It was almost exactly three years ago that we were celebrating the relatively quick arrival of Ableton Live 11. Today, the company is unveiling Live 12, the next version of its popular digital audio workstation (DAW). In terms of release cycles, this is the shortest time between versions in recent memory, and it brings with it some exciting new features. The less fun news is that you won’t actually be able to get your hands on Live 12 until early next year, but there’s plenty to get excited about in the meantime.
Usually, the first thing people want to know is if there are any new instruments, and the answer is yes. Live 12 Suite comes with “Meld” which the company describes as a macro oscillator synth, and there’s also a new distortion effect called Roar. Other updates include a feature where Live 12 will create MIDI arrangements or transform existing ones via new tools in Live’s Clip view. There’s also an option to track the scale and key of what you’re working on so that any effects or edits will automatically be in that key (if you wish). On the other hand, if you want to create music in non-western tones and scales, there’s full support for a wide range of musical tunings now baked right into Live. Most of the above is also MPE ready where applicable. There’s a lot more, which we’ll go through below but those are the headline features.
The newest instrument to join the Ableton Live family is going to be a lot of fun. At first glance, the two oscillator setup seems pretty straightforward. But this “macro oscillator” synth has a lot of interesting waveforms to play with. Everything from classic sine/saw/square shapes through to more noise type formations like “rain” and “bubble” mean Meld can really create some unique textures. If you’re a fan of moog-style big pulsing sounds, the “swarm” waveforms are for you. Both oscillators have a modulation matrix that makes it super easy to bend and shape the sound to your liking. From some quick experimentation, Meld looks perfect for sound design and creating big, gritty leads as well as abstract pads and real-word sounding textures.
Roar distortion effect
Live already has a decent selection of distortion effects, but Roar is possibly the most comprehensive yet. The range of tone shapes available range from light, pedal-style crunchiness through to aggressive hard digital clipping and everything in between. The power with Roar lies in the amount of controls you have throughout the chain. Right from dialing in the perfect amount of distortion through the filter to the modulation options, again, controlled by a matrix setup. It’s perhaps not quite as comprehensive as , but it’s close. Live’s primary distortion tools, Saturator and Overdrive, often worked best together. Meld offers the power of both of those tools and adds complex signal bending tools for good measure.
Generative MIDI tools
When it comes to songwriting, Live 12 offers some exciting tools to get you started or to help push you through a creative block. Specifically, Live 12 will generate random MIDI clips for you according to certain parameters (length, note density and so on). Alternatively, if you already have a clip with a MIDI sequence that you like, the “transform” tab in the Clip view will create endless variations on it depending on your requirements.
On the generative side of things, there are options for more rhythmic patterns, melodic arrangements or even chords. The created MIDI can be almost any length, but shorter clips tend to have more success. Every time you change a parameter — length, pitch and so on — Live will create a new pattern and you can keep cycling through variations until you find one you like. Here is where Live 12’s new “scale aware” feature really shines, as when activated, this will ensure any generated MIDI matches the key and scale of what you are working on.
The transform tool is ideal for when you have a progression you already like but want to create some variations on it. This could be something simple like arpeggiation or velocity adjustments through to more detail-oriented tweaks such as how the notes flow into each other or creating a humanized “strum” effect on chords. Despite their power, both the transform and generate tools are neatly tucked away as tabs in the Clip view and mostly have straightforward controls, though some experimentation is encouraged. It’s pretty easy to get lost in a rabbit hole, testing out different settings and parameters until you end up with something barely recognizable. Which, to be fair, is sometimes exactly what you want.
An addition to the main library in Live 12 is the Tunings tab. Simply put, here you’ll find a collection of tunings outside of the conventional western 12 note scale. So if Turkish Makam is your thing or you’re a fan of Just Intonation, there are several options here that can be activated and adapted as you prefer. The scales library consists of .ascl files meaning you can add to your library of scales from third-party or user-created files also.
If you’ve used Live for any amount of time, you likely have Tab and Shift+Tab muscle memory so deeply ingrained you can switch views blindfolded. In this update, you’ll no longer have to jump over to Session view to access the mixer as finally it’s available in Arrangement view also. The same is true for the Device and Clip view windows, meaning you can see the MIDI/audio at the same time as the synth/effects chain without having to jump between them constantly. Things can get a bit busy if you have all three panels open at the same time, but this is a solid quality of life enhancement that’s long overdue.
Organizing and navigating your sample library in Live 12 comes with a number of improvements. Notably, the ability to tag MIDI clips, plugins and audio at a granular level. Tag categories include everything from Type (Loop/MIDI clip and so on) to musical key, groove and many other categories. You can, of course, also add your own custom tags.
If your library is quite large and disorganized, the initial tagging might take a while, but you can select multiple items at once and tag them at the same time. Right now, it doesn’t appear that you can tag at the folder level, which would be handy for large sample collections but it’s a useful tool nonetheless.
A much neater trick is Live 12’s ability to find “similar” sounds. For example, if you have a kick drum sample and know you have others like it in other sample packs/folders, but don’t remember where, clicking the new “Show Similar Files” radio button will pull up all the samples you have that Live has deemed to be, well, similar. In testing, it does a good job for percussive sounds matching length, sound style and so on. Searching on melodies, leads and even vocals also does a decent job of bringing up related samples, but it’s perhaps more open to interpretation here as the timbre can be quite different with the length, shape and gain of the sound seeming to have more weight on what’s a match. Either way, both new features will be a boost to those of us that only got as far as organizing their library alphabetically.
There are other enhancements to the general user experience that go far beyond creative functionality. For one, Live 12 is optimized for screen readers and almost everything can be controlled with the keyboard which is a big plus for accessibility. As always there are updates across the board including the included core library of sounds and modulation parameters. Likewise, some Live 11 sounds and instruments — such as Analog and Tension synths — are available in the Standard edition of 12 whereas before they were exclusive to the more expensive Suite edition.
As for availability, Ableton hasn’t confirmed a date, but you should expect Live 12 to launch around late February or March next year. The Standard edition will cost $439 (€279) which features most of the above minus Meld and Roar. Live 12 Suite edition, which features all the above plus the Operator synth and Granulator effect among other perks will retail for $749 (€599).