Ableton Live is one of the leading digital audio workstations available. The best plugins for Ableton Live extend the power of this music production software, giving producers the ability to add effects and instruments at the click of a mouse.
According to the audio website Waves, there are six stages of music production. These stages include songwriting, arranging, tracking, editing, mixing, and mastering. Ableton Live, as well as the best plugins for Ableton Live, can play an instrumental role of each of these steps.
FAQs About Ableton Live
Before we delve into the best plugins for Ableton Live, let’s take a step back to review what Ableton Live is as well as what the best plugins for Ableton Live can do for a music producer.
What is Ableton Live?
Ableton Live is a digital audio workstation, also commonly known as a DAW. It allows music producers to create and mix tracks using a variety of different sounds, tools, and more.
According to Music Radar, Ableton Live came onto the scene in 2001. Unlike other DAW applications of the time, Ableton Live used revolutionary interfaces to help manage audio workflow; in particular, the "session" and "arrange" views aid in this process. It helps smooth workflow, and the DAW quickly became a favorite among electronic music producers.
What is the current version of Ableton Live?
As of 2019, the most recent version of Ableton Live is Ableton Live 10, released on February 6, 2018.
What are plugins for Ableton Live?
Plugins are additional software components that add or enhance the functionality of an application. In the case of Ableton Live, plugins can add effects or instrumentation.
What type of plugins does Ableton Live support?
Ableton Live supports two types of plugin files: Virtual Studio Technology 2 (VST 2) in 32-bit and 64-bit formats, and also Audio Unit (AU) in 32-bit and 64-bit formats.
Additional common DAW plugin types, including VST3, AAX, and Direct X, are not supported by Ableton Live.
What are Virtual Studio Technology files?
Virtual studio technology, or VST, is software that emulates studio equipment. Before the advent of digital recording software and techniques, creating or changing different sounds required pieces of hardware -- and way more work.
However, with modern recording techniques, VST software has taken the place of pieces of equipment, allowing you to create and manipulate sound. That allows musicians to save money on investing in instruments and hardware, as well as physical space. It's easier for musicians to create than ever before.
The VST software standard is an open technology developed by Steinberg Media Technologies. This open technology is available for other developers to use without license fees, usable on both Mac and Windows operating systems.
What are Audio Unit files?
Audio units or AU plugins are sound manipulation software, developed by Apple. This proprietary technology only works on Apple computers running OS X.
When to use AU or VST on a Mac
If you are running Ableton Live on a Mac, you can use both AU and VST files. However, you should note that if you plan on sharing projects with collaborators using Ableton on Windows, you should use VST plugins to ensure your collaborators can also run the projects.
Do you need plugins for Ableton?
Ableton Live comes with a lot of features that you can use in your music projects, so you may wonder if you need plugins in the first place. The truth is that it depends on what type of projects you are making, as well as what sounds you are going for. Ableton Live is feature-packed with plenty of sound-generating tools like Echo, Wavetable, and Drum Buss, which digital musicians can use to create the perfect sound for their project.
How We Reviewed
To find the best plugins for Ableton Live, we chose plugins that had recommendations from various sources, including amateur and professional reviews.
We also decided from an array of effect and instrumentation plugins, doing our best to choose plugins that were versatile enough to be used in a variety of music production styles.
$140 - $160
$120 - $140
$55 - $65
$29 - $149
Guitar Rig 5
$190 - $210
Overall Price Range
On our list, we included both free and paid plugins. Expect to pay between $0 and $210, depending on the plugin and functionality. Note that some plugins have a free reduced-feature version as well as a paid premium version.
Best Plugins for Ableton
Here are our picks for the best plugins for Ableton Live.
Saturn is an audio effect plugin by FabFilter. It's a distortion filter that allows you to modify and create new sounds in a variety of different ways. Saturn features 16 different distortion styles, an interactive multiband display, and easy-to-use interface. Plus, it's available in VST and AU format.
Saturn is available for download on the Fabfilter website for between $140 and $160. You can try it for 30-days before having to buy the full version.
Saturn is well-reviewed by professional outlets. Music Radar gave the plugin a 4.5 out of 5-stars. MusicTech Magazine gives Saturn a 9 out of 10-star rating, and the musician Gardnsound mentions in a YouTube video that Saturn is his most used plugin due to its versatility.
Flux BitterSweet v3 is an audio transient management plugin, which is available in a variety of file formats. Those options also include VST and AU. This plugin allows you to change the transient sounds by using a single wheel controller. Tuning this to “sweet” makes the transient sounds in your file softer while tuning to “bitter” makes these sounds more prominent.
BitterSweet v3 is available for free from the Flux website. The upgraded BitterSweet Pro v3 allows you to tune your sound more finely. This upgraded version is available to buy from the Flux website for between $120 and $140, depending on tax and conversion rates.
The free version of Flux BitterSweet v3 made Bass Gorilla's list of Top Free VST Plugins for Ableton Live. Audio website Pro Tools Expert recommended the free version of BitterSweet v3 on a post in 2017. Pro Tools Expert also made a Youtube video review on the Flux BitterSweet Pro version, giving it an overall favorable review.
Glitch 2 is an audio effect plugin by Ill Formed. Initially released in 2013 as a Windows-only VST, it is now available in both VST and AU in 32-bit and 64-bit formats. The Glitch 2 plugin includes a sequencer, effects, and randomize and mutilate functions.
You can download the demo version of Glitch 2 for free from the Ill Formed website. The full version of Glitch 2 is available for download from Ill Formed for between $55 and $65, depending on tax and conversion rates.
The Glitch 2 plugin made Bass Gorilla's list of Top Free VST Plugins for Ableton Live, and audio website Cymatics gives Glitch 2 a 3.5 out of 4-star rating. They said, “[the] infinite amount of presets and combined effects on Glitch 2 makes this plugin truly special.”
Center is a mastering plugin, which is useful for post-production work as well as DJs. With Center, you can do things like isolate or remove sound elements, add enhancements, change vocal levels, and more. Some common ways you can use Center VST in your audio workflow include removing vocals for karaoke tracks or softening instrumentals.
You can download Center from the Waves website for between $29 and $149.
Waves lists Center in its Essential Plugins for Ableton Live users. This plugin has a 4.5 out of 5-star rating with hundreds of reviews on the Waves website. Many user reviews say that Center is easy-to-use and intuitive.
Sound Magic's Piano One is a VST instrumental plugin that the website Make Use Of calls “arguably the best free acoustic piano VST available.” Piano One uses samples from a Yamaha C7 Grand Piano for full, rich professional sound.
Piano One is freeware. In contrast to Sound Magic’s commercial VST instruments, Piano One contains less data for sample modeling and also lacks a few more advanced features. More notably, note duration is limited to 18 seconds.
KVR Audio website gives the VST a favorable review, noting you can upgrade it if a musician feels they need more than what Piano One offers on its own. On the FL_Studio Reddit, users recommended Piano One as a good freebie piano.
If you want a veritable orchestra of instrumentation available at your fingertips, look no further than Spitfire LABS. Spitfire is a VST instrument plugin that includes strings, piano, choir, drums, and more. Musicians in London capture the samples, and the VST is updated every month with new sounds.
Spitfire LABS is free to download at the Spitfire Audio website.
Audio blog Bedroom Producers gave Spitfire Audio a 95 out of 100 rating, calling it a “must-have for aspiring songwriters and music producers.” Leading audio magazine MusicTech gives Spitfire LABS its MT Excellence Award, giving it 10 out of 10 stars. Music Tech also notes that despite its free price-point, LABS is “extraordinarily versatile.”
Hysteresis is an advanced feedback-based glitch delay plugin. With Hysteresis, you can make reverse delays, pitch-shifts, and stutter effects. The plugin includes over 100 presets to try out.
Hysteresis is a free download from Glitch Machines.
Guitar Rig 5
Guitar Rig 5 is an instrumental VST from Native Instruments. It's a guitar studio capable of emulating just about any sound: rock, metal, jazz, and more.
Reviewer Alex Arsov of Sound Bytes magazine said of this plugin: “If Jimi Hendrix were still alive, there’d be no doubt which virtual guitar studio would fit him perfectly.” Arsov goes as far to say that he found no weak points with Guitar Rig 5 Pro, and would be okay if this was his only guitar studio.
Reviews on Sweetwater praise Guitar Rig 5, with one reviewer calling it a “perfect solution for someone looking to get a professional sounding guitar recording.”
The best plugins for Ableton Live expand on Ableton’s already handy features. Choosing the best plugins for Ableton Live is a great way to help add to your creative projects. Also, if you're looking for new audio effects or new instrumentation, there's probably a plugin for you. Whether you are looking to edit your sound or add some fun instruments, there are a variety of free and premium plugins to play with.