June 6, 2013

Configuring Ableton Drum Racks to Work with External Hardware

Having been working with MIDI since the early 90s, I have sequenced using multiple methods, from CV to computer based sequencing. Hardware sequencers held a special place in my heart, but it sure was nice to move operations over to a computer and no longer be toting disks full of SysEx and other off proprietary data around. That said, as time has gone on, I have found my favorite work environments to work in to be Reason and Ableton. Sometimes I start a project in one and finish it in the other, sometimes I ReWire Reason into Ableton, and sometimes projects happen fully within one or the other. However, since Live 9 came out, I’ve been doing almost all my work in Ableton. It isn’t because I lost any love for Reason, and I am loving version 7 so much I am currently ReWiring it into Ableton for almost everything. (I highly recommend giving the PX-7 a whirl for those of you who are spending a lot of time wishing you had a DX in the arsenal.) The main Reason that Ableton has been occupying the star player position is that I got Ableton Push.

Push is a fantastic tool for idea generation. While some seem to maintain that the scale functionality somehow makes music creation easy for the uneducated, I find that it really has me thinking more about structure, and the ease of use allows me to more directly pursue complex ideas. Regardless, between the scales and the very cool way the Drum Racks work in Push, it’s a very addictive little bit of hardware. As a hardware guy, the only thing missing was an immediately obvious way to adapt that system to my existing drum machines and sound modules. I had been using the External Instrument device for years to call up program changes on drum machines to switch out patterns, as well as to run all my outboard synths. The method I came up with may seem a little convoluted, but at the present, I believe this is the simplest way to do it. Also, this isn’t a trick that is limited to Push owners. Any MPD, or even Maschine could be used to trigger a Drum Rack set up like this- so you aren’t necessarily left out if you haven’t picked up Push yet; it was just my inspiration to wire this up. One other note I’d like to drop in here is that those wo have seen this internally have remarked that this is probably an intermediate skill level project. A working knowledge of Ableton, and an understanding of the I/O wiring for your interfaces, as well as of the hardware involved, will likely make this process easier.

While the video should do a good job of showing what I do, for the sake of being thorough, I will also detail the key steps and requirements here:

What you’ll need:

-Some kind of hardware you want to trigger from Ableton Drum Racks that is capable of receiving individual, note based commands. I used the Elektron Machinedrum for the tutorial, but for all practical purposes, it could be as simple as the drum patches available in old rack mount units kicking around your studio, or the channel 10 banks on workstation synthesizers.

-A MIDI interface, preferably wired to the MIDI in and out of the hardware unit in question, and also setup in the Ableton Preference Pane.

-An Audio Interface with the hardware in question wired in so that Ableton can receive the audio from the unit. (This is not mandatory if you are doing all of your mixing and actual audio playback in an external environment/ mixer/ etc.

-Ableton Live (duh) will naturally be required. Those of you not using Push will not require that it be version 9. As long as you have Drum Racks and External Instruments available, you should be good to go.

-I would say that some kind of Drum Pad controller is necessary, but the truth is that this would be convenient even for the mouse to grid type programmer, as the organization and part naming within the clip dialogue make visual sequencing significantly easier on the eyes.

Step 1:

Create a listening channel by adding a new audio track to your Live Set. Make sure the audio input for the channel corresponds with the channels you have physically wired your hardware channel to. Set the channel to input monitoring so that it will play back without record being engaged on the channel. (As stated in the video, this is not necessary if you are summing hardware externally.

Ableton Live

Step 2:

On a second track (MIDI this time,) drop in an empty drum rack.

Step 3:

Determine what notes your hardware receives to trigger the sounds you want in the drum rack. If you have the device wired to the MIDI input on your interface, you should be able to test it by pressing the keys on the device. If the hardware is a rack unit, or lacks any kind of note entry tools, the best solution may be to dive into the menus and see what the machine is set to receive.

Step 4:

Drop an External Instrument onto the bottom left pad visible on your Drum Rack. Set it to communicate with your MIDI interface as it is wired to your hardware.

Step 5:

On the Drum Rack device, open the Chain List dialogue, then activate the I/O dialogue button that appears and set the playback note to the first note received by your device.  Test by triggering this note. If you have done things right you should be hearing the part you’ve routed to.

Ableton Live

Step 6:

[Alt] + Drag your external instrument to the other pads on the Drum Rack you wish to use to trigger your hardware. While this will give you a load of notes initially triggering the same part on your hardware, it is easier than setting the MIDI I/O for each pad.

Step 7:

Go through all your copied instances of the External Instrument and set the playback notes to the corresponding notes on your hardware device. Test playback and you should have a Drum Rack playing back all the desired parts from your hardware.

Ableton Live

Step 8:

Enjoy your new simplified hardware use. As mentioned in the video, you can hack a method of triggering effects automation in separate clips by swapping your Monitoring channel for an external instrument channel. This is a hack, and to open the audio input, you have to select some kind of MIDI output. While I suggest in the video that you just wire to the hardware in question, it might be safer, if you have this option, to direct the MIDI to an unused section of your MIDI I/O. If not, just be careful about accidentally sending unwanted data from this channel.

I am fully prepared to discover a new and cleaner way to do this, but at present, this is the quickest way I could figure it out. Worth mentioning is that if you have sounds on the device you would like to layer, all you need to do is double the pad you want to trigger with in the Chain List, and then set the playback note to the desired playback part. If you run into hiccups along the way that the video or this written portion don’t sort out for you, feel free to shoot us questions in the comments section below.

Happy Drumming!!!