Version 4 of Ableton's addictive Live
We'd like to think that some of the people that turned on to digital music-making by GarageBand will step up to Ableton Live 4.0 ($499), although we know that its primary audience will be the eager professional and semipro beat-tweakers who have built up its following over the years. Live is a beautifully designed tool for creating loop- and sample-based audio experiences, making it easy to create a layered sound and giving you complete control over a wide range of filters and effects.
Live's well-designed interface provides an enormous amount of functionality in a tight space. A browser at the top left lets you choose your samples, filters, effects, and more, while your sonic creations are displayed in a viewing pane to the right. You can toggle to see either the Session view (which is more like an instrument) or the Arrangement view (which is completely editable), depending on whether you want to focus on particular loops or instruments, or to see how it all flows together. Along the bottom of the screen you'll see the effects and filters that you've added to your loops. We like that the lower-left corner is reserved for the optional Info view, which explains whatever part of the interface your mouse is hovering over. Live's creators, in fact, constantly go the extra mile to explain what could be a confusing app and get newcomers in on the fun: Live comes with a seven-lesson built-in tutorial, and there are four excellent QuickTime movies on the Ableton Web site. The company also offers an FAQ page, an extensive list of related links, and free (but not toll-free) telephone support.
Version 4.0 takes a big leap in functionality by incorporating MIDI sequencing, thus adding a new dimension to Live. While this could have spoiled Live's streamlined interface with bloated controls, the developers have kept it simple enough for anyone to jump into. Other new features include support for swing and groove parameters and flexible routing, which lets any track feed to or from any other track. What hasn't changed is the ability to alter or distort your tracks with a huge variety of effects and filters, plus any that you add via third-party plug-ins. We'd like to see the next version contain a multiple History view so that users can undo more than just the most recent action.
In real-world performance, Live is just as impressive--and fun. We loved that we could hear the results of any adjustments we made right away, with no waiting for the song to reload. Simply click a sound file to preview it, then drag and drop onto the colorful Excel-spreadsheetlike interface. The app lets you apply effects and trigger individual tracks or entire sequences with the click of a mouse (or a keyboard or a MIDI controller). You can also--in real time--examine a loop and edit beginnings and endpoints to your liking. Once you've finished a session, you can go back to the Arrangement view and tweak and edit the performance to your liking. The controls are intuitive and responsive and are prime for experimentation, so you don't need to be a musician to come up with interesting songs, sequences, or patterns.
Live 4.0, which is available for both Windows and Macintosh users, is a must-have for those who have been following it, and it's sure to pick up new fans with this release. If you're a professional musician or DJ, or if you just aspire to be one, Live 4.0 is a great tool to have.