Ableton Suite review

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Ableton Live is slowly growing from inventive performance tool to mature, rounded production environment. The latest version – Live 7 – brings various welcome improvements, but the big news this time around is the introduction of Ableton Suite, which bundles Live with eight high-quality virtual instruments.

Ableton Suite review

The main application looks largely identical to its predecessor, but this is hardly a criticism. Live has a supremely elegant interface that leaves little room for improvement. Many functions are executed simply by dragging and dropping and, once you’ve got to grips with a small set of basic principles, everything works quickly and predictably. Live excels at radical sample manipulation and also on stage, where it falls somewhere between sequencer, DJ decks and musical instrument.

The best new feature in version 7 is the Drum Rack. It’s merely a wrapper for other modules, but it simplifies the task of assigning different sounds to individual MIDI notes. Each note is represented by a trigger pad, and assigning samples, virtual instruments and effects simply involves dragging from the browser onto a pad. REX files- rhythmic loops divided into predefined slices – are now supported, and two clicks are all it takes to import one into a Drum Rack, with each slice on a different note.

Drum Racks go much further than the existing Instrument and Effect Racks in terms of signal routing, though. A Rack can incorporate auxiliary effects, and by nesting Drum Racks within each other it’s also possible to create submixes. As such, nested Drum Racks are fully fledged mixers in their own right, which makes us wonder whether it might have been neater to integrate them more transparently with Live’s main mixer.

Drum Racks will delight some users and be irrelevant to others, but there are plenty of smaller improvements, too. The internal mix and EQ processing resolutions have increased from 32- to 64-bit, and various other modules benefit from improved antialiasing to reduce digital artefacts. The compressor, gate and filter effects now have a side chain input to trigger their behaviour from a signal other than the one being processed. The compressor also has an additional mode that simulates vintage analogue compressors, which sounds much mellower and warmer than the other modes. Mix automation is more accessible, with an option to view multiple lanes of automation data simultaneously. Time signature changes are now supported, and tempo nudge buttons help keep Live in time with musicians or vinyl. Sadly, though, there’s still no crossfading of audio clips on the timeline or assistance for recording and compiling multiple takes.

As well as Live 7, the new Ableton Suite includes eight virtual instruments, and this takes the installation to a huge 37GB. It spans four DVDs and takes hours to complete, but the payoff is the best virtual instrument collection bundled with a recording application.

The Essential Instrument Collection, which is also included with the standard version of Live, draws on a 15GB sample pool to produce a wide range of high-quality acoustic emulations. Sampler and Operator are stalwarts of the Ableton product line, handling sampling and FM synthesis proficiently. Electric, Tension and Analog are reskinned versions of Applied Acoustic Systems’ electric piano, string instrument and analogue synth VST plug-ins. All three use physical modelling, which generates sounds by emulating the physical properties of the instrument in question. Electric is the highlight, producing a wonderful range of authentic and inspiring electric piano sounds.

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