Ableton Live Overview for Beginners: What is Ableton Live?

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Ableton Live on a laptop

Ableton Live is a powerful music production software that can be used by both experienced and beginner musicians. This Ableton Live overview for beginners will provide an overview of the program, its features, and how to get started using it. I'll explain what a DAW is, show you the Session and Arrangement views, and talk about working with MIDI and audio in Ableton Live. These are just the basics of this digital audio workstation software. After you finish reading this tutorial, you can decide if you want to choose Ableton Live to start producing music of your own.


What is a Digital Audio Workstation?

A digital audio workstation, or DAW, is a powerful music production software that enables users to create, record, mix, and edit audio files. They can be used by musicians, songwriters, and recording artists of all levels of experience. It can be a virtual recording studio, virtual instruments and even virtual performances. DAWs have evolved from MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) workstations paired with synthesizers in the 1980’s to early digital audio editors in the mid 1990’s to standalone apps that can do everything today.

Choosing a DAW that works for you can be a confusing process with lots of options. There are numerous models to choose from, so it's important to take your time to decide which is best for your needs. Beginners can start with something free like GarageBand which is simple and straightforward, and it has lots of tutorials online. After spending a bit of time on free and simple software most people will be ready to take their creativity to the next level and invest in a more professional DAW.

If you're mixing songs in a digital audio workstation you will eventually need to pair it with an audio interface and either headphones or powered monitor speakers or both. Decent audio interfaces, headphones and monitors are readily available at a wide price range. The most popular audio interface for beginners is the Focusrite Scarlett series. Yamaha makes a range of reference studio reference monitors and Audio Technica headphones are reasonably priced with a good frequency response for accuracy when mixing.



Using MIDI in Ableton Live

MIDI is a digital protocol for musical performances that allows you to record performance takes with virtual instruments. You can record the performance like recording a live instrument to a tape machine or program the MIDI note information in like a drum machine. Ableton Live has a great MIDI editor. After recording or programming your digital MIDI performances you can edit, cut, copy, paste and transpose the takes to achieve your desired outcome. You can also map external MIDI keyboards or pad controllers to Ableton Live to make your performances feel more like you’re using an instrument. 


Using Audio in Ableton Live

Each track has a dedicated and assignable input and output dependent on how many inputs and outputs your audio interface has. Using audio in Ableton Live is easy, and the software includes lots of great samples that can help you create your music. If you want to experiment with other sounds, you can add your own audio files to the software. Select a folder in the Places section of the browser and navigate to your sample files. Then, organise and drag the audio files into the arrangement. Before recording any audio first click on the audio tab in the live preferences window. There, you can choose a driver type and a sound buffer size. Create a new track, assign it to one of your audio interface inputs, arm the track and test the level. Takes are stored in the take lanes that you can show/hide on each track with a right-click.


Ableton Live Session View

Ableton live has two main views: Session View and Arrangement view. Session view is a great place to sketch out and loop your song ideas before committing them to a linear track. Clips are where you store the performance information for each track or instrument as either audio or MIDI information. Create multiple clip performances for each track and audition which combinations work the best together as they loop endlessly. Session view is a unique way to approach songwriting and arrangement by building a matrix of your song ideas. 



Ableton Live Arrangement View

The arrangement view is where you'll lay out your song ideas on a linear left-to-right timeline. This linear approach is utilized in most DAWs and you can simply cut, copy, paste or duplicate sections of audio or MIDI like you would with any word processor. You can zoom into a specific part of the Arrangement, zoom out horizontally, or resize the width of any track to the desired height. Many producers stay in the Arrangement view the whole time and never venture into the Session view.


Ableton Live vs FL Studio

The main difference between FL Studio and Ableton Live is their purpose of design. FL Studio is designed specifically to make beats and features one of the best MIDI programming interfaces in any DAW. Ableton Live was built as a virtual collection of MIDI sequencers, drum machines, synths and samplers for live shows and so it’s very versatile in its connectivity. It even has a third party host, Max for Live, for users to build their own audio effects and virtual instruments.

The cost of Ableton Live vs FL Studio for beginners is comparable. Both have multiple editions starting at about $100USD up to a full version with all the sounds, instruments and effects for between $500 and $800. The best way to decide between Ableton Live and FL Studio for beginners is to download both programs and try them out for yourself. Ableton Live has a 90-day free trial and FL Studio has an unlimited free trial. Both have the option to upgrade editions if you want to start with one of the less expensive editions.


Ableton Live vs Pro Tools

 When choosing between Pro Tools and Ableton Live for beginners, there are a few things to consider. Both are powerful DAWs and have a learning curve. Ableton Live tends to attract electronic music producers and Pro Tools tends to attract live instrument producers but both can handle all aspects of recording, editing and mixing MIDI and audio. Live’s audio editing features are much improved as is Pro Tools MIDI editing but both are still not up to the standards set by the other in those respective areas.

Ableton Live is easier to get started with the free trial and lack of any additional hardware. AVID’s Pro Tools requires the addition of an iLok or iLok cloud account for copy protection. This requires additional set-up and troubleshooting which also makes it less inviting for beginners. Pro Tools pricing is a monthly or yearly subscription which will make it more expensive than Ableton Live in the long run.



 Ableton Live is great software for all types of production from MIDI based electronic styles and beatmaking to live instrument recording. It has a Free 90-day trial and requires no additional hardware other than your computer. FL Studio and Pro Tools are Ableton Live’s closest competitors and all three DAWs are great choices for recording, editing and mixing music, used by music producers worldwide.


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