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November 26, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»digital»ableton

Abusing Ableton Live Lite: More devices for the price of one

Ableton and Steinberg (makers of Cubase) seem to be the only audio companies that really understand the power of bundling. Buy any USB or Firewire interface or MIDI controller, and chances are you'll get either Ableton Live Lite or Cubase LE with it. And of course, both companies have a special upgrade pricing from those packages, saving $100-200 over the regular boxed edition. It's a good way to hook customers in. I've been tempted, although nowadays I'd be more likely to pick up Pro Tools M-Powered than Cubase or Live, just for compatibility and familiarity from my work environment.

Until I break down and actually buy a full DAW package, I'm working with the cheap stuff. Live Lite and Cubase LE are both good programs, each with its own limitations. Cubase LE doesn't allow MIDI plugins or use the latest VST plugin technology, but it does give users up to 48 audio and 64 MIDI tracks with 8 inputs/outputs, so normally it's my tool of choice. The fact that it's more traditional-looking and runs on lower-end hardware doesn't hurt. But unfortunately, due to poor impulse control the other day, I've temporarily uninstalled my copy, and it'll stay that way until I can find my old install CD or pull the files over from my other laptop.

So that leaves Ableton, recently upgraded to version 6. Live Lite only gives users four tracks, and won't let you use more than two of its proprietary plugins (called Devices) and one VST plugin at a time (between all four tracks). You can do a lot with four tracks, and Live Lite still boasts better routing and (surprisingly) a better GUI than Cubase. But the limitations on Devices and VSTs have been driving me crazy. I can get around the VST limitation by using Phrazor or another sub-host, but just adding EQ to vocal and bass tracks puts me up against the Device limit.

After some experimentation, here's a trick to get around the two-Device limitation without upgrading to the full version: instead of adding Devices one at a time to the track, create a Group out of the first plugin, then drag new Devices into that Group. Ableton counts a Group as a single Device instead of counting the individual elements, probably so they can include the enticing Group presets that they hope will incite you to buy the full version. You can drag Devices back and forth inside the Group to change their order, but be warned: once you've added something, trying to delete it again may cause Live to flash the nagware limitation window and cancel the deletion, although you can still delete the whole group and start over. Once you've got the effects stacked the way you want them, it might help to bounce the wet audio to a new track, freeing up the Device Group for more mixing. Treat it like one of the old four-track recorders, in other words.

I still think Cubase LE is the better bundle, and with the Tascam US-122 currently only $150 at Musician's Friend, it's hard to argue that it's not a bargain as a first interface. But with M-Audio's lower-priced boxes ruling the $200 range (and offering a Pro Tools M-Powered upgrade path), it's also easy to see why songwriters on a budget can end up with Live Lite as their main recording software. Being able to stack Devices with this trick goes a long way to making it a more useable solution, in my opinion.

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