3 Ways To Use A Hardware Synthesizer In Ableton Live

In this video, DJ Tech Tool’s Mad Zach shares his thoughts on three ways of working with a MIDI-conntected hardware synthesizer in an Ableton Live production environment.

“Experimenting on a synth leads to sounds that sometimes seem wildly unique,” says Mad Zach. “Recording yourself and the progression of playing around with the patches and manipulating the synth gives you a great palette to pull from. Having the session in audio format also allows for additional types of manipulation which are not possible with just MIDI.”

In his demo, Mad Zach uses a Moog Sub Phatty, connected with the MIDI out from Ableton Live, routed via an audio/MIDI interface. Then the audio out of the Sub Phatty is routed back into live, again via the audio/MIDI interface.

via DJTT

19 thoughts on “3 Ways To Use A Hardware Synthesizer In Ableton Live

  1. Yeah, experimenting with ableton and hardsynths is certainly fun, but no-one should mistake ableton as a pro midi sequencer. The jitter (not latency) is just too high. I’ve measured an average of 9ms (!) consistent across 2 different firewire interfaces, compared to Logic (3ms) and dp with time stamping (1ms).
    Its not the kind of thing you’d notice with pads or effects, but try it with arps or rhythmic bits and it’s just a mess. I’ve largely given up on ableton ever fixing this- i assume its a fundamental result of their custom midi driver implementation, but if anyone wants to compare 8 and 9, i can explaon how to test this.

      1. …although to be fair, i think this test has more to do with live playing rather then playback…. so might be misleading… in my real life experience Ableton is a bit wonky with external midi, enough so that I really don’t care to use it that much….

  2. yeah, please explain how I can test this – sounds interesting. Is logic the best performance in this respect or is there something better?

    1. If it’s really a concern, hardware sequencers or old school Ataris blow away the modern DAWs, because modern DAWs run on machines that multi-task.

    2. The easiest way to measure your system’s jitter is to plug in a hardware synth, program it with a zero attack, fast transient sound, set your daw to generate a regular midi note (say, a quarter note), and record it. If you’re good with electronics, you can record the MIDI signal directly as audio and eliminate the ~.5ms (tops) of jitter your instrument might be generating. Your sound card will add a little jitter from its own clock but its negligible compared to the MIDI timing.

      A long measurement gives a more reliable figure, but its super tedious to record all the data by hand (I used some matlab code to analyze longer files). It’s fine to record about 40 quarter notes and use the middle 15-20 (it often takes a little while for DAWs to ‘stabilize’).

      What you want to write down is the time *between* attacks. Get 15-20 values, then take the average. Then take the absolute difference between the values and the average. Then take the RMS average of those differences (square them all individually, sum them, divide by ‘n’ values, take the square root) – that’s your jitter.

      Keep in mind that this is not just up to your DAW, it’s a ‘holistic’ figure that takes your DAW, OS, and hardware into account. And for the math nerds: yes, I am assuming that the jitter distribution is gaussian, and no, it probably isn’t. We can argue about fourier transforms, spectral broadening, and how to characterise these things somewhere else 🙂

      As far as actually getting good jitter specs out of a computer, the best I’ve seen is MOTU’s time stamping, but both your interface and DAW have to support it. AFAIK, MOTU and RME interfaces do, and DP and Pro Tools do, but I’m not claiming that’s a complete list. It sounds like snake oil when you read about it, and there’s no way of actually telling if its ‘on’ other than doing those measurements. MOTU claims ‘sub millisecond timing’ but the best I’ve recorded is about 1ms. To get down to microseconds, you need to have hardware interrupts which is what the Atari, early MPCs, etc rely on.

      Wow, that was super off-topic. Ableton sure is fun to mess about with though 🙂

      1. Have you tried the expert sleepers stuff? It should be able to make midi timing sample accurate in any daw (if you use their plugin and hardware for output). Seems pretty awesome.

  3. i guess i’d also like to know why Ableton has kept the editing of external cc# messages in the clip envelope… how hard would it be to use it in a regular automation lane? This would be way easier and less clunky… plus would allow easy mapping i imagine, not having to dig out (perhaps) long lost manuals to do quickly what is shown in the video…

    1. just use native kontrol`s clyphX, then it`s no problem to write in the regular automation lanes! you even can save racks with macros mapped to the most important CC`s of your synth or whatever. if you need more than 8 macros just put another rack next to it, which is no problem as it is a midi rack

  4. he says 3 “creative” ways to integrate hardware. should really say 3 “standard” ways. sorry i dont like to be a critical commenter but this is some real basic stuff.

  5. AL,

    Maybe it’s basic, but as someone just getting into this I find it helpful. I have found Synthtopia to be quite informative.

    While I’m here I was wondering if anyone could help me with something. I have purchased Ableton Live Intro. While for the most part it does what I need, it does not allow for midi control of external hardware.
    I have a Microbrute that I would love to run midi sequences to. Is anyone aware of a quality program that will allow me to do this ?

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