In at least one person's opinion Ableton's Live is the most interesting DAW to appear since the turn of the century. What's especially impressive is that Ableton has been able to add many features to Live (over 11 years and 9 different upgrades) without drifting from the core concept or changing the the basic workflow. There has been real work is done in carefully choosing new features and how they are presented to both existing and new users.
Many thousands of copies of Live later Ableton is literally 'pushing' themselves into a new business. After testing the waters with a couple of well-known hardware manufacturers (Akai and Novation) the company decided to roll their own design concept and the Push is the result.
Choosing what not to do is generally harder (and often more important) than choosing what to do and Ableton was typically careful with Push. They see it as a new musical instrument and as more musicians adopt it they will help to determine what path the product takes in the future.
As the CEO of the company Gerhard Behles is the one who sets the tone and oversees the direction. We did the interview in the early morning, after a late night Ableton event, which was especially heroic on Gerhard's part.
What was the genesis of Ableton?
My partner Bernd Roggendorf and I met at Native Instruments before NI was a proper company. I had been introduced to Stefan Schmidt (Founder of Native Instruments) by a friend. I was at the Technical University in Berlin doing work on granular synthesis. Stefan was interested in that and we agreed that somehow we should incorporate it into Reaktor.
Does the name "Ableton" have any special meaning?
No. We were looking for a name that a real person might have; think of a friendly instrument builder in his workshop.
Why did you decide that it was better to form your own company rather than do a product for NI?
In the early days, the agenda for Native Instruments was clearly set on software instruments, which was something completely new at the time. They pioneered the concept and took it really far, as we now know.
Our ideas revolved more around the process of music making in general, and how the computer would fit into that. We were asking ourselves: when the studio fits in the computer and the computer fits in the bag, then what should that studio look like? What can it do for the musician beyond what a traditional music studio can do?
Tell me about the Push?
The Push is Ableton designed, marketed and distributed. We had the generous help of Akai Professional with the mechanical and electrical engineering. That was really important because it is a complex piece and it had many engineering challenges to be solved, like getting the sensitivity of the pads right and the feel, and they have the experience. That was very valuable.
Was it a collaborative effort to go beyond the APC-40, or did the genesis of the idea start for something new within Ableton?
This was quite different because it has been a consistent Ableton vision. We had in mind what we wanted to achieve. Of course in the beginning you don't go in and know all the solutions. But we had determination to make an instrument where the computer is relegated out of the picture to the back end of the creative process.
So, it was a very different thing than what we did with Akai and with the Novation LaunchPad. Those products are aimed as the performing musician and were conceived as accessories. The laptop is the centerpiece and the controller is an adjunct that saves you some motion.
With Push we wanted to assume there was no computer in the picture and the Push is in a closed loop between your hands and your ears and you're not thinking about infinite possibilities as you would when you are sitting in front of a computer staring at the screen. We re interested in a different mode of music making – much closer to what musicians enjoy with their traditional musical instruments. Like if I am a guitarist I have this closed loop between what I hear and what my fingers do.
This really resonates. There is a generation of musicians raised with computers that don't require labels, and their approach to the hardware is additive (adding tracks and controllers as needed), rather than subtractive (massive consoles where each button has a specific task)...
That makes sense. There is nothing wrong with the computer. It's a fantastic piece of engineering, a great tool for work, but you are restricted by the rectangular confines of the computer screen and this became clearer and clearer to me as I made extensive visits to users over the last year and watched the ways that they work. For example, people don't stand when they use a laptop and that has to have an effect on how what they do.
I was raised on the Studio 440 by Dave Smith (DBA Sequential Circuits at the time), which was a sibling to the MPC-60 by Roger Linn. And the virtue of these machines was that you would not be in this "head heavy" mode. You would be much more led to a flow. A more physical approach to music making.
So you are thinking about the Push as being primarily a studio instrument…?
I think of it more like - is a guitar a stage instrument, or a studio instrument? It's an instrument. If you are going to become a virtuoso on the guitar it is going to be the same in the studio or on stage. Push needs to be learned and practiced. We're really excited to see where it will go when we release it. Personally I'm most excited about what it can do to help me get a song working in the studio.
So how does a Push add value to the creative process?
The Session view that APC represents in hardware is a zoomed out version of where the Push starts. The Push starts as an empty canvas - now what do I want to do next? You can make a rhythm, or a melody, or a harmony, a bass, or you're going to create a sound. It defaults to whatever mode you want. The velocity sensitive pads can be either set up for drums and as a step sequencer. Or if you want to make a melody or harmony the 8x8 pads can become an isomorphic keyboard.
When you want to get an overview of all your material that is when you go to the tradition Live Session Mode. So the Push starts very early in the process when you don't have material and you want to create something.
So you have added a third window to Live, except that it takes the form of hardware….
That's a nice way to see it. Our goal was to make it so that the computer screen was not necessary. That was not easy. In fact it took a lot of struggle with the team. They have been developing software for the last twelve years and it's very difficult to get out of your own way of thinking. Sometimes you really need to change gear, but the power of habit is fascinating.
How did you go about changing the thinking at Ableton?
One effective method was to literally act out the use scenario we had in mind in front of everyone, in some sort of pantomime. I have often found that you have to be willing to make a fool of yourself to get somewhere.
There are more and more hardware products that have buttons and knobs that perform multiple functions. Is there a generation of musicians that doesn't need labels on their hardware….
I'm not sure because there is also a big pull towards analog gear at the moment. A lot of young people really like to noodle with sounds modules and things. Probably the bigger part of that is the appeal of the space filled with a representation of what you hear. Now you will have a 1:1 relationship between that element in the physical space and this change in the sound and no conceptual modus that you need to carry. That is strong. Everything we have tried to do with the Push software is to reconcile the constraints of space like on a desk or on a stage with possibility.
There are more and more hardware products today that have no labels. Live has spawned a lot of these hardware products….
A generic controller that can become what a person wants it to be is a powerful proposition. The question for a musician is; are they in a mode where they want to make that kind of decision when they are creating their music. This is a different thing than what Push is. Push has an element of benign dictatorship. Someone said; "this is what this button is going to do just because we think it is a good idea." If anything it leads the flow. The mental and creative energy should go into making decisions about the music itself, rather then in the set up of the equipment.
I have complete respect for people that choose that way though. They are creating their own instruments and they don't want anyone to make decisions on their behalf.
We want to see how people use Push as an instrument. I think it is very interesting to see what people do to electric guitars to modify them. The guitar itself is a clear proposition as to what it does. Leo Fender made good decisions about what pickups should be there and why. But then other people overwrote that and decided that they liked most of what Leo did, but they wanted their own pick-ups. Then of course Leo decided that it was a pretty good idea so he incorporated the pickups in the mainstream design.
I am really looking forward to this. You can use Max for Live to modify anything that the Push does and I hope that we will modifications that lead us into new territory.
Good segue. How did you hook up with David Zicarelli and Cycling 74?
It was an old dream from day one. I learned programming with Max. I used it from very early on. I was very deep into it as was my partner Robert Henke. We did a lot of programming for our own music. A lot of the core ideas with Ableton Live were derived from the Max patches that we put together.
For example, Robert came up with this patch one day in preparation for a show. You had tracks and within each track you could switch between patterns that you could play with a fader. It wasn't visual, but semantically was some kind of Session view and we used it in a show.
It was MSP audio. I think it was real time synthesis. It was a lot of fun because all of a sudden you were free. You were not playing back. You were jamming with pre-conceived material. We put in material from the actual songs and new material so it really was what became Live. He still has the patch. He dug it out the other day. It still works.
Robert and I met David at the first NAMM Show that we attended and we hung out with him. He was an idol of ours because we used his stuff so intensely. We decided that it would be a good idea to bring Max into Live because it was so completely complementary. It's like the other end of the spectrum in many ways. Live imposes restraints for the sake of a musician that doesn't want to make decisions at that level. Max is the total opposite because it doesn't prescribe anything. So we were thrilled about the idea of combining the two and seeing what would happen.
What was the biggest challenge?
It was a massive coding venture. The concept was relatively straightforward. You have a patch and you show the patch where the native device would show its UI. So that wasn't particularly complex. There will be many challenges going forward. Not everybody wants to be a programmer. There are some that will want to do it right away and a lot more who are curious to check it out and then it will be a question of learning and how do you deal with the educational aspect of it. It's still at the beginning and I don't think we have even begun to see the potential.
Max can be intimidating to the uninitiated. How do you bring musicians into the fold who are not necessarily wired that way?
What we have done for Live 9 is that we have put some serious effort into taking some of the existing work that has been lingering in the community and put some finishing on it to the point where you can't feel that it is a Max piece any more. So you can't tell whether it is a native device of a Max for Live patch. We're doing this to help people adopt. Once you know what you can do you are motivated to look deeper. All the Max patches are open and can be hacked. People may want to press the Edit button see what is behind the curtain and hack them. It's like an invitation to solder….
Where does Push fit into this?
With Push there is an API that Max connects to and can hijack whatever elements of the Push the user wants and re-purpose them in a way that they design. It could be completely proprietary. A lot of people will make a Max patch for one show or one installation rather than making a generic tool. They are fixing one situation. It remains to be seen. We don't know.
Are there particular musicians that you admire that are using your products?
Oh yes. If I had to choose… For a couple of years I have found what Flying Lotus does is pretty amazing. He's from LA.
Do you have any kind of a traditional musical background?
I learned the piano but failed. It's hopeless. The only thing I have ever played is a computer. I am hoping to become a decent Push player.
Push has just been released and will find its way to a place near you soon.