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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.

Why users like it

Ableton Live’s appeal for many users is the step-based, part-oriented (parts are called “clips” in Ableton vernacular) arranger that makes electronic live performance, creation, and improvisation very easy. But Live is also very good at track-based recording, which is what I do. There are a couple of foibles, but for the solo artist, the ease of getting a track laid down more than makes up for them. Coming from other DAWs, I kept saying “Why doesn’t Live do this?” only to discover there was a different, and often better way.

Though no longer unique among DAWs, another outstanding feature of Ableton Live is its audio warping, i.e. manipulating the rhythm, tempo, and pitch of audio (or MIDI). This can be used for anything from matching tempos of dance songs while DJ’ing at a night club, to fixing timing problems in a recorded performance, to breathing life into robotic computer music by applying human-like grooves. Ableton can also extract grooves from existing audio material. If you want that feel from your favorite recording, you can have it.

Ableton Live supports VST instruments and plug-ins; the MIDI editing is excellent, and the built-in instruments, sounds, and effects are top-notch. Automation of everything is seamlessly integrated, and the included sampler instrument imports a variety of formats. 

One area where Ableton might still be considered lacking is in traditional destructive audio editing. You can do a lot with the parts derived from audio files, but if you need to do something such as strip the silence or delete parts of the original file, you must send it to an external editor. I use the free Ocenaudio, Izotope RX, and occasionally Melodyne. I wish you could choose from several programs from within Live, but it only lets you define one. It does however, show you exactly where the file is on disk so you can open others on your own without too much hassle. 

Ableton Live comes in three basic flavors: Suite ($749), which offers a lot more of everything including sounds, effects, and instruments; Standard ($449), with its basic set of sounds and effects; and Intro ($99) which is limited to 16 tracks and has far fewer instruments. To be honest, I could probably make do with Intro, except it lacks the “Complex” and “Complex Pro” audio warping modes that I sometimes use to fix recorded instrument audio tracks. 

Ableton also markets a $799 dedicated controller for Live called Push (now Push 2), as well as the $199 Max for Live. There are also scads of content packs for users who like to shape and manipulate more than record.


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