zplane has been working with Ableton since 2000 and is most notably responsible for the Complex warping algorithm that’s played a key role in the DAW’s success. Given the longstanding history, we decided to sit down with Gerhard Behles, the CEO of Ableton, to discuss his company’s history and its intersection with zplane going back 20+ years.
– Hi Gerhard. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Let’s start with some questions about Ableton’s early days. Is it true that Live was created so you could play pre-recorded loops during your live shows?
Partly, yes. By using techniques like Max-patching, we aimed to create music software that went beyond a traditional DAW. Inadvertently, it turned into an early prototype of Live that included features like Session View. It allowed us to break away from playing songs linearly, which was new at the time.
– Who was responsible for designing Session View?
To be honest, I don’t remember who brought the initial Max patch for that, though I suspect it was my co-founder, Robert Henke. But implementing it was a collaborative process, so multiple people contributed to the final design. One of our other co-founders, Bernd Roggendorf, was very important for coming up with stuff like that. He’s not a musician, but he brought a lot of clear thinking and level-headedness to what we were doing.
– It’s been said that Bernd was an important source of optimism for getting Ableton off the ground. Is that true?
Yes, it is. One of his main attributes was optimism, which was key in encouraging us to build the company. He was also more seasoned as a professional than Rob and me I. Bernd had been writing professional software for ten years, so he made it less intimidating to develop Live into a commercial software package, rather than just a bedroom product. So he’s always been a sort of architect behind the software.
– Since you were designing Live 1 in the late 90s, do you remember when computer specs became good enough to handle audio processing for live shows?
I believe it happened with the iBook G3, which was nicknamed “The Toiletseat” due to its shape. Everybody was using it in the late 90s since it was one of the few models powerful enough to handle the audio processing we needed. But even prior to that, it was easy to see that CPUs wouldn’t always be a bottleneck, and that live show performances would go beyond simple audio playback in the near future.
– Was it true that you started Ableton with a government grant of some kind?
Yes, it is. At the time, there were certain grants that were really helpful for getting projects off the ground, though if you compare it to the money raised by today’s companies, it was only a tiny fraction of that. I think our first grant was something in the tens of thousands of Euros, after which we landed a bigger one in the hundred of thousands. That got us quite far.
– Ableton was started in 1999, but Live 1 didn’t come out until October 2001, so what were you doing in that two-year period?
We did nothing but program (laughs). We rolled out of bed in the morning, went to the office and worked on programming until we couldn’t continue any longer. Then we went home to sleep and did the same the next day. We had a very monotone existence back then.
– Do you remember what your first NAMM show in 2001 was like and what your expectations were?
It was an adventure – we didn’t know what to expect since our software wasn’t ready to be demoed. Live 1 wasn’t complete at the time, but I think we ended up showing whatever was cobbled together on the plane ride there. We basically made GUI mock-ups in Photoshop and somehow pulled off a demo with the half-finished software. We hadn’t done a shred of market research until then, so when the few journalists in the room said they loved the idea, it made us confident that we were onto something.
– Is it true that Hans Zimmer came by your NAMM booth in 2001? Was he an early adopter of the software?
He did come by, yes. He also developed an interest in Live quite quickly. We ended up dropping by his place afterward and talking about it, which was cool. He was an early user, but Hans Zimmer in 2001 was already a celebrity and a brand, so I’m not sure how hands-on he actually was with Live 1. But he did use it and he knew what we were talking about when we explained its features.
– The first version of Live was made to be Rewire-compatible. Was that so it would be accessible to Pro Tools users?
Exactly. That was very important because we needed to tie Live in with what people were already using. Our intention wasn’t to have Live 1 replace any existing DAWs, and we were lucky that the guys at Propellerhead had already invented Rewire for the same reason.
– The audio engine in Live is something people talk about a lot. Do you remember the process of developing that and the conversation around how it should sound?
The idea was for it to not have a sound at all; it was designed to be a neutral conduit so that what comes in is exactly what goes out. Unless you deliberately apply something, the audio engine that runs through the master shouldn’t do anything to your sound, which is easy to test and validate. Other DAWS take a different approach, but in Live’s case, the sound of your music only changes if you utilize things like DSP effects or warping. Most of the early effects in Live were prototyped by Robert using Max code, and he has a very specific approach to sound, hence why Live’s effects sound the way they do.
There’s a lot of mysticism around the subject of our audio engine but it’s quite unwarranted. Live is a digital machine that works using bits, so you can look at the information to see if there’s been any change between the input and output. We’ve read about people who do that on audio forums and they’ve confirmed that what goes in is what comes out.
– Let’s talk about Ableton’s work with zplane. What can you share about how the partnership started?
I’ve known Tim Flohrer for many years prior to Ableton. We both studied at the same university, which is how I ran into him. The reason we started working with zplane is because we needed to solve certain software challenges. We weren’t DSP specialists, so we contacted zplane because they knew all about that stuff. The first thing we asked for help with was a filter setting in Auto Filter, and a few years later we licensed Auftakt and Elastique for Live 5.
– Live 1 had time-stretching capabilities from the beginning, but the algorithm was very different from what it is today. Who designed the initial algorithm?
I did. It was made possible by my university work, which had its origin in the work of Barry Truax. He was a Canadian composer best known for contributing to granular synthesis in the 80s. I studied at the Institute of Sonology in The Hague in 1989, where Barry used to teach. He’d left behind a big DSP machine that was programmed to do granular synthesis, which blew my mind and served as a huge inspiration. During my later studies in Berlin, I tried to replicate and build on what he’d done. Live’s original time-stretching algorithm evolved from that, though the initial version was very rough. It was worse than any of the algorithms we use today, and we ran into limitations because the processing was time-based, meaning it was similar to splicing tape but with a computer doing the work and the splices were really small. It was the best I could do given my layman’s approach to programming – you couldn’t even call it “DSP”. But with zplane’s Elastique, we were able to break away from that because it used a totally different technology. Instead of being time-based, it was frequency-based, and we used the term “Complex” to differentiate it from the other warping modes.
In terms of those other modes like Beats, Tones, Texture, and Re-Pitch, I programmed the initial versions of those as well, though I don’t know if the original code is still in Live 11. I hope not (laughs) I’m pretty sure our programmers have changed it by now.
– Do you think Ableton would’ve achieved its current level of prominence without the Complex warping algorithm?
No, certainly not. It was a very important breakthrough. Our own brand of time-stretching was very limited and we needed something much more versatile. That’s what zplane provided.
– Does Live 11 still use Auftakt and Elastique?
Yes, it’s all still in there. Those SDKs have done an incredible amount of work for us over the years.
– Given that third-party developers have developed Live plugins like the Glue Compressor and Analog synth, has any thought been given to incorporating zplane plugins into future versions of Live?
That discussion hasn’t occurred in much detail because it doesn’t fit the agenda of what Ableton has in mind for upcoming versions of Live. But the door is always open since Tim and I still talk regularly.
– You did a Billboard interview at the end of last year, where the CEO of MUSIC, Matt Pincus said, “The challenge for Ableton will be competing with Logic and Pro Tools whilst also contending with piracy“. Does that ring true to you?
In contrast to Matt’s contention, I find it difficult to see “competition” as a challenge. It’s not that I disregard the competition, but I think the much bigger challenge is to live up to the potential of what our staff can deliver. I’m humbled by Ableton’s collective set of talents, and I want to make sure the product we ship is the best version of what so many people can build together. It’s not something that can be easily described in terms of competition with other DAW manufacturers.
– Then it appears Ableton is only competing with itself.
Yes, it’s a bit like that. I think you summarized it perfectly.
– Thanks for talking to us Gerhard. As a final question, what’s your take on how Ableton has changed the electronic music landscape?
It’s always hard to say what would’ve happened without it, but I suspect we spurred the creation of certain kinds of computer-based music, so in that sense, we’ve been part of a broader empowerment that’s led to more people making music, which is very cool.