It’s time to size up the new DJ integration technology from Serato and Ableton. Photo (CC-BY-SA) Danielle Blue.

There’s long been a massive gap in technique, capabilities, and workflow between DJ tools and performance, music production, and live electronics or live PA. Ableton Live’s original hook was that it
bridged performance instrument and arrangement tool. Now, in a product literally called The Bridge, we get Ableton’s and Serato’s first take on how to blend DJing and arrangement/electronic performance. It’s certainly not going to be the last word on the subject. On CDM in the past, we’ve discussed inserting DJ applications in Live, and using vinyl to scratch video (including with Serato’s own VIDEO-SL). The advent of Max for Live means new applications, like Ms. Pinky-powered virtual vinyl devices inside Live. But The Bridge has turned out to be something different, as I discussed Thursday.

And surprise: there’s even some relevance to Ableton Live users who might not normally ponder Serato, even if only to take advantage of improved transport operation in Live itself.

We’ve gotten to speak to Ableton and Serato representatives; see the short video of Ableton’s Dennis DeSantis and Ableton’s official overview of the tool, as shot by intrepid CDM NAMM contributor Neil Bufkin. Based on additional conversations, here’s what we know.

Ableton & Serato @ NAMM 2010 – The Bridge from Neil Bufkin on Vimeo.

Serato to Ableton

Q. What’s this “mix tape” feature about?

A. That’s the easiest to explain, most immediate feature of The Bridge — and it’s the one that’s likely to be appealing to Serato users immediately. You can now export mixes produced in Serato directly into Ableton’s native ALS format.

Q. Wait – does that mean I need Serato ITCH or Scratch Live hardware controllers in order to record my crossfades?

A. Yes. Turntablists aren’t entirely left out, though: the Rane TTM 57SL and the newly-announced TTM-68 performance mixers do record mix automation. And you’ll still have other automation data with which to work, so this is still likely to be useful to everyone, even if there’s some level of variability between the different versions. (If that’s of interest, we can follow up more later.)

Ableton’s Jesse Terry confirms to CDM: “Audio files are laid out in Live’s arrangement on a timeline, according to when they are loaded on a deck in Scratch Live or ITCH. These are new audio files, to deal with scratching, etc, but they are named accordingly.”

Ableton has also posted more information on mixtapes and specific hardware on their Mixtape tour.

Q. CDM said ALS is now an XML-based format – really? When did that happen?

A. Yes, really. Live switched to an XML format with Live 8.1. In fact, save any of your Live sets in Live 8.1.x or later, and all the information about clips, channels, presets, and arrangements winds up in an open, standard format. That’s something I hope to look at more soon, because it could lead to some interesting hacks and power tools. But the reason it’s relevant here is that you can likely thank the Serato and Cycling ’74 (Max for Live) collaborations for making this a necessity – even as this has potential advantages well beyond The Bridge.

Ableton “Inside” Serato

Q. I see clips from Live Session View in Serato. But that’s just audio clips, right? What about MIDI patterns, instruments, effects, plug-ins?

A. Ableton Live is running in the background. The Bridge requires both a full copy of Live and a full copy of Serato (Scratch Live or ITCH) for a reason: the real, full-blown Live runs at the same time as Serato does. That means everything you can do with Live normally, you can do with Serato, Live, and The Bridge: you can trigger MIDI patterns, use Live’s internal Devices like Drum Racks and Grain Delay, run third-party plug-in instruments and effects, and even – if you’re feeling especially crazy – Max for Live devices.

Q. Wait – but I can do all those things in Live now, and I still even a crossfader. So why wouldn’t I just DJ with Live and skip all of this additional complexity?

A. Answer: you might decide to do just that, especially if you’re a seasoned Live user. On the other hand, Serato DJs can get a chance to infuse more interactive performance bits into their performance easily, and they have manual control over transport tempo and timing. And if you split your time between Live and Serato – which some DJ/performers certainly do – this could mean being able to move from one to the other seamlessly rather than having to switch apps. But yes, of course: this isn’t going to be the right solution for everyone, even those looking to combine Live with DJing. We’ll be looking at other options, too.

Q. What does the integration itself do?

A. What you see:

  • A limited window on Session View: You can see 4, 5, or 8 scenes, and 4, 6 or 8 tracks, clip color and status (just as in Session View), track controls, and two sends. You also get effect device controls and two sends.
  • Live’s tempo
  • Indicators for bars and beats, overlaid atop your waveform views in Serato, so it’s easy to see how the two are meshing (or not)
  • A sync player, which Ableton’s Jesse describes as being useful “for adding embellishing songs, in case you’d like to assign Ableton Live’s sync to a song on one of your decks, with out using up that deck with a Live Set.”
  • DJ-style Looping of Ableton Live’s Transport — that is, the entire transport for the entire set, not just an individual clip. “This is a big one,” says Jesse, “as previously Ableton Live users weren’t able to loop like this, i.e. Do 16th note looping, and when you exit the loop, you end up back on the ‘one.’”

What you can do:

  • Control Live’s transport: play and stop with Serato as if Live itself is another deck.
  • Sync Live and Serato easily, without having to worry about which you load first.
  • Change tempo in Live.
  • Nudge forward and backward (which should make for some nice beat syncopation effects with the pairing).
  • Use ITCH or virtual vinyl to control the Live transport.

What you can’t do — yet:

  • There’s no reverse audio recording of the output of Live — there’s no way to route audio from Live into Serato, period. So —
  • You can NOT scratch or reverse Live’s audio as if it were another deck (yet; of course, it’d be nice to see this in a future release).

(“Yet” is the operative word, as I expect The Bridge may add additional features over time.)

Q. If I can’t scratch Live, I’m out.

A. That’s a valid response. On the other hand, there’s some powerful potential here for adding instruments, effects, and clips, particularly if you keep it simple and balance what’s in Live with what’s in Serato. I’m sure some DJ will make great use of this, even if it won’t be for everyone.

Q. Won’t adding plug-ins interfere with the stability of Serato?

A. That’s worth considering. Aside from stability problems or crashes, adding a lot of plug-ins could increase resource consumption on your computer, add more musical complexity that you have to control, and even – in the case of certain plug-ins that require latency compensation – impact your timing. So Serato users, you’ll want to be really careful and test thoroughly before gigging with a massive Serato-Live set.

Q. How do Serato and Live output to your audio interface, if they’re not routing audio into one another? Can they share an audio output? Might some people just route audio separate for independent mixing and busing via a mixer?

A. That’s a good question, and the short answer is, I don’t know. I turned to Ableton for an answer, but it seems like we may have to wait for more details. Jesse Terry advises us to “stay tuned, we are aware of the complications here and are working to find a simple solution for the end user.”

Q. How do I trigger clips in Live from the Serato interface? Can I use ITCH controllers?

A. Right now, there aren’t ITCH or Scratch Live controllers with controls dedicated for Live, though presumably such hardware could appear in the future. So you can use ITCH or Scratch Live to control the Live transport, and you can see visual feedback in the Serato interface as far as what’s happening in Live, but that’s about it. While we wait to see if new hardware combines these functions, though, you can use an ITCH or Scratch Live controller for Serato and any MIDI controller for Live, including devices like the APC40, Launchpad, a monome, a nanoKONTROL – whatever.

Q. What enables the transport sync between the two programs? Why not just use ReWire?

A. Actually, early prototypes of The Bridge did use ReWire. But ReWire has some limitations, like the inability of a client to use plug-ins or record audio (at least according to the spec), and ultimately people I talked to at both Serato and Ableton felt it wasn’t the right tool for this job. “Serato and Ableton created an entirely new interapplication communication protocol to make the timing as tight as possible,” says Ableton’s Jesse.

Q. Will we get to use this transport protocol for anything other than Serato and Ableton, if it works so well?

A. Maybe. Right now, it’s a proprietary sync spec that works only with these two tools. This is normally where I give my “open standard” speech, but I think it’d be too early to judge whether the solution Ableton and Serato found would even be useful with anything else. It does raise questions for other developers, though, about what sorts of general solutions might work. (Case in point: I recently saw a demo synchronizing 3D rendering, video, and animation tool Blender with the DAW Ardour, all using free software on Linux to do something that’s not currently possible with expensive proprietary solution. What made it tick? A free, open technology called JACK, which does transport interconnects as well as audio and MIDI.)

Side note: I’ve heard from Live users making insanely intensive use of synchronization and timing that they’re finding sync performance is improved under 8.1.1 builds and later. There are a lot of variables in sync, but it’s interesting anecdotal evidence, at least, and The Bridge did require some under-the-hood work on Live’s timing – always a good thing.

The Bridge – Availability, Pricing

Q. What will this cost?

A. So long as you own a copy of Live 8 or Live Suite, plus a copy of Serato, The Bridge is free; there’s no add-on cost if you own both products as there was with Max for Live. (Note that LE/Lite/Starter editions of Live would not quality, and would require an upgrade to the full version.)

Q. Is there a release date?

A. No release date has been announced yet.

Q. Is it working now?

A. Yes, actually – The Bridge is up and functioning with current builds of Live; it’s just not publicly available yet.

Q. Will the release of The Bridge be impacted by the decision Ableton made to delay new releases in order to focus on fixing bugs and reliability?

A. Yes and no. Ableton says they’re not releasing any new versions until they’re again fully satisfied with quality. So that will delay The Bridge. On the other hand, The Bridge is working, so while the release is delayed, The Bridge is coming – and my money says it shouldn’t be too far off.

By the way, the work done on The Bridge may have an impact in the opposite direction. “The work being done for the Bridge helps tighten up Live’s transport for all Live users,” says Jesse. And given how closely a lot of you rely on that transport, that’s good news.

I think that should cover it for now. This is the first-generation product, and it’s not even out yet. But we’ll be sure to cover more developments as they arise, and as we get closer to the release of The Bridge.

Lastly, here’s Ableton’s current video. Unfortunately, what it doesn’t show is video footage of the software in action, just some DJ celebrities talking about how excited they are. (“It’ll change lunchmeat forever!” “It’ll make your face melt!”) Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I’m guessing you’d like to see the tool; stay tuned.

And yes, if none of this is floating your boat, and your face isn’t melting, I’m working on showing more of what Ms. Pinky can do with Max for Live. Having more choices is always good; it means you can find the best choice for you.