Ableton Live is the world’s most popular contemporary music production software. By teaching Ableton Live, you’ll be putting into students’ hands the same tools used by today’s leading artists and producers. Here’s everything you need to get started.
What is Ableton Live and why is it unique?
Ableton Live is a uniquely powerful DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) in which you can create, record and perform music.
Many of today’s popular music production programs were conceived as a computer-based alternative to the traditional recording studio. Whilst Ableton Live can certainly be used in this manner, it was designed as a modern solution for music creation and performance. Since its release, countless songs have been composed, recorded, and performed, often using little else than a laptop and Ableton Live software.
It offers both linear recording (traditional multitrack style recording) as well as non-linear recording/playback via its trademark Session View. It integrates audio warping for seamless manipulation of audio regardless of tempo. This power and flexibility has led to Ableton Live becoming the world’s most popular platform for contemporary music production and performance, and many other creative audio applications.
For more on what Makes Ableton Live so unique, follow our video tutorial series by CMI Music and Audio Brand Specialist and Ableton Certified Trainer Tristan Malloch.
Video 1 explores what Session View is, and how it helps to make Ableton Live so unique
Video 2 explores how Session View can work together with the more Traditional Arrangement view
Video 3 explores Live's browser and how to build a song using the various devices and content found there.
In the video, Tristan mentions another video that explains Grooves in more detail, which you can view via the following link: Ableton Live Grooves Explained
What are the different versions of Ableton Live available?
There are three versions of Ableton Live available:
- Ableton Live Intro – provides up to 16 Audio & MIDI tracks, 16 Session View Scenes, and +5GB of content including 4 software instruments and lots of samples
- Ableton Live Standard – provides unlimited Audio & MIDI tracks and unlimited Session View Scenes, plus +10GB of content including 6 software instruments plus samples and packs
- Ableton Live Suite – provides everything in Live Standard plus +70GB of content including 17 software instruments, lots of samples and packs, as well as Max for Live, an industry leading platform for creating devices including instruments and effects.
More info here: https://www.ableton.com/en/live/compare-editions/
There is also a version called ‘Live Lite’ which is only available bundled with 3rd party hardware such as audio interfaces and MIDI controllers. It allows for up to 8 Audio & MIDI tracks and cannot be purchased separately from the hardware it is bundled with.
Ableton also make a hardware controller for Ableton Live called Push 2 which you can read more about in the section below. There is also a trial version of Ableton Live Suite which can be used for free for 90 days.
How much does Ableton Live cost?
If you want to use Ableton Live in a classroom environment, you may be eligible for free copies of Ableton Live Intro, as well as discounts on Ableton Live Suite and Push 2.
Read more about ‘Ableton for the Classroom’ here. https://cmi.com.au/ableton-for-the-classroom/
What kind of computer do I need to run Ableton Live?
Ableton Live will run on almost any recent Apple Mac or Windows computer. Support for M1 and other Apple Silicon equipped Macs is coming very soon and is currently in beta.
See full system requirements here: https://www.ableton.com/en/live/compare-editions/#system-requirements
Do I need an external audio interface to use Ableton Live?
It is highly recommended, however not always strictly necessary. An audio interface will improve audio quality and performance, however, basic tasks such as the playback of smaller sessions not involving audio recording may be possible using a computer’s built-in sound card.
Most Ableton Live users will agree that whilst there are occasionally situations where you can ‘get away’ with not using an audio interface, it is generally considered essential and can be thought of as an extension of the software itself.
DAW software can be very demanding on computers and their audio hardware. Apple Mac computers generally perform quite well using their built-in soundcards for modest playback tasks not requiring the recording of audio, however, given the range of types of computer hardware running Windows, their behaviour is more difficult to predict.
Performance on Windows can sometimes be improved with a generic ASIO driver like ASIO4ALL, however, an external audio interface will include its own custom Windows driver for optimum performance. Mac OS uses Apple’s Core Audio driver which usually negates the requirement for a 3rd party audio driver.
See the following section for more information on this topic.
What are the advantages of using an audio interface?
Whether using an Apple Mac or Windows computer, an audio interface will greatly enhance the experience and open new possibilities.
First, they generally provide at least one high quality audio input, usually capable of accommodating a professional microphone or electric instrument e.g., guitar or bass. They also generally provide high quality outputs for connecting studio monitors and headphones with precise control of volume. Sometimes additional inputs and outputs are provided for connecting multiple devices simultaneously.
Secondly, they will improve all-round audio quality and performance. This will help create higher quality recordings and provide higher quality playback. It will also help your computer handle more demanding audio tasks such as playing back many simultaneous audio tracks and software instruments, as well as improve latency which is the amount of time between for example playing a note on a keyboard, and hearing that note played back.
The more tracks and instruments you use in a DAW, the harder your computer needs to work. With lower quality audio hardware, this will usually lead to nasty sounds like pops and crackles. To remedy this, you can increase your hardware buffer size, however, this will also increase latency.
A high-quality audio interface will let you use more tracks and software instruments, at a lower buffer size, with fewer or no pops and clicks. Keep in mind however that your computer’s power is also a contributing factor here.
What audio interface should I choose?
A choice of the audio interface is usually determined first by the number of physical connections required e.g. do you need to connect more than one microphone at a time? From here, the price will increase relative to the audio quality and additional features provided e.g. bundled software, built-in effects etc.
Fortunately, there are plenty of audio interfaces available offering high quality audio, with a range of connectivity and lots of included software, at affordable prices. Our recommendations are either the Arturia MiniFuse series for a good quality, low-cost option, or the Universal Audio Volt series for a professional quality yet still an affordable option.
Starting at under $200, the Arturia MiniFuse 1 connects to the computer and is powered by USB. It has a high-quality microphone/instrument input and a headphone output on the front and outputs for studio monitors (speakers) on the rear. It also has a USB input on the rear for connecting peripheral devices such as keyboards, or USB drives.
If more than one microphone input is required, there is a larger MiniFuse 2 model available. As well as having two microphone inputs on the front, it also includes 5-pin MIDI in and out on the rear (see the section on USB MIDI for more info). A larger MiniFuse 4 model is also available with 4 audio outputs on the rear, as well as two headphone outputs on the front.
All models also include a large software bundle including high quality software instruments and effects. Read more about the Arturia MiniFuse here.
For a truly professional quality audio interface, Universal Audio have recently introduced the Volt series. Starting at just over $200 they provide amazing audio quality, plenty of pro features and a very comprehensive software bundle.
Volt 1 and Volt 2 interfaces have either one or two microphone/instrument inputs, headphone output, 5-pin MIDI in and out, and balanced monitor outputs.
Universal Audio are a legendary audio brand and bring much of their unique expertise to the Volt series including a ‘Vintage Mic Preamp mode’ which enhances microphone recordings by recreating the sound of their classic 610 tube mic preamp.
Volt 176, Volt 276 and Volt 476 offers everything from Volt 1 and 2, as well as an onboard compressor with an analogue circuit derived from their classic 1176 Limiting Amplifier. This will not only even out an input signal’s dynamic range for a more balanced recording, but can also a punch and character to signals such as acoustic guitar, which is often lacking in home recordings.
All Volt models are compatible with Mac, PC, iPhone iPad, and all except for the largest Volt 476 can be powered via the USB C port. They also include a generous suite of software instruments and effects for Mac or PC.
Read more about Universal Audio Volt here.
What is a MIDI controller, and do I need one?
A MIDI controller is an external piece of hardware, usually designed to be used with audio software, often in the form of a musical keyboard, and likely connects via USB. Unlike an audio interface, a MIDI controller will usually not transmit or receive any audio. Instead, it transmits MIDI data which in the case of a MIDI controller keyboard tells the computer which key was played, when, and how hard the key was struck.
The computer then instructs the elected piece of software (presumably a software instrument hosted within Ableton Live) to produce the sound of a chosen instrument (e.g. piano) playing the appropriate note, at the appropriate time, at an appropriate volume.
Aside from the popular keyboard style MIDI controller, MIDI controllers can also take other forms suited to a variety of purposes such as drum programming or mixing. Ableton make their own MIDI controller for use with Ableton Live called ‘Push 2’ which you can read more about below.
A MIDI controller can be incredibly empowering in almost any situation involving music software. It is often the human interface connecting the user to the computer, transforming a piece of software into a musical instrument, and is highly recommended.
What is the relationship between USB and MIDI?
The MIDI protocol has been around since the early 1980s and has traditionally used a 5-pin DIN connector. In order to use a MIDI device with a computer, you may need a USB MIDI interface that has a 5-pin MIDI DIN port on one end, and a USB port on the other.
Many modern MIDI devices have an integrated USB MIDI interface in the form of a USB port, so no external interface is necessary. Sometimes a MIDI device will feature both a 5-pin DIN MIDI port as well as a USB port. The USB port is more modern and can transmit more data, faster than a traditional MIDI port. It often also supplies power so you may not even need a separate power supply for your MIDI device.
Regardless, there are still a surprising number of MIDI devices including synthesizers and drum machines without an integrated USB MIDI interface and can only connect via 5-pin MIDI DIN.
For a scenario like a school lab, it is generally preferable to have all devices connect via USB often negating the need for external MIDI interfaces and power supplies, however many devices such as audio interfaces and keyboards will still include 5-pin MIDI ports to accommodate a variety of gear and musical scenarios. This is a nice feature to have for greater musical freedom, but not always necessary.
What is Push 2?
As mentioned above, Push 2 is a hardware MIDI controller created by Ableton for use with Ableton Live. It features an array of 64 pads that respond to both velocity and pressure. Velocity is how hard a pad is initially struck, whilst pressure is how hard it is pressed after the initial strike.
The pads have many different uses including playing software instruments, programming melodic and percussive sequences, triggering clips and scenes via Live’s Session view, and mixing.
The power and flexibility of Push 2 make it possible to use Ableton Live comprehensively without even looking at a computer, making it a popular choice for power users including live performers.
See here for more information about Push 2.
What MIDI controller should I choose?
Whilst Ableton’s own ‘Push 2’ controller is the ultimate hardware companion to Ableton Live, there are more affordable, sometimes more appropriate options available for beginners or educational institutions.
A MIDI keyboard controller is a great choice for almost anyone using music software. They are often very affordable and provide a traditional, familiar musical interface for interacting with software. We recommend either Native Instruments’ Kontrol-A series, or Arturia’s KeyLab Essential series.
If space is limited, Native Instruments’ Komplete Kontrol A25 has 25 great feeling keys, with 8 knobs for controlling your software instruments. If more space is available, the larger A49 keyboard has four octaves of keys for greater playability. Both integrate well with Ableton Live via a custom controller profile.
For even more hands-on control, Arturia’s KeyLab Essential series of keyboards have not only great feeling keys but also 8 velocity sensitive drum pads as well as 9 faders and rotary controllers. They start at just over $400 and are available with either 49, 61 or 88 keys.
How do I learn and teach Ableton Live?
CMI Music and Audio have Brand Specialists on hand including Ableton Certified Trainers who can provide support. We suggest contacting CMI Music and Audio’s Education department to discuss available support options.
Ableton also provides numerous resources for teachers including lesson plans, tutorial videos and interactive web apps which can help familiarize younger students and beginners with music production fundamentals.