The line between musicians and live DJs has become increasingly blurred, as musicians add sampled sound to their live performances and DJs enhance prerecorded material with live electronic instruments. Ableton’s Live 1.5, a sample sequencer, further blurs this line. Live allows you to easily construct electronic, hip-hop, and trance dance music on-the-fly by triggering and layering sound snippets with your Mac or MIDI keyboard. With its intuitive interface and beat-matching capabilities, Live is sure to find a following on both sides of the line.
A Break from the Past
Like music-creation apps such as Sonic Foundry’s Acid and BitHeadz’s Phrazer (which are intended for dance-club music makers), Live lets you piece together sampled audio files to create musical arrangements, and it then lets you scale the tempo of your arrangements without altering the music’s pitch. Live can also determine the rhythmic landscape of a sound file by analyzing its waveform. If the program guesses incorrectly, you can use adjustment sliders to put beats where they belong. But what sets Live apart from other programs is that it offers more control over triggering samples, turning what seems to be a tool for creating loop-based compositions in the studio into an interactive performance instrument.
Live operates in two environments: Session and Arranger. In the Session environment, you can trigger clips, tracks, and scenes (collections of tracks), as well as record your performance. Each track has volume, pan, and signal-routing controls and can contain multiple audio clips, which you can arrange into one of several scenes. In the Session environment, you’ll usually trigger clips, tracks, and scenes with your mouse, keyboard, or MIDI controller.
To tweak recorded tracks–for example, to edit the length and location of audio bits or to automate adjustments to volume and pan–you use the Arranger environment.
Triggering is what gives Live its power. You can assign most of Live’s functions to your keyboard or MIDI controller and then trigger and record the various clips, tracks, and scenes you’ve loaded into Live. You can also preview clips while your tune is playing before adding them to your arrangement.
This may sound daunting, but almost all of Live’s functions are displayed on screen with intuitive icons, and an Info View window indicates each item’s purpose. Live operates beautifully with the included samples and does a reasonable job of beat-matching samples not included with the program.
Live is easy to use, but the manual could use additional detail–more information on signal routing and buses, for example. And although the Live 1.5 update has desirable additions such as the Render-To-Disk function, which gives you the ability to render your finished product as a single AIFF file, Live sometimes mistakes these rendered files for files created by a later version of the program and won’t open them. (You can resolve this problem by opening the file in a program capable of reading AIFF files–QuickTime Player Pro, for example–and saving the file as a QuickTime AIFF file.)
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Though the manual is short on specifics, and despite the program’s minor glitches, Live 1.5 is an easy-to-use performance tool that’s equally at home in the studio and on stage. Musicians and DJs looking for a new groove, particularly one they can take on the road, should give Live a try.