Color me frustrated. After spending a couple of days with the new version of Ableton Live, I’ve come back around to the conclusion that I was right about it all along.
I decided this month to get into Live seriously because I have this peculiar desire to play a few small, local live gigs. You know, coffee house stuff. Not a career move, God knows — I’d just like to be able to share my music with a few people.
But what will they see when they sit down at a table with their decaf latte? An old guy hunched over a laptop. Yawn. For reasons that are deeply rooted in our species’ evolutionary history, when people go to hear live music they want to see something that demonstrates expertise — something that looks difficult and is therefore impressive. If all you’re going to do is press the start button, it’s not really live music.
I love producing music in Propellerhead Reason. It’s a great piece of software. But it’s not well suited for live use. Yes, I could mute the track that has the melody on it and then play the melody live on a MIDI keyboard — but that’s just an old guy noodling out a melody on a keyboard. It wouldn’t look good. Everybody has seen a thousand piano players; the parameters with which one impresses an audience while sitting at a black-and-white keyboard are well known, and I don’t qualify. I ain’t that good.
So then there’s Ableton. This software is well suited to live performance. You can cue up material on the fly, improvising an arrangement. And if you have a couple of tabletop boxes with blinky colored lights (such as Ableton Push), you look like you’re doing something. It’s mysterious, it’s high-tech, you must be a whiz! So I upgraded to Live 9.7 and got me a Push 2. Hooked up a monome grid to the PC too — it’s deliberately minimalist hardware, but what it can do with Live is actually more interesting than what the Push does, thanks to Max For Live, which is also extremely cool.
The trouble is, Live is about loops, and I’m not. I don’t think in loops. Oh, sure, I sometimes use repeating two-bar phrases (especially in the drum department). But I’m always adding fills, lead-ups, and variations. The way to use Live live is to construct your music in scenes (which are built out of loops), and I don’t think in scenes either. I certainly compose in sections, but to me a section is not like a cement block — it has a more fluid shape. If I write, let’s say, a 20-measure B section, there’s liable to be a new instrument entering in the background after 8 bars just to move the thing forward.
In a conventional track-oriented (non-live-performance) sequencer, this is an easy and natural thing to do. In Live’s Session View, it’s neither easy nor natural. A lead-up before the start of a phrase is not easy either.
There’s a lot to like about Live — I’m not trying to disrespect it. It’s a brilliant piece of software! But it doesn’t mesh well with the way I think about music. After putting together an intro and an A section of a new piece, I’m finding that none of my usual working methods is available. Let’s say I want to take that A section and start a new background sound in the middle of it. In order to accommodate the entrance of this new part, I have to move a whole bunch of clips to new locations in order to make an intermediate scene. In Reason, I could just start recording at the spot where I want the new part to go — no muss, no fuss.
And yes, I’m aware that Live also has an Arrangement View, which is much more a conventional linear multitrack sequencer. But if I’m using Arrangement View, where’s the advantage for live performance? Now I’m back to pressing the start button and then noodling out a melody on a keyboard.
This is a luxury problem, to be sure. But I would like to be able to do something live.