Ableton Live Beta Goes in Hard on Expressive Music With Impressive Drift Synth

Feel the pressure with MPE

  • Ableton Live 11.3 adds the new Drift MPE-first synth.
  • Drift will be included in all versions of Live, even the free Lite.
  • MPE gives electronic musicians the expressive control of a violin or trumpet.
A musician using an Ableton Live synth.


Ableton is so hot on the new, expressive MPE technology that it's giving away a brand new synthesizer with its free versions. 

Ableton's latest Live beta goes in hard on MPE, or MIDI Polyphonic Expression, a technology that brings the expressiveness of a violin, or a wind instrument, to the electronic realm. The 11.3 beta adds not only a slew of MPE features and refinements but also a new synth named Drift. And as a measure of Ableton's commitment to MPE, Drift is also the first synth it has given away in its free Live Lite version. And it sounds amazing. 

"As a synth nerd, the sound and the analog way different parameters interact is super exciting, yet as a professional designer, I'm almost more impressed by the design. The economy of the workflow packed into such an unassuming UI is among the best I've seen, hardware or software," said electronic musician and designer Clayton Miller, aka Presteignin, in a forum thread participated in by Lifewire. "This could have been a big selling point just for Suite, so the fact that it's coming to all editions of Live is astounding. This is a huge move from Ableton." 

Live Play With MPE

The clue is in the name Ableton Live. Live is a Digital Audio Workstation, but it is also an immediate, flowing live performance tool, and it's the seamless combo of both these aspects that makes it so amazing. 

Normally when you play a MIDI piano key, you can choose how hard you hit it and how long you hold it down. Sometimes you might also get aftertouch, which lets you affect the sound with continued pressure on the key. MPE is an extension of this, only it also lets you wiggle and slide that finger and can even detect how hard you pull the finger off.

Ableton Live

Lifewire / Charlie Sorrel

The key part of MPE is the "P." Polyphonic expression means that every finger can affect the sound independently. It's like the difference between the old plastic-screened ATMs, where you had to jab a finger hard to register a press, and the multi-touch screens on our phones today. 

To use MPE, you need to hook up a compatible controller. There are plenty of those already available, although their capabilities vary. You could use a fairly standard MIDI piano keyboard with polyphonic aftertouch, which would let you vary the pressure on every key in a chord, for example. Or you might use one of Roli's rubbery controllers that let you smoosh, swish, and slide over its keys.

Since forever, electronic musicians have used piano-style keyboards to play music, but with MPE, we can finally reach the levels of expression that are bread and butter for electric guitar players and so on. MPE isn't itself new. But Ableton's massive push to MPE certainly is. 

Ableton Live 11.3—Drift and MPE

MPE has been built into some of Live's synths for a while now, but Drift is the first one built with MPE in mind. It is also available in all versions of Live. Previously you had to use a paid version of Live to get a synthesizer. 

Drift is rad. It's a simple-looking analog-style synthesizer with two oscillators (sound sources) and a few sound-shaping options. But this apparent simplicity hides a lot of depth while making it very easy to use. To discount it as a basic entry-level plugin would be a bad idea. It's a great place to learn the basics of synth sound design, but it is also super fun and makes it quick and fast to dial in your own sounds. 

A music creation space that includes Ableton Live.


"It’s really Live’s missing bread-and-butter synth—simple in a way that will encourage you to use its easily accessible modulation controls and (of course) expression of some kind. Sometimes less is more," writes electronic music journalist Peter Kirn, on his Create Digital Music blog

It does have presets, but I recommend going off-piste. It's clear what everything does, and you can come up with great sounds in no time. You can also easily assign most parameters to the MPE controls on your keyboard or other input devices. I managed to get some Kraftwerk Radioactivity-style vocal sounds going almost by accident (ok, I admit it—it was totally by accident). 

MPE might not be the tool for everything, but if you want to experiment, then Ableton's Live might soon (after the beta goes final) be the best place to try.

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