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Tutorial: Using Ableton Live and Push to Control External Synths Via MIDI

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In early September, the Noisegate team went to the BIGSOUND festival/conference in Brisbane to host music-making workshops with Ableton Live. In my ‘Push New Ideas’ presentation, I demo’d a performance setup using Push 2, that was controlling external hardware synths and drum machines (see video below). The presentation ran through some different techniques, tips and tricks on using Push to spark inspiration and generate new ideas from your hardware.

The question came up of how I was controlling external synths with Macro knobs in Session view, since assigning MIDI control changes to Macro knobs is not supported in Live. Well, with a bit of MaxForLive love, it absolute is possible, here’s a break down of how I set it up.

 Let’s use the Korg Monologue as our example. The first thing you need to do is connect your synth to your computer either by MIDI or USB if your synth has it. The Monologue has USB MIDI so we’ll use that. You’ll then need to connect the OUTPUT of the synth to an INPUT of your audio interface.  

In Live’s preferences, make sure track and remote for the synths MIDI out ports are selected.  

Then, create a MIDI channel and load an External Instrument device. This device allows you to route MIDI to your synthesizer and receive its audio via your audio interface. In the MIDI To drop down menu, select your synthesizer, and in the AUDIO FROMselect your interface.  If you have your Push connected, you should be able to start playing the synth using Push’s pads.  

Now let’s take this one step further by assigning Push’s 8 encoders to control parameters on the Monologue.  To do this, we’re going to use this great MaxForLive device called 8 CC which is a simple blank slate of 8 knobs that can be mapped to send MIDI CC messages to whatever parameter we desire on our synth (or any external instrument that accepts MIDI CC). Download it here.  It looks like this: 

Next, you’ll need to consult your synth’s instructions manual, or Google the synth’s MIDI implementation chart to see what parameters are mapped to what MIDI CC values, so you can assign knobs to those parameters of your choosing. For example, the Filter Cutoff on the Monologue is assigned to CC value 43, so in the drop-down menu above one of the knobs on the 8 CC, select 43. Continue this process to assign parameters that you wish to use. 

Once you have assigned your MIDI CC’s, group the 8 CC with the External Instrument Device, and map each the parameters to the Macros of the instrument rack. Unlike the 8 CC knobs, these Macros are controllable from Push, allowing you to control your synths parameters in real time.

TIP: Rename each macro, so that you can see the labels from the display on Push.

Once you have this all set up, you can add more devices and effects to your instrument rack so that you can create more interesting custom presets. A good example of this is adding an arpeggiator, to play your synth in new ways, or adding FX like delays or reverbs to add depth to your sound.  

Once this is all set up, you can use Push to make the most out of your external gear by automating parameters, generating ideas using the step-sequencer, and staying in scale with the fantastic in-key mode.  If you hit the disk icon and save this custom instrument rack, you’ll always have this rack on hand, pre-mapped and ready to go!

 Stay tuned for part 2,  on how to connect a drum machine to Push.  

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