Ableton Push 2 & Live 9.5 Review

The ever-cautious folks at Ableton keep the ‘Live 10’ name in reserve, instead issuing a free 9.5 update to Live along with a major overhaul of Push…

Details
Price £499
Web www.ableton.com
System Requirements OS X 10.7+/Windows 7+/Multicore processor/4 GB RAM/1024×768 display/DVD drive or broadband internet connection for installation/Required disk space basic installation: 3GB/Required disk space if all content installed: Suite: 55 GB/Standard: 12 GB/Live 9 Intro: 6 GB

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Well, this must be one of the most interesting software point update events ever, as Ableton introduces Live 9.5, with a generous supply of new features, the revamped Push 2 controller, the Link syncing tool, and a bunch of new Max For Live instruments.

Most of us would’ve expected a Push hardware update to coincide with the release of Live 10;  obviously, Ableton had its own ideas! Either this means that Live 10 will be a monster update of unimaginable proportions, or else Ableton is more interested in hardware than software these days.

Let’s dig for clues in all that new stuff, beginning with Push, which is clearly the sexiest part of the announcement, and Ableton’s biggest news since the launch of the original Push itself. Surprisingly, Push is now an Ableton-only project; Akai is nowhere to be seen, and it’s not just the logos that have changed, with a new casing that comes in nearly half a pound lighter, refined control layout, deeper integration with Live, new improved pads and – sexiest of them all – a new full-colour display.

Be advised that this is officially not called ‘Push 2’, rather it’s ‘the new Push’, which is maybe a bit too much like ‘New Coke’ for anybody old enough to remember that. For practical reasons, I’m still calling it Push 2… well, it’s not Push 1 and it’s not Push 3, is it?

So what is Push? Push is a pad-based input device for Ableton Live’s Session View. It can launch clips, play instruments and mix. It includes a display and physical controls that enable you to adjust instrument and effect device parameters as part of a performance.

Enough? As a Live trainer, I’ve known folks who embraced Push fervently, and others who haven’t connected with it at all. I’m personally semi-sceptical; I’ve had Push 1 since it was first released, yet I still find that for real-world projects and certain tasks I won’t use it. For browsing, it’s slower than a mouse or trackpad, and the unit also demands a big chunk of desk space.

As for the pads, well, we’ll come to those… I’ve always wished Ableton would do a keyboard version of Push, or a padless model with the display and all of the controls but without the pads – like Novation’s Remote Zero SL, which is one of the all-time great controllers.

Not everybody wants pads, and it’d be a fabulous addition to a studio or a keyboard setup; ergonomically, having to reach over the pads to get to the encoders and see the displays isn’t ideal – an angled display would make this far more usable for me. So, let’s see if Push 2 is going to win me over.

Overview
The modest brown box contains Push 2, a rather chunky-in-a-good-way USB cable, mains power supply and registration info so you can register your Push and claim your free download of Live Intro. Physically, the new Push is more or less the same, with only a few millimetres’ difference in the dimensions. That new low weight

I mentioned is definitely noticeable,  especially when you jam it in your backpack. One trade-off against this ‘flat and light’ business is that, more than ever, Push requires mains power. It was technically ‘optional’ on the original Push, but necessary if you wanted brighter pads. On Push 2, let’s just say mains power is even less optional!

You’ll be squinting at some very dim pads without it, so when you’re packing your new svelte Push before your next gig, make sure you’ve got room for the plug in there, because you’re going to need it.

Push is still not really a mobile tool, except for the more dedicated gear-humper; I won’t be popping it out in Costa (other coffee brands are available) any time soon. If you are going to take it out, it does come across initially as being solidly constructed, which is only right for a controller that costs £499.

After plugging in to the mains, connecting to the computer via USB, turning Push on, and launching Live, you might be prompted to run a firmware update.

This won’t take long, and coincidentally makes a good introduction to the spanky new display, with crisp white-on-black text and the Push logo. There’s a slight lag when loading sets, then Push is right there with track names and colours – and those track colours are reflected in text and pad colours as you change from one track to another.

This works well for me – I’m a colour-coding fascist, and this taps right into my obsessive need for colour-coordinated order. The next ‘ooh’ comes when you launch some clips or play some notes and watch the new level meters… this is a huge step forward in usability, and another reduction in the time you spend looking at your computer screen.

In Use
Browsing and previewing content (now including AU and VST plug-ins) with Push is a more complete experience now – a simple improvement in legibility works wonders, although using knobs to browse presets is still arguably quicker when you can grab your computer mouse and type cmd-f and tear through your content in a much faster way – that’s just the kind of thing computers are better at, although on a more positive navigation note, it’s excellent that Push can now unfold group tracks.

While you’re digging the display, you’ll also start thinking “hmm, these pads are not the old pads”, and you’ll be right. These pads are soft and responsive, you can play them with a lighter touch than previously, and suddenly the idea of using Push as a grid-based keyboard device is more realistic; it no longer feels as if you’re trying to squeeze a keyboard out of what are basically drum pads. I realise how much of my disconnect with Push was down to the pads – they weren’t good enough.

This is a whole new, enjoyable, experience – it’s what Push should have been in the first place, and it’s become something that I’m far more likely to use for composition. Push integrates with the updated Simpler instrument to create more of a hardware sampling experience; from Push itself, you can browse and load samples into Simpler and view and interact with the waveforms.

Unfortunately, you can’t load audio samples directly into audio tracks and bypass Simpler, but you can select currently loaded audio clips and view and zoom their waveforms and access all their controls. Viewing and interacting with waveforms from Push is a major, major, step forward.

Other Features
The buttons surrounding the grid and display have also changed slightly – they’re lower-profile, and when Push is ‘at rest’ they’re almost invisible, but when it’s powered up and they’re lit on-demand, as they do, these buttons are the real deal.

After my pad playability issues, the inability to read the text on the buttons was another of my niggles with Push 1 – but happily another obstacle has been removed. The new Push is really quite cool, although, of course, there is stiff competition in the hardware control market these days. Novation’s Launchpad Pro does a fine job and there are plenty of other units that explore the hardware/software integration thing including NI’s Maschine Studio. Akai’s MPC Touch has also just hit the MT offices and looks incredible – the bar really is being raised all the time.

So looking ahead, I’d like Push to evolve to something a little less conservative and retro, and more cutting-edge and expressive, in line with its own software. Live was and still is a groundbreaking product, and the hardware doesn’t quite convey all of its immediacy and hands-on excitement. Having said that, it’s undeniable that Push 2 is a well-executed update on the original, and it’s bound to be more attractive to a wider range of users.

And talking of Live…
So to the 9.5 release. We’ll split this review and rate both software and hardware because the software update is significant, and if you are not an Ableton user already, it will tempt you to the Live side.

Usually, a humble point update doesn’t merit much attention, but this is an interesting one. I’ve already mentioned the revised Simpler, which was presumably required to enhance the performance of Push when it comes to sample manipulation. Simpler now has three different modes: Classic, 1-Shot and Slice, with in-device warping available in each mode, featuring each of the usual Live warp modes. I guess Classic exists primarily to accommodate the opening of older Live projects, and will be familiar if you’re already using Live.

1-Shot is self-explanatory – triggered samples play just once, and you have the option of setting it so a note of any length will trigger the entire sample, or gating it so that the sample plays for the duration of the incoming note.

Slice is my favourite of these modes, as any loaded sample is immediately sliced, according to transients or note values, and ready to play from notes C1 upwards on a keyboard or in a MIDI clip. The slices are easily editable by dragging their boundaries left and right, and the sample waveform view can be expanded upwards into a larger window, even virtually full-screen, in the same way that we could already do with EQ Eight and Spectrum.

Feature-wise, this is a great revision, and Simpler becomes even more valuable for routine Live sampling tasks. It works so well with Push that they feel like a self-contained system in their own right.

The only beef I have is that Simpler doesn’t live up to the name anymore – this is no longer an entry-level simple sample instrument; it’s moved closer to the existing more complex Sampler device. As a Live trainer, I cringe when I see once-simple tasks become complicated – maybe Ableton should’ve kept Simpler and this could’ve been like a ‘Middler’ (but with a less stupid name, obviously).

Simpler is also one of the devices, along with Auto Filter, Operator and Sampler, that enjoys Live’s new analogue-modelled filters, provided by Cytomic, who also supplied the Glue Compressor that you might have used in Live 9.

These filters approximate the characteristics of certain classic hardware filters, indicated by acronyms such as MS2 (possibly a Korg MS20), PRD (maybe Moog Prodigy) and OSR (might be OSCar). These are already proving to be popular additions to Live, and they definitely provide a wider range of filter sounds than previously available, especially at the dirty, nasty, end of the spectrum. I can’t vouch for how much they sound like the real thing, but they’ll do the trick in 99 per cent of mix situations.

Simpler and the filters are clearly the two stand-out developments in Ableton Live 9.5. There is more, though; if you’re the kind of hardcore nut who likes to mix and maybe even master within Live, you’ll be very excited to know that the mixer now shows both peak and RMS volume displays simultaneously, so you can keep tabs on the peaks and average levels within your production.

Incidentally, these levels are also both reflected on the Push 2 meters which, come to think of it, can act as a workaround for the ever-frustrating failure of Ableton to add a real mixer view to Live’s Arrangement View – you can’t see it on the software but you can see it on the hardware. It all helps, I guess.

We’re getting more detailed waveform views throughout the application, and in Preferences, ‘Auto-Assign Clip Colors’ has been amended to ‘Auto-Assign Track Colors’ – every new track created will be assigned a different colour that’ll be reflected in the track header; following on from that, every new audio or MIDI clip added to those tracks will also take on the same colour.

Of course, we still have the option of turning this off, and specifying a default colour, which I do – white; I have a colour-coding system (see above regarding Push) and I’m sticking to it!

New Push, new Simpler, new filters, why stop there? If you’re a Max For Live user, you also have a new free Max For Live Essentials Pack. This includes three new instruments, with very straightforward names and functions – that’s not a complaint, sometimes the simplest instruments are the ones you use most.

Bass is a monophonic synth dedicated to the low end (although that’s never stopped anybody with a Novation BassStation from making lead parts), and includes some great presets, my immediate favourite being one called Rogue, which I’ll probably use way too much; Poli focuses mostly on string, pad and chord sounds, and finally there is Multi, which is the most straightforward of the bunch.

This is designed primarily to provide immediate gratification when controlling it from Push, having a correspondingly simple layout, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a lot of fun to use without hardware.

Multi is mainly good for chip tune-type sounds and general synth beeps and bleeps, but it can venture into broader synth territory, as indicated by the presets, and of course, being ‘factory’ devices, we can preview the presets directly from Live’s Browser, or from Push. It contains six separate synth engines, each with just a few top-level controls.

The engines are Feedback FM, Mono Arp Lead Synth, Analog 8 Voice Subtractive Synth, Sample Playback, Karplus Strong and Additive Synthesis. For even more immediate gratification, there’s a Random button, which juggles the controls for the currently active engine, every time you click it. I really liked using Multi, it has sounds that I like, and the interface is very immediate.

It’s a bit like using a little boutique hardware synth, one of those that doesn’t have much range but has some personality. In an ideal world, Multi would be a standard Live device, so everybody can enjoy it!

Alternatives
Maschine Studio
www.nativeinstruments.com Maschine functions at a very high level nowadays – it even has an Ableton Live control template! In the field of software/hardware integration, this is the one Push must beat.

iPad Pro www.apple.com
iOS apps such as TouchAble and Lemur provide unprecedented control, as well as being the only way to see clip names on anything other than the computer!

Novation Launchpad Pro www.novationmusic.com
Cheaper, durable and with those fantastic velocity-sensitive fades. Mains power and MIDI connections let you use it computer-free with music hardware…

Link
Everything I’ve talked about so far is already out there in the real world. The untested element – at the time I’m writing this – is Link, which has been demoed but isn’t yet publicly available.

In Link, Ableton has created a ReWire-like sync functionality; however, while ReWire runs between DAWs on a single computer, Link works over WiFi, and participants can be running OS X, Windows, or iOS. The intention is to create a more free-form situation, where Players can enter or leave the network at any time without disrupting proceedings.

Like ReWire, this isn’t a separate application; it’ll be added inside a coming Live release. Ableton is making Link freely available to other developers, and there are plenty of supporting apps announced, including triqtraq, Korg’s Gadget, Loopy and Akai’s iMPC Pro. You don’t need to have Live, or even a computer, involved in the jam – it’s self-sufficient on iOS.

I wouldn’t like to depend on WiFi for big gigs, but for lightweight informal activity this could hit the spot nicely. Truthfully, Ableton doesn’t have a great reputation for sync, so hopefully Link will change that. Anything that gives us another sync option, and a simple one at that, is welcome.

Conclusion
Should you grab the Live update? Duh, yes, it’s free, and it contains hot new stuff, so it’s an absolute no-brainer and whether you are considering Push or not to go alongside it, it is still the most instant cross-platform DAW on the market. Other DAW manufacturers should take note!

Taking a more detached view, it does indeed feel as if Ableton has shifted its attention so much to the hardware that the combination of Push and Live has become more important than the software-only experience.

And in many ways, why not? It makes total sense for Ableton to offer the complete experience. But for a company with roots in ‘software as instrument’ it would be a shame for it to move too far away from the laptop-only wielding producer and DJ that has made the company what it is.

We also flagged up the increased integration that is being offered by the company’s rivals – with NI and soon Akai on a roll with their hardware and software – and NI especially is active on iOS, a platform which Ableton has recklessly neglected.

As for Push 2, there are many other hardware options for Live control, but what Push 2 has going for it is the Ableton brand, the ironing out of some of my biggest niggles from the original and an out-of-the-box functionality that nobody else can really match.

Key Features
Push 2
● 64 silicone pads with RGB lights and user-adjustable dynamics
● RGB display enables viewing of text, icons, waveforms, meters
● 11 endless encoders
● Backlit buttons
● 17cm touch strip
● Two pedal inputs
● Weight 2710g/6.0lb
● Dimensions 378x304x42mm (wxdxh)
● Included Live 9 Intro software registration card, USB cable, international mains power supply (Live 9.5 or higher is required to use Push 2)

Live 9.5
● Improved waveform display with more detail in clip view, and sampling instruments
● Peak and RMS meters
● Simpler with Classic, One-Shot, Slice modes
● 3 new Max For Live Essentials Instruments – Bass, Multi, Poli
● Analogue-modelled filters in Auto Filter, Operator, Sampler and Simpler
● Track colour/clip colour assignment
● Ableton Link, synchronising OS X, Windows, and iOS applications over WiFi
● Updated library content including new drum kits, filter presets, and one-shots

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