versions of both software was discontinued.

In 2012 Live finally tied the knot with Berlin neighbours SoundCloud. After years of talking about it, they integrated an ‘export to SoundCloud’ feature in Live’s bounce pop-up, something which DAWs lie PreSonus Studio One had introduced years earlier, and Logic has only recently caught up with.

Where Is It Now?

The latest outing from the Ableton camp is their second product Push. On the surface this is a hardware controller much like Native Instruments’ Maschine or Akai’s APC40s, but dig a little deeper and you’ll see that it’s much more than that.

“From a live perspective, the flexibility of Live is fantastic. While the MPC was a great drum machine and sequencer, it simply never allowed me to work with the speed and simplicity of Live. Even during rehearsals, I can quickly and easily put together new drums patterns, play around with effects and EQs, sequence scenes and structure things and all, crucially, without breaking the flow of making music with four other people. The range and depth of options available is almost a little bewildering…” Hot Chip

In contrast to Max for Live, the raison d’etre being to get people under the bonnet of Live, Push aims at taking people out of their computer completely. Ableton’s Gerhard Behles is convinced your posture can have a huge influence on the music you make, and Push is about reinventing how music is made.

One of the major concepts was (strangely) to limit the world of possibilities available – a departure away from the mouse and keyboard point-click domain where music making can become systematic and controlled at best, but sterile and contrived at worst.

“Limitation can drive inspiration, rather than the absence of it.” – Gerhard Behles

Push isn’t defined as a controller by Ableton; a controller by its definition is an accessory for controlling something, in this case the computer. Push is thought of as an engine in itself, with everything you need to make beats from scratch right in front of you. “Live takes what used to be hours and hours of cable and instrument routing and puts everything in layman’s terms, allowing almost anyone to generate music within five minutes of initialising the program.” – Matthew Dear

The Future

It could be argued that for all Live’s excellent functionality, cutting-edge user interface and leading the way in lots of areas, they are behind on certain things. It’s taken until version 9.2 to introduce a tuner (finally trying to corner the instrumentalist market?) and Plugin Delay Compensation (PDC) is still a bit of a grey area.#

Ableton are a relatively new company compared to their competitors. Their philosophy has been to free themselves of the shackles of a traditional studio DAWs, so at fifteen years-young, there’s no telling what the future can hold for them. Further OSC (Open Sound Control) support, proper PDC, Rekordbox integration and improved multimedia support would be welcomed additions.

What’s obvious is that Push’s functionality is going to expanded upon, Behles has admitted this much. It’s reasonable to assume Max for Live is going to go from strength to strength with new API calls being added with each new release of Live. As a company who cherishes its user base, Ableton’s reign is unlikely to waver any time soon.

Words: Ali Jamieson

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Editor’s Note: This is an old article and things have moved on considerably since the original publication date 🙂

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