So you've made the decision to purchase Ableton Live 8 and start producing, but you want to know whether to splash out for the full version, or purchase the cheaper but limited Live Intro.
This guide is for people who have very little or no knowledge of production, and need a bit of a hand with the comparison chart.
I will go through each of the points listed on the official Ableton site and comment on what the limitations actually mean.
Maximum number of audio tracks per project
Ableton Live has two types of tracks you can create, Audio and MIDI. Tracks are individual layers, a place where something can be placed and then told what to do (think of an empty chair in an Orchestral layout, you define what instrument goes on what chair). Audio tracks are where audio files live. They could be samples or audio snippets you have (a audio file of a kick drum for example) or they could contain an entire audio track, like an MP3 you've downloaded.
64 of these is a very generous limit for Intro, if you are planning on doing a lot of live instrument recording work then you will have more than enough!
Maximum number of MIDI tracks per project
MIDI tracks on the other hand always contain some kind of machine... it could be a synthesizer or it could be a sampler (a machine that contains a sample of something like a keyboard, that can then be played using notes). These machines get fed information and then do something, for example if you had a synthesizer on your MIDI track, you would then put some notes on the MIDI track that tell the synthesizer what melody to play.
Unlimited of these is again a very generous limit!
Maximum audio bit depth and resolution
Without getting too technical, bit depth is how deep your audio quality can get. 32-bit is very high (in my opinion, there's not much point going beyond this unless you have an extremely fine tuned ear for detail). The resolution is how fast Live can process the audio depth, and again 192kHz is very very fast.
Maximum number of audio inputs
If you are recording something into Live, you need to have audio inputs to do this. Intro gives you 2 stereo, meaning you can have two inputs with both a left and right channel coming in at the same time.
If you wanted to mic up a whole band, or have more than two instruments (four if you record in mono), and record them all in one take, this would make things difficult for you.
Of course you can have an audio input going into one audio track, record something, then change the input to another audio track... but having more than 2 is impossible.
Maximum number of audio outputs
The restriction here would only really hold you back if you had a sound card that has more than 4 outputs (or 2 stereo LEFT/RIGHT outputs). Most people who want to produce only need 1 stereo output, the master output that gets fed out of your computer and into your sound system.
If you are interested in DJing with Live but want to mix your tracks on an external mixing device, you can have 1 output going to a channel on your external mixer, and the other output going to another. This way Live is sending 2 separate audio streams out of the computer, so you can mess with them outside.
This restriction isn't going to cause you much trouble, unless you want to output lots of stuff at once.
Includes Simpler instrument for sample-based synthesis
The Simpler instrument is a machine that lets you load 1 sound or sample into it, then play it like an actual instrument. For example you have a vocal sample of someone singing "la". You can load this into Simpler on a MIDI track, then by either playing notes on an external keyboard, or manually entering notes into the computer, you can make that sample sing different pitches.
Includes Impulse instrument for percussion sound design
The Impulse instrument is similar to Simpler, but it has 8 separate slots for 8 separate sounds. This machine is mainly used for loading up 8 different percussion sounds. For example, you have 8 different sounds of someone hitting a bongo drum, you can then load these into the 8 slots in Impulse, then send Impulse some rhythmic information on when and how to play each one of the sounds so it sounds a natural drummer playing.
Maximum number of Ableton instruments per project
Live intro comes with two native instruments (Impulse and Simpler). Ableton have developed other very in depth instruments such as synthesizers and complex samplers, however Intro only comes with Impulse and Simpler (no synthesizers, but that can be fixed which I will discuss a bit more soon). You can use only 8 separate instances of these two instruments in a project.
This could potentially be a restriction to you if you want a lot of complexity. For example, you have a Kick drum, that equals 1 instrument, then a snare, that's another, then some high hats, that's another... eventually you will hit 8 and run out.
However, if you are very new to production, 8 is a perfect amount to get on your feet while you are learning.
Number of included Ableton audio effects
Audio effects are devices that you put on your tracks, which alter the audio in different ways. For example, lets say you have a bassline on one track, but it doesn't sound perfect. You want to take off some of the high end and make it more deep, so you would need to load an audio effect (an EQ for example) to remove those highs. Then you might want to make it wobble around, this would be another effect.
Intro comes with 23 different types of effects, and these are all very helpful. The other 6 that you miss out on are not really aimed towards beginners, and are for the hard core!
The 23 effects that come with Intro are by far enough for you to start out.
Maximum number of Ableton audio effects per project
Even thou you have access to 23, Intro allows you to use only 12 in total in your entire project. To me this would be one of the most restricting points of Intro.
I tend to use between 3-5 effects per track... so you can see by having a track with many layers would soon run you to your limit.
There are various things you can do to get around this, for example the process of re sampling, or internally recording what you've done, gives you a clean audio copy of the track and effects you just created, which then frees up your limit again at the cost of not being able to go back and change the original effects.
Think of putting toppings on a pizza, running out of space so you cook it, then once it's a whole cooked single unit, add some more stuff. You can go forward, but not back. You could potentially keep cooking this indefinitely. Now I'm hungry, brb.
Number of included Ableton MIDI effects
MIDI effects are an interesting set of tools that you can place between your machine (synthesizer etc) and the notes that you are telling it to play.
An example is the Note Length MIDI effect. Placing this between the notes you play and the synth will change how long the notes are played for before feeding them to the synth, so you could hold your note for 4 seconds, but if the Note Length effect is intercepting it and is set to only 2 seconds, the synth will only play for 2 seconds.
You have all of these, so nothing to worry about here :)
Maximum number of Ableton MIDI effects per project
You can use as many of these MIDI effects as you want.
Grouping tracks in Live means taking a bunch of tracks or layers you have created, then grouping them all together in their own little place. If you've got 8 tracks of percussion (kick, snare, hihats, bongos etc) you could group these all together, allowing you to add audio effects to the entire group at once (adding a delay or echo to all the percussion etc).
Intro doesn't allow you to do this. While grouping tracks can be handy, and pleasing to the eye, it's not a vital part of producing.
The Looper is a special device designed for people who want to create live jams using only one input, and loop / repeat each thing they do over and over, mixing it with the previous sounds. An example would be someone beat boxing into a mic, looping it, then singing a bassline, looping that over the beat box, then adding more vocal effects etc.
This device is very specifically for people who want to do live performances in this fashion.
A Vocoder is a device that mixes one sound source with another in a special way, creating a single sound from two. The most common use is to mix someone's voice with a synthesizer, creating a robot speaking/singing effect.
Even though this tool is amazing and can be used in many creative ways, it's not something you need to jump into when starting out.
Multiband dynamics is an advanced way to give or subtract space from a sound by compressing or expanding certain parts of it, so that it can fit in and mix well with other sounds that also share the same audio range (usually!).
I still have trouble getting my head around it sometimes, and you won't be missing much in your early stages of production.
The Overdrive effect is a way of distorting a sound and making it grungy/crushed, similar to how some guitar pedals work.
The Frequency Shifter takes the original sound, and processes it in a way that the pitch moves up/down or all over the place.
You can easily change the pitch of sounds in Live Intro without using this device, it's more of a tool to create interesting sounds rather than practically for moving pitch up and down.
External VST/AU instrument instances per project
VST/AU instruments are machines that people other than Ableton produce. There are literally thousands out there that do all kinds of things. Ableton lets you use these inside Live like you would something native to Live.
There are some expensive and very professional instruments out there, but there are also lots of free ones that do the same job as the paid for ones.
Since Intro doesn't come with a native synthesizer, you would use VST instruments to do this. VST Instruments can also be Samplers, or devices that let you load sounds into them and do all kinds of crazy stuff.
Having VST support is your gateway to really push the limitations of Intro, even though you can only use 4 per project, you can "flatten" down a track once your happy with the sound, which will turn the VST track into an Audio track, letting you load another VST.
To get an idea of what sort of instruments you can load as VST/AU, check out http://www.kvraudio.com/get.php
External VST/AU effect instances per project
VST/AU effects are similar to the instruments, except they go AFTER a machine and change the sound once it's produced. Again there are thousands of these out there, lots of which are free, that do everything from mangling up your sound, to giving you an easy way to make your overall tune sound fat.
You have 6 of these in Intro, slightly restricting, but keep in mind you can also add up to 12 Live native effects which can often achieve the same desired goal.
Sidechaining is a process in which something in one instrument or plugin, changes something in another. The most common example of this is putting a compressor (something that compresses or lowers the volume of a sound) on your bassline, and telling the compressor to sidechain from the kick drum. By doing this, every time your kick drum punches, the compressor will quickly lower down the bass so that the low frequencies of both don't clash and create a muddy sub sound.
Another example would be in radio. When the announcer speaks, the music is automatically lowered in volume, then when the speaking stops the volume comes back up.
Instrument-, Drum-, Effect Rack editing
Racks are one of Live's most powerful features. In a nutshell, a rack is like a virtual stack of multiple machines or effects chained together in different ways. You can use racks to create some seriously complex machines of your own, and assigning knobs to do specific things to different parts of all the components.
Intro doesn't allow you to create or edit racks, but it does let you load them up and tweak the parameters that have be predefined by the rack creator (most likely the ones that matter most!).
It's a shame that you can't create your own, however to tackle this Intro comes with a MASSIVE 7 gigabytes of audio content for the boxed version, and 1 gigabyte if you download it. That's heaps! And you'll be sure to have all sorts of racks with all sorts of instruments, beats and sounds at your fingertips.
Time signature changes
Being able to change the time signature means at some time in a track, you change the rhythmical feeling, or amount of a certain type of beats in a bar.
Session view is a way of looking and working in Live. In this view, all your tracks or layers are in vertical columns, and in each column you have clip slots where information is kept (audio samples, information to send to synthesizers etc) which you can click and trigger. This mode is made for performing and jamming, giving you the ability to muck around real time and mix different things you have created together.
It's also the view used if you are DJing, so you can see all your tracks and have them ready to play and a click.
Maximum number of groove patterns
Groove patterns are sets of instructions that can be applied to a loop or a rhythmical set of notes, that slightly change the way they behave. Let's say you recording someone strumming chords on a guitar, and they rhythm they twanged was a particular groove. You could then extract that groove, as in Live will analyze it and find the rhythm and store it in a pool of grooves. You can then apply that groove to some drum beats you've programmed, so they play along in time perfectly with the guitar.
Being restricted to 4 of these will not be an issue, I rarely use more than 1 in an entire tune.
Maximum number of scenes per project
In Session view, scenes are horizontal rows that contain information to get sent to each track. If you had 4 tracks (Kick, Snare, Bass, Synth), you can put information in the clip slots which tell each track how to actually play. If you have 4 clip slots in the same horizontal row, you can trigger that entire row as a Scene, which will start playing all 4 of them at the same time.
Having 8 could be a bit of a restriction if you had more than 8 different ways you want a track or instrument to play. For example, you might have a bongo track, and you want that track to play differently throughout your tune or performance. You would only be able to have 8 variations.
If you want to DJ with Live, this could also restrict you to a degree, as you would have 1 track as your Deck A, and another track as your Deck 2... for each deck you could only have 8 tracks loaded up ready to play at once (however you can drag new tracks onto clip slots that aren't being played and replace them with no audio stopping).
"Complex" and "Complex Pro" Warp Mode
When you load audio that isn't an individual hit (a single drum hit for example) you often need to Warp the audio, or lock it in so will play in time with everything else. If you were to load in a drum loop for example, you need to tell Live when it starts and finishes, so that when you play it, it loops it perfectly without interruption between replays.
When you Warp something that is a different speed to your original tune (Say a drum loop that is 120bpm, playing in a track that is 130bpm), Live has to use special formulas to stretch or compress this loop without making it sound crap.
Live's in built formulas are usually pretty good for things like drum loops and synth loops, but when you want to do this to an entire tune (an mp3 downloaded from Beatport etc), you really need to use advanced formulas because there is so much to stretch/compress.
Complex and Complex Pro warp modes are very advanced and can squish or expand an entire a song with very little loss in quality.
If you want to DJ with Live, this could be a problem for you. Of course you can choose "Pitch" mode, which will treat the tune just like it's being played on a turn table (so when the tune is slowed down, the pitch lowers, and when sped up, the pitch raises), but if you want to stretch or compress a song while maintaining the pitch, not having Complex and Complex Pro mode will be a burden.
Multiple automation lanes
When you are composing your song, and you want a parameter of a machine or effect to change over time, you can draw lines that tell that parameter how to act over time. For example, if you want the volume of something to slowly creep in, you can draw a line moving up over time, which will automate the volume to rise.
Multiple automation lanes means you can view every parameter you have manipulated on the screen at once, so if you have automated the volume and the panning (left - right) of a track, you can see and edit these on the screen at the same time.
Native audio slicing support
This means you are not able to automatically slice up audio. A use for this would be loading up a drum loop, then slicing it up so that each individual hit would be taken out as an individual sound, letting you rearrange how the drum loop is played. You can do this manually, but it takes time.
Maximum number of send and return tracks per project
Send / Return tracks are tracks that sit off to the side and wait for something to be sent to them. They can't have machines or samples on them like normal tracks, but they can have effects sitting there ready to go. The way I personally use them is lets say I have a echo effect that I want various different parts of my song to use at various different times. When I want the snare to echo, I can send it to that track... then when I want the synth to echo, I send it to the same track.
It's a great way to save up CPU power and have effects that can be applied to everything.
Having 2 shouldn't be much of a restriction, if you are performing live you could probably do with more, but 2 is a nice amount for when you start out.
Freezing allows you to temporarily mix down a track. Let's say I have a bassline which is quite complex... a synth then a load of effects. I've got the sound I want, I've got it playing the notes in the right places, so I can freeze it. This means that the synth and effects are no longer processing, but an audio mix down plays instead. The beauty of this is if you do want to change something, you can unfreeze it, change something, then freeze it again.
Clip envelopes and Follow Actions
Clip envelops are like automating a parameter, except it happens within a clip or a loop. If you have a drum loop, but you want the snare to be a lower volume, you can draw a volume line on the clip so that only the snare is lowered, then when this clip is looped the snare will always do the same thing. This allows you to change the overall volume of the track, but keeping the snare lowering it's volume relative to whatever the original volume is.
Follow Actions are a small set of instructions that can be applied to a clip that tell it what to do after it's finished playing. For example, you have two drum loops and you know you want the second to start playing after the first one has played 8 times. You can set a Follow Action on the first clip that specifically tells it to play the next one after it's done 8 bars.
This is really handy in a live situation where you need things to progress without you mucking about with it.
External Instrument/Audio Effect devices
These devices are a bit different, they are made to incorporate external instruments and effects from outside your computer. Unless you are a hardware nut, this is not going to be a worry for you.
Automatic plug-in delay compensation
Some devices need to "look ahead" in order to function properly as they need analyze something in order to operate correctly. Live does this automatically and it's almost impossible to tell to the ear.
Tempo Nudge is only really handy if you are doing a DJ mix with Live and external DJ gear, or using Live as an instrument jamming along with a band. It's like nudging a record or CDJ up or down to get it in sync with the track that is already playing. A quick boost or decline of speed if you are slightly out of time.
MIDI remote control instant mapping
By simply going into MIDI map mode, you can click on a parameter within Live then touch a knob, fader or button on your external control device. Live will pick this up and instantly assign that knob/fader/button to that parameter.
MIDI output to hardware synths
Instead of loading up a machine (sampler/synthesizer) in your MIDI tracks, you can output the MIDI information (notes, rhythm etc) outside of Live to external gear.
Let's say you have an old fat Moog synth that you want to use in your tune, you could plug this into the MIDI out on your sound card, then control it with information you create inside Live.
This allows you to sync up Live with other devices, such as another computer using Live, or an external synth/sampler. You can set it so that the other gear follows along with the speed that you are working with in Ableton, as well as when to stop/start.
ReWire is a way of internally routing audio applications and using them both at the same time. You could be using Fruity Loops, then ReWire this into Live so you can record all your loops from Fruity into clip slots in Live.
Rex files are a way of storing tempo sync able loops. It is a format that is used by an audio chopping application called ReCycle. It can be a handy way to store not only the audio of a loop, but the information needed for a program to know how to loop it and slice it up.
If you don't know what Rex files are, and don't have any, this is not a concern.
This allows processing information from the things you are using in live, to be better distributed amongst the free resources. This is something you need to turn on in preferences. If you have multiple cores in your computer, you can significantly speed up Live.
SmartPriming memory management
SmartPriming is a way Live deals with samples and sample libraries, making it easier and faster to work with multiple samples.
Dithering is a way of adding very small amounts of noise to a mix down or sound to "fill in the gaps" in a way that is pleasant and often undetectable to the human ear. POW-R dithering is another way of doing this, but pushes the noise into a place where the human ear can't hear it.
You won't miss this unless you are an audio purist.
Video import and export
Live lets you drag a video into an audio track, letting you watch the video real time while you compose. This is good if you plan on using Live for audio scoring film/video.
If you don't plan on writing music to match visual stuff, you don't need this.
WAV, AIFF, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC file support
These are different types of audio file formats, with different styles of compression. Live lets you drag these types of audio into an audio track, letting you edit and change it like a normal audio file.
Compatible with The Bridge
The Bridge is a way that Ableton and Serato (A popular DJ software application) can work together fluently. You must also own Serato in order to use the Bridge.
Intro does not support integration with Serato.
To sum it up, if you are brand spanking new and on a budget, Intro is a great option. You can always upgrade when you start really feeling the restrictions. Even though Intro lacks a native synthesizer, the ability to use external VST instruments and effects is a great bonus, and will allow you to easily find something that suits your style as it develops.
If you have any questions regarding anything listed here, please head over to the forums and ask away, someone is bound to help you.
Click here to visit the official Ableton Live product page