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.
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 To” and 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.