Thank goodness for GarageBand ( ). Without it, not only would countless musicians (and musicians-in-training) lack an easy-to-use musical sketchpad, but software reviewers would tie themselves into knots explaining the idea of loop-based sequencing to readers unfamiliar with the concept. But, thanks to GarageBand, many of you probably already understand the notion that you can create musical compositions by stringing together prerecorded digital audio and MIDI tidbits. And because you do, I can skip much of the prologue and state that, in its latest iteration, Ableton Live 6.0.3 goes well beyond its roots ( ) as a loop-based sequencer and adds features that make it an option for those desiring a nearly full-blown digital audio workstation (DAW).
Before addressing Live 6’s improvements over the previous version, it’s worth recounting its essential capabilities and unique talents. Live earns its name by giving you the power to easily trigger prerecorded audio with a computer’s keyboard, mouse, or, ideally, with a MIDI keyboard. The ability to assign MIDI controllers to just about any one of Live’s functions is one of the program’s primary strengths. In this regard, unlike with traditional DAWs, MIDI control makes Live as much a playable instrument as it is an audio editor and MIDI sequencer.
For those interested in creating and modifying compelling grooves on the fly, Live is absolutely the tool to use. But Live can also behave like that traditional DAW, providing an Arrangement view where you linearly record digital audio and MIDI tracks as well as add prerecorded clips, virtual instruments, and effects by dragging them from Live’s File Browser pane. As with GarageBand, you can alter the speed of your composition, and the clips will stretch (or warp , in Live parlance) so that they match the tempo of the piece without changing pitch (and without introducing ugly audio artifacts that can cause the sound to warble or stutter). Unlike GarageBand, Live provides the power to manipulate clips in a variety of ways. Not only can you add and chain together effects (using Live’s built-in effects, Audio Units and VST effects for audio files, and MIDI effects), but you can also edit MIDI controller data (change the velocity data on a series of notes, for example), and you can edit individual samples to change such elements as their pitch, volume, and panning.
To get a better notion of what Live can do, download the fully functional demo from Ableton (the demo disables saving and exporting). Running through the excellent lesson files accessible via Live’s Help menu will familiarize you with the program’s main features in short order.
Live 6 adds some new features in this version that should interest current and potential users. Most intriguing to me, as an editor of Macworld ’s video podcasts, is Live’s support for QuickTime movies. You can now drag a QuickTime movie into a track within Live’s Arrangement window and not only create a score synchronized to that movie but also edit and apply effects to the movie’s audio tracks just as you can with any other Live tracks. Live is particular about how your movies are named, however. While it will readily import movies with a .mov or .avi extension, it doesn’t know what to do with files that end in .m4v. Append a .mov extension to those files, and they import as they should.
If you have a multiprocessor or multicore Mac you’ll be pleased that Live now puts your increased processing power to good use. With support for more powerful Macs, you’re far less likely to run into situations where Live balks at smoothly playing complex, multi-track compositions. On my 2.66GHz Dual-Core Mac Pro, I was able to construct a thick, multitrack composition and play a dense sampled track live with nary a hiccup.
If you don’t have one of these powerful Macs (or you manage to demand too much of Live) you can take some of the pressure off your Mac’s processor with the new Deep Freeze feature. Although you could freeze tracks in the previous version of Live—meaning that Live would create an audio file of the frozen track, which requires far less from your processor when played back—you couldn’t edit these frozen tracks. With Deep Freeze, you still have a measure of control over your frosty tracks. For example, you can trim the clips, apply automation to them, and drag frozen MIDI clips into audio tracks.
Live 6 also introduces instrument and effect racks. The rack concept is familiar to musicians—it’s a collection of devices run in parallel that can be saved and manipulated as a single device. For example, you might create an instrument rack that combines a piano sample with an airy pad synthesizer that has reverb and flange effects applied to it. Using Live’s new macro controls you can change the character of the rack with up to eight knobs, each capable of altering any parameter from any device in the rack. Racks can also be exported and shared with other Live users.
Live optionally offers a new $199 Sampler instrument capable of playing and editing samples in a variety of formats as well as the $119 Essential Instrument Collection, a multigigabyte array of instruments from SONiVOX that are played through Live’s included Simpler instrument.
Macworld’s buying advice
Ableton’s Live has long been a capable and creative tool for making music both in the studio and in live performance. Live 6.0.3 expands those capabilities and—with the addition of multiprocessor and core support and its Deep Freeze function—makes for a better performing program. The addition of video support may even tempt those who have—up to now—been perfectly happy with Apple’s Soundtrack Pro ( ). If you’re a musician seeking inspiration from your digital audio workstation or a DJ looking for tools more interesting than a turntable and mixer, you owe yourself a long look at Live.
[ Senior Editor Christopher Breen is the author of The iPod and iTunes Pocket Guide, second edition (Peachpit Press, 2007). ]Among Live 6’s new features is the ability to import movie files, making it easier to create movie soundtracks.