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Ableton Live 9 Standard review

Our Rating :
Price when reviewed : £339
inc VAT

Boldly innovative at every turn, and always focused on making great music

Pop music has always been heavily influenced by technology. Eighties pop was dominated by analogue synths and drum machines. In the nineties, the sampler reigned supreme. Since the turn of the millennium there hasn’t been a significant new instrument type, which perhaps explains why guitar bands have become mainstream once again. However, if there’s one genre-defining sound for our time, it’s the computer. Computer-manipulated vocals are everywhere, not just keeping singers in tune but also pushing the voice in unexpected directions. The same thing has happened to the other instruments in the mix too. A lot of pop music sounds neither electronic nor acoustic, but a hybrid that comes from recording real instruments and editing and manipulating them almost beyond recognition.

Ableton Live has long been the favourite music production software of DJs and producers because of the way it combines MIDI editing and arrangement with audio clips. Its Audio Warp functions, for example, are the sonic equivalent of Play-Doh, re-timing and pitching recordings with a dexterity that other recording software has yet to match. Its Session View dispenses with the conventional timeline approach to arrangement, chopping recordings into loops and recombining them on the fly. This also makes Ableton Live a phenomenal performance tool, allowing musicians to take to the stage with a finished mix that they can then rearrange and alter.

Ableton Live 9 Audio Effects
Ableton Live 9’s updated effects work and sound better than ever

It’s been three years since Live 8, so it seems fair to expect big things from this update. Much of Ableton’s energies have gone towards developing its Push hardware controller (£429 inc VAT, from Judging by the online videos, the Push controller raises the bar yet again for using Live as a performance tool. At first glance, details about Live 9 seemed to be less exciting, with a list of new features that mostly seem to improve workflow. When we tried the new features, it quickly became clear that Ableton has lost none of its flair for innovation.

The big breakthrough for us is the new Audio-to-MIDI conversion function. It’s not a new idea; it’s been knocking about in various forms for years, and Cubase recently introduced a strong implementation in version 6. Ableton Live goes much further, though. There are three right-click commands for drums, melody and harmony. Converting a drum recording or sample automatically distinguishes between the kick, snare and hi-hat, and maps the MIDI notes accordingly. Melody mode is for monophonic instruments, including bass guitar and vocals.

Ableton Live 9 MIDI-to-Audio Conversion
Audio-to-MIDI conversion isn’t just for monophonic instruments, this overdriven guitar was converted extremely accurately

Harmony mode processes polyphonic instruments, something that’s extremely difficult for a computer to do. The results were breathtakingly accurate, and Live 9 coped superbly with an acoustic guitar in both arpeggiated and strummed passages. It even made sense of an overdriven rhythm guitar part. There were quite a few extraneous notes, mostly caused by ringing overtones and fret noise, and a few missing notes, but the basic material was there and it didn’t take long to correct it manually. It coped less well with a legato string recording; by Ableton’s own admission, the tool works best with audio that contains clear attacks.

While the harmony conversion is technically impressive, we’d imagine that the drum and melody modes will see a lot more use. They’re perfect for doubling a drum kit or bass guitar recording with samples. There are countless other uses too, such as creating a bassline in perfect sync with a kick drum, or echoing a vocal with an ethereal synth wash. It can also be used to program drum parts or melodies by beatboxing and singing into a microphone, which is a truly liberating experience, especially for non-keyboard players. However, it’s disappointing that melody conversion doesn’t employ pitch bend to capture gliding notes and vibrato.

With so much MIDI data being captured, it’s good to see that Live’s MIDI editing has been greatly improved. There are buttons to halve or double the selected MIDI notes’ timing, play them in reverse or invert the melodic shape. MIDI timing can also be manipulated using markers that closely resemble Live’s Audio Warp tools. We’d love to have these MIDI edits automatically mapped back to the audio from which it was converted, but that’s currently not possible.

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Price £339
Rating *****

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