We dropped by Ableton's headquarters in Berlin to learn more about the company, its beginnings and its future.
With headquarters in the German capital, Ableton now employs upwards of 160 people in a building from 1908 that served as an East Germany clothing factory for menswear when the city was famously divided. Although the amount of software options for musicians keeps growing, the Berlin company has maintained a loyal user base while gradually inducting a number of newcomers through their various products. In addition to their flagship program Live, Ableton now offers two hardware devices - the APC and Push. Following a tour of the company's headquarters, we sat down with Ableton CEO and cofounder Gerhard Behles to learn more about their software and hardware devices. Check out the full interview below and try out Live 9 for free from Ableton.com.
What were you doing before starting Ableton?
This is really my first job. I went to college before and I was making music and doing all kinds of programming work, but this is my first real job. I guess this is a rare thing these days - to have a lifetime in one position or with one company. Not only is this my first job, I also intend for it to be my last job.
So you were a musician before?
I was an active musician for a couple of years in the '90s and I must say my stronger interest, my calling, was always to be more on the instrument-maker side than on the actual musician side, but I was really lucky to be drawn in to making music by my friends and to indeed spend a couple of years doing that.
Were you making music on a computer?
I was only making music with electronics but with anything, analog or computer. We were computer science folks so we could program our way out of trouble but I never learned how to play the piano properly.
What was the initial intention for Ableton?
Like so many things, it was a personal need. With the way we were making music, nothing seemed to match what was being offered in the way of gear and especially computers. In practice, my musical partner Robert Henke (Monolake) and I did not differentiate between working in the studio or performing live. They were the same thing and I think many people still work like that to this day.
The kinds of computer programs that you could get at the time were very much a digital representation of a studio, which is a place you go once the music is written, and you only go there to imprint it on tape and then to move it on to production of the record. This whole thing had little to do with our practice, so we realized there was a gap. Something is needed that's more conducive to this jamming, improvisational way of making music. We noticed it was missing and asked, "can we do it?"
So was the first iteration a product for the market or just for yourselves as creative musicians?
I don't think we've ever designed anything specifically for any markets; it's always been driven by personal need. It's not necessarily my personal need, but it's somebody's personal need. Usually the idea has to be infectious and then other people pick it up and say, "that really makes sense, this is needed! I didn't know I had this need but now I know that I have this need."
But in the beginning we never looked at the market or the stats and quantitative need. Now we run surveys and we do a lot of research but it's much more in the field. We go to the actual musician, visit them in the studio and spend a day with them, and then you know more than you wanted to know. We do this a lot and we also bring in a lot of people who spend a couple of hours here, solving specific problems. We put them in front of some new functionality and make them deal with it and see what happens. It's totally fun and collaborative, and a camera and an engineer sit in the room and watch it. It's always a bit scary, too, because they see how it goes down and there's always a surprise factor in this.
Can you elaborate?
Often you think of something as in: this is how it should work. It looks really good to you and then you implement it and you can't think of it as wrong, but then you put it in front of somebody and they totally don't get it or they use it in a different way. Oftentimes it's things you never thought of.
On the other hand, you have to trust your intuition and you need to have good ideas about how to solve things. When it comes to the actual detail and layout, or how the feature works, you absolutely have to put it in front of people many times, screw up and try again. You know, kill your darlings.
Going back to the first generation of the software, the arrangement field seems like one of the most recognizable components. Where did this idea come from?
The arrangement field is a tribute to the legacy and reality of the multitrack. It's a timeline and if you want to walk out with a piece of music that you can put on a CD, then you need that. However, that was not the grand innovation.
What was new was the session view and it was conceived as a strict real-time proposition that represents your palette for sounds. This much more resembles the kind of musical work that we actually did which was more of a set-the-gear-in-action-and-let-it-run and then change stuff while it happens and tweak-and-roll the whole thing onto tape. But now, in the live arrangement field you can dissect, refine, edit and turn it into a piece of music that has a beginning and an end. The whole vertical session view doesn't know beginnings and ends it just knows now. That is what we wanted to bring in, the notion of now and the absence of a song that simply begins and ends.
So basically an entirely new way of composing on the computer?
On the computer, what you did at the time, is that you wrote your own programs using Max, because that was the easiest way to do it. You could also write music with early Reaktor. It was great and wonderful but it was really missing the other side of it. So it was clear from the beginning you have to somehow bring those things together otherwise you would lose something very important on the way.
If you record your jam on tape or the computer equivalent of tape, you miss important information, and all you have in the end - in terms of going back and fixing it - is the plain audio and at that point it is too late. So you need to tape the material one step before, while it has more information, and then you have more to work with when you make a piece.
When you open up the program for the first time, it can be intimidating seeing how much there is. What steps do you take to ensure it's not so scary for the first time user?
It's a big problem because indeed it's a product for professionals and, of course, not everybody starts as a professional. In fact, nobody does, and we know that many people now approach the activity of making music through this program. So they download it, launch it and then you are looking at a lot of stuff - and it's a concern. We don't want to dumb anything down, but we also don't think that it has to be intimidating because really, once you know a couple of things it's totally not difficult to get into this. That is a big challenge and it's something we're constantly thinking about.
How do you decide which instruments to include, when to make your own and when to emulate classic ones?
Usually they are artist choices, which are not so much driven by any kind of market analysis. Also, there is just a ton of knowledge at Ableton, there are so many really knowledgable and expert people. Many will look at it from an artistic point of view and others will be very good at knowing how to emulate something analog. There is a lot of improv in that too; it's not a clear path from A to Z. Often the best stuff happens unsolicited.
Now you guys are also in the physical product market with the APC and the Push. Can you tell us how you decided to branch out into that and explain the differences between the two?
From the beginning the demand was strong. When Ableton Live came out, two or three years into it, you started seeing live acts using a computer on-stage, and it became this notorious thing where people would ask, "are they checking their e-mail?" Then I think that led to the wish for some hardware equivalent or a companion that you would use with Ableton - mostly for performance.
You don't want to perform looking like a nerd so we collaborated with the AKAI people and they had a lot of initiative towards solving that. Often, it comes down to just a single musician wanting something for themselves and that was the same in this case. It was one guy that felt really strongly about this idea and then we got together with him and built the APC, which stands for Ableton Performance Controller. It was really clearly aimed at: here's a DJ mixer, here are the decks and here's the APC which you'll use to run your show.
For Push, we decided to pick up on a thought that was dormant at Ableton for years, which was: can we make a hardware piece that is also used to create the musical material in the first place? So unlike the APC - where really the case is, you have a live set, it's all prepared and now you deliver this to an audience - with Push you have nothing and you're typically more in your studio and you want to have something at the end of the night. That became the goal, let's make a piece that takes you from this beginning all the way to a complete track.
Now what's missing from here is the finishing stages - like where I do clean up and do some editing work, export it and finish it? We wanted to make it so that you could cover that whole span without looking at the screen, because at that time we were tired of computer screens.
It's also influenced by the personal experience from all of us here at Ableton who spend our workdays on computers. I don't want to make music in this same physical position and facing that same kind of workspace. Maybe that's even the reason why this became such a strong desire, because we didn't want it anymore. So we worked very hard and went through many crises to get Push to where it is now; being able to make a song without looking at your screen.
What were some of these crises?
It's what always happens when you try something new. You have to screw up, it's just part of the deal. Especially when you build something new in a team. A typical pattern that occurs, is that there are multiple confusions along the way and they escalate when somebody new comes in. I see that over and over again. Everybody thinks we're all set and headed right there and then a new guy comes in and says "why again? What is it that we're making?" Then it kind of falls apart, it's a terrifying moment but these are also the healing moments because it forces everybody to regroup around the goal. And then usually goals get much sharper and much more precise and clear and at these points also, or in the aftermath of these crises, important decisions are made. This type of work is intensely creative because you have nothing and you have to invent everything and your choices can be challenged on many many stages throughout the process.
It's what always happens when you try something new. You have to screw up, it's just part of the deal.
How long would you say it took from the initial idea to the final product?
It's really hard to say because early sketches go back eight years or so. Then some ideas never make it out of the drawer - something else was always more important, more urgent and then we came back to it.
Do you notice other software companies integrating similar ideas or making them their own around the same time you guys do?
This is always happening. Nothing stays new forever and in this little weird industry, I'd say it is almost welcome. Everybody is looking at what's hot and that stuff typically comes from unexpected places. It's not the big companies that are putting forward these crazy surprises, often it comes from some random guys that have a new thing. It's magic.
Is there a particular reason you started Ableton in Berlin?
It's the most exciting place to be. That's probably been one key reason for the success of the company. It's been affordable for many years, especially for people that live on the artistic side, and a lot of our colleagues come from that. They come from all over the place, this place is extremely international, I think Germans are a minority here. I don't think that may have worked as well in Munich or other German cities.
Berlin is famous for its house and techno music scene. Does that have some sort of connection with Ableton?
It's inseparable. The music scene in the city and its richness and ubiquity is a key attraction for folks to move here, to work here and it's also where a lot of inspiration comes from. I can't tell the two things apart. It‘s super important but you can never trace cause and effect so easily.
How do you think someone gets started with Ableton as opposed to a free software or a physical instrument?
I think the main reason why someone may get drawn into this is because of the musicians they admire. They are looking at an artist and that is the person that kicks it off. Then, they look at the software or hardware they use. It's classic, it's unchanged from the time of Jimi Hendrix. You want a Fender guitar because he had one too.
We know that is important but we also know that it's something you can't craft. If it's not authentic, it just doesn't work. The sensitivity in the audience for this kind of bullshit is there and you really don't get through this. You know all the cases where money was paid for endorsement and it's all over the Internet. These become huge embarrassments and it's not legit. You can't do that. In certain ways, we have a very hands-off policy with artist relations and we simply provide support. All we do is help artists deal with issues that they have with a program or we ask them questions and try to learn from their practice and try to engage in a dialogue.
How important for Ableton is vintage and retro gear, and trying to emulate this experience?
What we see in every single studio that we get to is vintage gear and I don't think that people expect us to give them something that is vintage. I think they are looking at combining the two. They might even expect the opposite. They might want something that is really futuristic and not something from the past. I think they are not interested in the emulation, they want the real thing.
How important is user feedback from people as your user ranges from 16-year-old kids to veteran DJs?
It's super important and also super complex to take into account in the right way because it is often skewed by the vocal minority on either end of the experience spectrum. If someone has been dealing with this stuff for 20 years, they know exactly how to phrase it and also justify a specific request. On the other hand, if somebody is just getting into this and they are just profoundly confused, because of what they see and what they are exposed to, it's not like they come to you and say, "I am really confused, can you fix that for me?" So those people, you have to listen to them, too, even though they are not as loud. However, they're super important because those are the people that continue and they will be the professionals in 20 years.
How does Ableton deal with piracy?
I'm not going say it is a good thing but I also have to say this is a business that works, we have nothing to complain about, and in the grand scheme of things you can't know exactly what piracy harms because it also has benefits. Obviously, it helps spread the program tremendously. What we often see is a pattern because we tend to cater to people that commit themselves to music. Our products are not outlandishly expensive. They require a sacrifice from musicians but they're not unattainable.
Obviously people want both - the software and the hardware - and they can't pirate the hardware.
I think the success of the hardware also shows that there is much more out there, in the way of people wanting to create with this technology. I mean if you are a graphic designer - at some point down the line you have to buy Adobe. You get so far, you get though college maybe, and then you have to, there is no avoiding it. I think we see the same thing.
Try out Ableton Live 9 for free straight from Ableton.com.