Integrating External Instruments In Ableton Live

Adam McLellan has some nifty tips      02/08/13

If you're anything like me you have a geeky, borderline unhealthy, obsession with hardware gear. Unfortunately it can be notoriously clunky when used in conjunction with software, especially with Ableton Live. While Live's "External Instrument" device is quite useful for integrating hardware, one thing that's sorely lacking is the ability to automate MIDI CCs from the arrangement view. Really, the only "out of the box" solution for automating CCs is to use clip envelopes, and this just doesn't cut it for me.

In this month's post I'm going to explore a couple options to work around this. The first option I'll explore is what I call the "Instrument Rack Hack"--basically, using a blank Instrument Rack and exploiting Live's MIDI "Remote Control" functionality. The second, and more elegant solution, is to create custom devices in Max For Live.

Commercial or homebrew VST editor

First and foremost you should see if any commercial or homebrew VST editors are available for your synth. If so you'll probably save yourself a lot of time going this route. If not, read on!

Rack hack

The rack hack exploits Live's "remote control" feature--that is, its ability to send control messages to keep external devices in sync with changes made in Live. Typically this would be used with a control surface; say, a mixer with motorized faders. The idea is that changes may be made via Live or the control surface, and the remote control option is what ultimately keeps the two sync.

This may seem a bit counter-intuitive at first: we don't actually want to control anything in Live, so what do we MIDI-map? Thankfully, Instrument Rack macros don't technically need to be mapped to anything within Live. So let's start by creating an instrument rack and expanding the macros section:

If your gear does transmit CC data, select up to 8 parameters and map them now through the typical process: CTRL + M (on Windows) -> click a knob -> move a knob on the controller -> CTRL + M again.

Important: under Live's Preferences ensure "Remote Control" is enabled for the corresponding MIDI output.


Next we'll use Live's External Instrument device to transmit MIDI and receive (an added benefit is that this leverages Live's delay compensation algorithms and also allows us to apply an additional compensation for any delay in the hardware)

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