Recording MIDI is one of Ableton Live’s core activities. Martin Delaney takes an extended look at some fundamental – and some more sophisticated – MIDI recording and routing techniques.
Whether you’re aware of it, or interested in it or not, MIDI is everywhere in Ableton Live – enabling hardware controllers to take over Live’s mixer, instrument and effect parameters, coordinating timing synchronisation with other hardware and software, sending notes to trigger instrument sounds or loops and providing transport and song-position information.
From time to time, it’s good to recap on the ultra-basics of what MIDI is and how to use it inside Live and then to mention a few more interesting techniques, relating to different routing options inside Live’s MIDI tracks and instrument and drum racks. MIDI goes back to 1983 and a great resource if you want to learn more is the MIDI Association website at www.midi.org.
Live is limited regarding MIDI in some areas, but these are more than compensated for the ease of use and by the excellent MIDI effect devices which are included in Live – so you don’t get the deep MIDI compositional programming controls of some other software, but you get a lot of creative and interactive input. In our walkthrough, we’re looking at the basics of recording MIDI notes into Live from drum pads and a keyboard, then moving on to a few more advanced routing tips.
Acronyms MIDI is the most common input and control method, but there are two other acronyms to be aware of – OSC and CV/Gate. OSC stands for Open Sound Control and there are many areas where it crosses over with MIDI, although OSC provides a finer control at a higher resolution.
There are so many MIDI controllers on the market, some specialise in being either drum oriented, with pads, or keyboard oriented, with just a piano keyboard, but there are also controllers that provide a MIDI keyboard with a few drum pads on top.
You can do it the old-school way, playing drum parts on your MIDI keys. You can also record beats via the computer keyboard, although you won’t get any velocity – but Live has the Velocity MIDI effect device to add velocity variations afterwards. Finally, there’s Ableton’s Push 2, which has beautiful pads, just as good for creating beats as they are for playing scales and chords.
Time for a session
When you start recording and click the Session Record Button, recording begins in all armed tracks, if you’ve got ‘Start Playback with Record button’ enabled in Preferences. Otherwise, it’ll just overdub into currently active clips. Whether you use Record Quantization is up to you, it’s fast and easy, but it will be more robotic.
If you record you beat in real-time, unquantised, you get all the velocity and timing variations and you can still edit them manually or use the quantisation settings in the context menu to correct afterwards – with an option to blend between the original and corrected timings.
The default MIDI clip length is one bar, but if you’re using Push, you can use the Double Loop button to double the length of the clip, or press and hold the Fixed Length button and choose bar lengths from the display.
Automation is recorded simultaneously, as long as the Automation Arm button is on. This’ll allow automation recording into audio clips as well as MIDI clips. A red dot appears on any control that has automation attached to it; right-click on that control to choose either Delete Automation or use Show Automation to jump straight to viewing it in the MIDI Editor.
Usually, if I want to send MIDI from one source to several instruments or outputs, I’d do it with an Instrument rack in a single MIDI track – bearing in mind that you can also include External Instrument devices in these, routing out to external hardware. However, there are times, such as when you want to work with multiple MIDI clips at the same time, that you’d do it over several separate tracks and use the In/Out View to configure it.
This can sometimes also give you a better overview of what’s happening in each track. Push users can even select the inputs and outputs for each track from the hardware, which can be faster and smoother than reaching over to the computer to do it.
How you record-arm multiple tracks depends on your Preferences settings. If Exclusive Arm is off, then you can simply click to arm as many as you like, and if it’s set to On, then you have to command-click on each additional track to arm it.
CV/gate This technology dates back to the 1970s as a way of controlling sequencers and synths and is enjoying a comeback, thanks to the resurgence of modular synths. It’s possible to get these three protocols to communicate or co-exist; some current hardware has MIDI and CV connections, for example.
MIDI in heaven
Live is a great way to get started with MIDI, and the more experienced music technologist will appreciate the directness of it, as well as the performance-friendly MIDI effects. We all know how versatile Live is and MIDI is just one facet of that, which is why Live sits at the heart of so many setups, sending and receiving across a network of software and hardware devices. Pair it up with a suitable interface and controller, and it’s the perfect way to organise and create your MIDI.
Step-by-step: MIDI routing and recording options
1. Let’s record some MIDI parts into Live – I’m using Live 9 Suite. Make a new Live project and load a drum kit from the browser; this is Kit Session Dry, a default Live drum set.
2. You’ll need some kind of hardware controller to join in – a keyboard with drum pads attached would be ideal, because we need keys and pads, too, something like the Arturia KeyLab Essential 49 pictured here.
3. If you have Ableton Push, of course, that works perfectly for beats and melodic parts – giving you a very fast and fluid workflow – and as a fringe benefit, provides direct control over device parameters.
4. Arm the MIDI track for recording by clicking the little button in the mixer – it’ll turn red. Create an empty one-bar clip in the track by double-clicking in the top empty clip slot.
5. In Live’s Preferences, under the Record/Warp/Launch tab, set Count-In to 1 bar, then close Preferences and turn on the metronome in the Control Bar, so you have a click to play to.
6. In the Edit menu, set Record Quantization to 1/16ths, that’ll do. Set your preferred bpm. Click the circular ‘hollow’ record button in the control bar at the top of the screen to begin recording.