Why I Switched to Ableton Live

My first album was recorded in Cakewalk, and my second in Logic. Everything since 1998 was recorded in Cubase. This year I received Ableton Live as one of my prizes in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. Many of my musician friends have asked me how it’s different, so I’d like to illustrate some of those differences by walking you through a song snippet I created yesterday.

I started by recording a four measure lead line using Operator, a built-in softsynth:

In a typical DAW, this would be recorded to a timeline. With Live, I recorded it as a clip, without any fixed place in the arrangement. The beauty of Live is that I can make lots of little clips and try them out in any combination without committing to any sort of structure. If you’ve got 13 minutes to spare, it’s easier to understand when you see it in action.

To add a little more interest to the track, I used clip automation to alter the pitch envelope (in plain English, I made the long notes go up or down a little at the end):

Glasso pitch

Then I created a looping volume envelope to make the sound cut out at various intervals:


Next, I imported a sample of a single synth bass note as a clip and ran it through Live’s saturator plug-in, to give it a little grit:

I added a transpose envelope, which occurs every time the note is hit. The little beep towards the end of the note is where I jumped up two octaves for a split-second:


Finally, I copied the clip three times and transposed each differently. Rather than one sample playing C, I now had four, playing D, B, E, and A. The transpose envelope I created is still acting in a relative fashion on each of the four clips!

The last ingredient of this little snippet is a one bar drum loop, which Live matches to the project tempo automatically. I EQ’d it slightly to tone down the brightness:

I added a volume envelope and a complimentary send envelope, to bring in a delay effect as the volume goes down:


Then I added a sample offset envelope, which creates a glitchy sound by shifting forward or backward in time:


You may have noticed that the volume/delay effect was missing in that last audio sample. That’s because it only occurs in the second of every four bars. The sample offset only happens in the fourth. My one bar loop is now a four bar loop!

So to recap, I created three four bar envelopes to modulate a one bar loop. You can specify any length you want for any of the envelopes, regardless of the length of your sample! I have no idea how you’d do this in any other DAW.

Last but not least, I made the drum loop spazz out at the end with an extreme sample offset envelope:


To create the arrangement, I simply dragged and dropped the clips:


Here is the final result, with no effects or automation beyond what I described above. That’s quite a bit of mileage out of one synth line and two samples! If I want to use one of the clips in a song, I simply drag and drop it into any project. Live matches the new tempo automatically. No DAW I’ve ever used can match that level of creative freedom.

Now to contact Ableton about that sponsorship… 😉

13 thoughts on “Why I Switched to Ableton Live”

  1. I love how EVERY single person I know (many) who uses Live, has their very own and distinct way to go about using it. Goes to show how versatile the product really is, when any multitude of ways can be used to come about bringing out a track.

    Needless to say, I would have gone a totally different route to the same objective…., which roughly means using clip recording it all live with some added VST fun instead of just straight arranging it in arrangement mode.

  2. A member of my group on thesixtyone just said he’d do it all with Simpler or with MIDI in a Drum/Instrument Rack, so there’s another option.

    I could’ve gone straight to arrangement mode, but working with clips allowed me to figure out the arrangement later, which is one of my favorite things about Live.

  3. From my perspective, the greatest thing about Ableton Live is how it lets a rank amateur like me dabble and produce something that still sounds good and not like bad FM synth, mod tracker, or general MIDI.

    I am in no way a professional musician, yet in a short time I can sit down and make a “musical doodle” and grow it into something that doesn’t sound half bad.

    There are so many ways to express your intention and explore alternatives, and the software mostly facilitates rather than gets in your way.

  4. Thanks Brian. Our electro-pop band have been using Ableton Live from day one (of the band, not of Live coming out!) for writing, recording and performing onstage. By far the best ratio of simplicity/power for any DAW, if you ask me.

    You probably know this, but for those that don’t, you could have created the arrangement by simply clicking the global arm button and then just playing the loops – this is fun if you want to do it ‘on the fly’ as opposed to ‘drag and drop’.

    Albert’s ÂŁo.02

  5. As an Apple Logic user from 1993 (I used Cubase on the Atari before that) I have to say learning Live took me about a weekend. I got the gist after 15 minutes but kept screwing things up for the first couple days. Live is amazing. Simple, fast, and it sounds brilliant. For electronic music I haven’t used or seen anything better. It sounds punchier than Logic (which to my ear is softer, more blurry). For those who fear trying to change, I say go to shop where someone understands the software and get a 10 minute demo. If it makes sense to you after that, give it a go. Personally I think it sounds incredible and the interface, once you get over it’s completely foreign approach is a lot of fun to quickly throw together new tracks. really good for dance music. Makes your computer into an instrument rather than just a recording device. I’d recommend it! “:D

  6. Solid advice Mince. I’m way quicker at Live now than I am Cubase. In fact, a client wanted to make some changes to an old mix, and I actually rendered the files out of Cubase to mix in Live. I don’t want to go back!

  7. i’m new to Ableton Live, (got the 10th anni deal) but certainly not new to daw’s.. i used notator on the atari, vision DSP with an OASYS PCI and pluggo (a potent combo for sure.) after years of only having Cubase LE (an early version) to run my PC VSTi’s etc. i feel like i’ve been let out of a gilded cage creatively. Cubase may be able to do cool things, it just takes an inordinate amount of fussing and scrolling and clicking just to dial up a synth! argh no wonder i wan’t into music making for a while. i found the process frustrating and not fun.

    fast forward to last night, running reason 4 rewired into ableton live 8 — i am at a loss for words to describe the fantastic sense of possibilities with live.

    for anyone on the fence, i’d shake those pre-conceptions off and give the 30-day demo a go to see if it’s a fit to your style of working.

    having more fun than should be allowed…

    art damage

  8. I am an avid live user in both my projects (PTI & Breath And Decay), as are many of the artists on my record label (Bit Riot Records). The real aha moment for me when moving to Live 3 from Cubase VST 32 was that, in lives intuitive interface, if you wanted to delete somthing, all you have to do is click on it and press delete. It is that sort of straight forward interface combined with the very easy automation tools th at have made Live such a staple for writing quick sketches or working out entire songs.

    The one thing I feel I need to point out is that Live has a very specific color. When I DJ with live or hear someone DJ’ing with live, the EQ or Delay is noticeable. Similarly, my most successful artists still choose to do final mixing in protools to combat this audio coloring.

    Cool blog!

  9. Wow Eric, you jumped on the Live train early! I like the simplicity and obviousness of the delete key, but I find myself accidentally deleting tracks all the time when I’m renaming them and hit the backspace key. Maybe it’s just my system.

    I use my UAD-2 for EQ and compression, so any color should be minimal. I wonder if that’s really an issue with the latest version in high-quality mode though.

    Good to hear from you!

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