Use Hardware Synths Like Soft Synths in Ableton Live

April 23, 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.


Audio Connections


Here’s another “obvious” point that gets overlooked surprisingly often: MIDI isn’t audio, it’s just a set of instructions by which one machine can tell another what to play and how to play it. So you’ll need an audio interface to get the sound of your external synth into Live. In Figure 5 I run the Slim Phatty into an input on a Focusrite Saffire Pro 24. (Note: Though we use separate MIDI and audio interfaces in this tutorial, often your audio interface itself will have MIDI ports.)

Audio Settings in Live


Click on Live’s Preferences and select the Audio tab. Here, you can choose both your audio interface (see Figure 6) and audio inputs and outputs. 

Let’s select “1 (mono)” & “2 (mono)” along with “1/2 (stereo)” in the Input Configuration window, as in Figure 7.


External Instrument Device Settings


Now it’s time to set up direct routing for audio and MIDI in the External Instrument Device itself. At first you may want to visit the physical track’s I/O section—which is intuitive if you’ve worked with other DAWs—but by directly utilizing your new Device we eliminate the need. Select the Chooser titled “MIDI Toand select your MIDI input routing source. Figure 8 shows the Slim Phatty, which is connected via USB. 

Figure 9 shows channel 1 of the MIDIsport interface where we plugged in the Little Phatty via five-pin MIDI. 


Now we choose our audio input routing destination in the External Instrument Device. Click on the “Audio From” Chooser as in Figure 10. I’ll select “1” because the Slim Phatty is monaural and plugged into just channel 1 on the Saffire.


Next, arm the track’s Record button and play your external synth. You should see and hear audio while detecting visual MIDI activity in both the Device and the track itself, as seen in Figure 11. That’s it—your external hardware can now interact with Live as though it were a software instrument. If you don’t hear or see audio activity, step make sure you’ve record-armed the track itself and make sure you select an input audio source in the Device’s audio input Chooser. 

You’ll also notice a handy input gain knob on the right side of the Device. At the bottom you’ll see a Hardware Latency slider. This can compensate for any audible latency when playing or monitoring your external synth (more on this in a future column).


Now that your favorite synth or drum machine is integrated, you can record MIDI, add Live’s effects, extract MIDI from audio, take advantage of anything in your synth that syncs to tempo (such as modulation), and much more. To add effects, for example, drag them into the Device View as in Figure 12. The possibilities of treating your hardware synth as a plug-in are virtually endless. In future columns, we’ll explore specific tricks in detail.

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