It's been four long years since Ableton released Live 8 back in 2009. There were glimpses of activity from the company's Berlin headquarters in the form of stability updates, bug fixes and some new functionality to placate the user base, but it became increasingly clear that a bigger effort was afoot. Rumors of a ground-up rewrite to address some persistent user requests like session view automation and an improved synchronization engine circulated. The silence was broken last October when a video mysteriously appeared on Ableton's YouTube channel showing off a new bus compressor called the Glue and the redesign of a handful of existing Live devices. The video was quickly pulled, but not before many blogs picked up on the story, and Ableton all but confirmed that Live 9 was imminent. The beta period began, and being a longtime Ableton user I quickly swooped in to give it a thorough test.
The first bullet point listed in most of Live 9's press releases happens to be one of those most-requested features mentioned earlier—session view automation. In previous versions of Live, true automation was only available in the arrangement view, Live's linear editing mode. Session view, the grid-based interface where you can trigger MIDI and audio loops, did not support recording automation data into clips without some tricky workarounds. You could draw envelopes into clips, but they would simply modulate the parameter values rather than set the exact value. In Live 9, users can now record true automation in the session view: any device or mixer parameters controlled by mouse or MIDI (while recording is enabled) will create automation data in the associated clip. Ableton left the old envelopes in place for backwards-compatibility, but they're hidden by default. They can be accessed by right-clicking in the automation lane of a clip and selecting "show modulation." Automation drawn by hand benefits from another nice feature: any line between two breakpoints can now be curved by holding down the Option (Mac) or Alt (Windows) key and dragging with the mouse.
Another major new feature is a trio of audio analysis options in the vein of Melodyne. Live can now extract MIDI from audio in three different ways. Melody to MIDI is the most straightforward of the options: it simply looks for the most pronounced monophonic melody line in the audio clip and generates a MIDI file that plays that same melody in the same timing. Harmony to MIDI does the same thing with polyphonic material like piano chords. Drums to MIDI analyzes the rhythmic content of an audio clip and divides the result into kick, snare and hi-hat. I tested all three options with a variety of sources and was pretty blown away by the results. All three are incredible new creative tools in Ableton's arsenal. That producers can extract ideas from their imagination with just a whistle or a hum will undoubtedly open up new melodic frontiers.
The Glue Compressor is Live 9's only truly new device, and it's essentially a repackaging of the popular VST from Cytomic. This is an excellent bus compressor modeled after the famous SSL E-series known for "gluing together" drums and other uneven sources. Ableton's own compressor device got a makeover as well with two new display options—one minimalistic view with VU-style displays, and an enhanced waveform-style display that shows the effect of the compressor over time. Ableton gave their gate device the same waveform-style view, and a new return parameter that provides a means to reduce the chatter effect that can occur when signal hovers close to the threshold level. EQ Eight got perhaps the biggest overhaul, with an expandable spectrum display (eliminating the need for a separate spectrum analysis device) and a new audition mode that allows you to isolate each band of the EQ to hear its effect. It's a handy tool for dialing in on problem areas within a track.
I would like to have seen some more additions to Live's base device offerings after a four-year wait, but for those willing to pony up for Live 9 Suite, there's more in store. The modular programming environment Max for Live is now included in the Suite version, and there are a whopping 26 new Max devices that come with it. Among the many new creations are a pair of convolution reverbs, a drum synthesizer, a new version of Buffer Shuffler and more parameter modulations and LFOs than is probably healthy. Robert Henke himself (the co-creator of Ableton, AKA Monolake) even released a new set of devices last month celebrating the release of Live 9. With these new offerings and sites like maxforlive.com hosting libraries of devices, the Suite upgrade is a worthwhile purchase even if you have no plans of digging into the patches yourself.
Having looked at all of these new tools, the question that remains is one of stability. After Live 8 was released, Ableton issued a public statement vowing to shift their development priority from new features to fixing the bugs that were giving users grief. While I had very little issue with crashes from the very start of the Live 9 beta, there are still some bugs and feature gaps from Live 8 that have not yet been fixed. Perhaps most glaring are the issues surrounding latency and plug-in delay compensation. I won't get into the technical details (there are forum posts that explain it well), but this can lead to some sloppy-sounding timing creeping into sessions as they evolve over time.
Despite these issues, Ableton Live is still on top of the DAW market even after a relatively quiet four-year stretch. Ableton has pushed forward a step with the new audio-to-MIDI options, session view automation, revamped browser (the search option actually does something now) and the new or updated devices. Even with an intriguing new competitor looming in beta, I'm sold on what this release brings to the table. Consider it well worth the price of admission.