How Ableton Note Attempts to Reinvent Audio Apps Again, This Time on Mobile

But it still has a long way to go

  • Ableton Note is a $6 app for iPhone and iPad. 
  • It uses actual Ableton Live instruments and syncs to your desktop. 
  • Note is amazing but only useful to Ableton Live users.
person working with Ableton's Note and Live apps


Ableton's new Note app for iPhone and iPad looks simple on the surface, but it has the trademark mix of depth and ease of use that makes its Live app so beloved.

No one expected the Berlin-based software company to launch a new mobile app last week, let alone something so focused and polished. If you're expecting a touchscreen version of the Ableton Live digital audio workstation (DAW), then you—like many serial music-forum complainers—will be disappointed. But if you want somewhere to quickly sketch out your musical ideas on the go, then move them into Live later, you're in for a huge—and inexpensive—treat.

"It's so good. It's much more than just Simpler [Ableton's built-in sampler] in there," iOS-based musician Shinyisshiny said on a forum thread participated in by Lifewire. "Having this load right into Ableton with all their built-in FX and devices is just mind-blowing."

Note By Name and Nature

While Ableton’s desktop digital audio workstation, Live, can be used to lay out tracks side-by-side like a digital tape recorder, it can also be used as a musical instrument, by launching pre-made clips on-the-go, but also by playing and mangling sounds on the fly, blurring the line between production and performance.

This ethos is also at the heart of Note. When you launch the app, you’ll see three instrument tracks selected at random (although one is always drums). Start tapping the on-screen note grid, and you’re making music. If you like what you hear, you can tap a button to capture it.

Like everything in Note, this retrospective recording is one of Live’s features, with its user interface tweaked for mobile. All the sounds available to you are also the same instruments built-in to the desktop DAW, only with selected parameters exposed for dialing in your sound.

This is a key part of Note because once you’ve captured an idea and gotten as far as you can on your iPhone, you can open the project in Live on your Mac or PC, sending it via Ableton’s new cloud, or via any other means—AirDrop, Google Drive, etc. Once you open this project on your laptop, you’ll see the full instruments and effects and all your recorded MIDI clips and samples.

Yes, samples. Note is an amazing sampler and takes full advantage of the touchscreen. Editing captured samples is done by swiping and pinching, and recording samples is as fast and intuitive as the best dedicated iOS apps.

iOS Outsider

The iOS music ecosystem comes with some expectations. It’s made up of many smaller apps that work together, usually in the form of audio units (AUv3) that can be hosted inside other apps, like plugins on the desktop. Right now, Note doesn’t support any of this. It’s strictly standalone, although you can synchronize its playback with other apps via Ableton’s own Link protocol. This, says Ableton, is because AUv3 plugins don’t run on PC—just Mac and iOS, which would make full sync impossible.

The result is that iPad-based musicians can’t use any of the software they usually use. The only way to use Note right now is to play its internal instruments, or to record your own samples via the iPhone’s microphone, or via a USB audio interface. You can’t even connect a MIDI piano keyboard to play the built-in synths, although one expects support for this will be added sooner rather than later.

Ableton's Note app on an iPhone


But despite all this, Note is a game changer for Ableton Live users. It lets you start projects in the supermarket checkout queue, quickly grab samples, and have a user interface that's often faster and easier to use than the full version of Live.

"There aren't many reasons for someone to use this if they don't use Ableton," electronic musician Echoopera said in an Audiobus Forums thread. "Its success will come from the frictionless integration with the desktop client. Create a quick sketch, [send it] to a bandmate/collaborator, [they] push it a bit, [then they send] it back, and you finish on the desktop."

And while other apps offer to export their audio into a Live-compatible format, only Note uses actual Ableton Live instruments, so you can open them and access all the deep parameters on the computer.

And like Live, Note is deceptively simple the first time you use it, but it rewards exploration because it's surprisingly deep for a 1.0 release. Ableton has really nailed the touch UI; it's one of the smartest I've used once you get used to it.

I have a feeling this is the start of something really big.

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