I remember thinking things would never be the same again, in 2010, when Apple launched its first-generation iPad. The possibilities seemed endless. Producers like myself felt that our craft had changed forever. As the initial apps rolled out, the excitement grew. I started downloading just about any music-making app I could find. There were some great ones. Apps like Moog’s Animoog or Korg’s iPolysix packed in features we never imagined. Soon ports of our favorite VST plug-ins, like Sugarbytes’ Effectrix, were under our fingertips and for a fraction of the price. Our hardware was getting jealous and our beloved DAWs were afraid they’d soon receive their pink slips.
But suddenly a realization came over us producers. A bubble had burst. We were spending a lot of time tinkering with our iPads, but not a lot of music was being created. Personally I found myself downloading app after app, swiping my fingers across the screen for a few minutes, and going back to the App Store to look for something new to download.
Even the apps I enjoyed and spent some quality time with felt disconnected from my workflow. I’d make some short musical phrases and then they would just sit there gathering digital dust.
Connecting apps to each other and DAWs was cumbersome. Trying to sync up and jam with friends was frustrating. Setup was excruciating. Signals were lost. It became lots of trouble and little fun. After a while, it was the iPad itself that started collection real dust.
AfroDJMac showcases Ableton Link in action:
Believe it or not, however, this is not a eulogy for touch-screen music making. Rather it’s an announcement of a rebirth. Finally, I have a reason to dust off the iPad and actually put it to work in a useful and exciting way. That reason is Ableton Link.
Ableton Link wirelessly connects iOS devices and Ableton Live over a wireless network. Link is not an app. It’s an SDK that developers can build into their apps as a feature. Think of it like a conductor calling out the beats of the music “1,2,3,4” so all devices can hear.
Link’s concept is simple. It uses a simple Wi-Fi network to send a tempo sync between devices. Ordinary MIDI syncs involve master-slave relationships. But this relationship causes some unnatural problems real musicians don’t face. Only the master has control over tempo, and if the master stops, so do all of the slaves. But Link behaves just like real musicians do.
If a real musician wants to join in with other real musicians, he/she just finds the beat and plays along. No one has to start over at the beginning of the piece. If any musician changes tempo, the other musicians follow. This is how Link works. There are no masters and slaves. With Link, all players are created equal. And best of all, it just works.
All you need to do is enable Link on compatible apps, and Link will automatically sync any app on any device on the same Wi-Fi network. Once you enable Link, you never need to do it again. Link will automatically recognize any enabled device and send it tempo information. Link will allow you to tempo sync your apps with Ableton Live, but in a surprising and useful turn, you don’t need Ableton Live in the equation at all.
According to Ableton, there is no limit to the number of devices that can be synced together. You can even Link sync multiple apps on one device.
You can sit down with a friend and each of your devices are tempo locked, as you both jam away on different apps together. Another friend stops by and she can join in as well. Your buddy AfroDJMac stops by and syncs his Ableton Live project to your ongoing jam. All the while the jam is never interrupted. You have to go home, so you exit the jam that you started without affecting the other players.
Link can be used to sync up multiple computers running Ableton Live. Imagine you are in a band, and your drummer is running percussion loops on his laptop, while the keyboard player triggers sequences and loops. Get on the same Wi-Fi network, enable Link and you are all set up and synced. No more cables, connections or anything else that eats up valuable time at the rehearsal studio.
I’m a big fan of Korg’s iKaossilator, which is now Link enabled. I’ve got a copy on my iPhone and a copy on my iPad. I start off by jamming out a pattern on my phone. Once I’ve got something I like, I open up my iPad and build a nice accompaniment. Everything is perfectly synced. Then I open up Ableton Live and start laying down some additional percussion. Suddenly, I’ve got all three devices playing together in harmony. Super easy!
iKaossilator comes with a really cool feature: Export to Ableton Live Session. This feature will create an Ableton Live session with audio clips of the individual instruments from my iKaossilator session. So on both my iPhone and iPad, I export my iKaossilator projects to Ableton Live Sessions. I’m asked where I want to save them and I select Dropbox. (Dropbox allows you to share and sync files on multiple computers and with multiple people). Inside of my browser in Ableton Live, I have added that Dropbox folder to My Places. I open the Dropbox folder and drop my newly created iKaossilator projects into my Ableton Live Session. Without any wires, I’ve written, recorded and transferred music from two iOS devices and collected the whole thing into one Ableton Live Project. Amazing!
Nothing kills your inspiration and flow than difficult setups and mysteriously malfunctioning equipment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched promising sessions go down the tubes with the words “I’m not sure why it isn’t working. Everything seems correct. Let me Google it.” Ableton Link connects your devices in a simple and intuitive way. I couldn’t believe how fast it was up and running, and after a good month of experimenting, I have yet to have a problem. It’s hard to overstate how fun it can be!
So fellow producers, dust off your iPads. Check out the list of Link compatible apps (link: https://www.ableton.com/en/link/apps/ ) and discover the potential we saw a glimpse of back in 2010.