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Ableton Live 5.2 review: Ableton Live 5.2

Ableton Live 5.2

Troy Dreier
6 min read
Ableton's latest version of Live gets better

You could say that Ableton Live is lucky to hold the middle ground between entry-level music makers such as Apple's GarageBand and high-end professional products such as the venerable Logic Pro, but Live got there by making its own luck. This excellent music-editing, remixing, and tweaking app has earned its top spot by forging its own path and catering to a high-end hip and creative following of producers and DJs. All but owning the music-editing prosumer space, it expands its lead with version 5.2, which offers a dripping handful of new goodies to all its followers--whether they're pros looking for a light app to have fun with, amateur DJs looking for new ways to warp the beat, or interested newcomers trying to join the loop- and sample-infused club. Listen for yourself to this sample track created by Live.


Ableton Live 5.2

The Good

Freeze Track feature for saving CPU power; automatic plug-in-delay compensation; support for MP3 tracks; ability to create launchable markers; support for Mackie-compatible mixers; several new effects; new lessons for getting started; great support options; latest version works with Intel-based Macs.

The Bad

No history view.

The Bottom Line

Ableton Live 5.2 is a worthy upgrade to the trusted prosumer beat-tweaking program. It's well worth the $499 price for a high-end package with this many eyebrow-raising abilities and effects.
Live veterans won't find much different about version Ableton Live 5.2's interface, but people used to other music-editing programs might blink at the unusual layout. Live has deliberately never looked like traditional programs, choosing a more intuitive--and more colorful--interface. We love, for example, that mousing over a button gets you not only a pop-up window with that button's name but also a full description of what it does in the optional Info View in the lower left-hand corner. You might want to run through one or two of the included lessons to get your bearings, but before long, you'll have the hang of it.

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, and it displays your sonic creations 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 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 Live reserves the lower-left corner 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 the Ableton Web site has four excellent QuickTime movies.

Hard-core users can employ a variety of MIDI hardware to more easily control the Live interface. Check out some examples.

The new features in Ableton Live 5.2--and there are a lot more than we can list here--were suggested by hard-core Live users, and they feel not just fun but tremendously useful. A new Freeze Track feature creates uneditable sample files out of selected tracks. This cuts down on demanding CPU operations by allowing your computer to focus on other tracks; it will be a huge boon to those working on complex multitrack arrangements. The new plug-in-delay compensation automatically adjusts for plug-ins and effects so that your tracks will always be in sync no matter what you throw at them. Launchable arrangement markers let you place bookmarks within a song and map them to keys for instant access during performance. The new features feel so essential, you'll wonder how you got along without them. Live even becomes a lot more useful to pros with the inclusion of support for Mackie-compatible mixers. Plug in a mixer such as Tascam's FW-1082/1884 or the Yamaha 01X, and it and Live will work together like one smoothly running machine. You can even launch preset locators with the mixer just as you can within the program.

The new Freeze Track features puts less of a hit on the CPU.

Of course, Live includes new effects to please its dance, trance, and hip-hop following (maybe we're wrong, but it's hard to imagine Nashville wannabes sitting down with Live). The new Beat Repeat effect lets you create interesting repetitions of a track; it includes full controls so that you can adjust it any way you want or leave it random. Phaser and Flanger provide classic guitar effects, while the impressive Saturator adds extra warmth. The new Arpeggiator creates arpeggios (phrases with raising or decreasing volume), which you can then adjust or repeat.

New effects give you more ways than ever to shape a beat.

Remixers will love that Live can now import any MP3, Ogg Vorbis, Ogg Vorbis FLAC, or FLAC file on your hard drive, giving you a simple way to play with much of the music in your collection. Note that Live doesn't work with DRM-protected files, so if you've bought music online, you'll need to burn it to a standard audio disc and reimport it.

You can now import MP3 tracks into Live 5.2.

Other highlights include Complex Warp mode, which lets you change tempo and pitch separately, and Live Clip Storage, which lets you quickly stash a clip for use in other projects. Because the people behind Live know that every polished DJ or producer was once a kid trying to learn the ropes, Live 5.2 comes with improved built-in lessons. Live still doesn't have a history view that would let you undo changes out of order, which we think would be helpful.

Ableton Live 5.2 performed beautifully in our testing. It loaded clips and effects quickly and never crashed. While first-timers and even those upgrading should look through the lessons to get up to speed on the interface or the new features (Live's controls are not always obvious; for example, you can always adjust numbers in a text box by dragging your mouse up and down, even though there's no scroll bar), you'll quickly be creating your own professional or just plain bizarre tracks. A large library of clips and effects allows you to jump right in, even if you don't have an instrument to plug in.

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, without waiting for the song to reload. Simply click a sound file to preview it, then drag and drop it onto the colorful Excel-spreadsheet-like interface. The app lets you apply effects and trigger individual tracks or entire sequences with the click of a mouse, a keyboard, or a MIDI controller. You can also--in real time--examine a loop and edit beginnings and end points to your liking. Once you've finished a session, you can go back to the Arrangement view, then tweak and edit the performance. The intuitive and responsive controls are ripe for experimentation, so you don't need to be a musician to come up with interesting songs, sequences, or patterns.

Software requirements and specs
Platform(s): Windows 2000/XP; Mac OS 10.2.8 or higher
Processor: 600MHz or faster (Windows); G3 or better (Mac)
RAM: 512MB (Windows and Mac)
Sound requirements: Windows-compatible sound card (Windows)
Downloadable full version: Yes
Ableton Live 5.2 is a complex program, so don't be shy about looking for help. Luckily, the company offers excellent support options. The program comes with a 376-page PDF manual and several fine tutorials built in. Look to the Web site for FAQs, tutorials, e-mail support, and even phone support. M-Audio provides the e-mail and toll-call phone support, the latter of which is available from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. PT. We found the hold times short and the operators remarkably patient.

Ableton Live 5.2

Score Breakdown

Setup 8Features 8Performance 9Support 9