Ableton Live isn’t a perfect program for performance (hint: there’s never perfect software for anything), but maybe that’s not the point. As opposed to something entirely open-ended like Max/MSP or Reaktor (both of which I use regularly), what’s nice about Live for performance is that you have a basic grid, a fixed interface on which you can build what you need. Part of the reason Ableton keeps coming up is that there really isn’t anything else that does what it does: Cakewalk’s Project5, for instance, is interesting and even has rudimentary clips, but even Cakewalk admits it isn’t intended to replace the sophisticated clip management, scene management, and follow actions in Live’s Session View.
Against that fixed background, people have come up with fantastic custom solutions and hacks the likes of which I’ve never seen in any other software, ever. I spent last night at the latest meeting of the Ableton user group in Manhattan. Usually, meetings about software focus on features, but Ableton Live is different — most of the function focused on how people use their software. Live conversations invariably start with the questions of how you use Live’s sets and what hardware you use for control, because no one — no one — does it the same way.
At this meeting, we had DJs, a cellist, a singer-songwriter, guitar/bass players. There were people syncing Live to looping plug-ins, using it with turntables, controlling it with keyboards, foot pedals. There were people with elaborate multi-clip setups and follow actions, others using just a few minimal clips, others using Arrangement view. Afterwards, at the monthly Warper Party on the Lower East Side, Matt “Moldover” showed his unique way of combining Live with Reaktor, with Reaktor handling surround mixing, visual feedback on beats, and interactive audio-mangling and Live handling clips and beat sync.
Dave Hill from Ableton is a drummer, so he solves Live’s inability to switch meters by setting quantization to quarter notes, which lets him trigger sophisticated rhythmic changes live. (I’m practicing so I can get to that point instead of using the bar.)
I have my own approach which I’ve been developing over time to try to teach the basic methods, the common elements that seem to work for most people, and that now can take advantage of Live 6’s racks, which for me completely transform what’s possible. But so I can get out of my head a little more, I was curious what CDM readers do. Ordinarily I’d ask this on the forums, but this is an important enough question to send out to everyone. How do you use Live in performance / DJing / live applications? What’s your track configuration? Do you combine with other software (plug-ins, ReWire, Max/MSP, Project5, Reaktor, Reason) or stick to Live’s built-in capabilities? How many clips do you use? Are there restrictions you’ve hit that you’d like solved?