music/software: interview: Dom Wilms
support manager, Ableton Live

Here we have a wide-ranging chat with Ableton's Support
Manager, Dom Wilms about many aspects of Ableton Live
including the past, what's coming up, some details of
usage, and whether they'd consider porting to Linux.

Ableton Live (currently at 6) is used by a large number
of musicians and DJ's.

> Maybe we could start with a little history - I think
> Ableton has been going for five years now and at least
> one of the founders was at TU in Berlin. Do you know anything
> about the birth of the idea and how it all got put together?

Time is moving fast, Ableton was founded back in '99 and Live 1 was released in '01, so it is even more than 5 years.

A big step again for a lot of people out there was Live 4 in 2004 which included midi sequencing after being audio-only in the earlier versions.

Regarding the founding: As far as i remember Gerhard was at the TU and was making music together with Robert Henke under the name Monolake. Gerhard was also working on stuff for Native Instruments where he met Bernd Roggendorf. Gerhard and Robert where deep into Max/MSP building their own patches for creating music and thinking about a live sequencer at this time and Bernd liked that idea... Bernd left Native as they were not into the sequencer host thing and that's how ableton was founded.

If you need more details on those early days simply say a word and i check with Gerhard for first hand experience, i joined 3 years ago...

> With Live 5, maybe before, Ableton was putting forward
> the idea that Live was a good solution for ordinary session
> recording work. With 6 the suggestion seems to be even
> stronger. Have there been specific things done in 6 to
> further that aim?

Depends on what exactly you mean. Live was a powerful tool for multitrack recording even before version 4 or 5, but lacking features like midi sequencing. Live is extremely handy as a fast and intuitive multitrack recorder and allows you to play, record, mix and match plugins without ever stopping the music and killing your creative workflow but lacks some editing features that big old studio daw applications like ProTools offer (e.g. crossfades between audio clips in one single track, displaying multiple automation parameters of one track at once).

However, the number of those missing features gets smaller and smaller with ever update. Live evolves in various directions and although it was not aiming for it in its first releases, it can already compete now with traditional daw applications in a lot of tasks while ableton still works hard to keep the basic approach of Live being a "sequencing instrument" - intuitive, fast and easy to handle - hence the name. In every version there are new outstanding features added that are unique in Live on the one hand while also incorporating important standard functions from the traditional DAW world (plugin latency compensation, multicore/processor support, freeze function, scoring to video). But if you take a look at the early Live versions and than at Live 6 you will notice that the gui is still pretty the same and you can still work exactly the same wayas in the versions before without learning new stuff, but under the hood it is now a very powerful general purpose tool for the stage, studio or your bedroom. It is amazing how different Live is being used by singer/songwriter type of customers, theaters or TV shows, movie scoring studios, djs and electronic Live acts, arts installations etc... Live is even used in churches for performing music during the worships!

> The session and arrangement views are things that a lot of
> people feel they aren't using optimally I think. This might
> be furthered by the quite nice suggestion that whatever suits
> you is the way to go ... still, if you find you're just using
> one view, there's a thought that maybe with more knowledge
> there's more to come. Do you have any workflow suggestions
> here or ways of thinking that might be useful? And I know,
> RTM and the forums is actually moderately helpful here!

Even we are surprised from time to time what kind of clever usages our customers report us. In general it is a good advice to try to get your head around the relationship between the session and the arrange view if you're used to traditional sequencing software. Being able to jam with clips in the session view while recording your jamming in the arrangement view as an actual arrangement and having the opportunity to fine tune it afterwards is the most obvious task and trick to get a lay down a basic song structure real quick, but a lot of people never look at the possibilities that the follow actions offer in the session, for example.

Another nice thing are the locators in the arrange view: you can midi learn and trigger them quantized to the beat just as clips. A lot of bands have pretty static playbacks and want to navigate inside a playback for live interaction (e.g. simply jumping back to the chorus again if someone misses his part) but don't want to go deep into the details and jam with the single parts of a song in the session. Using the locators you can jump between different parts of the song in a quantized way without using the session.

> Ableton has offices in Berlin and NYC and I noticed there
> were a fair few music activities going on in NYC -
> combination workshops and show-and-tell. Is there
> anything like that going on in Germany - other than the
> recent Bleepfest?

We encourage people to start user groups if there's enough interest in their area and we did a user camp twice now where we invited outstanding users to our office for brainstorming and to show off their work so that we learn how people use Live, what they expect in future versions and how they judge the whole community around Live but as a pretty small software company we simply don't have enough people to do regular workshops in a lot of cities. However, there are workshop tours from time to time and they get announced on our website and our forum.

> I know there are a few people using Linux to create sounds
> which they're then delivering with Ableton Live. Is there
> any thought of porting to Linux?

This is not planned, at least not yet. There are a lot of efforts in the linux audio scene if you compare it with the situation a few years ago but the whole driver and plugin situation is still in a very early stage. While on the one hand a lot of people really would love us to start developing in this direction there's simply not enough demand for a Linux version making it a profitable project. For the average musician a normal windows box or even a shiny mac is rocket science enough to kill all their creativity while operating the machine and Live is fighting exactly that. At the moment OS X is the most reasonable mix between a unix system and commons standards like coreaudio support or VST/AU plugins etc.


I guess you mean the Jack Audio Connection Kit? No problem, as the Jack port supports Coreaudio in general it works with all audio applications in OS X. In general there are a few solutions for routing audio between different apps, Soundflower from Cycling '74 e.g. does the same.

> Many people use smaller Mac laptops for performing with
> Ableton Live. The big ones are awkward to carry around and
> are also expensive. This means screen space is quite often at a premium. 
> Does Ableton spend any time doing GUI
> research?

The GUI philosophy in Live is one of its biggest strengths: there are no overlapping windows in Live forcing you to constantly move or hide windows. Live does not waste screen space displaying photorealistic knobs or displays because a knob should show it's position as clearly as possible and give you optical feedback instead of drop shadows. Fortunately the current laptops offer even higher screen resolution than the desktops when Live was released, so we're not stuck with 1024x768 anymore but the GUI design as an important and always ongoing part of the development.

> And the future generally - no doubt there are new features and
> new ideas being kicked around right now. Can you share any of
> these?

Ableton almost never announces features before they're ready to ship. In software development you often come across problems that can't be forseen in an early stage and on the one hand we don't want to disappoint customers with announced but canceled developments or features that don't work as they should only because we promised them and on the other hand we don't want to give away our secret and crazy ideas to the world too early.

>Thanks, I think you gave us some muffled hints here :)
>I'll just add on a fairly random question here - Sampler
>can play soundfonts but is there a way without it?

right, soundfonts are only supported by sampler, but there are also a lot of freeware plugins out there that support soundfonts, so if you don't need all other features of sampler and only plan to play soundfonts those products are fine. (Editor: for Macs and Windows go to and get Crystal which is a VST plugin. For Windows there's also Fantasize and maybe others.)

>Thanks a lot Dom.

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