The state of music software

Michael Forrest
Sun 10 May 2009
I'm just not feeling it with any of the music software I use at the moment.

Ableton Live has served me well since 2001 but I have developed a fatigue to the lack of user-oriented visual design. It's so grey. They've added all of these sonically fertile software instruments and effects over the years but everything looks exactly the same - my biggest pet hate is the icons:

[grey list of folders]

[grey list of audio effects]

[grey list of virtual instruments]

[grey effect racks (you can tell cos of the bisecting line)]

[grey list of presets (#777C84 instead of #575C66 - way to give visual cues guys!)]

This wouldn't be such a problem if it wasn't just one big long list. If you get lost, the only thing you can do is read the labels and try to keep track of whether you're indented by 6 or 8 pixels from the left. Ableton: would it kill you to at least put that icons for different sorts of things in different colours?! Please, you gotta help me out here!

Then you've got the horrid looking parameter settings:

Electric piano my arse! I love the sound, but just look at the equivalent in Logic:

Logic Pro - Electric Piano from Michael Forrest on Vimeo.

Big knobs. Less frequently used controls hidden. Colours, textures, animation, references to the real world - these can all be used to create visual cues that make software more fun and productive. With Ableton, all I can do is squint irritably at the damn thing.

I got so pissed off with Ableton's interface that I made my own.

Grimonium Interface from Michael Forrest on Vimeo.

However, this software layer relies on an undocumented API that seems to change between minor revisions of Live! So I can use it with Live 7.0.1 but not with 7.0.14 and certainly not with 8.0.1!

And you broke my knobs!
I have been listening to a lot of dubstep recently. I decided to have some fun and make a bit of knob-tweaking dirty synthy fun stuff by using the knobs on my MicroKontrol. I started having fun with the controls mapped to rack units but imagine my horror when it dawned on me that I could not record my knob tweaking. Short of bouncing down to audio (no!) there was no way to record my tweaks. I searched the Ableton forums and found a few people complaining of the same bug in Live 8.0.1. A few weeks later and there's still no sign of a fix. Or even an apology. Or even a comment. For a company who put a whole section in the user manual of their software about how they use test-driven-development to keep out the bugs, this is unacceptable.

So... now what?
Logic Pro does better in a lot of the areas where Live fails, particularly since Apple took over. However, not all is rosy in that world either.

Logic's undo functionality is complex to say the least. Certain types of action (mostly to do with timeline edits) can be undone. Knob tweaks cannot (you have to click 'compare' to revert back the state from the last save). Automation edits seem to be undone but I can't quite work it out. Mixer settings cannot. So if accidentally nudge one my hardware controller's faders, I can wreck my carefully tuned mix. This makes working with Logic stressful and nervewracking. I can't experiment if I can't safely undo mistakes!

I love the big customisable icons though.

The retrospective recording is cool (where you can be playing along with midi and decide you like what you just did and press cmd+shift+c insert a recording of what you just did from the buffer).

The automation is sort of cool but also a little terrifying (and kinda annoying the way you arm it)

At least it's in colour. I always liked the way you can see everything, but I still get a bit scared using it.

Logic sometimes abandons playback when things get too hard. The first thing that excited me about Live was the warning dialog shown before the audio gets stopped due to a program operation, so this behaviour in Logic feels really anachronistic to me now.

Logic is always breaking up, stopping, and has a really long latency when pressing play and record and so on. It feels heavy. And can be awfully fiddly if you need to use certain secondary features (try setting up an arpeggiator, for example).

And so....
Logic Pro: I like using you to master tracks. I like your effects, I like your preset libraries, and I like your virtual instruments (the ones I can figure out anyway).

Ableton Live: I love you, but you need to start thinking about your appearance. Presentation matters. Human intuition is complex and you should start trying to understand it.

I'm seriously thinking about looking elsewhere for somebody that really understands me... Perhaps Propellerhead have the answer:

2 comments on "The state of music software"

59min says

May 10, 2009 16:25

Yes, you are so right. Ableton is to "flat" for me. everything looks the same. I used Cubas (SX2) but it was to fiddly, with windows and lots lots of parameters. To complicated for me. Reason is the best for me design wise. Hope Record can bring some new air in my music life!

Darren E Cowley says

May 14, 2009 04:08

I'm sticking with Ableton and looking forward to making more grey stuff when Max for Live comes out!

My life is way too colourful as it is hahahaha!


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