Transitioning to Ableton Live from Any DAW, Part 1

Can't get your head around Ableton Live? Don't be put off! G. W. Childs highlights the similarities in Part 1 of this Transition to Ableton from any DAW series.  

I've heard of fear of learning math, fear of learning English, fear of learning a different language, and many, many other daunting subjects. But, I've never encountered a fear of learning any DAW like the one I've encountered when it comes to Ableton Live

The funny thing is, you'd think I was talking about people who are very new to computer music... No, I'm talking about high-level, pro musicians, producers, engineers and sound designers. Whenever I broach the subjects with any of the above, I always get comments like, “Oh, I hear astounding things about it... I'll check it out one of these days... Blah, blah, blah”.

Bottom line: Ableton scares people... Especially, the big boys. The guys who've been doing Pro Tools for 10+ years, beta tested Logic, etc. Heck, I've even been hired to come over for the explicit purpose of explaining Ableton to certain people, because its capabilities were direly needed for specific composition needs. You see, that's the thing with Ableton. It's not a program that people are blowing off in high places, it's respected for its power and flexibility.

So, how did I recognize the terror apparent in the eyes of my colleagues? I used to be among the fearful. How did I get over it? I made an album with it. Was it cool? Definitely. It blew my mind.

If I've learned anything about learning, it's always try to find commonalities with things that you already know, and the thing that you'd like to learn. Ultimately, it's the commonalities that give you the little bits of confidence here and there to proceed forward. With every commonality found, you discover something new. 

This article seeks to explore the commonalities between Ableton, and all of the other 'traditional' DAWs. And, hopefully, once you see the similarities, maybe you'll download a demo and give it a whirl. You only live once, right? Actually, if you really want to rock this article, I would highly suggest downloading the demo now. You really will learn something new!

If you haven't already… also check out Bill Burgess' excellent tutorial, Ableton Live 101 for a comprehensive hands-on understanding of Ableton!

The Arrangement View

When I've advised friends of mine on how to begin learning Ableton, the suggestion I've always given first is, “Concentrate on learning to use the Arrangement View first.”

Arrangement view

The Arrangement View is one of the two main windows within Ableton Live. It's almost identical to every arrangement window that exists in every other DAW for these reasons:

1. It has track lanes like Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic Pro, Reaper, Reason, Studio 1, Nuendo.

Track lanes

2. There are colored regions, or clips containing audio and MIDI like Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic Pro, Reaper, Reason, Studio 1, Nuendo.


3. There are I/O sections on every lane like Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic Pro, Reaper, Reason, Studio 1, Nuendo.

I/O sections

4. There are Record Arm buttons, Mute Buttons, Solo Buttons like Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic Pro, Reaper, Reason, Studio 1, Nuendo.

Track controls

5. There is a Transport like Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic Pro, Reaper, Reason, Studio 1, Nuendo.


So, the gang's all here at this point. The main difference that you'll probably note would be that the track inspector, track controls, toggle buttons, etc. are on the opposite side of the screen. For example: Track labels, Input Controls, in Logic Pro or Pro Tools are on the left hand side of the screen. In Ableton, they are on the right. But, they are there!

In order to access this screen, you need only hit the Tab button within Ableton Live. This toggles the Arrangement View and the Session view. So, let's imagine for a minute that I asked you, a Pro Tools expert to open Ableton Live right now, and record 5 seconds of audio, you'd be able to do it with the supplied information up at the top.

Why? Because you, being a Pro Tools expert will know how to arm a track, choose an input, and press the record button. The only thing you'll have to get used to is the fact that the buttons, labels, etc are on the right side of the track lanes, instead of the left. I think you'll be able to handle that, right?


Now, what DAW would be complete without the plug-ins? Ableton allows usage of VST and AU plug-ins (AU is Mac only). Also, Ableton has its own proprietary plug-ins as well.  There are two buttons on the left hand side of the screen in the main browser where you toggle the views for these windows...

Toggle views

The top button that looks like a computer window box is the section that houses all of the Live proprietary MIDI Effects, Instruments and Audio effects. All of these devices appear to be very simple... This is not true, in fact, they might just rock your world. 

Live Devices

The button below, that looks like a plug (fitting), is the toggle to show the VST and AU plug-ins. 

Show VST and AU Plug-ins

Inserting the plug-ins both proprietary, and third party can be done in one of two ways.

  • You double-click the chosen plug while working on a specific track or
  • You drag the plug over on to the selected track.

Note: For instruments, you can also drag instruments in to open areas of the Arrangement window (or Session window) and a track will be populated.

To access the controls of all of your inserted plug-ins, all you have to do is double-click the track name of the track where the plug-ins are assigned, and they will appear at the bottom. 

View plug-ins

If the plug-in is third party, you will need to press the small wrench button that encapsulates each third-party plug-in. This will bring up the plug-in's actual controls. 

GUI for 3rd party plug-ins

Keep in mind, the Ableton 'device' that encapsulate the third party plug-in is more than cosmetic. It allows you to map specific functions within that plug-in to the X-Y pad in the center of the device enclosure. You can use this to do some amazing automation, very similar to how you would with a Kaoss pad.

Conclusion of Part 1

See, it's not very different from other DAWs that you may have worked with. But, this really is just the tip of the iceberg! In the next instalment of this series, let's start talking about how it excels over other DAWs, in its own unique way.

Sound Designer, Musician, Author... G.W. Childs has worn many hats. Beginning in the U.S. Army back in 1991, at the age of 18, G.W. began learning electronics, communications and then ultimately audio and video editing from the Department of Defense. Upon leaving the military G.W. went on to work for many exciting companies like Lu... Read More


Thanks, great article. I'm a Cubase 6.5 users, and have been interested in Live, but not version 8, since it is not 64-bit, and would prefer to wait until Live 9 is released.

The BIG questions is :

Will Ableton ever release Live 9 ? Soon ? or another few Years ? ;-)

Gary Hiebner
Ableton's different workflow definitely scared me. But now it is slowly becoming my DAW of choice.

Depending on what genres of music I am creating Ableton seems to improve the process. I find the Racks are also a huge benefit. On top of that its its very cPU efficient.

A must-have for all computer musicians.

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