Cosmetically, Live is more or less unchanged for the version 8 update, which is reassuring, as it implies that Ableton trusts us to be happy enough with the software's conceptual functional differences.
So, the most radical overhaul is the new warping engine, which is guaranteed to divide opinion. It's uncontroversial enough at first glance, offering the new Complex Pro warp mode, which gives improved control over the Complex mode that's so popular with DJs and remixers.
Similarly, there's greater flexibility with the Beats mode that DJs have warmed to, though it can still make complete tracks sound rubbish! But there are more fundamental changes afoot, too.
Warp this way
Whereas previously you would create a warp marker at a certain point on the timeline and drag it along to the relevant point in the audio, you now create a marker on the waveform itself, and drag that to fit the timeline. These warp markers default to transient points, and once you have a marker, you can then nudge the audio along that marker, too.
There are various advantages to this system, not least of which is that what you see is what you get. Furthermore, when dealing with markers that are very close to each other, you no longer come up against a limited timing resolution, as could happen with previous Live versions.
And if you're warping multiple audio channels and flicking between them, it means you get an immediate visual reference as to how things are lining up, which wasn't easy when the timeline itself was being stretched.
It's a positive change, and once people adjust (which should take a week or two) they'll forget that it was ever any different, despite all the uproar on the forums during beta testing. However, DJs do have reason to complain, as when it comes to warping electronic material on a steady beat, you're dealing with more mouse clicks and sub-menus, as Live tends to put in loads of transient markers you just don't need.
One suggestion we have is to offer a 'DJ mode', in which the default setting is to warp straight, placing just one transient marker right at the start. You can do something similar from within the Preferences, but there should be a front-panel solution.
Oh, and no, Live still often incorrectly identifies the first beat of the song. Come on, Ableton ? you've had four years of auto-warp to sort this out!
The next huge leap forward comes with the long-requested Groove Engine. Whereas previous versions of Live only offered basic quantising and swing, we now have full-on groove quantisation based around a vast library of groove maps, including everything from the seminal MPC grooves beloved to this day by dance and hip-hop producers, and the quantise mappings of the legendary hip-hop machine that is E-MU's SP1200, right on through to a huge range of real drummers' feels.
Listen to the MPC16-style swing:
However, the interface is the real stand-out aspect, as it makes it very easy to visualise what's going on. It's also deceptively powerful, thanks to some unusual but useful modes.
Hear the Multiband Dynamics plug-in restore some punch:
And that's about it for Suite additions, apart from the ever-growing sound and preset library. In truth, we don't think the library is quite good enough to be your only sound source, but it's still pretty good, albeit not as radically changed from version 7 as pre-release marketing suggested.
And whether it's in the range and quality of sounds (Zero-G and Cycling '74 count themselves amongst the contributors), or the carefully crafted presets, with all of the main controls pre-mapped via macros, nobody could deny Ableton's comprehensive approach.
Little tweaks and additions notwithstanding, that, ladies and gentlemen, is Live 8. It's the biggest overhaul in years.
Buying into the Live experience is still a touch daunting, due to the ever-bulging Ableton product line. The standard edition of Live has the exact same functionality as the version in the full-on Suite bundle, but lacks most of the extra instruments and vast audio library.
If you produce music for media, or don't have many instruments already, then Suite offers a massive saving over buying the component elements separately, these being the Essential Instrument Collection, Sampler, Operator, Drum Machines, Session Drums, Analog, Electric, Tension, Latin Percussion, World Class Library and Collision.
If you use Live for DJing or producing albums, or if you tend to make music in one specific genre and already have decent software instruments, then we'd suggest giving Suite a miss. Instruments like Sampler, Operator and Drum Machines are great for almost any type of electronic music, but they're not vital, and you can always buy them separately later on.
We haven't even had time to talk properly about forthcoming Live 8-requiring products, like Max For Live (for designing your own devices) and Akai's APC-40 (the best Live controller we've ever tried). While these are optional extras, they're bound to make Live an even more appealing platform.
Live 8 isn't perfect, though. Some of the new features haven't been implemented as well as they could've, and there are things we'd still like to see (multi-screen support, for example). We've also been experiencing more crashes and audio glitches than with previous versions when adding plug-ins (though not when performing with a pre-prepared set, which is the main thing). Hopefully, this will be resolved with an update.
Ultimately, none of this takes away from what is an awesome leap forward in terms of both features and workflow. File this under 'essential upgrade' and start saving those pennies.
It's not without its faults, but this is by far the most powerful Live yet.