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Review

Hands-on review: Ableton Live 11 Suite DAW

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The latest version of Ableton's time-warping digital audio workstation (DAW) brings many new malleable shape-shifting pleasures to sonic adventurers.

Ableton's Live music production software caused a seismic change in the thinking of musicians and music producers when it first appeared in 2001.

Breaking away from the prevailing idea that recording music on a computer should essentially still look, and feel, like recording music on a physical mixing desk, Live focused on the more freeform concept of jamming on musical ideas, based around capturing and looping 'clips' of recorded audio. Live also introduced the concept of 'elastic audio', whereby disparate recordings and samples could be stretched or compressed as necessary to all sync to the same tempo. It was, in its own way, quietly revolutionary.

This writer first entered the Abletonverse around version 2 and consequently followed Live's evolution through several rapid iterations, as the company broadened the application's remit to cover all music recording bases. The gap between new versions has lengthened as Live's core offering stabilised (it's been three years since Live 10). Rather than perfunctorily toss out annual incremental point updates, Ableton prefers to take its time in developing a signficant new version, gathering critical input and feedback from its active and passionate user base and beta testers.

Over the last 20 years (!), Live has found its niche as the preferred software tool of the more experimental artist, those genre-bending musicians, DJs, sound designers and turntablists who want to make music in an almost collaborative fashion with their computer - throwing multiple ideas in, from myriad sources; treating, manipulating and shaping the raw material; then looping the results and reacting to new ideas that this blend inspires to take the music even further. There's always a sense when playing around with audio in Live that your horizons are limitless. At any point, dropping a plug-in onto a section of recorded music could not only transform that piece, it might inspire an entirely new piece of work.

Live effectively blurs the lines between a simple recording capture application - which it can do perfectly well - and a live instrument, which can be 'played' in real time either to generate new ideas or to perform (using both existing material and new ideas generated on the fly) before an audience.

We've spent a couple of highly productive and creatively rewarding months with Ableton Live 11 Suite and we can categorically state that this is easily the best version of Live to date. It feels solid, mature and reliable, with a wealth of audio and MIDI tools that cover almost any and every eventuality. Multiple virtual synths, samplers, drum machines and effects are a mere drag and drop away (although the full extent of Live's provision of these is dependent on the version that you own) and the software's famed time-stretching ('warping') ability is now virtually seamless in operation. You can simply grab hold of the tempo counter, in automation mode, ride the tempo up and down as you see fit and your tracks will follow the changes. It's still… like magic.

The key advantage of Live for many musicians - and for creative people who would consider themselves 'non-musicians' - is that anything you try just seems to work. If you can't do it - e.g. trying to drag a MIDI editing tool onto an audio track - Live won't let you do it, simple as that. The interface is intuitive and deliberately graphically 'simplistic' - not dumbed-down, but reduced in complexity to its essence. There's no skeuomorphic attempt to replicate a physical mixing desk, no VU meters, retro knurled knobs or fake valve glow. Live unapologetically offers a future-facing GUI, more akin to smartphone apps and the flat colours and streamlined interface rules espoused by Google's 'Material Design'. In our opinion, Live 11 looks really good, very easy on the eye and presenting minimal visual distraction.

There is very little need to 'learn the programme' before getting satisfying results. Naturally, you'll get a lot more out of the software if you do spend time exploring all the functionality, because Live is deceptively deep. The built-in lessons cheerfully walk you through the key features, from the beginner's basics to more advanced topics. It helps to memorise the main keyboard shortcuts and/or the sometimes obscure meaning behind a tiny icon, but this knowledge comes quickly the more you use Live.

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While there are several versions of Live 11 available, offering varying degrees of power and performance, it's the Suite (i.e. full) version that is of primary interest and which is the subject of this review. All the cool stuff is in Suite and the additional toys, tools and content almost certainly justify the price of admission or discounted upgrade from previous editions.

With Live 11, Ableton appears to have looked at the behaviours, wants and needs of typical Live users - from initial capture and creation to performing the finished product - and added new features for each stage of the creative process, broadly organised under such banners as 'Create your perfect take', 'Add more feeling to your music' and 'Experiment with new devices'.

Sensibly, Ableton hasn't introduced any unsettling interface changes, the only update immediately obvious to seasoned users being the welcome addition of both 'Grooves' and 'Templates' in the left-hand Browser pane: it is now possible to save projects as templates, speeding up or eliminating certain repetitive tasks when starting a new project from scratch.

Arguably the headline new feature in Live 11 are 'Take Lanes', which finally allow multiple takes of live audio or MIDI performances for 'comping' - the practice of cherry-picking (aka compiling) the best sections of multiple takes to create the ultimate master track. It's a feature long overdue in a DAW such as Live that has the concepts of jamming, freestyling and general improvisation in its DNA. Now it's here.

Define a looped section of time in the Arrangement view, arm Take Lanes whilst recording and Live will cycle around and around, adding another new track with each pass. Editing the results is as simple as drawing across the best sections with the pencil tool and Live compiles these selections (non-destructively) into a single master track. It's simple, it's brilliant.

It's also now possible to link multiple tracks and edit their content simultaneously, so even sections of songs featuring different musicians or recorded parts can be highlighted, chopped out, moved around and kept in sync.

Live 11 also introduces support for MPE-capable (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) controller devices, which won't apply to every user, but does illustrate Ableton's ambitions to stay at the cutting-edge of software/hardware integration. Three of Live 11 Suite's own core devices - Wavetable, Sampler and Arpeggiator - have been updated to support MPE and Ableton's Push hardware control surface also now has related functionality, such as polyphonic aftertouch.

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Live 11 Suite also delivers some very intriguing new devices for sound creation, enhancement and general mangling. Hybrid Reverb complements Live's existing air'n'space options, combining as it does both convolution and algorithmic reverbs. Immerse your sounds in any kind of space, be it real world or out of this world. The two reverb types can be run individually, in parallel or in series, with modern sonic classics like Shimmer and Lo-Fi rubbing shoulders with legends like Hall.

The Spectral Resonator is another big bucket of sonic fun. This breaks down the audio spectrum of a track into partials, so you can monkey around with different sections, stretching, shifting and blurring frequencies for subtle or more extreme effects.

Standard dry instruments can be rendered unrecognisable, or you can simply add some cool textures 'behind' or 'around' the sound of the real instrument to make them more intriguing. Vocals can veer from pitch-shifted robot sounds to a more lush vocoder-esque treatment, while a simple clean guitar line can easily be shape-shifted by quickly adding some Frippertronics-style oddness, making one melody sound like three different instruments.

Spectral Time takes a similar frequency-specific tack to signal transformation, with a very cool (no pun intended) Freeze function - familiar from some guitar pedals and reverb plug-ins, such as Eventide's Black Hole - allowing you to pin momentary fragments of passing audio for some very nice, mesmeric (and occasionally terrifying) ambient effects. Live being Live, these effects can also be synced to keep time with the beat and the rest of your set.

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There are also six 'random' (Ableton calls them "playful") instruments and effects collected under the 'Inspired by Nature' umbrella, the origins of their behaviour stemming from natural and physical processes. It's a visual/aural thing, perfectly suited to Live's experimental nature, with bouncing balls, moving particles, expanding tree roots and such like creating the audio sounds and effects, their degree of randomness dictated by the user. Vector FM, Vector Grain, Vector Delay, Emit, Tree Tone and Bouncy Notes are all a gift to sound designers, ambient explorers or simply anyone stuck for new ideas and open to the possibilities of chance. With a lot of this stuff (and by exercising good taste), you can easily turn one note into the multilayered basis for an entire track.

Ableton has also made sure to keep live musicians onside with Live 11, introducing Tempo Following. One of the more onerous, soul-sapping tasks for making music with a computer is the question of tempo: man vs. machine. Should the DAW dictate the tempo or the human player(s)? If it's the DAW, the operator has to manually guesstimate and enter the right tempos for specific sections of a song, or else just leave the whole track monotonously banging away at 120bpm from start to finish. It's so much easier, and more natural, when the players can lead the way, with their infinitesimal human fluctuations in tempo, bar by bar, as well as any more dramatic, deliberate shifts in tempo required by the song itself.

With Tempo Following engaged in Live 11 Suite, Live will respond to an external signal - preferably a strong rhythmic signal, e.g. drums or percussion - and adjust its tempo in real time. Now it's the players driving the 'feel' of the recording (and it's surprising how many classic records almost imperceptibly speed up by a bpm or two as they hit the chorus or near the end). Most of the time, Tempo Following has worked very well for us, the principle caveat being the relative strength of the incoming rhythmic signal.

Two additional new features in the spirit of random fluctuations and 'humanising' what might otherwise be a fairly robotic MIDI performance are the 'Note chance' and 'Velocity chance' parameters. Here, you can set the probability that a note or drum hit will occur in a recorded pattern, as well as the velocity. You can also automate Live to choose its own variations to your patterns, which will evolve over time. These small changes are surprisingly effective in re-energising a stock drum pattern or MIDI melody and you might start to notice how often individual beats 'drop out' in your favourite records to create those beautiful, unexpected spaces that catch the ear and keep people listening. No human drummer plays the same beat in the same way every time.

It's true that some of these features which are new to Live have previously been available in third-party plug-ins. What's great about Live 11 Suite is that all these tools are now part of the core programme.

Also added to the Suite bundle are new 'Instrument Packs', meticulously recorded by sample-capture experts Spitfire Audio: Upright Piano, Brass Quartet (trumpet, flugelhorn, tenor horn and trombone) and String Quartet (two violins, viola and cello). Further new content available to Suite owners are the 'Curated Collections': Voice Box (vocal samples); Mood Reel (evocative layers), and Drone Lab (sustained, complex, evolving threads).

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The attitude of Ableton feels 'open' - much like the fluid, collaborative nature of the software. Live's freeflowing nature encourages experimentation. A near-endless array of sound possibilities can open up when you start poking around in parameters and as an all-in-one box, it largely does away with the need for a bunch of other plug-ins. Features such as Audio to Midi conversion (introduced with Live 9) are just so useful to have on tap. Plus with the Suite version, you get Max for Live, Ableton Link and the full complement of features, sounds, instruments, audio and MIDI effects. With everything that's packed into Suite, it seems unlikely that you'll ever run out of new ideas or inspiration.

Maybe there is a challenge for Ableton in attracting new recruits to Live - as there is for all software developers - given the subtle shifts in making music these days, with some people looking to work more 'out of the box' as a break from their screens. Real-world, analogue collaboration between humans is definitely back in vogue and Ableton has been careful to walk this particular high-wire well, neither favouring nor ignoring any particular style of music or type of musician. You can use Live 11 just as well to multitrack a jazz band playing live as you can to capture a DJ set or to slowly build up a widescreen filmic soundscape from individual sonic fragments.

As a tool to capture your ideas and massage them into some sort of useable, listenable, shareable form, Live 11 works with you and presents very few barriers to realising your vision, which can be refreshing when coming from other DAWs.

On the surface of it, the new features list for Live 11 might seem to lack some big killer feature that you never knew you needed, but Live 11 is a mature application now - pretty much everything you could want was already here. What Ableton has done is listened to its users, considered what people actually usefully want and then delivered it. All the small changes across almost every facet of the programme add up to a much-improved overall experience - the best kind of upgrade. Even an apparently minor change like per-track CPU load meters in Live 11, rather than just the global CPU load meter in Live 10, is another little boost to productivity and session management. All things considered - even the full retail price - Live 11 is a Suite deal for any creative musician bursting with ideas.

Ableton Live 11 Suite

Live 11 Suite, £539; Standard version, £319; upgrade prices vary.

A free and full trial of Live 11 Suite is available for 90 days from the Ableton website. The trial includes all the features of the full version, including saving and exporting.

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