Here I look at Ableton Live’s Browser and the need for a better searchable design.

Ableton Live’s browser can be a confusing mess. There’s not a whole lot of sense in why Ableton chose the categories they did when you first look at it. To be perfectly honest, as someone who has some experience in information architecture, Live’s category organization is less than desired.

As you can see, there are some odd things going on which I will get into later (see if you can find them):

Ableton Live Browser Categories

Where I come from on this is asset management. Suppose you have a few hundred sound related files that you need to organize on your computer. That may not be so difficult at first and finding things in a linear fashion, isn’t so bad. You’ll probably arrange them, with some careful thought, like this:

Audio Clips
  Cello
  Comical
  Drums
  Happy
  Unusual
  Violin
 
MIDI Instruments
  Bass
  Drums
  Electric Guitar
  Electric Piano
  Piano

The important thing is that YOU arrange them the way YOU want them organized and what makes sense to YOU.

But at some point, things scale up into thousands, tens of thousands, even millions. Finding things in a linear fashion at that scale with poor categorization is a recipe for disaster.

You will eventually run out of hard disk space too. If you have several music producers in your organization, its silly to have all these files stored on each workstation. Instead, these files can be cached locally, and placed on network servers to scale horizontally as the number of files grow.

There is a big problem in Ableton’s method. They need to really think bigger. They should design a database repository with automatic updates to manage all these assets. The most important thing is in how their customers go about searching and finding these assets. Sound is not very easy to describe. It is not like a text document that is searchable through its text tokens. Rather, sound needs to have a lot of metadata associated with it to be searchable and useful. At the top of my head, metadata fields like:

  • Title
  • Description
  • Genre
  • Tags
  • File location
  • Filename
  • File type
  • Last user to update
  • Last update time
  • Vendor
  • Version

For example, a big problem I see is in the Clips. Look at how all the clips are flat listed in the browser. That is totally useless! Users are better off using the file system with meaningful folder names than just lumping everything into a generic “Clips” category.

Ableton Browser Clips categorization

When the vendor put together these clips, they organized them in a meaningful way. If you go look at the Clips folder on your hard disk, you will see this folder organization. All that important information is lost with the way Live’s Browser organizes clips in a flatline list.

Ableton Live clip folders

Wouldn’t you want to know that clips were organized in this useful structure by music type or instruments? If you were looking for a Hip Hop clip, how are you supposed to find it when Live’s browser strips this information out in your view?

Sounds

Lets start off with Sounds. This is a very generic category name isn’t it? Its so generic that you could lump everything in this one category itself as the parent of all other categories. Its no different than giving it the name “Audio”.

These are Ableton Device Group (.ADG) and Device Preset files (.ADV).

Clips

These are Ableton Live Clip files (.ALC).

Drums

Most of the drum files are Ableton Device Group (.ADG).

The exception is the Drum Rack which is a container for Samples, Effects, Instruments, and Presets. You can assign a pad to any of these container types

Instruments

These are Ableton Live MIDI Device Instruments. With Ableton Live 9 Suite, there are 11 that ship:

  1. Analog
  2. Collision
  3. Drum Rack
  4. Electric
  5. External Instruments
  6. Impulse
  7. Instrument Rack
  8. Operator
  9. Sampler
  10. Simpler
  11. Tension

Samples

These are Ableton Live Encrypted AIFF files (.AIF). Why should the user care if they are encrypted? Why categorization them this way? “Samples” as a category is not useful if you are trying to describe files that are AIFF and encrypted. It means nothing to the user when they are thinking in clips.

So What’s The Problem With Ableton Live’s Browser Categorization?

Why in the user perspective should we care about arrangement of audio in file types? Do you go searching for Arianna Grande audio based on AIFF? Or WAV? Or .AIF, .ADG, .ALC? No.

Sounds, Clips, and Samples should all be one thing. Clips are the canonical form of music data in Ableton Live from the user’s perspective. The user does not care if each is of a different file type extension. They just want to use that audio data in Live. When it comes to the operating system platform, underneath the surface, a clip is a representation of either .AIFF (Mac OSX) or .WAV (Microsoft Windows). Users should not think in terms of file type and what specific Ableton Live file extension is being used internally.

Remember the Drums category? How silly is that. Drums are an Instrument. Its makes no sense from a user perspective, to categorize drums outside the Instrument category.

As a user, when you want to find a clip, do you search on the category “Sound”? On the category “Clips” or “Samples”?

No.

Why? Because if you have a sea of a million audio assets, you’d be searching forever. It is too generic of a category. There needs to be sub categories and it should be custom tailored to what the user wants.

When you go looking for piece of music you have in mind, do you search based on filename? Of course not! But that is what Ableton Live’s search box does. Don’t believe me? Click on the Sounds category. Type in violin as the search term. Now look at your results. Uncollapse and see every result is based on filename. The filename is the worst to use. It is limited in length and the type of characters that can be used. What if the regular expression parser got it all wrong? What if the special characters that are not allowed in a Windows filename were important, like slash, backslash, pipe, quote, and mathematics?

The filenames can also name collide. If you were a Drums sound library vendor, your filenames are going to collide with other sound library vendors.

What if I had a clips of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons stored as “17thCentury-OldMusic”. Just how am I going to find them if the filename doesn’t have Vivaldi or Four Seasons in it? Metadata is needed, right?

Summary

Audio assets should be treated as linkable references searchable through a meta database, not on physical filenames.

Audio file management is very important as you acquire more audio assets. Being organized and searchable are two factors that will make or kill your ability to find things fast. Abelton Live’s categories are un-intuitive. This sort of organization leads to poor productivity. As assets are added, the flat list presentation suffers and will get even worse. No user wants to scroll through a million audio clips nor use a search facility that bases its metadata on filename.

What is needed is a sound library with rich metadata to allow for additional categorization, longer descriptions, titles, and tags. One that puts the control within the hands of the user so that he can organize his audio assets the way he wants them, not the way Ableton Live forces upon you.

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