The Untold Story of Ableton Live—the Program That Transformed Electronic Music Performance Forever
In their first joint interview, co-founders Gerhard Behles and Robert Henke look back at the company's roots in Berlin’s 90s techno scene and its worldwide impact.
Photo by Author
The history of Ableton usually starts in 2001, when the Berlin-based software company released their first product, Ableton Live—a digital audio workstation and audio sequencer that, among its many functions, allows musicians to easily store and trigger samples during their shows so audiences can watch them build songs in real time. This game-changing software made it easier for the average person to make music and use their computer as an instrument, as well as perform live without needing to know how to program their own software. As a result, the software was widely adopted, and radically shifted the way electronic music is performed live by encouraging more producers to leave their homes and studios for the stage—a move that helped fuel the explosion of festival culture around the world in the 2000s. But the story of Ableton goes further back than Live's 2001 release—further even than the company's official inception in 1999. In fact, Ableton's roots can be traced to Berlin's early techno scene in the 90s, when the stakes were low and there was a lot of room for experimentation.
Co-founders Gerhard Behles and Robert Henke came up with their idea for Ableton in Berlin in the mid '90s, when they were performing minimal dub-influenced techno under the moniker Monolake. Live's earliest incarnations were simply born out of necessity to serve Behles and Henke's project. With no intention of expanding their software beyond personal use, the two inveterate tinkerers, who became friends while studying computer programming at Berlin's Technical University, would often patch together many homemade programs just to play specific pieces or shows. Bernd Roggendorf, a fellow computer programmer introduced through mutual friends, then joined the pair at the tail end of the '90s, encouraging them to turn the jumbles of Max code they had holding together Monolake's live shows into a more generalized software for retail. With Roggendorf's help, the first version of Ableton Live was released in 2001. (Behles left Monolake in 1999 to concentrate on developing Ableton Live, while Henke left Ableton five years ago to concentrate on his music, and still uses the Monolake alias.)
Henke and Behles believe their involvement in Berlin's nascent scene during the years leading up to Ableton's release was a key factor in the program's success. They had personal connections with artists whose profiles were quickly rising as Berlin's electronic music gained more traction. Demand for live shows from these artists was rising, and with it the need for a user-friendly tool that could make these performances possible. Ableton Live was an antidote to the problem, and the resourceful duo had the attention of the artists who needed it most.
As Ableton's software has become an industry standard, the company has turned its focus on musical education and community building. Their most recent offering, Ableton Link, allows users of the company's other products, Live and the Push Instrument, to easily collaborate with one another. On November 4-6, 2016, the company threw their second Loop Summit in Berlin—an event for music makers which included live performances by artists like Morton Subotnick and Lee Scratch Perry, chances to experiment with new tools, and panels starring the likes of Fatima Al Qadiri and Moritz Von Oswald on the latest social and technical advancements in music. During the Loop festivities, Behles and Henke sat down with THUMP for their first joint interview together to tell us about the untold history of Ableton, its connections to Monolake, and the tumultuous relationship between the two of them that was just crazy enough to change the way we make and perform electronic music today.
THUMP: Did you know you wanted to work together and make music from the moment you met?
Gerhard Behles: No, we hated each other! We really didn't get along at all in the beginning. But then we lost sight of each other because I moved to Holland, and he moved to Berlin. Then I moved to Berlin too, and I was sitting one day in the university at the introductory lecture. I hear this voice behind me asking a question, and I go "No! That's Robert! He's here!"
What did you not like about each other in the beginning?
Behles: This is getting too personal. [Laughs]
Robert Henke: We came from a very different background and, actually it's a good question because later we figured out we have a lot of things in common. But on first sight we only saw the differences.
What are those differences?
Henke: In a totally cliché way, I was at the time this kind of totally lost goth punk person. And Gerhard pretty much looked the same as he does now, [a] nice white scarf and a very stable demeanor. Like the type of people I hated at school.
"Suddenly everyone who's producing electronic music had a clear path how to bring this on stage."—Robert Henke
How did you reconnect after you met again in the university?
Henke: The funny thing, I believe if my memory isn't tinted. Right after noticing that the other was there, we ran up the auditorium to the exit and said "What the fuck are you doing here?"
Behles: It was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.
What was the electronic music scene like in Berlin in the nineties when you arrived?
Behles: I think the key difference was the whole realm of money didn't exist. In nobody's mind was there even a thought about it. It was more driven by seemingly infinite opportunity. Basically half of the town [was] deserted and ready to be used for something—a club to be set up and then forgotten. There were so many years where that was the only thing that drove the whole scene and nobody had any interest in earning money.
Now it's so commercial, you go to a club and the DJs...
Henke: ... are like gods. There were lots of discussions in the early techno community about exactly that: How do you perceive yourself as a DJ, what is your role? It was this idea that you get lost in music, and the DJ is the person enabling that, but [the DJ] is not important.
So in many of the early clubs there was no stage for the DJ. At early Tresor, the DJ was just separated by some bars, but played on the same level [as the crowd]. It was never the idea that the DJ was someone you look up to. People were also not dancing facing towards the DJ, they were facing each other. When clubs raised their entrance fees and invested in fancy light shows and big parties came up, suddenly you had the big stage.
When you were making Ableton originally, before it was actually Ableton, was there always a thought in the back of your mind that you wanted it to be a product you wanted to sell?
Henke: I think the feeling we had was [that] there was enough like-minded people in our closer community who could appreciate a product like this, and that it could work commercially. That gave us confidence to believe that a small company could actually survive on the market. No one thought of the thing exploding.
I remember when we went to the first trade show with the first version of Live, a few people came by, but it was [as if] the world noticed the revolution was going to happen. At some point, a guy came by—just a typical LA music producer [with a] dark suit and kind of longish, slightly greyish hair, followed by maybe ten people in their early twenties who also looked like the classic clicheé of the Hollywood composer. I showed him the product and he had a German accent, but I didn't take note of that because at a trade show you meet all kinds of people, and I was too busy explaining to him what the product was all about. He had a lot of intelligent questions, and at some point he asks, "so you can just put in a drum loop here and change the tempo continuously from let's say 110 to 140 BPM, and it doesn't change the pitch?" And I said, "Yeah, sure, I can show you." But I did it from 30 to 999 BPM. After that demo, he just said, "Do you have a card, do you have information material?"
So I handed him my material and only then did I get to read his name tag, and it was Hans Zimmer. Hans told us, "you have something interesting here," and I really believe he was the first one who understood this piece of software could actually work in a completely different area than what we were assuming.
How do you think Ableton has changed electronic music?
Henke: Ableton has changed electronic music quite dramatically, I'm very certain about that. But the question that is extremely difficult to answer is how [electronic music] would have been without [Ableton], because we have no clue. What became very obvious is that the software enabled a lot more people to leave their home studios and bedrooms, and go on stage—and that fuelled the whole festival culture. I don't think we would have the same amount of electronic music festivals these days without this software, because suddenly everyone who's producing electronic music had a clear path how to bring this on stage. I mean it became quite normal to go onto any festival stage and just accept the fact that almost 90 percent of all laptops are running our software. I remember clearly for years this did strike me as something completely mad.
What do you think is the biggest problem or challenge that faces electronic music now?
Henke: This might be a pessimistic old guy's perspective. But for instance, if you go to an electronic music festival, it's expected that it's an audiovisual project these days. And if you go to a concert it's even more than ever the expectation that you're overwhelmed by large-scale LED screens, lasers, lights, and dancers. And what this means if you take all these additional elements out of the game and just listen to the music, very often I find [the music] surprisingly generic and uninspired. For me, this is a bit strange given that the technology allows for so much. So I'm a bit lost there for myself. I personally found my niche by doing my own audiovisual projects which made sense to me, but I just noticed that the impact of music—just music without anything else around it—to me became smaller. But I'm careful with this statement because I'm not sure how much this is my personal mirror, my personal filter.
Behles: I guess the single biggest challenge is collaboration. We have gone so far into unifying roles we have to go back and see, OK, how can you split that work? How can you build meaningful collectives that do something together?