Ableton Link is coming to desktops, and going completely open source. And that means the best tool for wireless sync and jamming is about to get a lot more popular.

On iOS and for Ableton Live users, Ableton Link is already a revelation. It allows any number of different apps to sync up with one another without fuss. That includes two more machines running Ableton Live, of course. But it could also be two apps on an iPad, or an iPhone and an iPad, or an iPad and a copy of Ableton Live. It completely changes live jamming: instead of needing tech and setup, you only need friends.

And this is what was unique about Ableton Link. Almost from day one, it was something that embraced developers outside Ableton’s own offices.

Well, that’s about to accelerate – a lot. Ableton Link goes from being a tool for Ableton Live that happens to have an iOS mobile SDK to a lot more. You can actually look at this as several things happening at once.

Ableton Link is desktop-ready. There’s now a complete desktop SDK available on GitHub, complete with example apps for Windows, macOS, and Linux.

Ableton Link is open source, free software. All the source code for Ableton Link is available on GitHub. (It’s written in C++.) It’s also liberally licensed, under a GPLv2 license – free as in freedom. And if you do want to build proprietary software, there’s a licensing option. (There’s more to discuss here for those of us in the free software community as far as license compatibility, but I’m also less worried about that precisely because I feel the team at Ableton are flexible enough to have a discussion if the legal license itself doesn’t answer a question.)

Meet "other platforms."

Meet “other platforms.”

There are desktop partners – Propellerhead, Cycling ’74, and Serato. Um, wow. Not only are these the developers of three flagship apps, but they each represent essential music making communities (the Reason, Max, and Serato DJ communities being some of the most passionate anywhere). And they mean the launch partnership covers three categories of tools (a music studio, a DIY music toolkit, and a DJ app).

And each has been involved in various kinds of innovation. Propellerhead have played a key role in the evolution of the ideas we have today about software as instruments, as well as how software could interoperate (with ReWire). Max/MSP has been an environment where new ideas in music software often emerge, and was even the playground used by the founders of Ableton before they founded Ableton. And Serato is notable because they helped contribute to how sync works in Live today. (The planned integration for The Bridge having failed is itself significant; I think these days, we’d be happy just to have simple sync and not worry about something so over-ambitious.)

Obviously, more will follow. I’m disappointed not to see Native Instruments here, for instance, as I think being involved is important to NI’s stated mission of pushing standards.

Serato joins Ableton. All photos courtesy Ableton.

Serato joins Ableton. All photos courtesy Ableton.

The iOS SDK has also been updated, and will continue to grow. There’s a 2.0 SDK, improved example apps, and of course Link is becoming a standard in iOS tools that use sync.

More platforms can follow. Now, here’s where things get interesting. Linux support means all kinds of unique platforms, like the Raspberry Pi. (The Link team has already tested a RasPi; I will, too, for sure.) That opens up sync-able hardware. And while there’s no official Android SDK or example apps, I’m certain we’ll see some intrepid Android developers make their own in a hurry – there’s already everything they need in the SDK.

Just making something open source doesn’t magically make stuff happen. (Trust me on this. Apart from using open source tools every single day, I’ve been involved in the management of both open source hardware and software.) So this isn’t a “build this and they will come” sort of deal. And that’s why I’m excited by the team at Ableton working on this. Not only did they create the best technology in the business for sync and jamming, but I trust them to manage this as an open source tool. Florian Goltz, with whom CDM spoke on background for this article, is now Link Open Source Project Owner, and Michaela Buergle remains Link Product Owner. (Michaela was I think one of the most eloquent speakers at Loop, which is important – making technology successful is not just an engineering problem, but a communication problem, as well.)

abletonlink_workspace

Now, having heaped that praise on Ableton, I think the next step is up to us. We have to build interesting apps with this tech, and find ways of playing with tools and with each other to make better music. I also hope those of us advocating open source software and education (cough, uh, like me) can find ways of helping people realize their own ideas for new tools with this platform.

For users:
https://www.ableton.com/en/link/

For developers:
https://ableton.github.io/link/

Find software:
https://www.ableton.com/en/link/apps/

  • Bram Bos

    Cross-platform, open-source sync standard? This has piqued my interest for more than one reason!

  • Onetwo

    Desktop maschine support would be great.

  • Dubby Labby

    Finally a great news!
    NI should implement this between Traktor and Maschine and also Stems should be implemented by Ableton export features… In a perfect world. Other players like Serato and Pioneer could benefit themselves of all this techonolgy (link / stems) and others like OSC…

    Bomebox seems a good host for link protocol and harware hub too. Lots of interesting possibilities awaits us!

    Love it.

  • Neil

    Couple of ideas:
    A standalone headless Raspberry Pi based MIDI clock, Volca and/or DIN sync box.
    A browser plugin so Webmidi dodahs can sync to it.

    Now where do I start?

    • Justin Reed

      i was thinking an all in one PI based widget would be terrific
      how is the midi timing for that platform?

    • Dubby Labby

      Raspi Link2clock? Try the app for iOS from Alexandernaut 😉
      Volca sync box is easy as load their audio sync signal to a deck. Add midi out is easy (near trivial), dedicated outputs is also possible 😉

  • David Geissbühler

    Open-source, platform independent C++ header-only code… This is amazing! And used Link between two ableton sessions for my last live set and never got such a tight sync and so few annoyances… And yeah, on a RaspPI definitely, I can almost see a Link eurorack module.. Curious how this works with DJ softwares with control vinyls where tempo constantly changes, could be great for hybrid dj/live sets.. Also curious if they have any plans to share other data such as midi via this framework at a latter stage..

    • Dubby Labby

      With dj softwares is subordinated to sync itself. Link needs from master a regular pulse (which could be from grid marker ala Bridge) don’t implemented yet… Maybe in Cross iOS?
      To be clear: no scratching Link. Master not sure about start stop because Link is more a quantized tic than a midi clock.

  • chaircrusher

    Does this mean it might be possible to get a stable midi sync out of some sort of a device? Still pretty iffy, on Windows at least.

  • Alessandro Automageddon

    And don’t forget hardware, I’ve been at a Link Jam where an Analog Rytm was synced via Lightning to USB from an Iphone…

  • Neil

    Doesn’t that new Deepmind 12 synth have a sequencer/arp and WiFi built in? Hmmmm. (rubs chin).

  • Daniel

    Reason 9.1 was just released, with added link support…

  • Faro

    I’m a bit skeptical about their definition of open source. Their dual license model actually prevents competitors like Bitwig to add link support without permission from Ableton (which I’d guess they won’ get). I have the feeling that this is totally intentional. Also many open source projects are licensed MIT-style which is incompatible to GPL…

  • nilwer

    While Ableton has the right to do this and it is understandable from a commercial standpoint, this understanding of “open source software” is distorted, at best.

    The library is dual licensed under GPL and a commercial license. This means:

    If your project is open source under GPL or private and will never be published you can take it and run with it. Great!

    But if your project is proprietary you must request a commercial license to use it. And while doing so you automatically sign an NDA, disallowing you to tell others the price you paid or the fact that your request was denied. Again, this is understandable from a commercial standpoint.

    But this also means that the two implementations are hermetically separated from each other and Ableton will never be able to accept code changes from the community (which they state in CONTRIBUTING.md).

    This is not “open source software”. This is “have a go during a hackday, but pay us if your project grows big” software.

    Honest, goodwill open source would have been to pick the LGPL or MIT: Everyone can use it, just as you do. Everyone can improve it, just as you do. Everyone will use the same implementation, just as you do.

    All while Link internally is using code published under the very permissive Boost license which allows all of the above, mind you.

    • Daryl Posnett

      Your definitions also seems skewed to me. There is no limitation on using GPL 2+ code for commercial applications, so long as your codebase is also GPL. Unless I’m mistaken, this was the original intent of GPL, that you are free to sell software, but you can’t lock it down.

      So as I understand, if you write “closed source” software and you don’t want to open source your project, then you need a “proprietary” license. But there are no restrictions from commercial applications that use a GPL licence.

      • nilwer

        Yeah, I conflated commercial with proprietary software, sorry.

        I meant to say “proprietary commercial software”. However, to my knowledge, there exist only a handful of commercial open source software projects in the area that Link might be relevant in. The majority is proprietary commercial software. So, with those handful of exceptions, my point still holds.

        • lokey

          hey, dont want to apply the GPL? “ok, sure. pay a fee”. that seems fine to me. encourages the use of more respectable licenses like the GPL anyhow.

        • Daryl Posnett

          I don’t see a necessity to make any technology open if you pay to develop it. Frankly, I think that the real concern here is that they are not simply publishing the protocol as a standard so that anyone can create their own compatible code. Being a bit of a cynic, I see open sourcing the code as something of a stop-gap measure to stunt efforts to reverse engineer the protocol.

        • Yeah, but … you careless confused the definitions, but the definition is the whole point of your argument.

          Now, if Ableton are somehow not conforming to the GPLv2 license, that’s another matter. I’m clarifying, but I haven’t seen any evidence of that.

          • PaulDavisTheFirst

            It is going to be an issue for them if and only if they accept contributions back to their SDK(s) under the GPL. It would not be possible to include these in the non-GPL licensed version(s).

            So … maybe they just won’t do that, which will be a shame. Or maybe they will and it will be hard to know. Or maybe they’ll “reimplement” all those contributions for the non-GPL case. Or maybe the API is so good already that there won’t be any contributions to the SDK …

  • BC Thunderthud

    “And this is what was unique about Ableton Link. Almost from day one, it was something that embraced developers outside Ableton’s own offices.”

    I feel like you could give some credit to Steinberg and Propellerheads, and Opcode too. Maybe Rewire wasn’t exactly ubiquitous but VST still is and OMS was fundamental on Macs for years, even if it did suck a lot of the time. This is good news but their half-assed OSS approach doesn’t warrant the “unique” tag IMO.

    • Okay – no.

      It’s not a “half-assed open source approach.” The reason some people require a license is that *their* software is incompatible with GPLv2 — that is, that they’re proprietary, not that this is.

      And, seriously? I think Link is fairly unique. It’s been a long time since VST.

      And OMS? That’s chortle/laugh territory, but I’ll tell the Ghost of Opcode you appreciate their product.

      Sorry to be glib but… come on. 🙂

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      A great deal of the functionality in Link, though far from all of it, was present in the earliest releases of JACK, dating back to 2003. Shared transport (and transport control) is something that was never implemented by any other API, and was never picked up by apps outside the “JACK-sphere”.

      It is great to see an API that stands some likelihood of wide adoption taking this idea and running with it.

      • Dubby Labby

        OSC has some timestamp and transport control. Not sure about differences/similarities but maybe is worth to you check it. 🙂

  • running Reason and Live on 1 machine WITHOUT Rewire. fuck yeah!

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      Just so we’re clear, you could do that with JACK for more than a decade. No sync, but rewire didn’t do that either.

      • yes but sync is key here.

        • PaulDavisTheFirst

          sure, but rewire didn’t help with that, so if you were using rewire before, this gives you something in addition two running two separate audio applications that can talk to each other.

  • newmiracle

    Great news! I know android is anemic compared to iOS, but being able to Link-sync up Nanoloop, Sunvox, mobmuplat, etc would be awesome. Hope that they get in on this.

  • pinta_vodki

    The dream of Apple adding Link to Mainstage has just gotten closer… The best live synth software, but man, synching it with Ableton is a pain in the butt.

  • Matt Black

    Our open source syncjams package did what Link does before Link, for Android and iOS! However, Link is more stable and we’ve decided to go with it for our Ninja Jamm app…v1.4 out now is Linked. What Im excited about is that opensourcing Link opens up the possibility of extending it to send key and scale info. That will be a massive step forward in jamming. see this post https://forum.ableton.com/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=221060 If any coders want to work on that, we may be able to help fund that work. If you could help with this, mail info@ninjajamm.com

    • Anton.a1

      Coldcut in the house! Nice one….you guys were always way ahead of the curve…big respect.

    • To be fair, the research project on which Link was based I believe did predate syncjams. Maybe… I’ve lost track of the history now.

      But it is interesting, this question of sending other information.

    • Key and scale add-ins FTW!
      I’m impressed with how stable Link is. We’ve been using it at bi-weekly Digital Jam Sessions, and getting older hardware into the mix via external MIDI sync from Ableton via MIDI cable. Key & scale will certainly take this to the next level! 🙂

  • Who’s going to do the first esp8266 with midi clock out?

    • Dubby Labby

      Aleph?

  • lala

    Great news!

    @peterkirn: something with the pagefooter isn’t right, it looks like this on ios
    https://postimg.org/image/nvfdf7jr1/

    • Yes, investigating this… I hadn’t seen that happen, maybe some glitch in this particular page!

  • coolest thing: you can now sync several Reason songs all at once!

  • mendo

    More will join, maybe:
    Qtractor:
    http://lists.linuxaudio.org/pipermail/linux-audio-dev/2016-September/036514.html

    Ardour, maybe:
    “I have another

    entirely new branch that is developing Live-like “clip launch” facilities
    for Ardour, and it is likely that Link support would want to piggy back on
    some of the concepts being developed there (notably beat/bar
    synchronization).”http://lists.linuxaudio.org/pipermail/linux-audio-dev/2016-September/036515.html

  • I have an amazing idea for Ableton Link and have had the idea for about a year, it could possibly be applied to Max for Live as an alternative. I work in the information technology field but have very limited experience on coding/programming software. If anyone has experience and would like to possibly collaborate on creating the app or hearing my idea please contact me.

    You can contact me at matorres86(at)gmail(dot)com or on instagram at http://instagram.com/mikekraze where you can also see my studio.