Ableton is undeniably one of the most popular DAWs on the market, but it is quite pricey.
If you are just getting started with music production it can seem like a big investment, but is Ableton worth the money or is it superfluous? Can you get the same elsewhere for cheaper? Why do people consistently shell out for Ableton Live and other Ableton products considering the price?
In summary: Ableton Live is very good for certain types of producers, usually those in specializing in electronic music production. If that is you, then the live functionality, intuitive loop-based production, built in instruments, samples and effects and integration with Ableton Hardware make it worth the high price tag. For a beginner producer or someone more interested in recording live instruments there are probably cheaper alternatives on the market that will be a better option. The great news is Ableton offers a 90 day free trial as well as a ‘Lite’ version if you don’t want to buy the expensive ‘Suite’ straight away.
If you do want a truly elite piece of software for making music, there aren’t that many options. If the workflow of Ableton suits your production style then this is another big plus point, as Ableton is quite unique in its layout. Plenty of musicians are happy to pay the price considering the features Ableton has.
The Ableton Pricing Model
Ableton Live has three versions. Intro, Standard and Suite. They all look very similar to start with, but if you buy Standard or Suite then you can enjoy extra VST instruments, effects and loops included. Plus, Ableton Live Intro restricts quite a few of the features and functions of the software.
While Ableton Live Lite might be decent for playing around and getting used to the interface, the cheaper price tag shouldn’t be enough to tempt in serious musicians. It is quite restrictive. For instance, you can’t add more than 16 tracks to a piece of music you are making. It is definitely designed to try and get you to upgrade to Standard or Suite.
Luckily, once you have purchased one version of the software, Ableton will let you upgrade, so you don’t have to pay the full price to get the next level of software.
This upgrade cosy is a bit of a hidden cost to consider, you do have to pay to upgrade if you want all the features of the new software. You can still carry on using the old versions of Ableton though but you will always feel like you are missing out on something! These new versions come out every few years on average. Ableton is currently on version 10.
The price for the full version is similar to the price of Pro Tools, a competing piece of software, which is also extremely powerful, and aimed at musical professionals. There are some cheaper alternatives, as we will come to later on in the article.
Which Producers Will Find Ableton Worth the Investment?
Arrangement vs Live View
Whether or not you find Ableton worth the money will largely depend upon how you use it, and if you find the workflow suitable for you.
The ‘Live’ in Ableton Live is there for a reason and the software is made with the idea of playing live heavily integrated. For this reason it has additional functionality to other DAWs and why it is favoured by many dance music producers who may want to take their creations to a live setting.
Instead of the linear “arrangement” window, Ableton also has its Live window, allowing you to audition loops and mess around with effects in real time. This is why so many dance music producers, and people who use a lot of loops in their production, have found Ableton to have a suitable workflow. This style is great for DJs who are used to working in looped modes, thinking of music in more of a live capacity.
If you’ve used DAWs before and like working in an ‘arrangement’ view then you may not even use Abletons ‘live’ view and that means you are paying a lot of money for something you aren’t using. There will probably be cheaper DAWs out there which will be just as useful if that is the case.
Alternatives if you would rather work in this “linear” fashion include Logic Pro and Pro Tools. There are some cheaper alternatives, too.
Whether you find Ableton Live worth the money isn’t just about how much it costs, it is about whether it aids your production or not. Many producers describe themselves as “clicking” with the Ableton layout. If you’re used to DJing and want to be able to audition loops in a more live environment then it certainly could be your production companion.
Ableton manufactures its own hardware, and there is a lot of third-party hardware designed to link up with Ableton Live and give you a hardware controller with an instant Ableton setup. Ableton’s own “Push” is one of the instruments that a lot of people like the idea of playing.
In the words of Ableton, “Push is an instrument that puts everything you need to make music in one place—at your fingertips.” If you want hardware too, this might come into your consideration.
Some hardware and even affordable MIDI keyboards come with Ableton Live Lite as standard, so this can be a way to trial the basic version of the software without having any extra expense.
How Will You Know if Ableton Live is For You?
We realise our answer to whether Ableton is worth the money is going to be frustrating for some people, as we can’t give you a “yes” or “no”. Plenty of people get a lot out of Ableton Live and would never switch to any other piece of software, which speaks volumes, but we definitely recommend trying it out.
Luckily, Ableton gives you a 90 day free trial of Ableton Live Suite. You can simply download the software from their site.
Some functionality is limited, and after 90 days you will have to make the decision of whether or not to pay for it, but this is pretty standard. The key is the fact that you will get to make the decision yourself after using Ableton Live for a period of time.
The question of ‘which is the best DAW’ is one you will find many conflicting answers for all over the internet. The reason for this is there is no one right answer. People tend to choose a DAW early in their production career and become familiar with it and often end up loving it.
I have used Ableton since I got a free copy of Live Lite when I was just 15. I am now familiar and comfortable with how it works and that is one of the most important factors. You don’t want to be spending hours or days re-learning a new piece of software when you could be writing music instead!
The Competitors to consider
Best if you don’t want to spend anything: Garageband
Readers of the blog may know I often rave about Garageband. This DAW gets a bit of stick because it comes free on Apple products but I think that is unfair. For a beginner, it is a great way to learn about music production and how to arrange a musical composition.
The software is easy to start using and comes with some pretty nice sounding virtual instruments as well as letting you record your own of course.
If you are simply interested in getting started now for free, then give it a go. As musicians, we can get bogged down in talking about software and hardware but in reality, those are just distractions from actually writing and recording music!
The downsides of Garageband will become apparent as you progress as a producer. You are very limited with the number of effects and plugins you can use and more advanced production techniques are really a no go. But because it was free you haven’t lost anything.
The other major downside is that you can only get Garageband on Apple products and so if you own a Windows computer or laptop you won’t be able to get it.
Once you are comfortable with the principles of recording music on Garageband, transitioning to a paid DAW like Ableton will be much easier. It’s a great stepping stone for a beginner.
Best if you aren’t interested in live performance: Logic Pro
If you are a Mac user, then you might be wondering whether Ableton Live or Logic Pro is more suitable for you to download and start using. Obviously, there is an element of personal preference, but both have an incredibly professional reputation and relatively simple layout.
The full version of Logic Pro is less than half the price of the full version of Ableton Live, which is a considerable saving.
If you have a free reign to spend as much as you want then this won’t come into your consideration, if you want something that is affordable as well as high-end then the affordability of Logic Pro might come into your thinking. Logic Pro still has plenty of virtual instruments and inbuilt effects, and the costs are considerably lower.
Once again I’m afraid Logic is only available on Apple products. But I do really recommend getting an Apple computer or laptop for music production which I explain in this article if you are interested.
A Cheaper Alternative on Windows: Reaper
Reaper is a DAW that has increased in popularity immensely over the last few years. And this is mainly due to its very low price point.
You can get a non-commercial licence for Reaper for just $40 whereas a commercial licence is just $200. Most individuals will only need the $40 licence.
Reaper can be a little bit daunting to get started with as it has so many customisable elements. But that can be a strong point too. If you are comfortable with computers and don’t mind spending time getting to know the ins and outs of a piece of software then Reaper is a very cool option.
Where it falls down compared to Ableton are again mainly the ‘Live’ elements. It isn’t tailored in the same way towards dance music production or live performance. But if you are looking to record using acoustic instruments rather than produce within the computer using MIDI and loop based production then Reaper is a very interesting option.
Students and Teachers – Don’t Forget Discounts
A quick reminder for those who are looking to keep costs down. If you are a student or a teacher and can prove that you are involved with an educational establishment then you can make use of discounts of up to 40%.
This significant saving can tip the balance of whether or not you want to buy Ableton or not. Ableton is not the only software offering this discount for students, but if you are eligible then you shouldn’t overlook the saving that can be made.
Conclusion – Is Ableton Worth the Money?
Whether or not Ableton will be worth the investment for you is an individual decision to make. There are plenty of cheaper (and even free) options out there but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss Ableton.
Ableton really shines for certain types of producers and musicians. If you like to write in loops, use a lot of MIDI or software synths then Ableton is hard to beat and is extremely powerful. You aren’t paying all that money for nothing.
That said you are paying all that money for nothing if you don’t use it to it’s full potential. If you are simply looking to record a few tracks using live instruments and vocals, Ableton is probably not the best option in terms of value.
I personally use Ableton and have for years and so can vouch for it fully. If you think it could work for you give the 90 day trial a go and make sure you maximise that time. Explore the 1000s of Youtube videos about the software and watch people make tracks using it. If you are still unsure then try the Lite version next, you can still make some pretty cool tracks in that limited software. Then finally you can take the plunge on the final version!