How it all began...

I make music with computers. But I am also deeply into creating tools for making music. And this is why I became one of the creators of a quite amazing piece of commercial music software, Ableton Live. Ableton was founded by my former Monolake partner Gerhard Behles, together with a developer, Bernd Roggendorf and a finance person, Jan Bohl.

Image: screenshot of a pre-release version from November 2000. [Large version]

When the company started in 1999 I decided against becoming one of the directors, because I was afraid I would not make music anymore, which actually is true for Gerhard, who completely ended his artistic career. But nevertheless I got quite involved with Ableton as soon as we started to work on our product, Ableton Live. This made me one of the creators of a piece of software that dramatically changed how electronic music is composed and performed today. While I am writing this, ten years later, a beta version of Live 8 runs in the background, playing back one of my latest compositions, realized entirely on a laptop with nothing but Live.

When Ableton Live came out it was radically different from other commercial music software, and this was largely due to the fact that Gerhard and me came from a very different musical background than the people who wrote e.g. Protools or Cubase. For us, the computer was not a replacement for a tape machine in a studio but a tool to improvise with on stage and as part of the creative process. We wrote our own software for our live performances and for playing with it in recording sessions and turning some of the concepts into a commercial product was a logical step. The first version of Live had the subtitle 'Sequencing Instrument'. It is all about playing and constructing in real time, not about capturing a performance from a 'real musician', which only became more a focus in later and more refined version of the software. The main and revolutionary idea was: The computer is the instrument itself and the musician too. The person operating it is the conductor and performer of this new type of instrument.

People often ask me what I actually did at Ableton. The question is not so easy to answer since I had a number of roles at the company and I learned to adapt my focus to what ever was needed to make Live a better product. My work at Ableton was simply driven by one goal: Making sure I have lots of fun when using the software. This might sound egoistic, but I learned that if I spot a problem or inconvenience while using the software, it is very likely that a lot of other users have a similar issue and solving it helps all of us. I am the prototype of a very demanding hardcore user... (It took me a bit longer to learn that other people have good ideas, too.)

Image: First presentation of Live at NAMM, January 2001. [Large version with text]


One of my most important roles at the company was being part of the specification team. Specification is the core of each software development process. It means defining how things should be, and than discussing with the developers how it can be implemented best. Specification is a huge area, ranging from tiny but important details to big general questions. Specification is one of the most exciting, most annoying, most rewarding and most frustraiting jobs in the software world.

At Ableton, the specification group during the first then years of the company was small, consisting in the early years mainly of Gerhard, two colleagues and me. Plus lots of input and discussions from and with the developers. Specification can be quite general and almost esoteric, when we try to imagine how music software should look like in the future, and when we try to come up with new concepts for problems. Just like we did then over a decade ago, when we created the first and still unique non-timeline based professional audio software.

Most of the time, specification means trying to solve problems that seem simple at a first glance and get more and more complicated the closer you look at them. Like automatic deletition of unused samples in a project folder. When is a sample unused? What if a user wants to keep a sample in that folder to drag it in during a performance...? Things like this can keep you busy for a while. Sometimes specification is easy and fun. This is usually the case if a problem stays reasonable small even if you look closer and if it then can be programmed fast enough to become reality. Like: We want to have more colors for coloring clips in Live. But even this can be tricky: How good can text be read on different backgrounds? Will it also work for color blind people?

One important part of the software, with not so much dependencies on other parts, and therefor can be developped quite separately are the effects and instruments. In the past I was in particular involved with the design and specification of the audio effects, MIDI effects and instruments at Ableton. Some of them are more or less entirely my design, others are more the result of team work and some are mainly created by colleagues without too much input from my side.

Instruments and Effects

Notable early Live effects I created are the Grain Delay, Vinyl Distortion, Chorus, EQ8, Erosion, Resonators, Beat Repeat, Simpler and the Saturator (which contains a bit hidden complex wave shaping tool !). While I am fine with the results of my work on those, there is one single device that deserves to be mentioned more explicitely: The Operator, a synthesizer in which I put an enormous effort to make it simple but powerful. Operator became a synthesizer I use extensively for my own music, and it became a synthesizer that is loved by its users because it can create a vast range of interesting and unique sounds, it is deep and rewards exploration. An still it is simple to use and has a clear structure.

According to an old myth Live is based on a MAX patcher. This would be completely impossible to do! What is true, is that before there was Live, there were MAX patches and Reaktor ensembles by Gerhard and me that did a lot of things we both found interesting, like timestreching beat loops, or a sequencer that allowed to switch between individual patterns for each instrument in real time.

Image above: Operator detail
Image right: MAX patcher for the Cyclone installation

Many of those ideas found its way into Live. Without our experiences from performing live together and without our way of working on musical material in a studio, Live would not exist. Also I often use MAX patches to prototype effects and instruments, or max patches I developed for my own personal use later become available as Live effects. The Grain Delay is a good example for this. Many flavors of those effects have been used on Monolake records before the effect became part of Live.

The application that changed making music...

When we started working on Live, and finally showed a first version in spring 2001, the big music software companies did not take us very serious. "A laptop on stage? You must be crazy!" or "This interface looks horrible!" were reactions we got often. However, we are now one of the most successful music software company out there, with an incredible number of customers all over the world, and our software massively changed the way electronic music is created and performed.

It became very easy to make music. And this is bad. Everyone can make a boring uninspired piece of music in a lunch break, and it will sound good and 'professional'. It became really very, very easy to make music with our software. And this is great! Because it not only allows highly musical people with limited budget to create fantastic and complex music, it also allows those folks like me to dive deeper into the creation and exploration of music, sound and structure than ever before. I never spent less time thinking of technology and more time making music with it. Well, apart from my engagement with the company.

MaxForLive and the future

With the ability to extend the functionality of Live by integrating MAX/MSP/Jitter patches with 'MaxForLive', the software became a tool that combines an open structure with a streamlined workflow in an pretty exciting way. I am curious to see how this will grow in the future...

I more or less left Ableton in 2009 to focus more on my art and to dedicate more energy to my job as professor for Sounddesign at the Berlin University of Arts.

However, after being so closely involved with the company and the people who work there for almost a decade , and my role in the development of the product itself, I am having a hard time cutting myself off from Ableton completely. I am still involved in some of the decissions and discussions about the future of Ableton and the products we make (Live, Max4Live, Push... ).