Ableton Live 3.0

Ableton Live 3.0

Byline: Gary Eskow

Although I mention it on a regular basis these days, the way many of today’s audio applications put powerful sound design tools into the hands of creative non-musicians continues to amaze me.

For example, Ableton Live 3.0 is the latest version of a product originally intended to be used by DJs in clubs and in concerts. Many of Live’s features – coupled with its low cost – make it practical and attractive for audio post operators, who may or may not have extensive musical knowledge.

Live 3.0, like its predecessors, turns the fundamental design concept of the sequencer on its head. Most sequencers build outward from the assumption that a keyboard will be used to input musical phrases, and that samples will be added for color.

As it is currently configured, Live 3.0 eliminates MIDI performance from the equation. MIDI controllers attached to a keyboard can be used to control a variety of parameters, but the ability to play a C major scale is not inherent to the Live paradigm. How does Ableton Live 3.0 work, and which are the most important features for you, the audio post sound designer?

Live 3.0 has a well-designed user interface that is extremely easy on the eye. Its two main views, the Session and Arrangement views, have parameters that are set against a pleasing khaki green background. In either view, a pair of vertical and horizontal rows gives the user access to Live’s essential functions. These include a transport bar and a set of folders that reveal the mostly excellent effects that ship with the program, third-party VST effects the user may own, and a pathway to stored sessions (Live Sets) the user has created.

The Arrangement View lays out all of your clips – this is the term Ableton uses for any piece of recorded audio, from a one-shot event to an entire song – along a timeline on the left of the screen. As is standard these days, a Zoom tool lets you zoom out to view the entirety of your audio or in to view minute portions of it. To the right of the timeline are controls for each of the clips. Let’s take a moment and give a real-world application of how you might work with the Arrangement View.

You’ve got a scene that’s 16 seconds and 22 frames long. During that time, an empty street fills with people, and a shot rings out at the final frame. You load several clips into Live 3.0: a bustling crowd, a metal thud (as a manhole cover is set into place), and a percussive drum loop.

You’ve already imported a Quick-Time movie into Live 3.0 and set up a SMPTE ruler, so you can see all of the clips against this timeline. (To do this, you’ll need a third-party program like ReVision from Granted Software, available at

You decide to work on the crowd first and solo it. Under the clip’s name you select Track Volume, click on any two points in the crowd audio sample to create a line that will allow you to draw volume, and play with the audio against video. In a minute or so you’ve convincingly built the size of the crowd noise to match the picture. You can add more breakpoints to increase your control over the volume curve.

However, Live 3.0 is not currently well-suited for SMPTE work, and you won’t be able to take your metal thud and type in its location. Instead you’ll have to manually play with the offset in realtime. This is somewhat of a drag for those accustomed to Pro Tools and native digital audio workstations, but you’ll have to decide if the flexibility of Live 3.0 offsets this limitation. Live 3.0 does allow for more creative mangling of sounds than most other apps.

Notice that I haven’t given you a laundry list of Live 3.0’s functions. This is because anyone familiar with DAWs and who can read a well-composed manual should be able to use this program in a matter of minutes.

For example, let’s say you’re not a musician but have pulled some well-played keyboard, bass, and drum loops off of a sampled CD. It’s very easy to assign a reverb to the master channel and automate the send levels of each of your tracks. You can also assign plug-ins to individual tracks, but watch out. I’m running Live 3.0 on a G4 with a 733MHz processor under OS X and I run out of headroom quickly. If you’ve got a G5 or an au courant PC you’ll fare much better.

Live 3.0 handles transposition well. You can use it to add variety to a musical arrangement and also mangle musical ideas, including the simplest three-note chords you might create yourself, in very interesting ways.

Let’s go back to the keyboard, bass, and drum loop example. You might lay out this four-bar loop an additional three times to make a 16-bar phrase. Transposing the third iteration of the phrase up or down yields a pleasing AABA structure to the larger phrase. Live 3.0 handles transposition effectively, with much less “munchkin-ization” than many other applications. Of course, there are limitations to how far you can pitch a tone up or down before unacceptable artifacts are introduced, and you’ll have to play around to find the proper balance.

What if you want to create a sting to personalize the logo on your demo reel? You play a C major chord on one of your sound modules and save this sterling performance to disk as either an AIFF or WAV file. (Live 3.0 doesn’t import MP3 files, and that’s a limitation for audio post folks sending and receiving work files through the Internet.) You then load the file into a Live 3.0 “track” (these terms are dated), along with a single cymbal crash.

You’ll execute this sound design in the Arrangement window, because editing there gives you access to the SMPTE ruler. You highlight your track, opening its Clip window, and then click on the E (Envelope) button. There’s your C major chord, in all its waveform-esque glory. You can easily draw in a radical transposition curve that takes the chord from the bottom of the tonal spectrum to the top in order to match your logo. However, your chord is held longer than needed, so you’ll also draw in a velocity curve that kills the piano part at the frame when your company logo sparkles, at which point you’ll drop in the cymbal crash. Easy!

You can automate transposition and other functions in realtime, but one of the few real drags about Live 3.0 is that there is no count-off function available. You can’t arm a record function and grab it before the record process starts. That’s a limitation Ableton must eliminate.

DJs love Live 3.0 for a number of reasons, including the program’s ability to change tempo and pitch on the fly with minimal distortion of content. The program calls its time-mangling capability “warping.” You’ll use it frequently to match the feel of loops to the rhythm of your video.

Although it was not originally intended for audio post use and has a few limitations, the attractions of Live 3.0 are great. With its low price – about $239 – Live 3.0 is a must-check-out for anyone doing audio post work.

Gary Eskow is currently working on music for a ballet. He can be reached through his website at .


Company: Ableton Berlin, Germany; +49 030-288-7630

Product: Live 3.0

Assets: Easy to learn and use for those familiar with DAWs; flexibility allows for creative distortion of sounds; ships with an array of good effects.

Caveats: App does not import MP3 files; not well-suited for SMPTE work.

Demographic: DJs, live-event audio engineers

Price: $239


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