Ableton Live in its Native Habitat

I recently replaced my workhorse Toshiba laptop with a shiny new MacBook Pro, for the sole purpose of using it as a platform to run Ableton Live. It wasn’t so much that my old machine couldn’t handle Ableton, so much as it just wasn’t stable enough to use in a performance environment. It wasn’t, as the saying goes, the right tool for the job. This isn’t to say it was bad equipment; It was certainly passable for studio work. I mean, Katharine and I wrote Hurry Home on that laptop, which is probably the best recording I’ve ever had a hand in, but I had to admit that sometimes we spent more than our fair share of time fighting the hardware when it would crash or indulge itself in glitchery. ASIO, for all it’s wonders, feels like kind of a hack, and I wonder why Microsoft doesn’t just design a low latency audio system that runs out of the box. Their OS is cool and all but it doesn’t feel like it’s meant for audio work.

So I decided to save up my pennies and get this new laptop. And of course I love it. But unlike every computer I’ve come into ownership of before, this one didn’t come with the whizbang sense of multifaceted potential that computers often represent to people like me (“nerds”). This felt more like getting a new instrument. And really, that makes sense: the major thing that this laptop does that my last one didn’t is hold up in certain musical situations.

So okay, Core Audio is great, the hardware is more stable, and the whole package is much prettier. None of this is really surprising. What hasn’t been as obvious has been the little features and details that come from the platform, particularly with Ableton. I haven’t confirmed this, but I’m pretty sure that Ableton was originally designed and developed for Mac OS, and the Windows version was a port designed to interest people like me who were more┬ácasual and weren’t investing in the more expensive Macs. And of course this means that certain things have to be somewhat shoehorned onto the different environment.

For example, with ASIO on Windows, as far as I know, the ASIO application takes exclusive control over the hardware. It is possible to have Ableton or Reaper fail to load the ASIO device on startup because I left a YouTube tutorial on in the background and forgot about it. Because it couldn’t load the device, I have to either close the DAW, close YouTube, and restart the DAW, or switch to DirectSound or WDM and deal with the latency. This has not been an issue on the Mac, since direct hardware access isn’t necessary – Core Audio apparently can reconcile multiple applications and low latency. I don’t know how it works, but it does. And it saves me time and frustration.

There’s a similar feature for MIDI devices. Just plug them in whenever, and go to town. On Windows, for whatever reason, MIDI devices are only checked on startup, so I have to restart Ableton if I want to plug in something new, or if I lose USB for whatever reason. I don’t know if this is an app problem or a Windows limitation, but either way it works better on my new computer than on my old one. This feature alone has been worth a ton, and has enabled some “oh shit I need this controller for this trick” improvisation that I would have never tried on the old system due to all the restarting.

Of course, nothing is ever easy. The biggest problem I’ve run into was’t so much a problem with the new environment, but just that I’m doing a platform shift at all! There’s no Synth1 in the Mac. There are other synthesizers that do similar things, but my old projects don’t reference them. At best, I can set up a small Windows box to host that program and act as an external synth. This doesn’t hamper new creations, but it’s a problem in the meantime. Perhaps it is a necessary headache.

The crux of it is that I’m very happy with the new setup and it’s nice to be using the software in the way it was, I think, originally intended.