Tutorial: Using Ableton Live and Push to Control Hardware Drum Machines 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 Ableton’s Push controller, that was controlling external hardware synths and drum machines (see video below). 

The question came up of why I had my drum machine connected to the Push when it already has a sequencer. Fair question! Creating custom drum racks to sequence a machine that already has an on board sequencer can be a more cohesive workflow and opens the door to some interesting possibilities — particularly for live performance. Having your core drum loops programmed into clips in Live means you have those rhythms on hand at all times, and (in my opinion) it makes sense to have these all housed in one place rather than spread across software and hardware. This workflow also means you can utilize the hardware sequencer in a live scenario, programming additional improvised rhythms over the top of your clips coming from Ableton Live, without destructively editing your carefully programmed clips.

Here’s how we do it:

You can use any drum machine that has a MIDI in capabilities (via MIDI cable or over USB) – In this example we’ll use one of my favourite drum machines, the Drumbrute Impact from Arturia.

The first thing you need to do is get your drum machine hooked to your computer via MIDI so it tempo syncs and we can send it MIDI data to trigger the drum sounds from the unit while simultaneously capturing the audio. In this instance the Drumbrute Impact has a USB MIDI connection, so all we have to do is plug it in. You’ll then need to connect the audio output of the drum machine to an audio input on your audio interface.

In Live’s preferences, under the MIDI tab, make sure Track and Remote for the drum machines MIDI out ports are selected.

Then, create a MIDI channel and load a blank Drum Rack from Live’s browser. Now drag an External Instrument device from the browser to the first cell. We use this device to route MIDI note data to your drum machine and receive its audio via your audio interface. In the MIDI To drop down menu, select your drum machine (if connected via USB) or interface (if connected via classic MIDI connection), and In the Audio From, select the channel input from your interface.

Side note before we go further.

MIDI on drum machines works a bit differently to synths and other MIDI instruments. On synths a sound is assigned to a MIDI channel and MIDI note data changes its pitch. Makes sense right? On drum machines, different MIDI note messages play different sounds (drum hits) per note – rather than simply changing the pitch of one sound. That gives manufacturers 128 note data points in which to put different drum hits per MIDI channel. It’s also become a standard since the original General MIDI spec to have percussion set to MIDI channel 10 (as you can see below), but you can have it set to whatever channel you like. 

The Drumbrute Impact has 19 sounds that can be individually sequenced, but we’ll just keep things to an easy 10 voices in this example, so we’ll copy the cell with the External Instrument device 9 times. Press and hold the ALT button on your keyboard and drag/drop to the other drum rack cells. 

Rename each pad to what sound you want it to control. Now open the Chain Selector in your Drum Rack and open the Input/Output section so you can assign the pads to trigger the correct MIDI notes on your drum machine. Here you may need to refer to your machines MIDI implementation chart to see what notes your drum sounds are triggered on.

If you have your Push connected, you will notice that your Push displays the drum rack on the pads, and you should now be able to play your drum machine sounds via the pads.

Tip: If your drum machine has assignable audio outputs for individual or multiple drum sounds, experiment with routing drum tracks through Live’s effect devices in that sound’s Drum Rack cell, creating your own customised drum machine.

Now this is great and all, but lets take it this a step further. If your drum machine accepts MIDI CC messages, you can assign these to parameters on your drum machine, and use the encoders on Push to control them, thus allowing you to automate, or step automate your drum machine.

To do this, we use this great Max For Live device called 8 CC which allows us to send MIDI CC messages to respective parameters on our Drum machine. Download it free here. It looks like this:

Next, you’ll again need to consult your drum machines instruction manual for the MIDI implementation chart to see what parameters are mapped to what MIDI CC values. Once this is all set up, you can use Push to make the most out of your external gear by automating parameters and generating ideas using the step-sequencer.

To see our previous tutorial on how to use Push to control your synthesizer, check out the previous article here.

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