Use Hardware Synths Like Soft Synths in Ableton Live
Good hardware synths have a presence—in regards to both
sound and tactile experience—that software instruments don’t fully
duplicate. However, getting them to interact seamlessly with your
favorite DAW can be challenging. Lets take a look at how to streamline
this process in Ableton Live, using a simple but powerful Live Device
called the External Instrument.
You’ll find it in the Instruments category of the Live
Device browser in Live and Suite versions 8 or later. Double-click on
“External Instrument” or drag it onto an empty MIDI track or the Device
Drop area. This will create a new track and open the Device View below,
containing your new selection. At first glance you may not realize that
the new track is now a combination of audio and MIDI. That’s the whole
idea—not to need to arm a MIDI track and monitor an audio track at the
same time. But let’s back up a bit and go over the basics.
If you have a MIDI interface. Connect a five-pin MIDI cable from your synthesizer’s MIDI output to the first MIDI port your MIDI interface (see Figure 1). It sounds obvious, but make sure your MIDI interface is connected to your computer! If you’re using a single hardware synth as both your main controller and
sole sound source outside of Live, also run a MIDI cable from your MIDI
interface’s port 1 out to the synth’s MIDI in. This will let any
sequence or controller data you create in live trigger the external
MIDI via USB. Connect a USB cable directly
out of the USB port on the back of your primary hardware source directly
into the USB slots on your computer. In Figure 2, that’s a Moog
Slim Phatty, and since it’s a rack module, I’ve connected a Novation
Nocturne 25 via USB as my master controller. To control multiple synths,
either run more MIDI cables from the outs on your MIDI interface
directly to the ins on your synths, or more USB cables into as many
ports as are available on your computer. With USB, one cable per device
handles MIDI travel in both directions.
MIDI Settings in Live
Open Live’s Preferences window and click the MIDI tab in
the Preferences pane. If you’re using a MIDI interface, its name will
show up, as in Figure 3. The MIDIsport is visible in the
upper input/output area and its individual ports show up below. Turn on
the Track buttons for both input and output, and they’ll turn yellow.
Using a USB controller instead? In Figure 4, my
Nocturn 25 shows up in the upper I/O area and in the lower on/off area.
The MIDI port of the Moog Slim Phatty—my sound source—is showing up via
USB below that. The Track buttons for the Nocturn (as input) and Phatty
(as output) are turned on.