Use Hardware Synths Like Soft Synths in Ableton Live
Tue, 23 Apr 2013

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.


MIDI Connections


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 synth.

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.

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