Review: Ableton Live 10

We dig under the hood of Ableton's latest release.
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As we enter into 2018, the pendulum between hardware-and software-based music production techniques continues to swing. After decades of increasingly computer-based music production methods gaining popularity—buoyed in no small part by the introduction of the original AbletonLive in 2001—the last several years have seen a huge uptick in the number of people incorporating outboard gear into their production setups. The recent surge in hardware synthesizers, drum machines, and, of course, modular methods of production have all had the cumulative effect of bringing more and more producers out of the box, and deeper into a world of physical interfaces.

At the heart of these hardware-based workflows is usually a DAW, of course, and for many that DAW is Ableton Live. While plenty of producers still very much use Live as an instrument unto itself, for many others Live has started to function more and more as a central brain and recording interface, while outboard hardware does increasingly more of the sound generation, manipulation, and overall heavy lifting. With some brilliant new instruments and workflow improvements, Ableton’s release of Live 10 is an attempt to reclaim a bit of that space.

With the release, Ableton has modernized the software in all manner of ways, bringing a more sophisticated use of color and negative space to the “flat” design style it introduced so many years back, which feels more in line with and deeply integrated with the company’s Push hardware. There’s more and deeper visualization of Live’s interface across the board, which brings some of the playful sensibilities seen from the likes of Elektron and Teenage Engineering into the Live workflow. The new typeface is nice, too.

From the jump, one of the biggest new additions to Live 10 is a wavetable software synthesizer aptly named Wavetable. While Ableton has certainly created some powerful synths in the past, none have felt nearly as intuitive and playable as this. Ableton’s classic Operator synth is plenty capable of generating beautiful and complex tones, but the interface always left something to be desired; it feels more like something that demands to be intricately programmed rather than instinctively played. With Wavetable, Ableton has pared down its main interface to the essential parameters, and the sound algorithms are beautifully visualized, both on the screens of both the computer and Push. Behind the dashboard is a modulation matrix that can be used to add more movement and character to a given patch, helping draw and draw out the synth’s complex, angular character even more. There’s also a nice new melodic sequencer mode on Push that works here and across all instruments, combining step-based and real time sequencing onto a single grid.

Live 10’s new effects also fall in line with this new house style. These include a fantastic analog-style tape delay called Echo, a guitar pedal-inspired unit called Pedal, and Drum Buss, a complex multi-effect unit made to bulk up your drum sounds (but versatile enough to add punch and texture to plenty of other audio sources). Echo, in particular, feels like something that’s going to get a ton of use; it’s a huge step up from Live’s existing delay modules in terms of both sound and interface, and having such a critical effect integrated so deeply into the DAW—complete with a tab for modulation effects—feels like a significant bump.

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Since the last major Live release, Ableton also acquired Cycling ’74, the developers of Max and Max for Live. A consequence of this relationship is that Live 10 has deeper integration with Max for Live—devices now load faster, use less CPU, and generally act and feel more like Live’s native devices. A single instance of Max For Live’s popular LFO, for example, can be plugged into as many as eight parameters across multiple devices, without bringing your computer to its knees. For M4L veterans and newbies alike, it’s low-key one of the more exciting additions to the update.

There are also tons of workflow improvements, both major and minor. One Eureka-level concept that’s been integrated into Live 10 is something they’re calling Capture, which automatically records ideas you’re working on before hitting record, and saves them into a MIDI clip with the click of a button. If you’re someone whose best ideas always seem to come when you’re not actually recording—and who often loses these ideas into the ether by the time you’ve punched that little red dot—this feels like something of revelation.

Lots of small refinements include improvements to workflows in the Arrangement view and the organization of the Browser, as well as the aforementioned new step-sequencing layout that allows for simultaneous note sequencing and real time playing. It’s finally possible to edit multiple MIDI clips simultaneously in one detail view, and to group within groups for improved organization and mixing. Navigating the Arrangement view has been streamlined as well: clicking a clip and pressing the "Z" key instantly zooms in, while "shift-Z" zooms you back out, while holding option and scrolling up or down expands and folds back individual channels. For producers that spend many hours inside Live’s Arrangement view, these are seemingly minor additions that ultimately add up to a much smoother workflow.

Live 10’s built-in sound packs, which have been greatly expanded upon, also deserve mention. The new library somehow already feels much more usable and organized than the old content ever was, with enough basic building blocks to create music using a sample-based workflow.

It’s worth noting that most of the exciting new stuff—Wavetable, Echo, Pedal, Max for Live, much of this new sample content—only comes with Live 10 Suite, which costs $749 (or, currently $249 to upgrade from Live 7 - 9 Suite). Apple’s Logic Pro X—some of Ableton’s stiffest longstanding competition, at least for Mac owners—is $199, while Bitwig Studio weighs in at $399.

Ultimately, Live 10 is a significant evolution of Ableton’s now-ubiquitous software. It doesn’t have the ground-up modulation capabilities of relative newcomers to the DAW space like Bitwig, but its deeper integration with Max does help bridge that gap. For those of us who have been using Live for years, and for whom using Live is wrapped up in the familiarity of its clean, stretchy interface and the muscle memory that’s been built around that, upgrading to Live 10 is a tough option to turn down. It’s managed to remain as familiar as it’s ever been, while improving across the board. It brings a host of additions that, particularly when combined with the Push hardware, make Live feel even more like a cohesive instrument, with a cohesive UI and visualization sensibilities that really tie the room—specifically, the studio—together.

You can try Ableton Live 10 for free for 30 days here.