Why iPad Music App Support in Ableton Live is so Awesome

Use all those quirky iOS AUv3 music apps on your Mac

  • The 11.2 beta adds support for AUv3 audio plugins.
  • This lets M1 Mac users run iPad apps in Ableton.
  • iPad apps are often way cheaper than the Mac and PC versions. 
Reverb plugin in Ableton Live


You can now run iPad music apps inside super-popular audio editing app Ableton Live. 

The latest beta of Ableton Live adds a few neat features for Mac users. If you own an M1 Apple Silicon Mac, it now loads plugins that were built for the iPad and iPhone. This opens up a whole slew of amazing, low-cost music apps to Mac users and could make it a lot easier to switch between Mac and iPad when making music. 

“AUv3 support in Ableton is BIG,” musician Pynchon said in the Audiobus Forums. “I can finally say goodbye to MainStage or Logic Pro as my AUv3 hosts, I really HATE the Apple music apps ecosystem.”

Audio Units

The real news is that Ableton now loads AUv3 (Audio Unit, version 3) plugins. This is just the latest version of that standard Audio Unit plugins that it already supports, in addition to VST (Virtual Studio Technology) plugins. It is also the only plugin type supported by iOS and is very popular in iPad music apps. A plugin, in this context, is an app that can be loaded inside another host app, adding functionality. 

For example, it could be as simple as a reverb effect that can be loaded and used in your recording software of choice. Or it could be as fancy as an entire DAW (a digital audio workstation app like Ableton itself) which can run inside another app and add a ton of extras, like the ability to put an audio recorder or a sampler inside an app that usually only lets you play MIDI-based synthesizers usually.  

Because Audio Units are the only officially-supported way for iOS apps to interact with each other (there are older methods, but Apple is dropping support for those), they are extremely popular on the iPad. In fact, an entire ecosystem of iPad music-making has grown up around AUv3s, hosted inside a specialist app like the amazing Loopy Pro or the ultra-flexible AUv3 routing and recording app AUM, or the frankly incredible do-it-all modular groove-box Drambo

Ever since Apple made its M1 Macs, which use the same chips as the iPad and iPhone, you’ve been able to run iOS apps on the Mac and also load AUv3 plugins into GarageBand and Logic Pro. But Ableton Live is a much more experimental DAW, and is way better suited to the quirky single-serve apps common on iOS. 

Ableton and iOS

Koala FX plugin in Ableton Live

So, what kinds of stuff can you do with Ableton now that you couldn’t do before? Well, technically, not much. AUv3 plugins are just another kind of plugin. The difference is that the music apps on iOS are a lot different. While there are some monolith beasts, mostly developers, create small, focused apps that either do one thing very well, or explore the weirder side of sound design. 

For instance, there’s an iOS app named Koala FX that offers 16 neat audio effects, each controlled by an on-screen slider. You can mangle incoming audio on the fly, creating a performance as your go. It’s amazing with the touch screen, and there’s nothing like it in Ableton. 

Now, you can load Koala FX into Ableton, map its sliders to physical knobs on your MIDI controller of choice, and play along. If you like, all of those knob movements can be recorded as an Ableton automation for editing and playback later. 

Race to the Bottom

I understand that [some apps] are indeed a separate purchase on desktop, not necessarily because of technical reasons but because they're priced differently.

Not all iOS plugins are available on the Mac. The developer has to opt-in. Perhaps they have a separate Mac version of the app already available, or maybe their iOS app just doesn't work that well on the desktop. 

One of the worries about running iOS music apps on the Mac is that we will see the same race to the bottom, price-wise. For the iPad, $10 is considered expensive for an app. On the desktop, $150 for a plugin is normal. The problem with cheap apps is that the developer cannot sustain their business, especially as the App Store doesn't let them charge for updates. 

"I understand that [some apps] are indeed a separate purchase on desktop, not necessarily because of technical reasons but because they're priced differently," said musician Grandbear in a forum thread

Also, sometimes an app is just better on iOS. Koala FX is one example. Touching it is more fun than using knobs or a mouse. Another example is ThumbJam, which lets you play realistic-sounding instruments via taps and swipes. It would be utterly pointless on the Mac. But that's fine, because it's also possible to hook up an iPhone or iPad to your Mac via USB, and play the audio directly into Ableton, just like hooking up an electric guitar. 

The result is that adding AUv3 support opens up a whole new world of weird sounds, which is kind of the whole point of Ableton. It's already a place where people can get experimental, and now it can be even weirder.

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