software: Ableton Live 5
Getting little stickers with your software should, we suppose, be something only kids would impressed by. But we have to admit we thought "all those cute little stickers! Where can we stick them?!" That's actually the main problem for more mature folk.
Anyway, aside of it coming in a nice black box with stickers and a full manual, there is the software itself. Ableton have tried to avoid piracy by having both an unlock key and then a system to tie the software to one computer. You can get extra if you provide good reasons why ... motherboard update, use on laptop etc. With a laptop you can actually do your main work with a desktop and then use a copy of Live on a laptop in demo mode for performance.
The idea of Ableton Live is to provide a platform to manipulate and play audio files in realtime. People like Richie Hawtin use Live to construct and modify other people's tracks that they play. This actually can make the result a fully-fledged original, as opposed to just plonking other people's LP's on the turntable -- even though selection is still a skill.
As well as that, there is no reason why you can't make your own tracks and then play then back and manipulate them for an audience.
In addition to the specialized use of live manipulation of files Live is touted by the makers as a complete music making solution. When you get the software installed and unlocked (just drag and drop), you're invited to take a tour of the software and a very nicely done tutorial introduces you to the concepts involved. If you've played with music software before, the general ideas of the thing won't come as a surprise but the ways of organizing sound clips and the names given to the various stages will need to be known. This is a complex piece of software so, along with every other application of its type, you need to put in some learning time. This will be shorter if you already have a good grounding in digital music making.
The interface is uncluttered and ungimicky and with an info section so that if you mouseover a button, what it is will be revealed in the box -- which is much nicer than popups in our opinion. There is also a help section that works this way as well, and both these sections can be closed to increase the screen space available.
Getting going is fairly straightforward. You can select MIDI instruments from the ones provided and just drag and drop, arm the track for recording and you're away. The same principle goes for samples. Recording your own tracks is also straightforward. If you're serious you most likely already have a MIDI keyboard but if you don't, clicking a button enables use of the computer keyboard or if you use something like midikeys.app on a Mac you'll see which notes you're playing on the little keyboard on screen.
live set, session view
Various synth patches have all kinds of parameters that can be set in the window provided and the same goes for VST instruments. As an aside you can assign various operations to MIDI and thus use the keyboard as a kind of control surface.
Effects can be added by dragging and dropping onto the track concerned and there is a large library of effects to choose from.
Ableton Live is probably best known for being used by the likes of DJ Richie Hawtin and this sort of usage is another aspect of the program. For instance you can drag your sound clips in (most formats, including mp3 and Ogg), get them to beat-match, add effects, tweak them in realtime, change the tempo with or without pitch change and generally fool around to your heart's content. You can also assign keys on your MIDI or computer keyboard to perform different actions such as changing the parameter of an effect or whatever.
All this might sound like it does everything but it doesn't. You still need an editor even though you can do things like select regions of imported clips for play or loop, and of course, you can add effects to the selected regions as well.
While its natural product might seem to be loop-based music, it also has quite a lot going for it in the production of normal linearly developing songs. It almost comes down to a matter of taste and maybe sometimes to the sort of effects you might want.
We had a specific task in mind which was to construct something for Robot Bleeping to present at Bleepfest 06. Initially, an idea sprang to mind of random bleeps coalescing into a melody with beats. This might happen later but the nature of the bleeps provided in the simple synth provided weren't quite right and the more sophisticated synth that's bundled is just a demo with no saving allowed. Time was short so a first tune was created by importing and tweaking some beats from some samples on hand, and then a groove. The next step was to record some MIDI and two voice tracks. All this is quite easily done once you get the hang of which buttons need to be clicked. The results are then laid out as synched clips and for the live show these can be clicked to play and stop, and the effects tweaked as you go along to create some added timbral interest. Well see how it goes! www.ableton.com
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