Monday, September 11, 2006

There's a certain luddite quality in the live electronic music community that's particularly scornful of computers on stage, specifically using Ableton Live. This often just sounds resentful and maybe even a little elitist. Let's face it, in terms of raw power and flexibility Live destroys any hardware synth or sequencer out there and the fact that anybody with a decent consumer-grade laptop and a cheap midi controller can play live might be a little threatening to the older hands doing it the "hard way".

However, after going back and forth with various hardware instruments and sequencers, I think there really are some pretty legitimate downsides to Live compared to better hardware gear, like an E-Mu Command Station or an Akai MPC. Specifically:

1. Note repeat. Fantastic for programming and improvising beats on the CS and MPC - still no way to really get the same thing in Live.

2. Record quantize not mappable. On the MPC or the CS you can easily switch up the record quantize value, which is particularly handy in conjunction with note repeat. If you want to do this in Live, you've got to monkey around with a mouse in menu nested down two levels. Not something I want to be doing on the fly.

3. No first-note record. One of the most brilliant and unique features of the CS is the first-note record, which just loops and records while playing back the last run through, but erases to the end of the loop once you start playing again. You can keep doing new takes on a part until you get it right without touching anything but the keys.

4. Can't delete a part without the mouse. There's no easy way to quickly zoom in on a particular clip and delete it without mousing to it or poking around with the arrow keys. There are bome hacks to get around this but not nearly as nice as the CS hotkey for it.

5. Audio glitches at unpredictable loads. Under about 50% load Live is rock solid for me but anything above that and it can gap out. You've got to be very careful touching plugins etc while it's playing if you don't want it to jump. Hardware, on the other hand, usually has a well-defined hard ceiling.

6. Controllers suck. All of them. Either you hardwire down everything and lose most of the advantages of an open plugin system or you do everything on the fly which means you can never really get the control surface down cold. On hardware what you see is generally what you get.

Anyway, I'm finding hardware sequencers, particularly the Command Stations, still have some pretty real advantages compared to Live, particularly for laying down phrases and beats on the fly. I'm not sure whether it's a lack of understanding or focus on Ableton's part, since most of these things would be easier to implement than some of the other features they've added since version 3.

I'm still thinking a computer might be useful just as a synth rack, maybe running something like Kore or Forte, but software sequencers still seem better left in the studio.