Few things get me more excited than news of a major update to my DAW of choice, Ableton Live—partially because I spend nearly every minute of my free time staring at Live’s GUI, and partially because major overhauls of Ableton’s flagship software have become increasingly rare in recent years. Whereas a mere 18 months passed between Live 7 and Live 8, nearly five years have passed since the release of Live 9.0 and the newly-released Live 10, leaving many loyal Live users wondering what was in store for their beloved studio software.
To be clear, the past five years have hardly been quiet for Ableton; we’ve seen the company release 2 versions of their dedicated hardware controller, Push, as well as substantial point updates to Ableton 9, and make headlines in 2017 for their acquisition of Cycling ’74, the development team behind the popular Max programming language and the popular Max for Live software.
After testing the Ableton Live 10 Beta for several months and putting the final release version through its paces over the last couple of weeks, I’m happy to say that the wait was indeed worth it—Live 10 is a substantial and impressive step forward, with a host of new features and improvements that make the software easier to use, more flexible in professional production environments, and most importantly, more fun.
In this review we’ll dive into the long list of new features and updates to be found in Live 10, and we’ll discuss where it ranks in comparison to other leading DAW’s on the market today.
Setup and First Impressions
While Live 10 holds a host of new features under the hood for both novice and power users alike, hardly anything has changed with regard to installation and authorization of the software; simply download the Live 10 installer, install on your Mac or PC, and authorize the application upon first launch via Ableton’s simple web connector authorization modal. Similar to Live 9, Live 10 is available in 3 different versions which offer increasingly robust functionality and plugins—Lite, Standard, and Suite. With more or less the same base feature set, Standard and Suite really diverge when it comes to included plugins, MIDI effects, and Max for Live; Suite includes an additional 50GB of built-in sounds, along with high-end plugins like Analog, Collison, Sampler, and, as of Live 10, new additions like Wavetable, Pedal, Echo, and Max for Live. While Live 10 Standard is more than adequate for making a great track, if you’re planning to use Live as your main DAW I’d recommend opting for Suite—the extra plugins are some of what makes Ableton Live stand out from other DAW’s on the market, and this review will mostly focus on the synths and effects included with Live 10 Suite.
Much like the minimal changes to Live’s authorization procedures, Live 10’s GUI doesn’t stray far from the familiar design cues of its predecessor. Live 9 users will notice a smaller, more consistent font, changes to regions and their colors in the arrange view, and some more subtle changes to Live’s top row of buttons and controls. While Live 10 offers a host of new features and instruments that make it well worth an upgrade, I was a bit disappointed that the Ableton team didn’t push further with the GUI makeover, particularly given the long gap between versions and some of the very cool fan-made GUI makeovers floating around in design circles; Live 10’s GUI feels safe and familiar, but I’m not entirely sure that’s what Live needs now, after so many years of a relatively similar approach to the app’s layout and graphical interface. Notably, Live still feels handicapped for users on multi-monitor systems, with the same limitations on dual-window setups (inability to view arrangement or session view in both windows, for example) as it’s predecessor. That being said, my disappointment over the lack of a more robust GUI overhaul is merely my opinion and many users may not care much - and whether you’re a visually-inclined producer or simply couldn’t care less what the software looks like, the lack of a bigger refresh here is by no means a showstopper to what is otherwise a stellar update.
We noticed one very consistent theme regarding the changes the Ableton team did make to Live’s GUI - almost all are squarely focused on increasing the functionality of the app, and many of these changes are welcome and highly useful. The left browser sidebar now offers a Collection view, which offers up to 7 color-coded tags with which you can tag anything in Live 10’s browser—plugins, samples, folders, patches, and clips are all eligible for inclusion in your custom collections. While this seems like a simple feature, it’s radically changed my day-to-day workflow in Live, and it’s one of those features you wonder how you lived without after using it for just a short while; I now have my favorite synths in one collection, my favorite sample packs in another, and my favorite effect processors in another. One longstanding frustration of mine with previous versions of Live (and nearly every other major DAW) was an inability to easily create a pool of samples or synth patches of a particular type to browse through on the fly as I scan my hard drive for the perfect sound on a given track—Live 10’s collection now makes this a breeze. Say, for example, you’re hunting for that perfect kick sample in the root key of your song. If you’re like me, you’ll likely find a handful of samples that could work as you browse through your sounds, but you often need to audition and tweak each a couple times to really see if it fits in the mix right. These sounds are typically scattered across multiple sample packs and folders, making it hard to easily A/B them. Using Live 10’s collections, it’s now easy to quickly tag a handful of samples or patches I like across multiple folders and packs to create a short list of options to AB test and tweak in the context of my production.
Similarly, loyal Live users will notice two other GUI changes which have a huge impact on the workflow and usability of the software; Live 10 now allows notes from multiple MIDI clips to be overlaid upon each other in the MIDI clip edit view, and groups can now contain other groups—both of these are complete game changers for me and most producers I know who work in Live. Being able to see and edit notes from multiple MIDI clips makes harmonizing a melody (or writing a melody to existing chords) vastly easier, and it’s something more melodically inclined producers will get a lot of mileage out of. Groups within groups are fairly self-explanatory, and it’s a feature that would quite literally make it impossible to go back to Live 9 for me personally—if you’re a producer who uses a lot of tracks, groups within groups will help you keep your sessions radically cleaner and more structured.
The last change you’ll notice almost immediately upon working in Live 10 for the first time is a major overhaul to Live’s automation and regions; automation now has its own mode, which can be switched on and off with a tap of the ‘A’ button. This is a huge change for long-time Live users, as we’re used to seeing automation in-line with every region and track—this one has really taken some getting used to. Why the major change? Live 10 needed to move automation to a secondary view to enable its overhaul of audio and MIDI clips; the former have permanent fade markers showing at all times, while MIDI clips are now solidly colored, in contrast to the title bar coloring of MIDI clips in Live 9.
Live 10 offers a host of exciting new plugins and features—so let’s start with arguably the biggest of them all, the new Wavetable synth. Perhaps no trend has emerged as consistently between 2013 (Live 9’s release year) and 2018 as wavetable synthesis becoming the dominant trend in much of Electronic, Pop, and Rap music; there’s no denying the ubiquity of Native Instruments’ Massive, Xfer’s Serum, and newer offerings like Vengeance Sound’s Avenger in just about every major record produced in the last 5 years. The ascension of wavetable synthesis makes Ableton’s decision to add it’s own option a no-brainer in hindsight, and while I didn’t see this one coming, I am extremely glad Ableton’s developers chose to make this a priority; Wavetable is a blast to use, fits beautifully within Live’s native plugin GUI, and it’s capable of some exceptionally powerful and exciting sounds. Wavetable’s Unison engine sounds as good as any I’ve heard in the box to date, and toggling the synth’s expanded view opens a beautiful, streamlined interface that makes exploring different tables and envelopes feel more organic than any 3rd party plugin could. Our only complaints with this first iteration of Wavetable are the inability to import your own samples (this will be a big one for some Serum power users), and the lack of polyphonic glide; unlike most advanced synths, Wavetable does not allow you to use glide or portamento on polyphonic MIDI. We’re confident the Ableton team will address these shortcomings in a point update, and overall Wavetable is a huge addition to Live’s arsenal, particularly for Electronic producers.
While Wavetable is the only new synth on offer in Live 10, the update adds a handful of supremely useful and superb sounding audio effects; Echo, Drum Buss, and Pedal.
I’ve tried just about every Delay plugin available, and Echo has quickly become my favorite for day-to-day studio use; the Ableton team has managed to roll nearly every feature I could have hoped for into one superb sounding and CPU-efficient offering. In addition to all the basic features you’d expect—Stereo, Ping Pong, and Mid Side modes, variable delay lengths (with offset and swing), feedback, and high pass/low pass filtering of the processed signal—Echo goes way beyond the basics with some really innovative features. For starters, Echo includes an optional Reverb effect, which is something far more delay plugins should offer; in my experience adding Reverb after Delay (particularly on vocals) makes for a much more realistic and ‘hardware’ sounding effect, and it’s a real timesaver for it to be built in here. Echo’s ‘Character’ tab is where things really get interesting, with options for Gating, Ducking (similar to side-chaining a delay to a dry input signal), Noise (emulating vintage delay units), and Wobble, which emulates the variation and imperfections often found in vintage tape delay units. Echo is capable of everything from basic quarter note delays to truly out-there dub effects, and you’ll have a blast using it.
Pedal is a powerful guitar pedal/stompbox emulation offering models of three pedal types; Overdrive (think Ibanez Tube Screamer), Distortion, and Fuzz. I’ve got to admit I’m a bit biased towards Pedal, as I’ve been on a pretty big distortion and pedal kick recently, using 3rd party pedal plugins on everything from vocals to lead synths—Pedal is fun to use, sounds excellent, and is a huge step up over Ableton’s previous offering in this area, Amp. Try it on synths, bass, guitars, and even vocals to make them pop even in a dense mix.
Drum Buss is a highly powerful and streamlined plugin which offers a series of effects processors tailored to making your drum sounds and busses punchier, louder, and more in-your-face. Drum Buss combines a compressor, transient enhancer, overdrive/saturation module, and a sub-harmonic enhancer into an efficient plugin that’s capable of some seriously impressive tones with minimal effort—our only feature request would be an output clipper to help control peaks after the transient enhancement stage. On a recent production, I used one Drum Buss plugin on my drum group and attained a better result— with a good deal more apparent loudness and punch, and a much lower CPU hit—than I could squeeze out of an Audio Effect Rack of 6 high-end 3rd party plugins. Electronic, pop, and hip-hop producers are going to get a ton of mileage out of this one.
Live 10 also boasts a plethora of new capabilities; my personal favorite is the new Capture feature, which is similar to the ‘Capture last take as recording’ feature most Logic and Cubase users will know well—Live now keeps a background recording of all incoming MIDI, meaning you can capture that perfect take even if you weren’t recording when you played it. I switched from Logic 9 to Live some years ago and missed this feature dearly, so I was thrilled to see it implemented in Live 10; Capture lets you focus on getting into the zone and creating, rather than worrying about nailing the perfect take. Live 10 also adds a number of enhancements for editing audio within the arrangement view, including an audio ’slide’ feature which Cubase users will find familiar—slide is an awesome way to rearrange and resample drum breaks and loops without cutting and chopping tons of new regions, and producers who work heavily with audio clips will benefit greatly from its addition.
A number of more subtle but highly useful feature updates have been added as well; note chasing ensures MIDI notes are triggered even if a clip is played back from the middle, and I/O channels can now be renamed and customized in Live’s Settings panel—we know many hardware-based producers (looking at you, Deadmau5) who will be thrilled to see this new addition. Many of Live’s bread-and-butter plugins have been given enhanced functionality; Utility is now far more useful with the addition of the new Bass Mono feature, and EQ Eight offers enhanced precision in its lowest frequency band, now offering control down to 10Hz. These improvements extend outside of the software realm for Ableton Push users - Push 2 now offers a host of new sequencing features when paired with Live 10, including more detailed visual representations of many Live plugins including Compressor, Echo, and more.
So aside from all the good news, what’s not to like? One thing that jumps out to us is that Live 10 Suite is several times as expensive as some competing DAW’s; at $749, Live 10 Suite is the most expensive DAW you can find, excluding only Steinberg Nuendo, which is marketed to filmmakers, film composers, and post-production houses. While Ableton does offer cheaper versions of Live, a number of instruments and effects that make Live really shine—including Wavetable and Sampler—are only available with the Suite version. Compared to Logic Pro X ($199), FL Studio ($299), and Cubase ($599), Suite’s $749 price tag is really up there (several producers I speak with regularly have expressed frustration at the current pricing model). Pricing aside, I do hope to see a future point or full version update which makes Live more CPU-friendly; Live is still a DAW which plays much more nicely with it’s native plugins than 3rd Party VST’s and AU’s, and it seems to have less optimized CPU management in large sessions than other DAW’s running on the same machine (at least on Mac OS - I have not tested this on Windows). Finally, as the Ableton team adds more complexity and features, I do hope a future version of Live will allow for more robust key command management, much as Logic and Pro Tools do—currently only a select number of features and buttons in Live can be accessed via assignable key commands.
Live 10 is a substantial, feature-packed update which we expect loyal Ableton fans to be quite pleased with; it builds off of Live’s core strengths, markedly expands the functionality of Live as a creative DAW for sequencing, recording, audio manipulation, and resampling, and offers a host of powerful, flexible, and uniquely easy to use effects plugins and virtual instruments.
Interestingly, Ableton seems to have made a conscious decision to continue to build Live’s functionality around beat-making and production, as opposed to adding features designed to lure engineers away from competing products like Pro Tools, Logic, and Cubase; Live’s lack of comping, playlists, and clip-level FX are noticeably absent, and vocal production remains a challenge in Live 10. While we hope to see features like these added in future updates, Live 10 solidifies Ableton’s offering as the best DAW on the market today for ideation, creation, sequencing, and remixing, offering a profoundly creative and flexible piece of software which is only limited by your imagination.
Whether you’re an in-the-box electronic or hip-hop producer, a hardware junkie with a room full of vintage synths and euroracks, or a band member looking for a creative toolkit for rearranging and remixing existing audio, Ableton Live remains a singularly fun and flexible offering for which no real alternative exists. If you’re considering adding Live to your existing studio toolbox, we’d highly recommend doing so ASAP—and if you’re a seasoned Live user, Live 10 is an essential update to an already legendary DAW.
- Wavetable is powerful and a blast to use.
- Pedal, Echo, and Drum Buss sound great.
- MIDI Capture is a huge addition.
- Multiple MIDI clip view is a game-changer for writing melodies and chords.
- Many small improvements to workflow, usability, and design.
- CPU optimization could be better on Mac OS.
- GUI overhaul feels a bit incomplete.
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