What is Ableton Live?
Ableton Live is a music production and performance suite. In addition to traditional DAW functionality, Live also offers a playback mode complete with warping, crossfading, and more.
While Ableton Live is a popular software solution for music producers and DJs, it’s also used as a playback system for Broadway shows, Cirque du Soleil productions, and countless pop acts.
In this series, you’ll learn how to design a flexible and easy to use playback system for your production.
Intro vs. Standard vs. Suite
Ableton Live is available in three different editions.
Ableton Live Intro
This is Ableton’s introductory version of Live. It offers full playback functionality, albeit with limitations in track and scene counts.
Ableton Live Standard
This is Ableton’s mid-tier version of Live. In addition to the feature set of the Intro version, Live Standard removes track and scene count limitations. This is the version to get if you’re on a tight budget.
Ableton Live Suite
This is Ableton’s flagship version of Live. In addition to the feature set of the Intro and Standard versions, Live Suite includes Max for Live and additional software instruments and plugins. This is the version to get if you’re serious about designing a state of the art playback system.
Live Suite is the only version that comes with Ableton’s full-fledged Sampler, which supports loop point designation at the sample level. This means it’s possible to calculate super precise loop points — you’ll find this is an extremely useful feature for looping musical phrases.
Ableton Intro and Standard ship with a stripped down sampler called “Simpler”, which only supports loop point designation with percentages.
Arrangement View vs. Session View
Ableton Live features two distinctly different workspaces — Arrangement View and Session View.
Arrangement View is set up like a traditional DAW (Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Cubase, etc.). Arrangement View is the preferred workspace for traditional DAW workflows — recording, arranging, and mixing.
Session View resembles a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Tracks are on the X-Axis, scenes are on the Y-Axis, and each cell block is called a clip. Session View is the preferred workspace for designing a playback system.
Arrangement View and Session View are not mutually exclusive. A common workflow is to edit audio clips in Arrangement View before importing them into Session View. However, I prefer to use other DAWs editing and preparing audio clips. More on that later.
The Building Blocks of a Playback System
Ableton Live’s functionality and flexibility in Session View is derived from three different building blocks — clips, scenes, and tracks.
A clip occupies a single clip slot in Session View. There are two kinds of clips in Ableton Live — audio clips and MIDI clips.
An audio clip can be any single mono or stereo audio file. Live supports a variety of formats, but anything other than WAV or AIFF will require some sort of conversion on import. If you’re unsure about what format to use, 16-bit/44.1kHz (Red Book CD audio standard) is typically a safe choice.
A MIDI clip contains MIDI note and controller data, and can be used to trigger samples, control lighting rigs, and more. The possibilities are truly endless, so I’ll be going more in depth about MIDI clips in a later chapter.
In Live’s Session View, a scene refers to all the clips in a horizontal row. The screenshot below contains a number of scenes.
These are all examples of scenes.
- 0) WELCOME — 4/4;75BPM
- m1–4/4;120BPM — 4B
- 2) TREE — 4/4;120BPM — 2B
A scene’s time signature and tempo can be specified in scene name, and the PLAY button will trigger all the clips in that scene.
In Live’s Session View, a track refers to a vertical column.
Tracks are used to route audio and MIDI to discrete hardware and software outputs. As you can see, Live’s tracks also feature traditional volume, pan, and send controls.
Consider this hypothetical situation.
You’ve been asked to program backing tracks for a band. They’ve provided you with stems for a string quartet, a brass section, and aux percussion.
What roles do clips, scenes, and tracks play? Here’s one way to do it.
- Each stem will get a set of dedicated stereo output tracks. Strings on 1/2, brass on 3/4, and percussion on 5/6.
- Each song will be split into various scenes (e.g. V1, C1, V2, etc.).
- Thus, each clip is simply a specific section of a specific stem. (e.g. V1 of the strings stem or C1 of the percussion stem).