Ableton Live 10 is here, with visual improvements, a new synth, three new effects and a promise that making music with the DAW will be easier and more fun than ever before. But does it deliver? Scott Wilson dives into the year’s most anticipated piece music stware.
I’m not sure when or how it happened, but at some point over the past seven or so years, Ableton Live stopped giving me what I wanted from a piece music production stware. It’s a feeling that a lot Live users I know share. Some have moved to building their own modular synths, others have moved to all-in-one boxes like Elektron’s Octatrack hardware, while I’ve found myself more interested in what Native Instruments and Bitwig have been doing. The reason for this is simple: where once Ableton led on innovation, it’s let itself get overtaken by the competition. For me at least, Live’s Operator synth doesn’t cut it in a post-Massive world.
Despite this, Live is still an essential part a lot setups. I learned the basics music-making on a cracked copy Live 5 that I downloaded in 2006 and I’ve not been able to bring myself to fully switch to another DAW in the years that have followed because, well, I know how to use it. Even if the basic principles all DAWs are the same, learning a new one is hard. On a simple level, it’s down to muscle memory – knowing instinctively where to click to find what you need – but it’s also the time you need to take to unlearn these habits – time I’d rather spend making music.
For a lot users though, Live is probably not the one-stop-shop it used to be. Its Suite version – which contains all Ableton’s synths, effects and samples, either licensed or in-house and was my entire studio for several years – had become dated next to platforms like NI’s Maschine, whose drum sounds are better suited to the contemporary electronic landscape. For the past few years, I’ve been using Live as a container for third-party VSTs, recording audio from hardware synths, basic effects work and very little else. My Push controller – which I love – has become a glorified clip launcher. For someone who grew up on Live, it’s been a valuable and fun learning experience to break out the Live ecosystem, but also a little heartbreaking.
Thankfully, Live 10 rectifies these shortcomings and then some. It’s all the more impressive because Ableton isn’t easily able to start from the ground up and make, say, a Bitwig Studio. People like me still use Ableton for bouncing down tracks because it’s as familiar and comfortable as a favorite sweatshirt; if you change the fundamentals then you’re going to alienate the core user. So, although everything looks sharper and there’s a snazzy new font, everything you know about Live is still there in the same place. On paper, it doesn’t even have that many new tools or features, but the modest additions totally change the experience Live, unlocking ways making music and designing sound that are incredibly intuitive to learn and use.
Take the new synth, Wavetable, which is is the first in-house synth that Ableton has made since Operator. As the name suggests, it’s a wavetable synth in the tradition the PPG Wave, and though wavetable synths have a reputation for being complex, Wavetable is the simplest instrument Ableton has made. It requires a bit more work to learn than a typical subtractive synthesis flow, but the visual element – which shows you the chosen wavetable being used as a basis for the patch – gives you a good idea what’s going to come out when you press the keys. Most importantly, it’s designed logically enough that anyone can load a preset and figure out how it works by turning knobs, which is more than I ever achieved with Operator.
Wavetable can do a good enough job recreating analog and other recognisable sounds using its circuit modelling technology, but it comes into its own when you treat it like an instrument in its own right. At the heart Wavetable is a modulation matrix (a concept that’s seen quite regularly these days) that can be used to add more life and movement to the presets or patches you create. At times, working with Wavetable feels more like tinkering with a modular system than a basic st synth, especially when you start to experiment with Live 10’s other new effects and features.
Live 10’s new effects include an analog tape delay called Echo, a guitar pedal-inspired unit called, appropriately, Pedal, and Drum Buss, an easy plug-in for beefing up your drum sounds. Each these blows all Live’s classic effects out the water, especially Echo, which, like Wavetable, feels inspired by recent trends in modular synthesis. This also has a tab for tweaking modulation the delay alongside controls for the amount tape wobble and noise; it’s possible to get endlessly lost in Echo just making weird delay effects. Pedal and Drum Buss are simpler but incredibly versatile; they totally change the character anything, not just drums and guitar tones.
Another big change – one that’s likely to transform music-making for a lot Live users – is that Max For Live is now built into Ableton. Although this add on was undoubtedly very powerful for making weird instruments and MIDI effects (see Coldcut’s MIDIvolve), it felt at times like a totally separate platform; certain things, like the LFO, could only be used with other Max For Live devices. Now Max For Live’s LFO can be plugged into Wavetable, Operator and lots other parameters in Live 10. For example, you can plug the LFO into the velocity setting one Tention’s guitar presets to make some glitchy string sounds if that’s what you want to do. If there’s any criticism Live 10, it’s that it’s now even easier to get lost in making sounds that are ultimately fairly pointless.
While there’s a lot in Live 10 that will probably sap your studio time, it’s also got some tools that make building tracks very easy. As well as the ability to edit multiple MIDI clips at once (a real timesaver for creating drums and basslines in tandem) and a function for creating groups within groups, Live 10 has one the greatest features I’ve used in a DAW: Capture. Most my ideas are found while I mess around with the keyboard or controller without the record button armed, but Capture is always recording MIDI note data in the background. If you play a chord sequence, drum loop or melody you like the sound , you just press the Capture button and it puts it in a clip at an estimated tempo. Sometimes it gets it wrong – especially at very slow tempos – but overall it’s a game-changing tool.
The most unexpected improvement to Live 10 is its overhauled sound packs. I tend not to use samples, but the philosophy behind packs like Skitter and Step or Chop and Swing is different, taking a more genre-agnostic approach to collecting sounds, effects and presets. Although these packs are loosely connected by theme (Chop and Swing is old-school hip-hop and vintage house), they really give you the basic building blocks to create your own music rather than a facsimile someone else’s. Diving into these packs has been one the most enjoyable aspects Live 10 so far, and they’re likely to be indispensable for novices and Live veterans alike. There’s also four great packs basic sounds that cover raw acoustic drums, classic drum machines, vintage synths and electric keyboards, all which have more content than most people will need.
Of course, there’s a very big caveat to all this, which is that most the new stuff you’ll want – Wavetable, Echo, Pedal, most the samples – only come with Live 10 Suite, which costs $749 (£539). So is it worth it? Compared to the fairly dated fering inside Live 9 Suite, yes. You also need Live 10 Suite to take advantage the new Max For Live, which has gone from being a useful add-on to something with the potential to change the way people interact with Live. It may not have the advanced modulation engine Bitwig Studio 2 or look as cool as a well-stocked Eurorack system, but it’s questionable as to whether most people need all that depth. Instead, Live 10 gives you just enough new toys to play with and great tools to keep you focused. It’s not the revolution some people might want, but you’re anything like me, it’ll rekindle your love for Live.
Scott Wilson is FACT’s Make Music editor. Find him on Twitter.
Read next: Music gear we’re excited for in 2018