Collaboration in Ableton Live

Project type
Timeline
Roles
Course Project
2 weeks
User research,
UI design
User interface of Ableton Live with potential collaborative features

Intro

Ableton Live is one of the most popular Digital Audio Workstations (DAW) used for music production. It’s loved for its quick ideation features and ability to play live shows. The feature it is missing is multi-user collaboration.

So how do you turn multiplayer on, in music production software?

Let’s find out!

Research

I began by creating a survey to find out how people collaborate with music software. Everyone has their own solution, which varies by project, but the most common type of collaboration was a mix of in-person and distanced work. Users need something that flows nicely between their different contexts.

I used the survey to narrow the scope of questions I would ask in my interviews. Many of the interviewees were students and it was exam season, so I had to keep interviews short.

Next, I hosted semi-structured interviews with musicians around the topic of collaboration. These were fairly loose with just a few questions, this was to accommodate for the very different setup each musician has (some rely only on software, some record physical instruments). For these interviews, I focused on what problems people ran into during collaborative projects. Users had the most issues with sending files back and forth. This is because each musician has a different set of plugins and folder structures. If someone doesn’t bundle everything in the folder when they send it, the file is broken.

Graphics for file sharing, disjointed collaboration, and creative differences
Issues musicians have with collaborative projects

The next step was to look into how collaborative tools solve file management and multi-user support. I researched Figma, Miro, and Google Docs to see how they handled multiple users. This highlighted key features and patterns that I would include in my design. By keeping to convention, I was looking to reduce the learning curve.

Design

I began my design phase with a generative brainstorm session, keeping in mind the core insights from my research.

I narrowed things down to 4 features: cloud files, comments, live cursors, and ‘spaces’. We’ll look at the first two in this case study.

Cloud Files

The most significant change was switching from local to cloud files. This allows for a more natural working environment where users can focus on the creative process instead of file management. 

Cloud files would include all audio files, midi files, devices, and plugins. Instead of sharing files, the user would share permissions or links to files. There’s no more messing around with folders and making sure you saved everything to the right place.

Since files would no longer be hosted on the user’s computer, they would need a way to manage their files. I created a small file browser to solve for this.

launch screen for Ableton Live
Launch screen to enable easy cloud file management

Because files were now cloud enabled, it opened the door for multi-user support. This is where comments come in.

Comments

Users would need a way to communicate about their project. I considered if they could communicate outside of Ableton Live, but describing music with words is difficult. It felt necessary to include some kind of communication.

My idea started with a chat pane, but evolved into comments. The goal was to maintain Ableton Live’s focus on music production and performance, rather than on tangental features like chat.

Highlighted comment in Ableton Live
Selected comment on right pane

Comments would let users reference a particular clip or scene. This allows collaborators to talk about the music by quoting a particular part. Using this combined with words felt like the lightest-weight way to add conversation to Ableton Live.

Some Ableton jargon:

Clips are usually short riffs or sections of a song, like a chorus or verse. They are hold one single instrument’s sound.

Scenes are groups of clips, this would typically be all the instruments for a section like a chorus.

Comment with related clip highlighted in red
Highlighted clip (red border) launches when play button in comment is pressed.

The quotes added an opportunity to let users suggest changes without committing to them immediately. By integrating the comments with Ableton Live’s ‘clips’ feature, users can hit the play button to hear an idea. Collaborators can approve changes by hitting the check button, which commits that version and hides the comment.

explaining how comment clips work. The play button launches that version of a clip, if a change is made each new comment will reference the new changes. When a comment is resolved by hitting 'check' it commits that version of the clip
Explaining behaviour of comment clips and versioning commits

Testing

I used a high-fidelity prototype to test how users would feel with the collaborative features. Users needed context for the features to make sense, so that’s why I went with high-fidelity.

I learned users liked the new feature set. They felt it added just enough space to allow for collaboration without taking the focus away from music-making. To further support the unobtrusiveness, the new features can be hidden with one click.

Users did have a few issues with my first design, which emerged through testing.

  • The behaviour of comment clips was unclear at first, it would need more explanation or a tooltip.

  • Because Ableton Live is used for performance, users expected an “offline mode” for when timing is crucial.

  • The launch menu felt incomplete. Users expected more settings on the new launch menu to support all the new features.

Next steps

Starting with the launch menu, it felt like a radical change to add one into Ableton Live. I deliberately didn’t put much in the menu because it is a large product decision. However, users felt it was incomplete. A better solution would be to simply have Ableton Live manage local files for you, pulling data from the cloud as others work on the project.

A cloud status-indicator in the top bar with a button to go offline would work well to satisfy the main concerns of the users.

As with most of Ableton Live, a manual and tutorial may be necessary for the comment feature. It would definitely need to be beta tested at length to figure out if there are better ways of surfacing the feature. I think a better introduction would be to remove the version/commit feature and just have comments. As users learned the feature, versioning and commits could be added back in.

The overall feedback was positive, however, the design needs more rounds of testing to complete this feature set.

Here is a walkthrough of all the new features:

What I Learned

Show, don’t tell

The behaviour of clips wasn’t immediately clear to users. I could’ve used the help feature currently implemented in Ableton Live to allow users to discover features on their own.

Small changes have big impact

Adding cloud files seemed like a simple change (from the user’s perspective), but it added a lot of complexity by adding the issue of offline modes, multiple users, and a launch menu. This added unexpected complexity to the design process.

Get in touch

Thanks for reading. If you'd like more detail, or just to chat, shoot me an email at gnlconnell@gmail.com with whatever you've got on your mind.

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