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 of music software.
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 of music production software. It’s a feeling that a lot of 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 of a lot of setups. I learned the basics of music-making on a cracked copy of 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 of 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 of users though, Live is probably not the one-stop-shop it used to be. Its Suite version – which contains all of 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 of 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 of Live, unlocking ways of 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 of 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 of 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 of 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 of 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 soft 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 of these blows all of Live’s classic effects out of the water, especially Echo, which, like Wavetable, feels inspired by recent trends in modular synthesis. This also has a tab for tweaking modulation of the delay alongside controls for the amount of 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 of anything, not just drums and guitar tones.
Another big change – one that’s likely to transform music-making for a lot of 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. Now it’s baked into Live, it’s a lot more inviting for newcomers to dive into. Take Max For Live’s LFO, which can be plugged into Wavetable, Operator and lots of other parameters in Live 10 – now up to eight of them from a single LFO. Plug the LFO into the velocity and position settings of one of Tention’s guitar presets to make some glitchy string sounds if that’s what you want to do. If there’s any criticism of 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 of the greatest features I’ve used in a DAW: Capture. Most of 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 of, 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 of someone else’s. Diving into these packs has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of Live 10 so far, and they’re likely to be indispensable for novices and Live veterans alike. There’s also four great packs of basic sounds that cover raw acoustic drums, classic drum machines, vintage synths and electric keyboards, all of which have more content than most people will need.
Of course, there’s a very big caveat to all of this, which is that most of the new stuff you’ll want – Wavetable, Echo, Pedal, most of the samples – only come with Live 10 Suite, which costs $749 (£539). So is it worth it? Compared to the fairly dated offering inside Live 9 Suite, yes. You also need Live 10 Suite to take advantage of 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 of 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.
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