Ableton Live 11.1 beta means a native version of the host that can take full advantage of the hardware inside the latest Macs. But what about VST, AU, Max for Live, and other content – especially if it was built for Intel? Here’s what works, what doesn’t, and how to retain compatibility.

Remember, you can install multiple versions of Ableton Live alongside one another. You should always do that with the beta, and you should probably do it with a version of Live you may need to open critical files.

TL:DR / spoilers!

For those of you eager for the answer, who know what you’re doing already, Ableton Live 11.1 in Apple Silicon native mode compatibility details:

Live 11.1: ships as Universal 2, both Intel and Apple Silicon support included.

Intel AUs: work automatically, thanks to macOS’ built-in AUHostingCompatibilityService. (Probably – other dependencies or incompatibilities still apply!)

Intel VSTs: won’t work, hidden, but you can run Live in Rosetta 2 and run them there.

Max for Live: works, but Devices with externals built for Intel will display an error message – run Live in Rosetta 2.

Rosetta 2 vs. native: pretty darn fast vs. blazingly fast. Matches or exceeds your existing Intel Mac vs. totally blows away your existing Mac. Oversimplification, yes, but… not wrong.

Now onto the detailed explanation:

Apple Silicon: a refresher

Apple Silicon covers all the ARM-based architectures currently available from Apple, which for the Mac right now is – one chip, the M1, though expect that soon to include other Mac chips, too.

The first thing to point out here is that non-native code, built for Intel, often runs really fast even on the M1. The reasons why are too complex to get into here, but the short version is this – Apple’s new chips are fast, there is sophisticated memory tech at work, and the new Rosetta 2 compatibility layer that operates invisibly as part of macOS is essentially able to translate your old Intel code to native instructions for the CPU without the developer’s involvement. The upshot of this is, if you have a slightly older Mac as I do, you’ll probably mainly notice your new Mac is faster – even before you update your software for the M1.

I can say that theoretically, but I can also say it practically. I’ve been running the stable build of Ableton Live 11, which is still Intel-only, for months now on a Mac mini with M1. It’s snappy, and the Mac mini is so quiet I can only tell it’s on by looking at its power LED. (That matters to music because, uh, sound is sort of involved.)

So, why go fully native? That’s easy – then it’ll be even faster, and will allow you to take full advantage of the high-performance powers of the latest Macs. You can also bet that along with the work developers do for CPU compatibility, other optimization and work to support the latest features of macOS is likely to get done, too, some of which will also show performance gains.

Anyway – native support means consistent fast performance. So having it in the DAW is a good thing – and Ableton Live joins a number of DAWs adding that compatibility. But what does that mean for plug-ins and the rest of the tools you use?

Plug-in compatibility

Live 11.1 (both in beta and final form) ships as a Universal 2 binary – both Intel and (ARM) Apple Silicon code are included. That doesn’t matter much to file size – it’s basically the same size as its Intel-only Windows counterpart. (PPC-Intel veterans will remember “Universal binaries,” and people using Macs in the 90s like myself for 68k-PPC “fat binaries” – roughly equivalent.) But that means the first thing is, don’t panic – there is a way of making your plug-ins work.

Running the Apple Silicon-native version of Ableton Live, plug-ins work as follows:

Apple Silicon-native VST3, VST2, Audio Unit plug-ins: These load normally – and updated versions here will maximize the performance you can squeeze out of your M1, of course.

Intel-only Audio Unit plug-ins: Live 11.1 will display and load these plug-ins. Barring any other compatibility issues, they should work as if they were native. That’s a macOS feature, not an Ableton feature – more on that below.

Intel-only VST2 and VST3 plug-ins: These are not compatible with the Apple Silicon-native Live 11.1, and they won’t load. They’ll be hidden from view in the Browser, so you won’t even get the chance to load them in the first place.

So – AUs work regardless of whether they were updated for Apple Silicon. VSTs do not.

Compatibility with Audio Units built for Intel is a macOS feature, not an Ableton Live feature per se. Apple built something called the AUHostingCompatibilityService – basically, without the user noticing (mostly/probably) it will quietly translate your Intel plug-ins so they work on Apple Silicon. Updated: I should clarify – this supports the AU itself, but can’t resolve other incompatibilities. That is, if an AU doesn’t play well with AUHostingCompatibilityService – keeping in mind that developers may not have tested this (or tested your particular version – you could see stuff break. That’s happening to someone in comments — so the usual disclaimers apply. In particular, some plug-ins rely on additional services for things like copy protection validation, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if those make some plug0ins fail. But yes, generally speaking, many Intel AU plug-ins will just work without you knowing. Probably. Mostly.

VSTs are another story. Some DAWs do have “bridge” support that provides compatibility for those plug-ins – Cockos Reaper and Bitwig Studio went this route. (Apple doesn’t support VST at all, Apple Silicon or otherwise, so it isn’t relevant.) But Ableton doesn’t.

This does not mean you’re out of luck, though. If you need to make a VST plug-in work and it hasn’t been updated, you can force Live to run as Intel-native (via Rosetta 2), even on an Apple Silicon-based Mac. Short version: Get Info on Live’s application icon and check the appropriate checkmark. Longer version, from our colleague Roman:

How to force a native M1 Mac app to run as an Intel app instead [Macworld]

Now, this should not be taken to mean you won’t encounter some weirdness. If you’re upgrading from an older Mac, you have not only the new chip architecture but other OS changes to take into account. Honestly, if you can, keep that old Mac around if you think you’ll be opening previous sessions. But at least in my usage, with a range of Intel-only plug-ins, I found stuff mostly works. And I think plug-in developers will pick up the pace on updates, especially because more people are buying these Macs and – frankly, people really love them, because they’re blazingly fast and quiet, even when we haven’t gotten the expected “high performance” machines yet. If you have an Intel Mac and you feel some FOMO, you’re… right. Sorry.

Max for Live

Oh yeah – Max. So the Max for Live that ships with Live 11.1 beta is also Apple Silicon native. And that’s a big deal – a lot of fairly complex software that now also runs natively on this architecture.

Just as you did with plug-ins, though, you may want to revert to the Intel build to retain compatibility with a particular Max for Live Device. Any Max patch that relies on externals (compiled objects) that weren’t built yet for Apple Silicon will break just as plug-ins do. In this case, Ableton Live will display the Device without its interface, and a little message telling you to try again with Rosetta. (Quit, Get Info, check that box, restart. But that’s manageable when you need to open a session.)

Also, apart from this, a new version of Max also can mean some Max for Live Devices need updating. (I just got a notification about one that is not Intel/Apple Silicon-related.) That will be comparatively rare, but it’s worth checking.

Packs compatibility

As of the current moment in the beta, not all Packs are fully compatible yet – though you’ll see most of them already there, and I understand Ableton is working hard on this.

Max packages in Package Manager should work, with the exception of Miraweb – expect a forthcoming fix.

Just keep an old version handy in case you need it.

But all in all – stuff mostly works. It’s immediately faster than before. You can run more instances of plug-ins and effects and the like. And let’s be clear, too – I’m running on what is an entry-level Mac mini. The transformation of bang-for-your-buck on the Apple Silicon Macs is tough to overstate. So armed with this information, I think you’ll be really happy.

I don’t want to compare PC and Mac in this context, but what I will say is, if you’re a Mac user, I think you have some good days ahead, even snapping up an entry-level Mac. And as far as compatibility and transition, having gone through the PowerPC and Intel transitions and MacOS to OS X … this has none of those headaches. It’s almost too easy to transition, meaning you may have to keep bugging developers to support Apple Silicon natively. But on balance, that’s a good thing.

Now back to messing around with Pitcher.