Passion of the Weiss: A conversation with Robert Henke, creator of Ableton ‘Live’, 2011

An interview with Robert Henke, one of the creator’s behind Ableton’s now ubiquitous ‘Live’ performance software. Originally conducted for Scene Magazine, the entire Q&A has been published on Passion of the Weiss, a music blog edited by LA Times journalist, Jeff Weiss. Excerpt below.

Robert Henke is many different things to many different people – performer, lecturer, software developer, technician. In truth, the Berlin-based artist busily juggles all four descriptions, but when he gets on the phone you can understand why he does so well in front of a bunch of university students: the man loves to chat and has a strong grasp on the English language, to the point where he stumbles to keep up with the ideas pouring out of his head. Henke is best known for his role in the rise of Ableton, but a tour to Australia provided an opportunity to pick his brains about a variety of things, from the leading part he played in the development of the now ubiquitous Live software to the Monodeck performance controller that he built and used for many years. Originally interviewed for Scene, our full chat is reproduced below. – Matt Shea

I guess the thing that you’re most often tagged with is your hand in creating Ableton Live. How did it the whole Ableton thing come about originally? You were coming at it from a musical perspective first, yeah?

The important thing to demystify is that the initial impulse to start the company came from my former Monolake collaborator, Gerhard Behles, and I just came into the game when the company decided to do some software that was more aimed towards live performance. This is where I started building ideas together with Gerhard. I’m not an official founder – that’s just a myth because at the point where the company started I decided that if I became a board member and all these things I would probably not make music anymore. My prediction became very true for Gerhard, who didn’t make any music since he started Ableton. However, I couldn’t resist when he asked me to join the company for actually creating the product. So, basically the idea for Live came out of a personal need, and this personal need was that there was software for working in the studio, there was editing software, but their were no commercial products to actually perform music, and Gerhard and me always used software for situations where something is just running and we wanted to change what’s running in real time, and therefore get some kind of conductor perspective on your own work, on our own work. This was the basic idea behind Live, to create something to interact with the computer in playful way in real time.

It’s been over ten years now. Why do you think Ableton flourished compared to its competition?

Honestly, we don’t know (laughs). What surprised us is that no competitor took up the idea we had. When we showed it at a show in 2001 – okay it was very esoteric and the other big companies came to our little booth and said, ‘Oh, you guys must be crazy. This is absurd.’ A year later, we were still in business and a lot of people really loved what we were doing, and still no competitor came up. Then we came back to the show three years later and we were extremely sure now that one of the big players would have a competitive product, and they still didn’t do anything. And I really believe that all the big players in the game completely underestimated the market of us freaks, you know? People with laptops on stage. When they realised that a lot of people liked what we were doing, it was already so mature that it would have been a big effort to catch up.

Did those companies underestimate how much digital music would come to play a part in live performance?

Definitely. Really, ten years ago they were totally focused on studio, and the idea that some blokes with their computers would go on stage really was not on their plate at all. I guess one advantage that we always had was that it’s relatively easy to create a good product if you work with it yourself, so I mean I’m using Live as we’re developing it, and tons of other people working on it are using it as well, and we’d have tons of internal conversations about details. But I also believe that those exact conversations about details make sure that the software works for a lot of people.

You play experimental electronic music, Robert. Has Ableton led to the rise of more experimental electronic music?

Well, that’s hard to judge but it certainly made it possible for a lot of people to make music that they couldn’t do without it. It played an important role as a facilitator for those people. In this regard I certainly believed that life changed for a lot of people. [It illustrated] how to make music and enabled them to make music in the first place, but I’m not sure how genre specific this is. From the public perspective it seems that Live is mainly used by club music people doing dance orientated stuff. If we look at our own statistics we can see that Live is used by a large group of people who never show up in the clubs and play club gigs. The range of users ranges from theatre people to experimental to music to bands to film scoring, whatever, and the group of actual dance music is small in comparison to the overall user base. It’s still a huge group, but it’s not the one major group that is using the software.

You’ve stepped back a little from Ableton, is that right?

Yeah, definitely, and for two reasons: first of all, the company now has over 100 people working there and there’s a lot of intelligence in the company so my input is not needed every day. The second thing is that as much as my heart belongs to Ableton, there’s another part of my heart that belongs to my music career. I will never give up talking with Gerhard about details of the software and reading company emails and thinking about that stuff, but when it comes to day-by-day business I’m very happy to step back.

For the full article, visit Passion of the Weiss.

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