Ableton Live Tutorial: Integrating Hardware

Everybody has at least one piece of outboard noisemaking gear that they want to add to their Ableton Live set up. Martin Delaney goes looking for his cables…

Ableton Live is a fantastic self-contained performance and production tool, and it can meet all of our music needs… most of the time. However, Live builds on this intrinsic fantasticness when it’s located at the centre of a hybrid rig that includes hardware synths, drum machines, grooveboxes, and maybe even multiple computers and iOS devices; then you’re really getting at what Live does best.

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There are many live acts that rely on Live for this kind of routing and control; it’s unquestionably the best thing around for these jobs. Anyhow, it’s the grooveboxes that we’re interested in today – devices that contain their own on-board sounds, and also have some kind of pattern-based sequencer for playing those sounds.

I’ve always loved the Groovebox concept; in fact, when Ableton Live 1 was released, I jumped on it straight away because I saw it as a software equivalent to the classic hardware format. As you all know, though, things have kind of come round in a long circle, and grooveboxes and drum machines are enjoying a massive comeback. The great thing about this is that there are models for every type of user and at every budget, from the positively petite KORG Volca series to the Dave Smith Instruments Tempest and Elektron Analog Rytm.

And if you’re wondering about hardware samplers such as Akai’s legendary (and still going) MPC series, they can play too, I just happen to count them as being drum machines more than grooveboxes. If your workstation keyboard happens to have a few tracks of onboard sequencing, then hell, bring that as well.

Physical connection of the gear is the first issue you’ll encounter. A lot of recent hardware has a USB connection, but this can be misleading – on some devices this is used for audio as well, but there are many times when USB is only handling data and MIDI communication, and audio cables are needed as well.

There are also situations when USB provides power, but that’s more often the province of MIDI controllers, so you might need a mains power supply, or batteries, as well. You’ll need to spend some time configuring Live’s MIDI and audio preferences, but once you’ve got it figured out, it’ll be fine… that is, until you buy more gear and you have to start all over again!

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The parameters that may need extra tweaking are MIDI sync and audio latency; you might find that sync is more accurate and stable going in one direction than another, and latency results could vary according to your audio interface, and any subsequent driver or OS updates. Rather than leave audio input tracks armed for recording, as a way of hearing the incoming audio, open the In/Out View and set the track inputs to Monitor – that way, you won’t accidentally start recording unwanted clips.

You might benefit from using the External Device to manage your groovebox MIDI and audio routings – this is good because you can set it up, with MIDI destinations and channels, and audio inputs and gain controls, and then save it as a preset that you reload whenever you want to use that particular instrument. You really don’t want to overload your audio inputs and create distortion, so watch those levels.

And it wouldn’t hurt if you saved a Limiter/Upper Ceiling preset as part of your external instrument preset – put them in a rack together. With a rack you could even bundle up all of the grooveboxes’ separate audio output routings into one preset, if your groovebox has more than two outputs. In the walkthrough steps I mention using MIDI effect devices as well, so you put them in the rack, too!

When you enter the world of software/hardware integration, you’re also entering the mad world of troubleshooting! Seriously, it’s not so bad. Once you set it up, things only get flaky when you change something, or, if you’re constantly breaking down and building your rig for live shows, you put it all back together and something isn’t playing along.

This is another area where routing presets can help on the software side but you’ll need to be more creative on the hardware front. I take photos of cables, keep lists of connections on my phone, whatever it takes. One tip is to disable all unused MIDI and sync settings in Preferences; it’s all too easy to create weird MIDI loops and send messages to the wrong destination. I have walked on stage during sound check at a big venue and looked like a hero, fixing the band’s keyboard problem just by deactivating a couple of MIDI destinations in Preferences!

If you’re new to this scene, it can seem like a lot to take in; learning Live, learning how to use your groovebox, understanding MIDI, not to mention figuring out what your creative needs are. But keep it simple, and remember that not every problem should be solved by throwing money at it; we all like new gear, there’s no denying that, but don’t overwhelm yourself with too many options.

If you do have to endure a bit of head banging on your way to building your killer rig, be assured it’s worth it once you get it all up and running, and you can forget about which cable goes where, and concentrate on making music instead!

What Is A Groovebox Anyway?
And why is it different from a drum machine? For our purposes, a groovebox is something that functions as a drum machine, where you can browse and load kits and hits and create patterns, but adds one or more extra synth or sample instrument elements.

Programmed bass and lead parts can be added to those beats, with a handful of controls thrown in for good measure. Examples? Sure – the Roland MC-303, going way back, and later the Korg Electribe, and right up to date, Novation’s lovely Circuit.

Step-by-Step: Get Groovy With Live

1: The first thing to do is physically connect your chosen hardware groovebox to a computer running Ableton Live. Even that simple first step is a multiple-choice operation, potentially involving MIDI, USB, and audio cables.

2: For most (but not all) of these steps, I’m using Novation’s Circuit, which is a good example of a modern groovebox. It has two synth tracks, drums, and effects, stereo output, MIDI in/out, and USB.

3: Connect the groovebox to your computer with the (usually supplied) cable or a USB hub (mains powered hubs are definitely better). Launch Live and open Preferences.

4: Under the MIDI Sync tab, select the groovebox as a MIDI input and output for track and remote control. Let’s say we’ll sync Live from the hardware now, so enable Sync in from the groovebox.

5: If you’re connected via USB you’ll see your groovebox in Preferences, but if you’re going via din-type MIDI cables through an interface, you’ll see the interface’s MIDI port or ports listed instead.

6: No matter what hardware you’re using, you can adapt these steps for your needs. Connect the groovebox left and right outputs to two inputs on your soundcard, in my example, inputs 9 and 10.

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