It takes a lot to convince musicians to switch recording software, but Ableton Live deserves to win over a few defectors. While many of its competitors are similar, Live is packed with features that are unique.
Its operational simplicity and enormous scope of experimental production techniques, plus the fantastic bundle of instruments in the Suite version, is an alluring combination.
Live 8 and Suite 8 continue to take great strides, with features that are both friendlier and smarter than those of their rivals.
An example is Group Tracks. This is based on an idea found in analogue mixers, where certain channels, such as the drum microphones, are sent to a group channel before going to the master output. This provides a way to adjust the overall drum level with a single fader, and to apply effects to the drum submix.
Live's flexible mix architecture used to allow any channel to be used as a group, but the new Group Track is much neater. Rather than locating group tracks together at the far end of the mixer, a Group Track creates a nest around the channels assigned to it.
The group can be collapsed to hide the individual channels, making big projects easier to navigate. Best of all, Group Tracks include buttons to trigger multiple loops at once, enhancing the power of Live's improvisation-oriented Session View.
The most ambitious new feature is the Groove Quantise engine. Similar features have been available in rival packages for years, but Ableton has rewarded its customers' patience here with the best implementation yet.
The concept is simple: take the rhythmical nuances of one loop and apply it to other loops and recordings, giving performances a natural feel but keeping all the sounds locked in tight synchronisation.
Live's Groove Pool isn't as straightforward as it could be. Its ability to extract and match the timing and volume nuances of both MIDI and audio clips goes way beyond most software, however, and trumps even Sony Acid Pro's excellent Groove Mapping feature.
It's built on a new audio-warping engine that also makes it easier to re-time audio clips manually, but we found this wasn't as successful as previous versions at automatically clocking long sections of audio to the master tempo.
There are new effects too, including a vocoder, a guitar pedal-style overdrive and a ring modulator. The new limiter and multiband compression effects are particularly useful for processing complete mixes. Other new features include the ability to magnify the interface for use on stage, and to share projects online.
Ableton Suite 8 bolsters the main application with nine virtual instruments. Seven of these are unchanged since version 7, while Operator, an FM synth, has been given an overhaul. The new addition, Collision, is our favourite. It specialises in tuned percussion such as marimbas and glockenspiels, but also covers various unpitched percussion and abstract sounds.
It's rich and vibrant, and because it's based on mathematical models, the scope for sonic tinkering is vast. The downside is that you need a powerful machine to run it successfully. With some presets, our 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo PC managed only a few simultaneous notes before audio glitches began to appear.
Suite 8 is a big application, consuming 45GB of disk space and taking hours to install. At $1000, it's more expensive than the flagship versions of Cubase 5 and Sonar 8, but the quality of its virtual instruments means it isn't overpriced. The cost of Live by itself continues to creep up, though, as does its upgrade price.
And for all its strengths, Live isn't yet ready to dislodge Cubase for conventional multitrack studio recording. Despite the new ability to crossfade audio clips, our attempts to edit a multitrack drum session or to combine multiple vocal takes into a single best-of performance revealed that Live still lacks many of the subtle niceties that make these tasks so much easier in Cubase.
But there are many tasks, and people, for whom Ableton Live 8 is perfect. Its aptitude for loop manipulation and the Suite's fantastic instrument bundle make it the best choice for electronic music production.
Also, the Session View's non-linear approach to arrangement means it's a superb choice for anyone who composes as they record.