Two weeks ago I dove right into the Live 9 adventure, an opportunity which was hard to resist when looking at all the extra bones Ableton has been throwing at its users. For starters the ever so expensive Orchestral Instrument Collection (“OIC”), now included in Suite 9. Or what to think about Max for Live?
And if all of that wasn’t good enough, Ableton also threw in a huge discount on the upgrade price during the first week of release. So all in all making it quite hard for fans to resist the urge to upgrade, and that’s even without mentioning any of the changes and enhancements which were also introduced with Live 9.
So how good or bad is Live 9? After two weeks I feel confident enough to write up a review; so lets dive right in…
Live 9 ‘Suite’ first impressions
As you may recall I wrote up an earlier first impression post where I shared several of my earlier findings during the upgrade procedure. And having said that you might also be interested in my tutorial on how to upgrade to Live 9.
In the overall my first impression of Live 9 has always been that it felt “incomplete”, maybe a bit rushed even. There are several new features which by themselves are pretty good, yet those are still lacking on some fronts. And that fuels my suspicion that Live 9 was released a bit earlier than planned, but more on that later…
Live 9 provides several new features and some of them are actually quite interesting. In no particular order here are the features I’ll be looking at in this post:
- A new Live browser; everything has been brought down into categories and places, which should give you more fine grained control over your material.
- Max for Live version 6; although Ableton presents Max for Live as part of Ableton Live its actually a completely separate environment. Namely Max, developed by Cycling ’74. Live 9 sees the inclusion of the latest version of Max in the form of Max for Live.
- Automation recording in clips; although Ableton focusses on this feature fact of the matter is that automation recording as a whole has been totally revised. And I’m not talking curves here..
- Extracting MIDI from audio; to hear some results with this please check out a previous post. But yeah; we can extract MIDI from audio, which works surprisingly well.
- New audio effect; although there’s only one its one worth mentioning. The Glue compressor is awesome and in my opinion it introduces real bus compression to Live 9.
- New audio collections; while the previously mentioned OIC is the most obvious addition there’s more where it came from.
And of course there are also quite a few changes. From enhancements in the MIDI editor (which I won’t be covering in this post) right down to changes in several of the Live devices (like a new interface on the Compressor and Gate devices for example). I’m planning to address several of those more in-depth in future posts.
A new browser
This is most likely the most controversial change of them all. Because not only has Ableton introduced a new interface, which by itself isn’t too bad, they also drastically changed the way this interface works and behaves.
As of Live 9 you no longer access folders on your hard drive which represent the folders and presets you see in the Live browser. Instead you now access categories, which are basically virtual segments of all the contents you have.
These categories are build from the material in your places section, which is the second half of the Live 9 browser. Places contains sections which point to physical locations on your hard drive. For example, the ‘Packs’ place points to the folder where all of the Livepack “installers” gets placed in. The “Live 8 library” place points to your previous Live 8 library (if you have one).
And obviously you can also add folders of your own. As you can see in the picture I added folders (“Places”) for my projects, samples and livepacks (the ones which don’t get installed to your library but need a place of their own).
Indexing & Inconsistency
There are two major issues with the browser though, and the way those affect you heavily depends on your work flow. This is why you’ll see people who are pleased with the browser as it is now (like myself) but also people who’s work flow got totally disrupted. Needless to say, they aren’t so happy with Live 9 in its current state; and for good reasons too.
First problem is indexing. One of the major complaints of the Live 8 browser was its nearly useless search feature. It worked, if you had the time. Every search request you made would make it search from start to finish all over again. And quite frankly; in most cases you’d be better off going through the presets yourself OR by using your operating systems file browser for searching, no kidding. Often those options would be much faster.
So to change this Ableton has introduced an indexing feature; everything you add to Live’s browser (the places section) gets indexed and stored in a database, which should allow Live 9 to do much faster searches. The downside to this is that people who have big sample collections will now have to wait quite a while before Live 9 finishes its indexing.
But there’s more… Even in the places sections you don’t get a real representation of what’s on your hard drive, instead you get to see what Live deems worthy to show. Now, this filter has always been in place, even on Live 8. But the indexing part is what can really ruin this experience…
If you have added a folder in your Live 9 environment, then add some files to it without having started Live 9 it can sometimes take quite a while (up to 5 minutes) before those new files show up in your Live browser. Simply because the new contents need to be indexed first. And you can’t tell Live 9 that it should start indexing or search for new stuff yourself; that only happens on specific occasions.
Another problem is that the new browser has become totally inconsistent when it comes to presets. For example; to the right you see the ‘brass’ section of the Operator instrument. This section contains one of my favourite sounds; Brass Brassinski. However; as you can see the ‘Brassinski’ preset shown here is not merely an Operator preset but an Instrument rack preset.
Considering that the Instrument Rack has a dedicated section of its own I can’t quite understand what this preset is doing under the Operator category, even though it does use Operator as its primary instrument.
I also fail to understand why the Operator Brassinski preset had to be renamed into “Bright Brass”; this only makes it harder on Live 8 users to find the contents they used so often. Not to mention that it makes no sense.
Especially if you take a closer look at the Brassinski instrument rack:
As you can see above here they did maintain the previously available ‘Brassinski’ Operator preset. So why isn’t this included in the Library itself, it makes no sense.
Especially if you compare these two presets (Brassinski as shown above and the ‘Bright Brass’ preset in the Live 9 library). The changes are so minimal that I get the feeling they applied changes because of the change. If the new preset was so much better, then why wasn’t it used here as well?
A new workflow
Now, even though I am critical about certain aspects I do like to state that the browser as whole works pretty well for me. The main thing to keep in mind is that you’ll need to adopt to a new work flow. So for example; where I used to copy / paste new Max for Live devices before firing up Live, I now start Live 9 first, then copy and paste contents into its folders.
Because although some parts in the browser maybe a bit flakey; Live 9 does an excellent job in detecting changes happening to one of its places sections (at least on Windows). As long as Live 9 is running new contents which I put in a folder myself (using Windows’ own file browser) will appear instantaneously.
Max for Live 6
The latest version of Max for Live provides us with the new Max 6 engine. Max, the visual multimedia programming language developed by Cycling ’74, has seen the release of version 6 last year but wasn’t compatible to be used with Live (8) out of the box.
This has now changed and Max 6 is now the defacto standard for usage with Max for Live.
Apart from several visual changes, a good example are the ‘curved’ patch cords which can be seen in the picture above, there are also several more specific enhancements. Like the new Gen engine which allows you to create specific low-level audio effects, which should allow for more complex devices which don’t tax your system as much.
However, I’ll be diving more into Max for Live in an upcoming blog post.
A completely new feature is the option to record automation right within a session view clip. At least that is the official description, fact of the matter is that automation recording has been completely rehauled in Live 9.
Live 9 introduces the ‘Automation arm’ button, which can be seen in the screenshot above (the icon in the command bar with the two ‘automation points’ (to the right of the + shaped icon, and to the left of the “arrow icon” (which is the new ‘re-enable automation’ feature).
In Live 8 you used to record automation the very moment you turned on the global record button. Every dial you touched would then result in any differences getting recorded into the arrangement view.
In Live 9 this now requires the automation record button to be armed before hitting global record; regardless if you’re recording something to the arrangement or into a clip.
It feels pretty solid; you hit the automation record, you start recording a clip and wham; all your stuff ends up in the envelope window. Nice.
No more clip overdub?
But just as before some things feel a bit odd here as well. For example; after you recorded a MIDI clip you used to be able to overdub. Meaning: while playing the clip you could add more contents to it, enhance it, with extra strokes and such.
But as of Live 9 this no longer functions.
That is; not as you’d expect it to function. In Live 8 you’d hit overdub, arm the track recording, start the clip and then add your enhancements.
As of Live 9 the only way to achieve this is by making sure that only the track you want to overdub is armed, then hit the new ‘Session record’ button (the round circle, to the left side of the ‘new’ icon).
So while overdubbing still works, it has changed quite a bit. The overdub button now only applies to the arrangement. And if you happen to keep multiple tracks armed then prepare yourself for some pain; because using “session record” will apply to all of them.
This is also one of those changes which don’t make too much sense at first.
Another thing to note is the changed behaviour of the global record button. Instead of priming your work for recording it will now start recording as soon as you click it, leaving you with only the pre-count to prepare.
Fortunately Ableton has made sure that you can still prime your work if you want to; just keep shift pressed the moment when you click on global recording and it behaves just as it did in Live 8.
Oh; for the record; global recording has now been renamed into the Arrangement record button. Another change which makes sense to me considering that the arrangement view is basically a different section of Live, and not per definition the “Main section” or such.
This is a terrain which is still fairly new to me since I don’t use it all that much. You can find more information about this feature in a previous post. Even so I think its pretty slick indeed. You have the option to extract harmony, melody or drums to a new MIDI track.
What this basically does is examine your audio material and extract relevant parts from it which then get re-created in a MIDI clip (with the appropriate notes obviously). The feature works quite well, although you shouldn’t expect an option which allows you to grab your favourite music scores one on one. Even so; if you’re planning to create mixes or remixes based on existing material then this could absolutely help you to enhance your material big time.
I’ve been using this on the material produced by my Casio keyboard (the build in songs and lessons) and this feature does an amazing job there.
New and enhanced audio effects
Live 9 introduces several enhancements to existing audio effects as well as the new Glue compressor, which Ableton developed together with Cytomic.
For Reason users such as myself the introduction of this compressor shouldn’t come as a big surprise. In my opinion it was merely a matter of time before Ableton would provide a true bus compressor with Live.
Just for the fun of it I’ve included an image of the Reason master bus compressor, and hopefully you’ll see the many similarities between these two devices. From the scale right down to the ratio settings.
What’s also funny, in my opinion, is that Ableton says that ‘Glue’ was “modeled on a classic 80s console bus compressor” whereas Propellerhead (creators of Reason) simply state that their mixer section is: “Modeled after the SSL 9000k, one of the most legendary analog studio consoles in modern music history.“.
So basically; although Glue is new for Live, it really isn’t that new when you look at it from a more global perspective.
Next in line are several changed audio effects, and here we get to see some really well designed changes.
Here you see the two gate devices; to the left the version from Live 8 and on the right the one in Live 9.
The difference in interface is pretty slick, and actually enhances the workflow quite dramatically in my opinion. Previously you’d basically set the threshold and be done with it, with Live 9 you can actually see the signal you’re trying to regulate being displayed right behind the controls. Although I was quite sceptic at first I have to say that this can really help get a good overview and much better control over the signals you’re trying to get under control 😉
What I also consider to be very straight forward is the new compressor.
The new interface makes much sense here as well; there are actually 3 different ‘views’ to chose from. The one shown here, the more classic “Ratio / Threshold display” where both are shown as a single line graph. And finally the section where the amount of compression is shown against the actual signal being displayed in the background.
Those changes really make sense and really help you to enhance your workflow, if you let it.
However there are also many changes which have turned out for the worst. The most obvious example is of course the way Live 9 breaks rewire, but my personal gripe sits mostly with the External instrument device, which I use on a very regular basis.
This device provides easier access to Live’s routing capabilities. Instead of having to pull up the I/O section to change the destination where MIDI signals get sent to, you can simply change them inside this device.
Unfortunately it now has a mind of its own. In Live 8 it used to clearly show you if a destination was unavailable. For example; in this picture you see my default preset; where MIDI To is set to Reason (rewired). However, because Reason hasn’t been started in this example the device now points to something else. Even though it doesn’t really use this new setting (no MIDI gets send to my Casio keyboard here).
In Live 8, prior to the latest 8.4 update, this used to behave differently. If a destination wasn’t available it would still be shown but coloured red. So that you could easily see in one blink of an eye that you were trying to reach something which wasn’t available at that time. Now it simply tries to confuse you, which I consider to be a change for the worst.
Last but not least are the extra audio packs. There are no more “Partner instruments”, and even the famous Orchestral Instrument Collection has been cut up into separately available live packs. Right now you can enhance on your Live experience by purchasing Packs.
Live 9, including Suite, have enhanced quite a bit on this front. Of course Suite comes with the OIC, as I’ve mentioned several times before now, but also provides packs such as Digicussion, Cycling Waves and Bomblastic.
From samples to ready to use beats right down to a whole groove library which you can use to give your MIDI clips more variation in order to make them appear less ‘static’.
Its all good, and the packs I mentioned here are also available on Live, not merely the Suite edition. However, it does feel strange if you get access to lots of new sounds, yet very useful presets from Live 8 haven’t been included at all (though rumour has it that Ableton is planning to release a “Live 8 legacy” pack in the near future).
Live 9 is a very solid upgrade from Live 8, but please keep in mind that I’m focussing on the Suite edition here. Many changes really make sense; I for one welcome Ableton’s decision to include Max for Live by default to Suite 9, and by doing so acknowledging the impact Max for Live has on the Live experience and work flow.
However, Live 9 also feels unfinished. There are several caveats which make your life a lot harder instead of easier. For example the odd change in the external instrument preset; now pointing to unrelated devices when its not active. Not being able to quickly overdub a single MIDI clip in session view while Live 8 had no problems there.
Or the browser which is a source or agony for many Live users.
Another aspect is Ableton itself. Like many others I’ve reported the problems with the new rewire engine, but the response was basically that it could take them a while before this problem would be addressed.
Which then makes me wonder; what could possibly be more important than fixing problems? Or perhaps there are many more problems then we’re aware off. OR… Could it be possible that they’re busy working on other new features which were planned to be included with Live 9 yet didn’t make it in time to get included in the current release?
All in all, I’m very happy with Live 9 as it is. Yet I also see plenty of changes which I’m sure could hinder people’s workflow as well. It’s good, but not the awesomeness some people might have expected.