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Ableton Live review: This digital audio workstation does it all

Jon L. Jacobi | March 3, 2016
The best software for creating and recording music, as well as live performance. A bit pricey, but worth it.

As a track-based DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, i.e. a MIDI and audio recorder/editor) guy, my first look at Ableton Live elicited from me a rather long-winded “huh?” It was familiar-looking, but at the same time not. However, befuddlement soon gave way to stark admiration for the program’s interface and abilities.

I wrote the above paragraph five years ago. But while I admired Ableton, I kept going back to the DAWs with workflows I was familiar with such as Studio One, Cubase, Sonar, and even Mulab, even though they all irritated me in one way or another. I could just never get over the hump of Ableton’s unfamiliarity. A real shame, because now that I’m fully on board, for the first time in my recording life I’m free of DAW-envy. While I have a few nits with Ableton, I’m no longer tempted by others. At least for the creative stage.

Why? Three reasons: workflow, simplicity, and a resizable interface. Ableton Live, now at version 9.6, is by far the simplest DAW to navigate and record with—once you know what you’re doing. It’s not necessarily intuitive to those coming from other DAWs, which is why it took me so long to get with the program. However, the program’s methods make so much sense once I find them, I never have to struggle to remember where something is or how to use it.

When I say simplicity, I’m not saying Ableton Live lacks power or sophistication—it has those in spades. But, despite the myriad of feature requests you find in the Ableton forums, they’ve kept things simple, and relegated what might be niche features to Max for Live. Max is a framework/interface to the inner workings of Live that allows the development of third-party plug-ins and utilities.

Live’s interface is re-sizable because it’s rendered using drawing commands, or simple stretchable bitmaps, not “realistic”, static-sized bitmaps. Switching to an Ultra UHD display? Open preferences and set the interface to 150% or even 200%. The resized text and controls keeps things legible where smaller, constant-size bitmaps disappear into obscurity. My older eyes truly appreciate this. To be fair, most other programs are now adding support for higher-resolution displays.

When I originally reviewed Ableton Live in 2010, I talked a lot about the paned interface, but other programs have largely caught up with what was at the time, a rather unique approach. No one, however, has caught up with Live’s keep-it-minimal and straightforward controls. Tiny icons, visual clutter, and poor feature delineation are my problems in several major DAWs.

Another thing I love about Ableton, is that it’s not modal. That is, you don’t select specific tools to enter notes, delete them, split parts, etc. though there is a draw mode for mass note entry. Modal, which works well in art programs where there are huge numbers of tools, has always driven me nuts in music programs. Given any particular context, there are only a very few things you might want to do with a note, part, or clip, so Ableton puts the commands in a context menu and/or assigns them to a keystroke.


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