Ableton Live 5 review

£254
Price when reviewed

In less than four years, Ableton Live has evolved from an interesting niche product to a heavyweight production platform. Version 4 bolstered some powerful audio recording and manipulation tools with an elegant MIDI implementation and a more flexible mix architecture. The new features in version 5 expand Live’s aptitude, both as a performance tool and for studio use, as well as adding five new effects and streamlining the already slick interface.

Session view, which turns track arrangement into a performance skill with its multitude of clip trigger buttons, has helped Live gain popularity not only among dance producers wanting to perform and songwriters looking for a versatile sketchpad, but also with DJs who combine other people’s records with a few samples of their own. This latter group will be pleased to find that Live 5 supports MP3 import and automatic tempo mapping. The former is an obvious benefit for anyone who DJs with MP3s, but since the software creates a WAV version of the file in a discrete folder and leaves it there for later use, using MP3s won’t actually save any hard disk space.

Automatic tempo mapping is even more useful. Live could already time-stretch loops to match the master tempo, but now when importing longer recordings (such as whole tracks) multiple warp markers are added to keep it in time for its entire duration. Live’s tempo detection is impressive – it accurately analysed tracks with complex percussion and others with none at all, and coped well with tracks with gradually shifting tempi. Some tracks needed the odd tweak where the analysis wasn’t 100 per cent accurate, but even so, the feature certainly saves time over tempo mapping entire tracks manually.

Other new DJ-friendly features include a time-stretch algorithm that uses frequency-domain processing to give cleaner sounding results on complete mixes. Meanwhile, individual clips can be chopped up and rearranged by triggering them at any point in their duration. As with Session view’s clips, this is performed in real-time in synch with the master clock, allowing the impromptu restructuring of songs. It also provides a way for producers to get even more mileage out of samples.

DJs and live performers might also appreciate support for Mackie Control – a hardware control surface with motorised faders and a range of other functions for controlling music software. Mackie Control support should prove even more useful in the studio, where it boosts Live’s stature as a heavyweight recording platform rather than mere sketchpad, even going so far as competing with market leaders such as Cubase SX. Live fares well in this company, often because rather than in spite of its relative simplicity. There’s a single MIDI editor window compared to its competitors’ three or four, for example, but Ableton still offers as much MIDI-editing precision as most people need.

Live 5 introduces a number of other features to strengthen its role in the studio. Clip freeze renders channels with power-hungry plug-ins as audio files, thereby freeing up processing power for use on other channels. Since rendering occurs on a per-clip rather than per-channel basis, it’s still possible to edit arrangements using the clip trigger buttons – competing software’s freeze functions lock the user from any further editing. As such, clip freeze should prove useful when transferring songs from a studio PC to a laptop for live performance, where a different set of plug-ins may be installed or less processing power is available. Clips are looped smoothly when using clip freeze so that any reverb or delay tails are handled appropriately, but this is only true when repeating clips and not when switching between them. Admittedly, providing for the latter would have increased the load on the processor, so perhaps it was considered to be not in keeping with the freeze concept. Thankfully, freezing tracks in Arrange view (which uses a conventional timeline for song construction) behaves exactly as expected.

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