Thursday, July 11, 2013

Why Ableton Live Is the Best DAW for Beginners

I very commonly hear people who are new to or curious about music production ask what's a good Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) for beginners. My answer is always the same: Ableton Live.

Here's why:
  • It is inexpensive to try out. The Live 9 Intro version is only $99, and if you find that you enjoy the workflow, Ableton offers very good upgrade discounts to Live 9 Standard and Live 9 Suite. Sometimes you can even get it for free! Occasionally websites and magazines offer free licenses to Live Intro, and a lot of MIDI hardware products include free licenses (or at least coupons).
  • It has built-in tips and tutorials. You can get information on every element on the screen by just floating over it with your mouse cursor and reading the help text in the lower left of the screen. There's also a Help tab you can open on the right half of the screen where you can find interactive tutorials to help you learn different facets of the application.
  • Everything's all in one window. Live has a compact and intuitive user interface that doesn't require you to click through hidden menus or manage a bunch of floating windows to find what you need.
  • There's an active community. Live is very popular, and as a result, there are lots of people talking about it online. You can find answers to your questions at many music-related message boards. Strangely, the official Ableton forum has a high number of unhelpful and nasty trolls- although the official Ableton Help page can be useful. Third-party sites such as GearSlutz or even the Something Awful Musician's Lounge are a much better resource.
  • There are free and commercial tutorials everywhere. There are a number of sites dedicated to mastering Live, tons of free YouTube tutorials, and lots of great for-pay courses at sites like Groove 3 and MacProVideo. (I especially recommend the MacProVideo courses, even if you're a PC user.)
  • It's a real, professional DAW. While I believe Live is the ideal DAW for beginners, it is not a "beginner DAW." It's a full-featured music production environment, suited for original composition with hardware and software MIDI instruments, audio recording, remixing, and DJing.
  • It has solid effects and instruments. With the understanding that different versions of Live have different selections of virtual instruments and audio effects, the ones you get are all useful. When I work in Live I use the built-in "The Glue" compressor all the time. While the price may be steep, the Live 9 Suite package is so complete you really could do just about anything you needed to do musically without investing in another software product. (Although I personally would recommend Live 9 Standard coupled with Native Instruments Komplete 9 if you want the biggest possible bang for your buck.)
I do have some complaints with Live, although they're minor. The lack of VST3 support means that it's not as compatible with plugins as some other DAWs (like Cubase or Reaper)- but most major plugins are available in VST2 format, which Live supports just fine. Sidechaining can also be difficult in Live with anything other than the built-in audio effects (but this can be true in other DAWs as well). There's also the notorious "PDC issue" that a handful of people complain about endlessly, but the great majority of Live users never encounter in their day-to-day work.

Overall, though, I don't think there's any better place to start an earnest exploration into music production than Ableton Live.


Ultimate Outsider said...

Thanks for responding in such a reasonable and non-confrontational manner! Yours is the kind of comment that makes a blogger think, "Hey, this chap must REALLY know what he's talking about! I'd better stop what I'm doing right now and take advantage of his hard-earned wisdom!"

The fact that I know so many Live users who ask, "So what's this PDC thing people keep complaining about?" tells me there are lots of folks who don't encounter any deal-breaking issues with it. I use automation in Live all the time and I've never had problems with it either.

I'm sorry if you've struggled with it in your work. I'm sure it was frustrating for you; it's not fun when technical issues get in the way of your art.

But being a dick on the Internet isn't going to change the fact that there are thousands of people using Ableton Live this very minute without a single complaint.

Ultimate Outsider said...

Oh yeah, those threads where half the posts are basically "What are you guys talking about? I don't have any of these problems?"

The Ableton forum is the asshole of the musical Internet- but even if it weren't, forum regulars are not representative of any product's general user base. Hardly anyone goes to a forum to say, "Hey, this product works exactly like I expected! I haven't had a single issue!" Most folks are there to ask for help or complain.

No one's saying the technical limitation doesn't exist. Even Ableton has acknowledged it time and again. My position, as stated in my original post, is that only a minority of users ever actually face problems as a result.

And after re-reading your last comment, it seems like even you acknowledge that it only causes noticeable symptoms in certain situations- so can you please explain why the shit we are arguing about this?

And come on, man. Accusing someone of using cracks is the music forum equivalent of correcting an opponent's spelling and grammar. It's a way of saying, "I don't have any more arguments, but I still wanna fight."

Ultimate Outsider said...

It's pretty clear that you and I are never going to agree on the true practical scope of the problem.

Do rock on, Triple-M, in whatever DAW that you like best.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to agree with Mark. Not a minor issue....and it is talked about alot on nearly all forums about Live.

I've had hope that they'd fix the automation PDC issues since Live 7. That's how long I've been waiting on them to fix this issue.

I love Ableton as far as its approach to production....but I'm sick of rewarding them and giving them the benefit of the doubt. They won't fix this glaring issue until their forced to.
But by all means keep pretending it's not an issue and "hope" they'll fix it sometime soon.

Why would anything having to do with keeping things in time not be important in music production? Especially something that can creep in so gradually that it can sneak up on you as you progress in making ur music.

Ultimate Outsider said...

I appreciate your diplomatic approach, Anon. In 4 or 5 years of using Ableton Live, I've never encountered any problem that I could trace to the PDC limitation, and I know there are lots and lots of happy users out there who've not encountered it either.

So, while I completely understand that it's infuriating for people who encounter it, I do not consider it a showstopping problem since it at least seems like most users just don't encounter it in their own work.

I still feel there's no better place to start learning DAWs than Live, but I sympathize with anyone whose work has been complicated by the PDC problems. Fingers crossed that they'll figure it out soon.