We’ve used Berlin-based Ableton’s products in our spare time for many years. As they prepare to host Loop, a summit for music makers, we meet CEO Gerhard Behles and Head of Documentation Dennis DeSantis to discuss the company’s history of boldly stepping into uncharted waters.

words Elliot Jay Stocks
photographs Ableton

Ableton started life in 1999, when Gerhard Behles and Robert Henke, working together at the time as the electronic duo Monolake, teamed up with Bernd Roggendorf to create a piece of software that could be played like a musical instrument. That software became Ableton Live, and helped shape the creation, performance, and production of modern electronic music. Like the other products that would eventually follow, Live’s creation was “based upon gut feeling and personal need,” explains Gerhard. “The tools available to us weren’t compatible with our mode of production, and we felt that something else was needed.”

Gerhard Behles

From its inception, Live has always stood out from other music-making applications, not only because of the way it works, but also because of how it looks: it’s minimal, focussed, and ‘flat’ — long before such an aesthetic became an Apple-led design trend. Asked how they’ve remained true to their original vision nine versions in, Gerhard says that from the very beginning, they’ve always cared more about the experience the musician has when using their tools. “We’ve always put this experience — a blissful experience — above features. Sometimes that’s difficult: it means you have to say no to many things that people might want for good reasons.”

Dennis DeSantis, who can often be found on the road demonstrating Ableton’s products, says, “when I do a demo, almost all of the questions I get asked afterwards are not to do with what I’ve just demo’d, but feature requests. It’s not like we do nothing — we certainly do implement new things — but we’re careful and we say no a lot.” Gerhard expands upon this: “You can never be a master of your tools if your tools keep expanding unnecessarily. There’s a lot we’d like to do to streamline Live’s workflow and tweak some of the interactions we’ve already built. We want the musician to be able to reach that blissful experience with greater ease.”

I ask them how this compares to Push, the hardware instrument they launched in 2013. “It was almost an inevitable step for us,” says Gerhard. “The software was meant to be as instrument-like as it could be, but at some point there’s a barrier you hit without designing and detailing the specifics of the hardware interface — so we had to go there, too.”

We’ve always put the experience — a blissful experience — above features. Sometimes that’s difficult: it means you have to say no.

Gerhard Behles

But are there iteration challenges with hardware? Dennis suggests that it’s not an issue: “We’ve been able to add functionality to Push through firmware updates and software updates to Live. You can do a lot without having to remake hardware. But every time you do one of these things, you run the risk of the product becoming very mode-heavy, and then it’s just not fun to play anymore.” Gerhard agrees: “it’s been a fascinating opportunity for us; to not think of Push as a controller for Live, but as a proposition for music-making that’s independent from the notion of running a computer program.” Push offers the musician the chance to rarely look at the computer screen, which is a very bold statement for a software company to make. But Ableton has never been shy about taking risks, and in a continuation of this tradition, 2015 saw the publication of Making Music: 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers, a book written by Dennis and published by Ableton.

Dennis DeSantis

“Originally, it was going to be my own side project,” Dennis says. “I figured I’d write it on my own and then pitch it to the usual music technology publishers. But then I mentioned it to Gerhard in passing over lunch one day and he immediately suggested that Ableton publish it. I was initially skeptical, as we knew nothing about publishing as a company, but the more we talked about it, the more it made sense. In retrospect, it was absolutely the right decision. Both for the success of the book — it got a lot of initial attention that it wouldn’t have if it’d been just another music technology publication — but also it just makes so much sense because of what we do as a company, which is: make people’s music-making experiences better.”

I ask Gerhard how he made the decision to become a book publisher so spontaneously. “There are two components,” he explains. “Firstly, it’s serendipity. We all overestimate our capabilities for planning and we’re much better advised to create conditions where luck can strike — and this is one of those cases. I’ve always said to Dennis, ‘isn’t there something else that would better correspond to your genius than writing documentation?’ And when he said he wanted to write this book about the problems and solutions of music creation, it struck me: ‘this is it! This is what this guy must do!’ Secondly, the thing we’ve been observing for a long time is that if you take the musician’s experience seriously, there’s a lot of concern around questions that have nothing to do with the technology, and which the technology can never hope to answer. We can’t make software or hardware or technology products that will answer these specific needs around getting better as musicians. So, as with Push, it was inevitable.”

Dennis elaborates, suggesting that there’s a bias in music education towards tools. “The knowledge of how to use buttons and knobs is only one part of the equation. The problems people have are often to do with the fundamental issues of creativity and how to be musical, whether you’re using pan flutes, or guitars, or software. In my role as Head of Documentation, I teach people how to use our products, but it’s not until this book that I’ve been able to teach people about how to actually make music with them.”

These concepts have evolved into Ableton’s latest venture: The Loop event they’re hosting in Berlin at the end of October. Gerhard says that the idea was backed by the extremely positive response to Dennis’ book. “It was like confirmation that there’s a need here; there’s so much work to be done. We’re in a fortunate position because we have a wonderful network of friends and artists, and we were able to get a lot of immediate ‘yes’ responses from them. Once again, it’s a combination of fortunate circumstances and us feeling that we just have to go there — that Loop is necessary for us to do.”

I’d like to think that the conversations they have in the hallways are just as exciting as what they observe in the official sessions.

Dennis DeSantis

I ask Gerhard and Dennis what they’d like attendees to get out of Loop. Dennis says that, for him, the key word is inspiration. “I’d feel good if people left and went home and were wildly productive. The other thing is that I hope they’d connect with each other. We’re excited about this opportunity to get all these great people together in one room — some on stage, some in the audience — all connected by this desire to explore what technology and creativity and music have to offer. I’d like to think that the conversations they have in the hallways are just as exciting as what they observe in the official sessions.” Gerhard agrees, and admits that the desire to host Loop is quite selfish. He says that, “we’re just excited to have two-and-half days to have this intense exchange with the folks that deal with all of these issues.”

I offer that there’s nothing wrong with being selfish; with scratching your own itch. Doing just that has led to Ableton creating some truly game- changing products, from Live and Push through to Dennis’ book and now Loop. Each one has been about making a bold statement and challenging themselves to do something wildly different, all propelled by the ideals found at the heart of the company: to enable musical creativity and to offer the very best experience while doing so.

This story was originally published in Lagom #3, which you can buy from our online store.