Life without Ableton Live

This post has been percolating for a while, the recent announcement of Live 9 has just hurried it along.

It’s been a while since i’ve used Ableton Live 8 for live performance or composition, and that isn’t because I don’t like it.  The image above is from my “Installer” performance back in 2009 where I was using Live, and APC-40 controller and VDMX for audiovisuals.  Here is some footage:

Installer Gig excerpt from Secret Killer Of Names on Vimeo.

I recall my friend Shannon O’Neill quizzing me over why I would use a sequencer that locks me into time so much and I talked him round with the many ways to mess with this (aside from disabling quantization).  Flexibility is definately one of its better features and i’ve used it primarily as a multi-channel sound router for the last couple of years.  When i’ve used it.  The problem is that Shannon actually has a point, though the effects are subtler than you might expect.

Here is an example of something I did primarily in Ableton Live 8:

Here is something I made primarily with a loop station, mixers and Reaper DAW.

I’m not expecting you study each intently so i’ll get to the point.  While still a release i’m proud of and in no way comparable to the strictly rhythmical compositions commonly associated with Live, the former release still lacks sonic power due to Ableton’s sample stretching algorithms and fails to develop interestingly in many cases due to a need for the sounds to fit into global tempo quantization.  Even the nature of composition, jumping from one set of loops to the next, requires adapting to Live’s paradigm of syncing discrete looping segments.  To be fair these pieces were designed to be performed live, with the APC-40 controller in mind and the end results would probably be similar using Maschine.  With the loop-station material, I jammed more and worked a lot harder at the final mix stage, and I think the end result is more sonically interesting and somewhat humanized by the combination of real-time performance with extended mixing.  Then again many might consider the rigid, quantized and dynamically normalised stuff more easy to listen to.   I’d never be able to recreate the latter set live, whereas I could probably still play the former for you… but is that a good thing?

The introduction of Max 4 Live into Ableton provided a rich opportunity to move beyond the cyclic lockdown and create our own performance paradigms, however for me this lead to me re-considering what Max could do for me.  The introduction of Max 6 and a series of usability improvements, also helped build my understanding of the system and what I could do with it.  Over the last few years i’ve done a lot of experiments in designing performance setups for my PhD research.  I’ve created Jitter patches for N4rgh1l3 to perform live visuals, while reducing my audio elements to hardware synths and samplers.  As part of my EAR Ensemble work at Griffith Conservatorium of Music i’ve been working on live performance systems in Max for myself and the students.

The image above is from the latest iteration of my Performer patch, something i’ve been evolving over the last few months.  The basic idea is a stereo loop-station that can accept multiple inputs, output through various digital effects and also run some virtual instruments.  I’m using a KMI Softstep, Korg NanoKontrol1 and Akai LPK25 as controllers.  The intention is that it can be used in a diverse number of ways for example:

  • as a central processor of multiple instruments (using the MOTU Ultralite) – this has been the way i’ve used it with the EAR ENSEMBLE, using Reaktor with “The Finger” as a VSTi, processing the input and outputting to SFX Machine Pro and/or Argot Lunar granular fx;
  • assigned to the send/return channel of a mixing desk – this is my plan for live work along with the Venom synth and Roland SP404 sampler;
  • as an ideas creation tool with multiple VSTs and FXs (see image below).

These are all ways that i’ve used Ableton Live in the past, despite it not being specifically intended for any of them.  I’m reducing my Max patch to the basic functionality I require.  Here are some examples from various stages in the production of my patch.  The screencap above was taken during the production of “Restless Daymare”.

My point with this post is not to denigrate Ableton Live.  Though i’m slightly peeved that I have to buy the “Suite” if I want Max for Live in version 9.

I’m essentially suggesting that diversity can actually be freeing, particular with regards to performance.  The benefit for many with Ableton Live is the interface that combines streamlined performance operations with basic composition and mixing tools.  But I think it is worth considering how bringing these separate elements together creates compromises that users, sometimes unwittingly accept and adapt into their compositions.  These compromises create limited systems that may serve to limit the flexibility and diversity of your performance and composition.   Relying on Ableton for composition and performance requires adhering to its paradigms and aesthetics.  Creating your own system doesn’t necessarily guarantee more flexibility or diversity but it does mean you don’t have to try and shoehorn your performance ideal into someone else’s.

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4 thoughts on “Life without Ableton Live

  1. I completely agree. You said it better than I ever could but there’s definitely a point where I can feel the grid tugging at the edges of things with Ableton. Or maybe it’s just staring at the grid. I don’t know.

    1. Hey Ian. I guess I like the idea of loops but am less into the quantisation of them. I like things to be slightly out / phasing etc… Also really hate the sound of the pitch-shift algorithms for ensuring each loop fits to time.

  2. You mentioned Mashcine up there too, another system based solely on a grid, but even though the hardware mirrors the grid with a massive 4 X 4 grid of buttons I’ve found it easy enough to break out of the grid thinking- I’ve had it for over a year now and I’ve never pressed play, instead looking at it as a sound repository with banks of sounds plus 4 instrument inputs under my fingers. I was so worried that I was going to be shoehorned, or even tempted by the grid to sequence or sync to a tempo, but I haven’t (yet).
    The announcement of Push further peaks my interest if I approach it in the same way, forget the grid and use it as “hardware”.
    So do you run the path in Ableton or stand alone Max? I’d be interested to know what the CPU drain is doing it one way or the other?

    1. It’s a stand-alone Max Patch. Something I didn’t really get into and probably should have, I had a slightly similar setup in Ableton Live, in fact i’m pretty sure that is what I used when we jammed that time. One major problem I had in Live is when capturing and looping sound I couldn’t find a way to have things phase in and out. It was all too rigid and mechanical. Also I couldn’t find a way to make slow-fade loops as I can with the Feedback loop delay in Max. Now that I know how to do it, I could probably adapt the loopers to work as Max For Live patches so it might be worth seeing how the CPU goes in Ableton. With my patch the highest it has been with this iteration was 76% and that was mainly running the two instances of Reaktor with the Dron-E ensemble. Turnado seems very svelte!

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