Ableton Live 10
Five years on from version 9, Live gets an update. But is version 10 lacking in ‘headline’ features? Si Truss finds out…
Despite once being the young outlier of the DAW market, Live’s popularity – at least within the electronic music realm – is now such that Ableton barely need concern themselves with what their competitors are up to. Maybe it’s due to a lack of perceived threats, but Live 10 doesn’t feel like an update concerned with winning over new users. Coming nearly five years after the launch of version nine, this iteration is notable for its lack of headline-grabbing ‘game changer’ features, along the lines of Audio-ToMIDI conversion or Groove Extraction. We do get new Devices but, while these bring new tools to Live, they’re hardly cutting-edge within the wider music technology sphere. The same can be said about the workflow improvements – MIDI recall tool Capture is a handy addition, but similar tools have existed in other DAWs for a while.
Given a cursory glance at the press release, you could be forgiven for writing Live 10 off as a bit of an anticlimax. In reality though, this is an impressive update packed with features that enhance the overall experience – but you’ll need to spend a little time with it to truly appreciate the full scope of it.
On the Device front, version 10 adds one new instrument and a trio of effects. Wavetable is Live’s latest synth, which takes its name from its sound engine, based around two modulated sample-based oscillators. Wavetable synthesis has been around since the ’80s, made famous by the likes of PPG and Waldorf, but more recently used commonly in the software realm as the basis of plugins like Serum, SynthMaster and Massive. Compared to those plugins, Wavetable is a relatively simplistic take on the concept, lacking advanced features like user wavetable import. There’s still a decent crop of sound-shaping tools onboard though, including dual filters, an array of oscillator-shaping parameters and a mod matrix which, while not massively complex, makes it easy to add movement to sounds.
Ableton state that Wavetable aims to strike a balance between complexity and immediacy and I’d say they’ve hit the nail on the head in that sense. Thanks to a well-stocked library of source wavetables, it’s capable of a solid cross-section of sounds – from authentic-feeling recreations of analogue synths to evolving pads and textures – whilst still being accessible to those without an in-depth knowledge of its fundamental principles.
The Wavetable interface is nicely designed too. I’ve never been a huge fan of Live’s instrument UIs – the likes of Operator and Analog feel a bit fiddly and clinical to me – but with its animated oscillator displays, neat mod matrix and expanded view option, Wavetable is more inviting and intuitive than most of its siblings. So while it might not usurp your ‘power synth’ plugins, Wavetable is an excellent addition to Live’s in-built toolkit. Since first getting my hands on the Beta, I’ve been regularly reaching for it as a source of quick, relatively CPU-friendly textured sounds to layer up with other synths or create pads and atmospheres.
Of the new effects, Echo is the highlight. This is a new stereo delay that combines a flexible modulation system with an analogue-style design
loosely based on classic tape echoes. While Live already has several delay Devices – including Grain, Filter, Ping-Pong and Simple varieties – until now users have had to look elsewhere to achieve those classic dub/Space Echo sounds. Echo does more than straight analogue emulation though – its LFO-powered modulation section is great for exaggerated re-pitched effects, while built-in reverb, ducking/ gating and dual filters offer great tools for shaping drawn-out, ambient effects. Not only does Echo plug a hole in Live’s current feature set, it offers flexible creative tools that can go toe-to-toe with some of the best third-party plugins. I see this being a go-to effect for a lot of Live users.
Beyond this, Live 10 also adds Drum Buss and Pedal. Drum Buss is an interesting addition, combining simple compression, drive, upper-mid transient shaping and sub enhancement in a single, straightforward plugin. The compression and drive elements are a little basic, and you’ll probably still end up reaching for dedicated tools to fill those roles, but the rest of the Device’s functions are very effective. The upper-mid section is great for adjusting transient punch, and can add a touch of crunch to those frequencies too. Meanwhile, the sub-enhancer – labelled ‘Boom’ – can add a tuned resonant boost to low-end frequencies, with a decay control and the ability to lock the frequency to the chromatic scale. Great for adding a fundamental pitch to percussive and inharmonic material.
Finally, Pedal is a fairly simple three-in-one distortion stomp box emulation, offering overdrive, distortion and fuzz modes along with a three-band EQ. It does a decent job although isn’t going to set the world alight; it mostly just functions as fleshing out Live’s virtual guitar chain, alongside the Amp device.
While these new Devices grab the press release headlines, it’s the workflow enhancements and under-the-hood changes that make the difference. These range from a few obvious changes to numerous small tweaks that add up to an overall improved experience.
On the workflow front, the two most significant changes are the
Once you factor in every addition, 10 is a quality upgrade worth investing in
implementation of multi-Clip MIDI editing and nested group tracks. Both of these abilities already exist in rival DAWs, so it’s more a case of Live catching up than breaking new ground, but they’re still welcome and have been well implemented.
Working in the Arrangement view has been overhauled too. The biggest change here is implementation of hideable automation lanes – simply hit the automation button (or A on the keyboard) to show/hide automation beneath each track. There are numerous small tweaks to track automation behaviour too, all of which help to clean up and simplify the process of working with Arrangements.
Beyond these bigger changes, however, lie numerous small tweaks across the board, all of which add up to enhance the overall experience. There are too many tweaks to list here, but some of my personal favourites include the ability to name audio ins/ outs, the fact that projects now automatically save backup versions (and maintain the undo chain), and the ability to reverse anything in the arrangement view by simply selecting a region and hitting R on the keyboard. Some long-standing Devices have had subtle tweaks too – EQ Eight gets an extended bass frequency range, which is handy for controlling sub frequencies (with visual feedback from the built-in analyser), while Utility gains a Bass Mono switch, for reining in the stereo field below an adjustable frequency point.
Visually, Live 10 has been given a new look too, albeit a relatively subtle one. Fonts have been changed and lines have been softened to give the UI a slightly neater, more modern feel. More significant are changes to the Browser, which adds a new Collections list. This provides a selection of seven colour tags, which can be assigned to any Device, plugin, sample, loop or preset in order to create quick-access lists of favourites. On this subject, it’s worth mentioning Live’s crop of included samples and loops, which has been expanded and overhauled, and is now a truly excellent package of quality, usable sounds. The new browser makes it easier to manage and find these too.
Push users benefit from a number of enhancements too, including added step sequencing options and better views for several Devices. While none of these add features to Live that aren’t available without Push, it does mean that Push 2 remains by far the nicest way to interact with Live.
The DAW still has missing features – lack of proper MPE controller support is notable. Given this has recently been awarded ‘official’ MIDI status, I’d be surprised if this wasn’t added in a point update soon.
Live 10 is not a cheap update, when compared to some rival DAWs, and will inevitably get unfavourably compared to recent, generous free DAW updates from the likes of Apple and Bitwig. Live remains one of the best workstations on the market though, and – despite the lack of headline-grabbing features – once you factor in every tweak and addition, version 10 is a quality upgrade worth investing in.
Suite users definitely feel the benefit considerably more than Live Standard users, who miss out on Wavetable, Echo and Max access. It still remains a worthwhile update, but these factors might influence whether you rush out to update or choose to live with a previous version for a few more months.
NAMED I/O BROWSER COLLECTIONS WAVETABLE ARRANGEMENT VIEW The ability to assign names to your audio ins and outs is very handy, particularly for those who use hardware instruments or effects. This system of colour coding allows users to create lists...