Ableton Live is a digital audio workstation developed by Ableton for macOS and Windows. In contrast to many other software sequencers, Ableton Live is designed to be an instrument for live performances as well as a tool for composing, recording, arranging, mixing, and mastering. It is also used by DJs, as it offers a suite of controls for beatmatching, crossfading, and other different effects used by turntablists, and was one of the first music applications to automatically beatmatch songs. Live is available in three editions: Intro (with limited key features), Standard, and Suite.
Ableton co-founders Gerhard Behles, Robert Henke, and Bernd Roggendorf developed Live from homemade software that Behles and Henke had created to facilitate their live music performances as Monolake. They released the first version of Live in 2001 as commercial software. Ableton Live is written in C++. Live itself was not prototyped in Max, although most of the audio devices were.
Live's user interface is composed of two 'Views' – the Arrangement View and the Session View. Live utilizes audio sample or MIDI sequences, referred to as Clips, which are arranged to be played live (i.e. triggered) or played back in a pre-arranged order. MIDI triggers notes on Live's built in instruments, as well as third party VST instruments or external hardware.
The Session View offers a grid-based representation of all of the Clips in a Live Set. These clips can be arranged into scenes which can then be triggered as a unit. For instance a drum, bass and guitar track might comprise a single scene. When moving on to the next scene, which may feature a synth bassline, the artist will trigger the scene, activating the clips for that scene.
The Arrangement View offers a horizontal music production timeline of Clips that is more similar to a traditional software sequencer interface. The Arrangement View is used for recording tracks from the session view and further manipulating their arrangement and effects. It is also used for manual MIDI sequencing.
The Intro version of Live includes four instruments (Impulse, Simpler, Instrument Rack, and Drum Rack) and the Standard version of Live additionally includes External Instrument, with users having the option to purchase additional instruments. By contrast, Live Suite includes all available instruments.
- Impulse - a traditional drum triggering instrument which allows the user to define a kit of up to eight drum sounds, each based on a single sample. There are a number of effects available such as basic equalization, attack, decay, pitch shift, etc. Once the kit is defined, rhythms and beats are created through Live's MIDI sequencer.
- Simpler - a basic sampling instrument. It functions using a single audio sample, applying simple effects, and envelopes, finally applying pitch transformations in the form of Granular synthesis. In this case, incoming MIDI does not trigger drums as it does in Impulse, but selects the final pitch of the sample, with C3 playing the sample at its original pitch.
- Drum Rack - a sampler for drums. MIDI notes trigger individual "Simplers" so rather than triggering one sample at multiple pitches, individual samples are triggered at predefined pitches, as is suitable for MIDI drum programming. As is usual with Ableton almost anything can be drag dropped to or from the drum racks; for example, one can drop an audio clip or any MIDI device onto a drum rack note.
- Instrument Rack - allows the user to combine multiple instruments and effects into a single device, allowing for split and layered sounds with customized macro controls.
- Analog - simulates an analog synthesizer.
- Bass - a monophonic virtual analog bass synthesizer.
- Collision - a mallet percussionphysical modelling synthesizer.
- Drum Synths - 8 devices for creating drum and percussion sounds via synthesis.
- Electric - an electric piano instrument.
- Operator - an FM synthesizer.
- Poli - a virtual analog synthesizer that combines subtractive and FM synthesis
- Sampler - an enhanced sampler.
- Tension - a string physical modelling synthesizer.
- Wavetable - a wavetable synthesizer featuring two oscillators and re-mappable modulation sources.
Ableton also has available a massive selection of Add-on Sample Packs with which a user can expand the sound libraries for their instruments.
- Session Drums - a collection of sampled drum kits.
- Latin Percussion - a collection of sampled latin percussion hits and loops.
- Essential Instruments Collection - a large collection of acoustic and electric instrument samples.
- Orchestral Instrument Collection - a collection of four different orchestral libraries, which can be purchased individually or as a bundle: Orchestral Strings, Orchestral Brass, Orchestral Woodwinds and Orchestral Percussion. The Orchestral Instrument Collection is included upon purchase of Live Suite but must be downloaded separately.
Dedicated hardware instruments
Akai Professional makes the APC40 mk II, a MIDI controller designed to work solely with Ableton Live. A smaller version, the APC20, was released in 2010. Though there are many MIDI controllers compatible with Ableton, these Akai units try to closely map the actual Ableton Live layout onto physical space. Novation Digital Music Systems has created the "Launchpad" which is a pad device that has been designed for use with Ableton. There are currently four different Launchpad models: Launchpad Mini, Launchpad X, Launchpad Pro, and Launchpad Control. Ableton has also released their own MIDI controller, the Push, which is the first pad-based controller that embraces scales and melody. In November 2015, Ableton released an updated MIDI controller, the Push 2, along with Live 9.5.
Most of Live's effects are already common effects in the digital signal processing world which have been adapted to fit Live's interface. They are tailored to suit Live's target audience – electronic musicians and DJs - but may also be used for other recording tasks such as processing a guitar rig. The effects featured in Ableton Live are grouped into two categories - MIDI effects and audio effects.
Live is also able to host VST plugins and, on the macOS version, Audio Unitplug-ins as well as Max for Live devices since Live 9.
Working with audio clips
Sasha playing a DJ set using Ableton Live running on an iMac G5.
In addition to the instruments mentioned above, Live can work with samples. Live attempts to do beat analysis of the samples to find their meter, number of bars and the number of beats per minute. This makes it possible for Live to shift these samples to fit into loops that are tied into the piece's global tempo.
Additionally, Live's Time Warp feature can be used to either correct or adjust beat positions in the sample. By setting warp markers to a specific point in the sample, arbitrary points in the sample can be pegged to positions in the measure. For instance a drum beat that fell 250 ms after the midpoint in measure may be adjusted so that it will be played back precisely at the midpoint.
Some artists and online stores, such as The Covert Operators and Puremagnetik, now make available sample packs that are pre-adjusted, with tempo information and warp markers added. The audio files are accompanied with an "analysis file" in Live's native format (.asd files).
Ableton Live also supports Audio To MIDI, which converts audio samples into a sequence of MIDI notes using three different conversion methods including conversion to Melody, Harmony, or Rhythm. Once finished, Live will create a new MIDI track containing the fresh MIDI notes along with an instrument to play back the notes. Audio to midi conversion is not always 100% accurate and may require the artist or producer to manually adjust some notes. See Fourier transform.
Almost all of the parameters in Live can be automated by envelopes which may be drawn either on clips, in which case they will be used in every performance of that clip, or on the entire arrangement. The most obvious examples are volume and track panning, but envelopes are also used in Live to control parameters of audio devices such as the root note of a resonator or a filter's cutoff frequency. Clip envelopes may also be mapped to MIDI controls, which can also control parameters in real-time using sliders, faders and such. Using the global transport record function will also record changes made to these parameters, creating an envelope for them.
Much of Live's interface comes from being designed for use in live performance, as well as for production. There are few pop up messages or dialogs. Portions of the interface are hidden and shown based on arrows which may be clicked to show or hide a certain segment (e.g. to hide the instrument/effect list or to show or hide the help box).
Live now supports latency compensation for plug-in and mixer automation.
The large, international community of users and education around Ableton Live has helped the software grow in popularity. Across the globe, there are Live User Groups and online communities for musicians learning Ableton Live. In 2017 Ableton took this a step further with their educational initiative. This allowed users of Push, a controller for Ableton Live, to trade in their Push 1 unit in exchange for a Push 2 discount. The older Push 1 units were then donated to schools around the world to help inspire kids and adults to explore digital based music production.
To help the music community with the ever growing flood of online schools and trainer, Ableton created a certification program called Ableton Certified Trainers in 2008. As of 2018 there are only 280 professional educators that have been hand picked by Ableton for their extensive knowledge and skill with Ableton Live, Push, and Max For Live. Currently there are trainers in 53 countries offering instruction in 33 languages.
Notable Ableton Certified Trainers include Thavius Beck, Isaac Cotec (Subaqueous Music), Brian Funk (AfroDjMac), James Patrick of Slam Academy, and Laura Escudé.
There is also a large community of online blogs, forums, user groups, and websites dedicated to growing the Ableton Live user community.
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