Ableton Live 7 LE Review

Since its beginning, Ableton Live has continued to progress from a DJ/Loop manipulation concept into a full featured production sequencer. Version 7 adds many new improvements and additions to build upon where 6 left off. In doing so it’s maturing into a very powerful and creative DAW that might, as I have done, pull a few people away from their current, ‘traditional’ sequencer of choice.

At a glance, some of the new features offered in 7 are: a new compressor model, side chaining (although not available with the new model), external hardware support, the Drum Rack, REX support, and easier automation editing. The audio engine has been upgraded to 64bit in certain areas of the path and MIDI timing improvements have been made. Interestingly and welcomed are two whitepapers covering the technical details of both of these processes and what to expect with the updates. Whether or not you will hear 64bit increase in resolution is doubtful, but they have at least given some idea as to what is going on under the hood and this is at least helpful to know. Some has been said of Live’s mixdown quality but I have found it (starting with 6) to produce excellent results so in my mind a change was not needed. One should of course be careful with the warping feature and how this affects quality though but this is a separate issue from the mixing engine itself.

In keeping with current trends with dance music production, Live 7 now offers native side chain support. It’s implemented very easily and provides that this useful technique to always at hand when needed. To achieve the effect you simply engage the sidechain control and then select with audio stream should be used as the ‘key’ for the compressor. This works well with the new ‘Drum Rack’ as one is allowed to use audio points both pre and post of effects on each ‘pad’ (more on this later) for maximum flexibility. The sound of the compressor with sidechain on works very well for the application intended and I’ve found myself reaching for it many times due to the convenience and musical sound quality. A new compressor model based off feedback design has been added to the existing two versions of feedforward and all three now reside in one common plugin. In a nutshell the differences between feedforward and feedback are that the former taps signal prior to compression as the key signal where as the later uses the compressed signal itself to then key the incoming audio. As the feedback design is working on already compressed material for its keying this results in generally what is described as ‘smoother’ compression. A few notable vintage compressors such as the 1176 and 660 used this gain control model and accordingly Ableton has provided a few presets to simulate their behavior.

Although plugins in many varieties now cover the needs for most audio treatment there might be some people still using hardware synths or effects in 2008. Luckily for you Live 7 has implemented an easy way of using these external pieces of gear into a project. This takes shape in the form of two new Live plugins, the ‘external instrument’ and the ‘external effect’. In order to use these one must have a free input and in the case of instruments, output port, available to connect with the outside world. Although other DAWs have this feature, Live’s is the easiest I’ve seen and makes it a quick job to set up either situation. After inserting either plugin the interface for each presents you with a few connections to make. In the case of an instrument you will select the input of your soundcard that the synth is connected to. In addition the MIDI port used to trigger it along with MIDI channel must be chosen.

Once connected and triggering properly a small input meter shows audio activity. Any extra latency that Live cannot detect such as MIDI and converter latency can be corrected with input field which is calibrated to both milliseconds and samples for fine control. An external instrument can also be ‘frozen’ in the sense that it will be recorded realtime at which point it can be flattened (one of Live’s best features), making it easy to record external parts as digital audio parts within a session. Setting up external effects is just as simple. In this case both an input and output are needed to complete the roundtrip from Live to the effect unit and back again. Gains for both input and output can be adjusted as well as latency. There’s a wet and dry balance as well as an invert button for changing the phase of the signal. Not only can time based effects like reverbs and other modulation effects be used but compressors and eqs can be inserted as well using this scheme. This offers a lot of possibilities for taking advantage of the wide array of analog and digital hardware effects available today, both new and of the vintage variety.

One of the best new features in Live 7 is the ‘Drum Rack’. On the surface this new plugin presents you with a four by four grid of drum ‘pads’ that resembles something like an mpc or other drum machine controller. The pads have a corresponding MIDI note number and span the full 128 note range by scrolling a side area up and down to reveal more ‘pads’ above or below the current location. What sets the Drum Rack apart from most standard drum machine style plugins is its ability to not only use samples but any other plugin within each pad. This opens up potential for using synths to create analog style percussion along with the usual samples you’d be used to using for drum parts. Modern electronic music is has made synth styled percussion and drum patches a popular ingredient for many genres at the moment. Abelton’s inclusion of this concept is then very much welcomed.

In order to populate the Drum Rack you simply drag and drop either samples or plugin synths into a pad. A sample will instantiate an instance of Simpler for that particular drum sample which provides most of the editing and synth style envelope, filter, and modulation parameters needed for most situations. Inserting a plugin synth will of course give you that synths GUI inside of the Drum Rack chain. Once either samples or synth plugins are inside pads you can further drop effect plugins on a per pad basis to process and mix within the Drum Rack itself. As you can imagine very complex setups can be created all tucked inside a very tidy interface. The Drum Rack also sports send and return channels so general mixing duties can be handled within it with ease. The outputs of the return channels can also be routed to one of the main return channels present in the sessions mixer so pre existing effect setups can be accessed as well that the Drum Racks only internal ones offering maximum flexibility and control.

Although the Drum Rack initially resides on a single track similar to most instruments, there is a tab that can be clicked which will unfold a sub mixer revealing the audio channels of all the individual pads and their associated sounds. A ‘macro’ section allows you to setup often used modulation parameters for easy access for both mouse and controller movement. For instance Attack, Release, and Cutoff can be assigned here giving faster access than going through Simplers or any other synth plugins own interface. Finally the input note, output pitch and a choke group can be set on per pad basis. The choke group, a common feature on drum machines allows you to use two or more pads to cut each other off which helps simulate things like an open hat being closed from a closed one. Overall the Drum Rack is an excellent source for coming up with a variety of drum patches all under one roof and programming focal point. Sounds which would have been inconvenient to bring all together before are now a cinch.