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Live review:

Live

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The Good Live audio mixing and playback instrument; clean DSP-based audio effects; easy sound access.

The Bad Fairly steep learning curve; external effects can swamp processor speed or hard drive audio access; interface color scheme is clumsy; imports WAV files only.

The Bottom Line Ableton Live occupies a unique niche in the music software world: it turns your computer into a musical instrument. Get it, and you'll want to risk hauling your PC to a gig.

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CNET Editors' Rating

8.0 Overall

Review Sections

Many time-honored music programs let you arrange digital audio, but Ableton Live actually turns your computer into a musical instrument. Using software, Live replicates a well-established electronic instrument called a groove box. A groove box is a small, self-contained electronic instrument, often used to create dance music, that can play back drum sounds and recordings of other instruments, or samples, at different tempos. Live emulates many groove box controls, so you can trigger drum loops, instrument samples, and other digital audio clips using a MIDI or computer keyboard. Live can even process your digital audio with onboard effects and automate a mix of your performance. Beginners might struggle with Live, but anyone who creates dance music using groove boxes and drum machines will find true nirvana with this app. Many time-honored music programs let you arrange digital audio, but Ableton Live actually turns your computer into a musical instrument. Using software, Live replicates a well-established electronic instrument called a groove box. A groove box is a small, self-contained electronic instrument, often used to create dance music, that can play back drum sounds and recordings of other instruments, or samples, at different tempos. Live emulates many groove box controls, so you can trigger drum loops, instrument samples, and other digital audio clips using a MIDI or computer keyboard. Live can even process your digital audio with onboard effects and automate a mix of your performance. Beginners might struggle with Live, but anyone who creates dance music using groove boxes and drum machines will find true nirvana with this app.

Working with Live
Once you've installed Live (a snap on both the Mac and the PC), the program opens to a view called Track, which displays a timeline with tracks, or chunks of sound, stacked on top of each other. Immediately, you notice that Live is not your typical music program; the cool, minimalist interface features pastel colors and looks completely different from most music applications.

To play a sound, just drag a clip from the folder menu to the Tracks timeline and click the Play button located in the control panel at the top of the screen. Like many digital audio-mixing programs, Live lets you build up a musical composition by just adding and arranging audio clips in the timeline. Live also builds in custom audio effects, ranging from simple delays to sophisticated effects such as the Autofilter, which automatically adjusts the equalization of a sound over time.

Live sorely lacks a simple reverb effect. While you can get the effect by adding an external plug-in, we found that installing such plug-ins dramatically bogged down playback, causing some tracks to stop playing. Hopefully, Ableton will add a built-in reverb plug-in to the next version of Live.

Literally a Live performance
We love Live primarily for its Console view--the setting that lets you use Live as a performance instrument via some minor editing tools. Toggle to this view, and it displays a timeline, with different tracks appearing as square blocks that occur at different times. Here, you can add digital audio clips to tracks and apply Live's audio effects to each track. However, instead of setting audio clips to play in a Track composition, the Console view lets you configure your computer to play back each track live as though the machine were a virtual groove box. To configure your computer, you map which MIDI or computer keyboard key will trigger that particular track. Then, whenever you hit that key, every audio clip on that particular track will play back. By launching multiple tracks, you can build a live groove, with different musical sequences that you trigger to fit your musical tastes. This method isn't quite as immediate as a dedicated groove box, but you can switch tracks fast enough for performing in a live music gig.

A dash of practicality
While Live is a fun, innovative music program, it raises a fundamental question: Are you really going to use your computer in a live musical performance? More and more amateur and professional musicians do so, but consider the risks--from voltage spikes to spilled drinks--before you invest in this app. Of course, if you are using it in your home studio or just to impress your friends at the office, Live is a great way to find your groove.

Take me back to the roundup!

In Live's Console view, each audio track can play back multiple audio clips at one time. You trigger each track to play back by using either a computer or MIDI keyboard.

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