Ableton Link: Collaboration with Tempo Syncronization

Now I know i'm a little late to the party when it comes to Ableton Link, but I recently gained an interest in it through a personal experience. Like all electronic producers (or music producers for that matter), we're always trying to find ways to improve our workflow and creative process. Products that help with this are invaluable. I recently have been trying to minimize my workflow to have a more minimal and efficient creative process. It's led me into researching new products on the market and I wasn't surprised for Ableton to be one step ahead of my research.

I was looking to find a way to easily collaborate with some fellow electronic musicians that would get rid of excess wires if I could. A minimal and efficient workflow to me means less wires but the same reliability and ideally "one click away" efficiency. When trying to work with my friends in the past, it's required MIDI cables and Master/Slave setups which required a step I think my friends and I dreaded to get started. It's just another step in the way of creating. So I looked into some alternative options from Ableton, my DAW of choice, to see if there was possibly an easier way to get going without wires. I've also been trying out some mobile music apps since my recent purchase of my new favorite product the Roli Block and have been enjoying my new minimal setup. I wanted to integrate my new hardware product and its MPE functionality with Ableton. That's when I found out about Ableton Link. 

What is Ableton Link?

"Link synchronizes musical beat, tempo, and phase across multiple applications running on one or more devices". (from the Ableton Link features, functions and FAQ page). Link sends tempo sync and a grid for all of the connected apps to, well, link to. So you can sync multiple Ableton Live sessions on different computers and have the tempo synced. Freakin' sweet! That's essentially what I was looking for. Ableton Link became available in Ableton's 9.6 release so I'm about 2 years late but I had no reason to update until now. It works over a local network like LAN or WLAN (WiFi networks supply this) to sync the tempo of mobile devices running Ableton Link enabled apps. Basically, you can turn on Ableton Link in an Ableton Live session and sync multiple computers with Live open. You can have a jam session with everybody on the same tempo. Here's where it gets even more interesting: you can just have mobile devices with Link enabled apps synced without the need for an Ableton Live DAW session open. 

Collaboration with Ableton Link

Ableton Link's function is essentially similar to having a Master/Slave computer setup, but the difference is that through an Ableton Link sync anyone in the session can change the tempo at any time through a wireless network. No wires either which is nice. No one person is in charge of the tempo and everyone will follow along with no problem. Anyone can change the tempo of the session and start/stop their own music without interrupting anyone else. Even if two people are trying to change the tempo at the same time, whoever is the last to change the tempo wins. Link chooses the tempo depending on who has been in the session the longest.

I like that Ableton's created another option for music producers and musicians to easily collaborate with each other. Whether that be linking two Ableton Live sessions together, syncing mobile music apps or a combination thereof. The process of syncing the global tempo of a session over the Link local network requires no cords and less time than other options available to collaborators at the moment. I mean, this is what I was looking for before I even knew what I wanted. Thanks Ableton :)

Mobile Music Apps in Music Production

There also hasn't been a really good product that incorporates the use of mobile apps in professional production environments. There hasn't been any mobile music apps that could compare to having a professional piece of gear until recently in my opinion. It's really awesome to see Ableton create something that allows mobile apps to find their way in a music production. They have a whole list of Link enabled mobile music apps for iOS and Android. This just might encourage more artists who may not always have their equipment on them to explore mobile music making apps. The technology also might encourage new and established music software companies to create a functional mobile version of their products. That could be really interesting. Imagine having your favorite synthesizer or plugins in a mobile version which you could then bring with you and create a patch or process a recording. There are also hardware products coming out which utilize a mobile app to create music with. These products may start to find a way into production environments with the use of technology like Ableton Link. 

I also like the idea that artists who aren't into all of the technical electronic stuff, like acoustic musicians and singers, are able to easily work with other musicians with mobile music making apps. For example, if a singer wanted to make something with a beat maker, the singer could have the Loopy HD app on their phone while the beat maker has the Noise app launched with a couple loops she made. They could then sync the tempo and create something on the fly, then export and compile the files on a desktop for later editing and arranging. That sounds dope to me!

Problems with Ableton Link

There is something that bothers me with the idea of collaborating with Ableton Link, although it's not really a problem with the technology itself. In order to monitor multiple people in an Ableton Link session on mobile devices, you would have to connect their outputs in some way so a pair of speakers can be shared by all. If you don't, then everyone is going to have their music playing from their device speakers, meaning everyone will hear their part but may not hear the others. 

So say if 5 people were in the Link session and one person had a computer with Ableton Live open, all users would ideally be connected to the same pair of monitors. This means there would need to be some audio interface with 5 stereo (or mono I guess) inputs to sum into shared speakers. Although this option wouldn't be an issue for those with an audio interface that has enough inputs, most audio interfaces commonly used in home studio setups have 2 mic/line inputs. With this setup you would also need 5 balanced cables. 

I know I know, this is a very unique case. I mean, who would be having a jam session with 5 people using mobile music apps? But you get the idea. If mobiile music apps become more popular with more features and control that music producers usually look for, this kind of setup would need to be addressed. In my mind, it would be really cool to have your favorite DSPs and sounds with you at all times on the thing most people carry around with them (for me, it's my iPhone).

Here's an ideal setup in my head, let me set up the scene. My friend is an electronic producer like me and we make some coffee at the studio. We start talking about an idea for a song and come up with a melody and general tempo. I have an app that has my favorite drum sounds in it and my friend has a patch he made in a new mobile synthesizer app. We enable Ableton Link and we're synced up, now we just need to have our audio output to a pair of shared monitors. Luckily, my new Sonos speakers have Apple Airplay on them so we're able to both stream our audio to the Sonos speakers. No wires, just simultaneous wireless audio streaming. I make a drum pattern and my friend lays down the melody. We have a track in the works. So now we just export the loops and Airdrop them to the studio computer to be compiled, arranged and edited further. Nice.

So that ideal setup doesn't seem too far off. The only issue I'm thinking with a setup like this is I'm not sure if we could both stream our audio at the same time over a wireless network like Apple Airplay. The reason I mentioned the Sonos speakers is because they work over a dedicated wireless network. If Ableton Link could sync the beat, tempo and phase of the session, maybe speakers working over a wireless network could stream the audio from both devices more reliably than a Bluetooth connection. Apple Airplay isn't in any Sonos speakers at the moment so this functionality and setup isn't possible yet. I think it would be really awesome if there were speakers that could have a dedicated wireless network and have multiple devices connected able to stream audio for a musical setup. A reliable wireless music setup. I think this would compliment the Ableton Link technology by Link syncing the musical aspects and the speakers streaming the audio output from each device. Maybe someday. Or maybe I just need to do more research :)

I like how Ableton Link is able to merge not only sync multiple desktops together, but also integrate mobile music apps. I think we might be close to having music apps that can compare, compete and/or compliment desktop music plugins. I could see it being really cool to have your favorite sounds in an app, a nice tactile synthesizer, mobile DSPs or software that controls hardware. Anything that could make the creative process easier and more efficient I think is great. Maybe this idea would be a nice step for music. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below :) I'm interested to hear other people's opinions on the topic. 

Thanks for reading. Until next time!

- Intempus

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