If you are new to Ableton Live, you may be wondering what each of the stock ‘plugins’ (e.g., instruments and effects) do?
Perhaps you are a seasoned producer looking at utilizing the CPU-saving potential of inbuilt plugins.
Either way, Ableton has a host of plugins to suit your needs.
This article looks at the pros and cons of using these plugins, assessing how they compare to external third-party plugins, and ultimately answering are Ableton stock plugins good.
Let’s jump in!
What Plugins Are We Looking At
For this article, I have selected four audio effect VST plugins and one instrument VST plugin to review.
Each plugin comes standard with all versions of Ableton Live.
Ableton Live Compressor
First of all, where would we be without the compressor? Ableton’s stock compressor can handle your signal-squashing, loudness-boosting, and sidechaining needs.
For the uninitiated, a compressor takes the audio signal that peaks above a set threshold and lowers that volume according to the ratio set by the producer. This levels the audio so that the louder parts and the quieter parts are closer in volume. You can then raise the overall volume of the compressed signal using the makeup gain.
We do this to make our audio signal stronger and louder overall, but at the loss of some dynamics.
On the other hand, sidechaining is when you lower the audio signal volume when another audio signal is happening.
By sidechaining the compressor to an input signal from another track, using the sidechain button and the ‘Audio From’ option. Anytime the linked signal is louder than the threshold, the audio of the compressed track will duck at the ratio set.
The most common example we find of sidechaining is in modern dance music, where the audio signal of a less prominent element (such as the synths) duck in volume each time the kick drum hits.
This creates space in the mix and is an essential plugin in your VST toolbox.
Is It Good?
Now that we know the basic compression principles, we can now ask whether Ableton Live’s stock plugin is good enough for the job or opt for an external plugin (such as Ozone’s Vintage Compressor).
Ableton Live’s compressor does the job very well. I have tried other external compressor plugins, and none of them quite match the simplicity of Ableton Live’s stock compressor.
It has all the features you need to create a balanced, punchy sound. For this reason, I use Ableton’s compressor on tracks, during mixing, and in the mastering process.
Ableton’s saturator is similar to an overdrive or distortion effect. It takes an audio signal and transforms it by adding frequencies across the spectrum, using different waveshapes.
If that all sounds too confusing, one can think of it as a source of heat that can warm up (or totally cook) your audio.
Using Live’s saturator, you add harmonics to your audio, creating a richer, fuller, and more aggressive sound.
There are many uses for Ableton Live’s saturator. In fact, I use it on almost every track. It can be used to add some sizzle to a snare drum, some grit to your vocals, or warmth and depth to your synths.
You will find that most producers who use Ableton use the saturator plugin liberally, and you are likely to see it being used in many tutorials on mixing and mastering that you will no doubt watch on Youtube.
Is It Good?
So is it good, or should you consider going with a third-party plugin like FabFilter Saturn 2?
I suggest that you at least start with Ableton Live’s stock saturator plugin. Doing so will give you a feel for what a saturator does. Furthermore, it helps to use Ableton’s saturator in subtle ways to help elements to be more present in the mix and to add warmth to your song when mastering.
If you want more extreme effects, you will be better off toying about with third-party plugins.
For general mixing and spicing up your mix, I recommend Ableton Live’s stock saturator.
Erosion is Ableton’s take on a bit crusher. It takes an audio signal and ‘degrades’ the sound by modulating a short delay with a sine wave or white noise (the options on the bottom).
The result is a distorted, dirty lo-fi effect that you can tune to your liking.
Where does this affect fit? Typically I use it on my snare drums; it helps them to cut through the mix. However, you can use it on just about anything. For instance, some people use it on their bass frequencies to make them a little extra spicey.
Some might find that a bit crazy since it makes it harder to control the bass, but that is the beauty of producing – there is no right way to do it; there is only your way.
Is It Good?
The fact is, Ableton Live’s erosion is a fun and simple effect to mess about with. How does it compare with other well-known bit crushers like Camel Crusher?
Personally, I find Ableton’s erosion plugin much better for mixing to help certain elements have their say in the mix.
However, if you are chasing a balls-to-the-wall lo-fi sound, or you want to add some squealy distortion to your growl bass, go with something more intense and something that will add more harmonics than the Ableton erosion plugin.
For that purpose, I recommend Camel Crusher.
Ableton Auto Filter
Who doesn’t love the fade-out and fade-in effect before a big bass drop? Most of the time, when you hear that wooshing pre-drop effect, you hear Ableton Live’s Auto Filter at work.
The Auto Filter is actually more simple than it looks. See that blue line there? That is a mini EQ.
Say you want to hide some of the higher frequencies of your bassline in the verse of your song. Have the Auto Filter set to lowpass (which cuts off the higher frequencies) and mess with the frequency nob until you have the bass sitting where you like it.
Alternatively, if you want to create the pre-drop effect, apply the lowpass filter to your synths and automate the frequency nob to increase during the pre-drop to allow the higher frequencies to swell before the drop gradually.
Add a bunch of reverb, and presto! You’ll be playing festivals in no time. 😉
Is It Good?
Compared to other third-party auto filters I have used, this stacks up well.
Sure, other filter plugins do all sorts of crazy effects. But if you need to do a quick bandpass or simple frequency tweaks, Ableton’s Auto Filter is the way to go.
Ableton Live Simpler
Whether or not Ableton’s Simpler counts as an instrument is debatable.
However, it allows you to play samples in ways similar to an instrument. ‘Simply’ drag a sample (e.g., a melody, vocal hook, etc.) into Simpler and use your midi controller (or use the piano roll) for cooking up a fresh new hook using the sample.
Keep in mind that each note you play will start the sample from the start (or wherever you have the first gray bar set). You will notice that each note you press will also change the pitch and tempo of the sample.
If you want the sample to stay at the same tempo when you play different notes, use the warping function.
If you prefer to play different sample sections, you can use the ‘Slice’ option to map different parts of the sample to your controller.
Is It Good?
What I have told you here about Simpler are the bare basics. You can go nuts with this plugin, using macros and effects to turn Simpler into a fully-fledged synth or glitch machine.
I am sure there must be other samplers on the market that look sexier. Yet, I still use Simpler. Call me old-school…
Max For Live
I must mention that Max for Live does not come standard with Ableton Live Intro or Standard.
It can be bought as an add-on for Ableton Live Standard and comes as stock with Ableton Live Suite.
What Is Max For Live?
Max for Live is a series of effects and modulators used with midi and live performance. I don’t use Max for Live a whole great deal. However, I have recently been using the LFO tool, which can be pretty handy.
The idea behind the LFO (Low-Frequency Oscillator) is that you can set a waveform to modulate a set perimeter that you map it to (by pressing the map button, then the thing you want to modulate), such as a frequency nob on an effect plugin or instrument.
Depending on the waveform and rate you set, this can create cool modulation effects, such as the wobble effect used in dubstep and synth-wave.
Since Max for Live does not come stock with all versions of Ableton Live, I will leave that for now. It is just good to know about in case you think of branching out into other forms of modulation.
Are Ableton Stock Plugins Good – FAQ
What makes Ableton plugins good?
They are simple in design, have superb algorithms, and they are very friendly to your CPU.
Are Ableton stock plugins enough?
Absolutely. I often solely use Ableton Live’s stock plugins. However, you may need to branch out into third-party plugins to explore different kinds of sounds and sound design.
Can you master with Ableton stock plugins?
Does Ableton Standard have Operator?
Unfortunately not, only Suite.
Can you use third-party plugins in Ableton?
What are 3rd party plugins?
They are instruments and effects made by other companies (so not Ableton) that can be used in Ableton Live (i.e., ‘plugin’).
But aren’t good plugins always expensive?
Not always; many are free.
Sometimes It’s easy to get caught up and always looking for new plugins (trust me, I know I’ve got a folder full of them) and overlook the ones that come with your DAW.
Ableton Live is a fantastic bit of software and comes with superb stock plugins to help you with any music production you plan to undertake.
Have a good look at them before deciding if you need to buy any third-party plugins, as you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how good they are.
If you are new to production, and wondering if Ableton Live is a good choice for beginners, click HERE and find out.
about the author
Hi, I’m Casey, a musician, and writer from the Australian surf coast.
I make midtempo bass music under the name ‘Cavedweller,’ which was inspired by the past and Plato’s cave sages. Originally from a musical background in heavy metal, I also play guitar and drums for the band Mountaris – signed to US record label Transcending Records.