„Live“-Software “Music of the future” – Ableton’s music software goes around the world

Bassnectar, one of the artists who uses the Ableton software, Live
Bassnectar, one of the artists who uses the Ableton software, Live | Photo (detail): © Ableton

DJ Skrillex uses it, DJ Flying Lotus swears by it, hip-hop producer Ski Beatz is a fan – Ableton’s Software Live is to musicians what the Mercedes is to car enthusiasts: a German quality product. The company that does this is located in Schönhauser Allee in the German capital. A story from Berlin.

Jan Bohl would not really class his company as a start-up any more. He is the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of Ableton, one of the most innovative music software manufacturers on the market: “I once read that people can only accommodate 150 individuals in their tribe – with our current total of 170 employees we’re already quite a way over that.” Nevertheless Bohl is convinced that Ableton has preserved the familiar character of the initial period. The majority shareholders are the founders Gerhard Behles and Bernd Roggendorf, who continue to make up the company’s board of directors. “Just like a respectable family business in Northrhine-Westphalia”, as Bohl says. However half the workforce would probably protest at this description. Ableton is hip, young, international and makes products that influence electronic music worldwide. What’s Westphalian about that?

Music software is becoming increasingly important

Bohl, a business graduate, came across Ableton, which was founded in 1999, through private contacts in the year 2000. He and the company founder Roggendorf met each other at a party. As a result, Bohl left corporate consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers right in the middle of the internet boom to control the finances for the new software start-up. Colleagues who were moving into the internet business advised him against it. Today he is one of the few still in the business from that time. The first internet bubble burst, music software on the other hand was becoming more and more important. In 2000 it was just a few adventurous geeks who dared to take to the stage with their laptops weighing several kilos, nowadays silver laptops can be found on every stage – regardless of whether techno, indie or pop music is being played.

Ableton’s Software Live serves a huge market. For Daniel Büttner, head of the sound team at Ableton, Live is like a musical instrument. It’s simply that with this instrument you can’t just produce sound, you can also manipulate it. For instance by sampling: “People take part of a Stevie Wonder track and create something new from it. This collage of existing material cannot be done with classical instruments.”

Ableton does everything to make things as easy as possible for users. Intuitive use has been important right from the start. That seems to have been successful if you believe dubstep producer Skrillex. However the programme has now become so comprehensive that it is almost impossible to master it completely. “Even I am discovering things I didn’t know about before”, says Büttner the sound boss. But he says that is not such a bad thing. “At the moment the trend is moving towards people looking for the functions they really need and then getting really good at them. Something that the techno musician needs is not necessarily something the hip-hopper has to bother with.”

“We still have faith in the good”

Many DJs use Live. But not all of them bought the software from Ableton. There are many illegal versions in circulation. Pirate copies are a difficult theme for software firms. CFO Bohl is trying to see the black market positively – every software pirate is a potential paying customer: “We are constantly approached by law firms, especially from the USA, who say they can bring us in lots of money with warning lawsuits. But we don’t do that. We still have faith in the good. And that users of cracked versions will sooner or later say, ‘Now I want to give something back’.”
However the latest Ableton product is to a large extent copy-proof. Push is a hardware controller with 64 pads that interacts with Ableton’s new software Live 9. The designer’s aim was to build a real instrument rather than another midi-controller. The idea is to be able to play the Push without ever going anywhere near the computer. The reviews in music magazines vary between positive and euphoric. However, so far only a few people have been able to try out the Push. The pre-orders exceeded the expectations of the manufacturers many times over. At the moment customers have to expect to wait around two months.