One of the first upgrades you can do as a music producer is to connect a midi keyboard to your computer. In addition to being able to play or record chords and melodies in a conventional way, you will have more control over the parameters you choose within your DAW.
Although you can produce music with just a mouse or computer keyboard, developing musical ideas on a MIDI keyboard can be more fluid. For example, playing notes on a keyboard is not the same as “painting” notes with the mouse on a piano roll.
If you are looking for how to connect a midi keyboard to Ableton Live, this article will solve all your doubts. It is a relatively simple process that will help you become a better music producer.
How To Connect MIDI keyboard To Ableton Live – Step By Step
In short, you will need to connect the MIDI keyboard to your computer via a USB cable (in most cases, it is included with the keyboard). Then, after ensuring that your computer recognizes the MIDI keyboard, it’s a matter of setting specific parameters in the Ableton Live settings.
- Connecting the MIDI keyboard to the computer
To begin with, you must connect the supplied USB cable from the keyboard to the computer. If the keyboard needs a power supply to operate, you need to connect it beforehand so it can power up.
- Verify firmware is up to date
In general, current MIDI keyboards are class compliant, meaning they do not need additional drivers to be used. As it connects to the computer, Ableton Live can automatically detect it, and it will be ready to use (especially with macOS computers). However, if it ever happens that you plug it in and the computer doesn’t recognize it, make sure to check for and install the latest driver update. You can use google or search on the official website of your keyboard brand.
For example, if you use an ARTURIA keyboard, you will find all the drivers on their official website (under Support – Downloads & Manuals); then, look for the model you own.
- Open Ableton MIDI preferences
Let’s begin by opening Ableton Live preferences. If you use macOS, you will find it under Live – Preferences. If you use Windows, it’s under the Options menu. You can also use the CMD – , (Mac) / CTRL – , (Win) shortcut.
Ableton Live preferences are divided into eight categories, the fourth being the Link MIDI menu. Click on that one to open all MIDI inputs and outputs preferences.
How to open MIDI preferences in Ableton Live.
Under the Link MIDI tab, you can set specific parameters regarding the connection of the MIDI keyboard and Ableton Live. Live will automatically detect the device. To verify this was well done, check if your device appears in Midi Ports as activated. If your keyboard has not been automatically detected, manually turn on the track and remote options under Midi Ports.
In this case, I turned on the Track and Remote for a DIY MIDI keyboard called Pico.
- Verifying that Ableton is receiving MIDI signal
After your keyboard is turned on under the MIDI ports, you can now test it by touching any keys on your keyboard. In the control bar of Ableton Live, you will see a yellow light blinking every time Ableton receives a MIDI signal.
The small square on the top right will flash yellow every time Ableton Live receives a MIDI signal.
- Check the keyboard’s control surface
Most current keyboards come with a default template for controlling Ableton Live. Therefore, when you connect the keyboard to Ableton Live, each knob, button, or fader on your keyboard will already have a function assigned to it. That is called the control surface. If your MIDI keyboard has an Ableton default template, it will appear on the control surfaces in this section.
If your midi keyboard has a control surface template but has not been detected by Ableton, you can use the control surface finder and search for your MIDI keyboard, then select the correct input and output.
Ableton Live can recognize up to 6 control surfaces at the same time.
Now that your keyboard is already sending MIDI data to Ableton Live, you must create a MIDI channel that your MIDI keyboard will control. So first, create a MIDI channel (right click – insert MIDI track or CMD – shift T (Mac) / CTRL – shift T (Win) shortcut.
Now, there are two main ways to prepare your MIDI track. For the first one, you must turn the Monitor of the MIDI track to Auto. After that, please turn on the arm recording button to make that track reproduce the MIDI signal it receives from your keyboard.
Two MIDI tracks, one with the arm recording turned on and the other turned off. You must turn Monitor to Audio.
For the second option, you can turn the Monitor to In, making it play the signal as it receives it, even with the arm recording turned off.
Both tracks are playing MIDI; the first one’s Monitor is set to In, while the second is armed to record.
- Play and record with your keyboard
Now you can search for a sound on Ableton’s browser to use with your keyboard. In this case, I’m going to open a synth, so I go to Sounds, then Synth Keys. Then, if I double click on any sound of my choice while having a MIDI track selected, Ableton will create a MIDI synth using that sound or preset.
You can search for sounds in the browser of Ableton Live. You can see on the top right that now the MIDI track has the same name as the preset under Synths Keys.
After loading an instrument, you’re ready to play your MIDI keyboard. To record a sequence, you have two options:
1) From the arrangement screen, the armed midi channels will record all the notes you send by pressing the record button.
MIDI recording from the Arrangement view.
2) From the live session screen, you can press to record a midi clip; Ableton Live will record all the notes you play with your keyboard.
MIDI recording from the Session view.
By following these steps, you are ready to use your keyboard as a midi controller in Ableton Live. The process is very similar to other DAWs; you need to verify the MIDI settings within the software for proper operation.
How many MIDI devices can I connect to Ableton Live simultaneously?
With Ableton Live, you can connect up to 6 MIDI keyboards and devices to Ableton Live simultaneously, each one as a control surface. This way, you can assign several different functions to each keyboard. For example, you can use a keyboard to control a synthesizer and another to control a drum kit.
You can follow the previous steps to connect a second MIDI keyboard via a USB cable. After your second controller is already connected, let’s say you would like both MIDI keyboards to control each one a different MIDI track. First, you must correctly assign each keyboard’s MIDI signal to Ableton.
Under the Midi From tab, select the keyboard you want to use on that specific MIDI track. You can even select a specific channel of that MIDI controller if you were to have more precise control, but let’s leave it on All Channels for now. Then, pick the other keyboard on the MIDI from the tab for the second MIDI track.
The MIDI track on the left is being controlled by my laptop keyboard, while a MIDI keyboard is controlling the MIDI track on the right.
If you want both tracks to be armed to record, click on both arm recording buttons while holding down CMD (Mac) / CTRL (Win). Now each MIDI keyboard can control the selected MIDI tracks separately.
How to fix out-of-tempo recorded notes
Due to latency, recording some notes that might be out of tempo is usual. However, a quick way to fix this issue on Ableton Live is using the quantize option. While selecting a MIDI clip you wish to correct, right-click on the piano roll and click quantize or CMD – U (Mac) / CTRL – U (Win).
After selecting a MIDI track, right-click on the piano roll and select quantize.
Quantize will correct the notes depending on the global launch quantization, which you can change on the top left options on the right:
For example, 1 Bar of global quantization is the most common one.
After selecting quantize on a MIDI clip, notes will be moved to the nearest bars, considering the global quantization. Although it’s handy, watch out because sometimes quantization might remove some swing that you recorded on purpose.
On the top: An unquantized MIDI recording. On the bottom: After quantizing the MIDI recording.
Connecting a MIDI keyboard to Ableton Live is a simple process. As you can see now, the essential point is to correctly define the MIDI preferences for your keyboard and what Ableton will do with the MIDI signal it receives. Then, finally, you’re ready to hit record and play after all the configuration.
With several MIDI keyboards connected simultaneously, you will have more control over Ableton MIDI tracks. However, don’t rush yourself into it. One is more than enough for playing like a pro using Ableton Live.
If you have problems due to latency, always remember the quantize option. Right-clicking on the piano roll of any MIDI track will let you select quantize for fixing any out-of-tempo notes. Even without latency problems, quantization might help but take caution to avoid abusing it. For example, it might kill some vibe by removing groove and swing played on purpose.
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Alfredo LUNAR is a Venezuelan Engineer now based in Lille, France. With a musical background, since the end of 2019, he’s been co-directing Eclipse Lunar Techno, an audiovisual collective that aims to create a healthy techno environment while promoting underground music and film culture as an artistic expression.