Ableton Live

Sections on this page: interface, versions, instruments

Ableton Live 8

Ableton Live (or ‘Live’ in short) is a music program which allows you to do just about anything you need in order to make music. And I mean that in the largest sense of the word…

Its capabilities range from composing your own music (or parts which you could then use to create (a) bigger part(s)) right to anything which comes with the trade. Recording / making / (re-)mixing sound scores right to processing them.

Live has been my favourite music program for quite some years, and what makes it so unique for me is its rather specific interface and workflow. Just like many other DAW’s out there it provides an ‘arrangement view’ (the well known “horizontal lanes look”) which can be used to record or drag in material (audio or midi) which you can then re-arrange anyway you see fit.

But there’s much more to Live than this; unlike other DAW’s it also provides the so called “session view“, this is basically a large grid of clips. All the available tracks are now aligned vertically and separated in many small parts, called “clips”. And each of those clips can hold some kind of material. On an audio track you could setup a collection of audio clips, whereas midi tracks can obviously contain midi clips.

What good this will do ?


Lives Session viewThe Session view can give you many advantages over arrangement view. For example; if you have a track which should play several bass sounds, why not load all those sounds in the session view so that you can fully decide when and where a certain bass sound should be playing?

Obviously you can let Live take care of the moment when a clip will start so that it will always remain “on the beat”, but even that is fully optional.

And since session view and arrangement view are somewhat “linked” in that everything you do in session view can be recorded into the arrangement view this suddenly gives you a very flexible sketch tool which allows you to play and tweak the music any way you want. Maybe its just me, but manual tweaks will always sound different than programmed tweaks.

Have a great idea for a certain sound which should be used on some material you already have? Record it into a few clips on the same track. Then drag your original material onto a clip on another track and start playing it. Now simply launch your recorded clips to check how well things sound in combination with the existing material.

No need for dragging and making sure that all your stuff starts at the right time; Live itself takes care of that (if you want it to). So all you have to do is concentrate on your work and see if the sounds mix together to your liking.

That is Ableton Live.  Now, I’m not going into every specific detail on Live, but let me address 2 specific issues; the interface and the instruments…

Live interface

In the screenshot above you can clearly see Live’s specific interface. Some people get the strange idea that if the interface looks “simple” then the program behind it must obviously be rather simplified as well. Personally I think another reason for such assumptions is because Live is also heavily used in (dance) clubs and such to “DJ”. And well; software which is “merely” being used to play tracks and to apply some sound effects can’t possibly do much more sophisticated tasks, can it ?

If you’re one of the people who feel this way then no; you couldn’t be more off…

The “simplified interface” is actually one of Live’s key strengths in my opinion. It allows for both easy (‘direct’) access just as much as it allows for very complex setups. The beauty in all this, as I see it, is that it doesn’t give you buttons which pop-up windows and hidden options which open up even more windows. None of that stuff, Live gives you a straight interface which allows you to explore its possibilities as shallow or as deep as you want.

An example…

This is a screenshot of my favourite Live instrument: Operator.  Its a software frequency modulating synthesizer which can create a wild variety of sounds. Still; I’d like to point your attention to the interface. The regular place for an instrument or effect within Live is at the bottom row, this can be seen in the screenshot I’ve shown above; so basically instead of the ‘panels’ (the wave form and such) you saw there.  And as you can see here Operator totally “fits in”.

It has 8 separate sections, and in this example the first Oscillator “A” is selected (notable due to its white color). This too is Live. What you see in the middle is all you need to fine tune this oscillator. ADSR, the wave form selector (notice the ‘user’ setting there?), and (probably) commonly known stuff like feedback and phase. Its all right there. Selecting oscillator B will give me the same picture yet with the settings of that oscillator. And so on..

All sections will have parameters which can be changed yet are all shown in the main (middle) window. And while it may look “easy” this can go as deep as you want it. Sure, there are hidden options so to speak, but all within the same interface. Notice how the ‘Course’ dial (on oscillator A) suddenly is called “Freq” on oscillator B ? That’s because oscillator B has the ‘fixed’ option turned on. So; it now generates a fixed frequency, and because of that some controls have been changed accordingly.

Ableton Live: Lite, Intro, Suite and a little hardware..

Ableton Live comes in many specific editions. First there is the “Lite” version, this is a rather limited version which is shipped for free with many different hardware. Take for example Akai’s APC40..
The Akai APC40
The APC40 (as can be seen here) is a midi controller specifically designed to control Ableton Live.

For me it really spans the gap between software and hardware. While Live is perfectly capable of creating specific synthesizer sounds, it just feels different when using a mouse (or trackball) to change, say, the Course of one of Operators oscillators.

Enter the APC40…

As soon as you have Operator selected in Live the so called ‘Device control knobs’ (the 8 knobs at the lower right) can be used to tweak whatever control you want.


Click the picture to visit the APC40 product page.

Obviously 8 controls is hardly enough to control an instrument like Operator, so they made sure to build in bank switching. The 8 buttons below the device control knobs allow you switch between 8 separate banks.  Say; did you already notice up there that Operator also has 8 separate sections you can control? 😉

Its a quick side step but if you’re into Ableton Live then I think the APC40 is really something to consider.

Right, as said; this critter ships with a free version of Ableton Live’s ‘Lite’ edition. Although it is rather limited (allowing for a maximum of 8 tracks and 5 scenes for example) I still think its an excellent product to get a good impression of Live.

From Lite to Intro

Next we have the Live ‘Intro’ version. Limited as well, but slightly bigger than the Lite version. The main limitations are not being able to edit racks, no support for group tracks, a limited amount of audio tracks and devices which you can use, and it doesn’t provide effects such as the vocoder, looper and multiband dynamics. But selling at approx. E 100,- I think its a good way to officially dive into Live and really get to know the program.

Then there’s the full and official version of Live which, as can be expected, is named “Live”. This version has no limits on the amount of tracks, scenes or VST’s which you can use, and can also use the full array of available audio input and output channels as well. For a good overview between Ableton Live Intro and Ableton Live I suggest you check out their comparison chart. And yes, having stuff like a Vocoder or the “Multiband Dynamics” at your disposal can really make a difference I think.

And finally my favorite..  The Ableton Live ‘Suite’ version.

Ableton Suite and the instruments

It’s sweet indeed 🙂

The biggest difference between Suite and the other Live versions are the instruments…  While Live gives you all the options you need to create sounds by providing a large selection of presets there is one big caveat to keep in mind; you can only use them (the ones in the so called ‘instrument racks’) yet you can’t change them in every detail.

For many people this is not much of problem since you can easily use VST plugins with Live as well. And there are plenty of freely available instruments and effects on the Internet to keep you busy for quite some time.

But…  to get the most out of Live; having access to Live and ‘a world of sound‘ you’d really want Suite..

And since the release of Live 9 Ableton have tried to make Suite even more appealing by including Max for Live free of charge, thus really providing an extremely extensive and mature environment.

Now..  I already turned this page into something close to an essay (hey, I warned you that this is my favourite software!) but to finish I’d like to go over the specific software instruments (and one effect) which are shipped with the Ableton Suite edition. I’ll only give a short description and impression of the instruments, to check up on their official product page simply click on their logo.


Operator is a frequency modulating (FM) synthesizer and a key asset within Ableton ‘Suite’. Its uniqueness comes from combining a simple to use interface with massive capabilities. 4 oscillators which can be tweaked and routed in a lots of different ways, filter section, LFO section… This is a beast.

Analog is what I consider to be Operator’s counterpart. It provides an analog-like audio signal instead of clear cut digital. Analog gives you 2 alias free oscillators which each have their own filter, amplifier and LFO. Add some filters and specific routing capabilities into the mixture and you’ll understand that Analog is well suited to produce very specific sounds of its own.

This is Live’s string synthesizer. It allows you to create sounds from string instruments such as guitars, harps or even a cello. And as can be expected gives you plenty of details to control. For example; you can even control the stiffness, velocity and position of the excitator (plectrum, hammer, bow). But it also provides control over the damper and the body of the instrument.

Electric is a physical modelling synthesizer like Tension is but fully aimed at creating the specific sounds of an electric piano. And obviously providing you with all the options required to influence your sound by allowing full control over options such as the fork, mallet, damper and pickup.

Collision is like the name suggests; a synthesizer for mallet and percussion sounds. With its two resonators, an excitator to model the sound, an LFO and several options to allow incoming midi signals to effect the sound as well. From xylophones to a classic church bells; you can easily create it using Tension.

Sampler is very unlike the previous instruments because it doesn’t generate any sound on its own. It needs sound sources, samples, which it can then play in a multiple of different ways. Sampler allows you to tweak, morph and modulate the sound any way you see fit. Note that Sampler is basically the big brother of Simpler which is also available in the regular version of Live.

Abletons Amplifier device (and the cabinet).This is the stranger in the list because its not an instrument but an audio effect. Its an amplifier (comparable with guitar amps) which can provide warmth or distortion to your sounds. It comes with a second effect called the ‘Cabinet’ which is also an effect specific for guitars. Amp was introduced in Live 8 and is unlike any other audio effect within Live.



And there you have it…  Please keep well in mind that everything which is described above is based on my own opinion and experiences and therefor doesn’t necessarily provide you with the correct or official information. To get to learn more about Live’s specific instruments please follow the link to their specific product pages by clicking on one of the logo’s. And to learn more about Ableton Live itself please visit the Ableton Shop.

The latest version of Ableton Live is 9, which has been released in March 2013.