Inside Ableton Live 12: Practical Insights for Playback Pros

Inside Ableton Live 12: Practical Insights for Playback Pros

Just over two months have passed since the launch of Ableton Live 12, marking a significant milestone in the software's evolution. As expected with a major version release, this update brings an abundance of new features, enhancements, devices, as well as a refreshed design. Given Ableton Live's ubiquitous presence on some of the most prominent stages and backstage setups worldwide, let's look at how this software update impacts those of us in playback world.

In this article, I'll conduct an exhaustive examination of several key features and changes that directly impact users employing Ableton Live for controlling backing tracks and managing all manner of timing and MIDI control in their live stage productions. From revamped interface elements to brand new tools for production, I'll explore how these updates can streamline your workflows, enhance your set reliability, and generally make your life better as a playback tech.

LIFE IN THE FAST LANE

There's no question that Ableton Live has earned widespread adoption in production and playback worlds thanks to its visual and ergonomic efficiency. Simple interfaces mean less processing resources for the computer and your brain. Whether you're making electronic beats or tracking instruments and vocals, Ableton Live is hands down one of the fastest ways to make music.

It's also a given that if you're a professional playback tech, you have also learned to work with a unique efficiency. So it makes sense to start with those elements, updates and improvements in Live 12 that really address your need for speed. A lot of the updates I'll cover here will probably seem minor on first glance, but if you're someone performing these repetitive motions day in and day out on a multi-month tour, the time-saving benefits will definitely add up!

UPDATED BROWSER

The Live 12 browser has undergone some major updates. And while I don't consider the browser to be that critical in most playback scenarios, I decided it's important enough to mention first for a few reasons.

  • For starters, it's a huge update. Collections was a significant addition to the Live 10 browser, but the Live 12 browser update is massive in comparison. 
  • If you're producing anything for yourself or an artist in addition to doing playback, you'll definitely find lots of new tools to speed up your workflow.
  • Most importantly, if there's a way to find a file on your computer faster and more efficiently when troubleshooting, then it's definitely going to matter to playback techs.

The section of the browser previously called Categories is now called Library and the ALL selector has been intuitively moved to the top of the list. More importantly, you can now perform a search and at the top of the results, you can select the circle + symbol to add a user defined category to your library. This is great for saving a common search term or phrase.

I’m also finding that the ability to filter search results according to factory or user defined tags is a phenomenal feature. By choosing Content: Sample, Type: One Shot, and Sounds: Brass, I was able to quickly find a small handful of brass stab one shot samples on my hard drive. 

Once you find a particular sound you like, you can dial in your search further by clicking the little "approximately equal to" icon next to the sample (≃). That will then populate the search list with sounds on your hard drive (using sample analysis and a bit of AI) to show a ton of samples and instruments that sound like your selected sample. This is a great feature to see in the Ableton Live browser and since it's taking advantage of Ableton Live's sample analysis, it can even work for samples you upload yourself!

Last but definitely not least is the browser back and forward arrows. This lets you page through your browsing and filtering history so you can get back to that perfect sample you found earlier, even if you didn't tag or otherwise highlight it.

MOMENTARY LATCHING

I've been trying to figure out why I love this feature for playback so much. I think the main reason is that I've personally had my share of close calls in playback sets because I've had to check something right before showtime and then neglected to reset things. Momentary latching now gives you a way to mute or solo a track, temporarily draw automation, quickly check something in Session View and much more, without fully committing to the change.  

The way it works is if you hold a shortcut key for more than 500ms, that switch becomes momentary instead of a toggle. For example, you can turn on a track solo with the S key just like you've always done. But now, if you hold the S key for more than 500ms, that key will now become momentary and it will deactivate as soon as you release it. 

The official Live 12 documentation says this works for the following shortcut keys:

[ A ] - Arrangement Automation 
[ B ] - Automation Draw Mode 
[ S ] - Track Solo 
[ Z ] - Arrangement Zoom
[ F1 - F8 ] - Tracks 1-8 Activate / Deactivate (muting)
[ TAB ] Arrangement / Session View switching

 In my testing, I discovered a couple undocumented but worth-mentioning uses:

[ M ] - Musical Typing 
[ O ] - Metronome

If you speak Options.txt, this feature can be turned off using the entry: - DisableHotKeyLatching. Also notable, momentary latching doesn't currently work for MIDI or Keyboard user assignments, only a select few factory-set keyboard shortcuts. And it works in reverse, so if you have the Metronome ON, but want to briefly hear your track with it off, you can temporarily hold the O key.

Oh, you didn't know there was a shortcut for the Metronome now? You might want to make sure you're sitting down.

CHANGES RELATED TO ACCESSIBILITY AND INCLUSIVITY

A lot has changed in Live's menu structure and naming conventions. It's really cool to see some of the ways Ableton has made strides over the years to not only be a great product but to be especially mindful of the vast community of music makers we're part of on this planet. There's no more Master track in Live 12. It's now the Main track. And there's a whole menu called Playback. But before you get excited, it's really about giving users who control their computers atypically a friendlier way to make music. The reasons for these changes are awesome and I'm all for it but there are a few significant changes you should be aware of.

Part of what helps anyone get around their preferred audio workstation so efficiently (whether it's Live, Pro Tools, Cubase or Logic) is their commitment to learn the keyboard shortcuts. But with a lot of new shortcut options, a few have disappeared.

For example, one of the first shortcuts I learned in Live was CMD + OPT + L to open and close the Device / Clip view. As of the current version, that shortcut no longer works. Along with a handful of other time-saving shortcuts for Arrangement Return Tracks and I/O.

The good news is that a few of these features have made a return on the latest beta, but if your workflow will be severely hampered by not having a few shortcuts, you might want to wait at least until Live 12.0.3 is released.

The even better news is that you're sure to find a ton of uses for all the new shortcuts that are now available in Live 12 that are sure to speed up how you move around your sets. Keep reading for important notes about the Live Mixer and more. 

SIMPLIFIED GUI AND SHORTCUT KEY CASE

As we round out this review of the improvements related to speed, it's worth noting that Live's GUI has gotten even more minimalistic and efficient. You'll now see thinner borders  around the sections of the interface and scrollbars that disappear when you aren't scrolling. 

Keyboard shortcuts that use a single key are now CAPSLOCK agnostic. This means if you want to use the musical keyboard, you can press k or K. This also means that if you want to use a keyboard shortcut while the musical keyboard is active, you can achieve this by using the SHIFT key and the shortcut. For example, if you want to solo the current track, but the musical keyboard is active, you can use SHIFT + S to toggle the track solo button.

VISION QUEST

Live 12 introduces a range of visual updates significant to live music playback. These changes, varying from subtle tweaks to more pronounced changes, will undoubtedly impact the experience of users controlling stage computers. 

MIXER UPDATES

The days of tabbing to Session View or needing a second monitor to check levels in your mixer are over. The Live 12 Mixer can now be viewed in Session View or Arrangement View! This new mixer has a slightly larger handle on each channel, and that handle appears on the left side of the track now instead of the right.

You'll also see a short 6-pixel stripe at the bottom of each mixer channel that corresponds with the track color. Besides that, the mixer resolution is improved and track height can be expanded all the way to the top of the application interface. All these changes make viewing your levels much more intuitive and user-friendly in Live 12.

OTHER WELCOME UPDATES FOR PLAYBACK

There are a few other updates in Live 12 that I personally appreciate. Here's a quick list in no particular order:

  • In previous editions of Live, you either had to choose to view your devices or your clips whether you were in Session or Arrangement View. But now you can also view your Devices and Clips at the same time. And if you want to add the Mixer too, you can!
  • You can now change waveform size in the clips in Arrangement View. It doesn't effect gain, but adjusting the waveform to be visually larger or smaller can help you see details in quiet sections for editing. This can also help you quickly identify parts and sections. This can conveniently be MIDI mapped for quickly zooming in and out as needed.
  • When managing stems for an artist that didn't come from the same source or at the same time, it's important to confirm your session sample rate. Fortunately, that can now be seen at a glance at the top right of your Ableton Live session. Clicking the sample rate interface takes you directly to the settings where it can be changed.
  • When selecting another Live set in the browser, in addition to dragging tracks from that session to your current set, you can also drag your return tracks and main track content.

THE FINE PRINT: CAVEATS AND BEST PRACTICES

There's a lot more I could have included and this is not intended to be an all-encompassing review of Live 12's newest features. But this should give people a good idea if it's time to upgrade. Speaking of upgrading...

As an Ableton Certified Trainer, I often receive questions regarding new devices and software. Here's my general advice for incorporating cutting-edge technology into live music performances: prioritize familiarity and thorough testing to avoid unexpected issues. If you have the time to adapt to the new workflows demanded by significant updates and to adequately test for any potential challenges, then feel free to dive into the latest and greatest, like Live 12!

However, if your gig is tomorrow and you have an itch to use a new feature so you decide to upgrade tonight, beware that you might get more than you bargained for (this goes for operating systems, major and minor version upgrades, and firmware). My advice is to explore all new hardware and software on your own until you have sufficient confidence in it as well as in your own ability to troubleshoot it. Your team will thank you for it!


Jeff Caylor

An Ableton Certified Trainer since 2013, Jeff lives in Hong Kong with his wife and daughter where he founded Oaktone in 2021. What began as a passion project to figure out better ways to control his show computer for live performance, has grown into a best-in-class hardware and software company dedicated to helping playback techs do their jobs with confidence and ease. Oaktone products can be found on stage and backstage with the biggest names in music today, including Post Malone, John Legend, Doja Cat and many more.