Ableton DJing: Battle Style Effects Processors!

Ableton Live is a remarkably powerful DJ tool, but people usually associate it with complicated layers of effects and loops. Those DJs that are more familiar (and possibly more comfortable) with a two decks and a mixer paradigm need not be afraid. Today’s article covers a very creative way to set up Ableton Live in a two deck fashion with two effects processors (in this case, Korg Kaoss pads) as your “decks” with a standard DJ mixer in between them.

Two FX Tables and a Microphone

As you can see above, I have a two channel sound card from Native Instruments. Each channel is routed into a Kaoss pad and then back out into individual channels on the mixer. All fading, pre-cuing, and EQ happens in the analogue domain which gives this setup a familiar and decidedly analogue feel.

The focus here is on the hardware, each “deck”, and how they mix together. The laptop is no longer the focus. 

The benefits of such a setup are two-fold:

  1. Combining the strengths of digital and analogue in an easy-to-master 2 deck layout with real mixer controls.
  2. Using external effects processing to fatten up the sound, and layering interesting results in a zero-latency environment.

The internal effects in Ableton Live are incredibly versatile and expandable, and a crucial part of most production work. But when it comes to live performance, I’ve decided against using MIDI to control my effects and  instead I’ve chosen Korg’s Kaoss Pads ($399) as my go-to tool for manipulating live audio signals. Check out my full demo routine using two Kaoss Pads here!

There are tons of options when it comes to external effects processors. Whether or not one is better than the other is completely subjective to the style of the DJ. For me, the most impressive parts of the Kaoss Pad are its interface, the large library of effects, and its lucrative sampling capabilities. Another very popular model for DJ processing on the fly is the Pioneer EFX-1000 ($899)

“The Kaoss Pad is particularly interesting because it can also be used as a MIDI controller to trigger your Ableton clips”


With a program as robust as Ableton Live, why would anyone want to use an external hardware processor? Well there are several reasons:

Increases CPU Performance

  • Probably the biggest assets of utilizing external audio processing is that they eliminate the taxing demand of MIDI assignments and VST usage on your CPU. Back when I used MIDI for live performances (with my trusty MPD26), I used up to ten tracks, all with different types of effects loaded onto them. Even with 8GB of RAM and an i7 processor, my laptop was having trouble keeping up with all of my MIDI assignments. I even slimmed the number of tracks down to two (see below), and although Live ran noticeably smoother, it still wasn’t as punctual as I wanted it to be.
  • Universal Audio illustrates this concept with their optional ‘hardware accelerators’ for their digital effect suites. In an effort to ease processing demand, they use these aluminum boxes that essentially help your processor crunch more numbers, making them ideal for mobile recording and mastering.

Little to no Latency

  • Relating to CPU usage, hardware effects have virtually zero latency. Two big factors in audio latency arise from input and output issues, specifically DSP and DTA conversion. Digital Signal Processing (DSP), in the case of a hardware effect processor, converts the incoming analogue audio from your sound card to a digital signal so that it can be fooled around with. In regards to the output, DTA conversion does the opposite, converting those 1’s and 0’s back into an analogue signal, allowing you to plug your effects processor into your DJ mixer or a house mixer.
  • Case in Point: External effect units are designed to handle these operations quickly and efficiently so that your computer doesn’t have to.

Software Effects can get Corrupted

  • The number one reason that Live crashes on me is because of a bum VST (especially for naughty people who steal software effects). Having your computer crash on stage is very embarrassing, and I found it much relieving to rely on a stable piece of hardware for effects, rather than relying on software. After all, regardless of what external effect processor you use, you’ll be rest assured that it was designed for one purpose: manipulating live audio signals.


Using two external effects processors along with a analogue mixer not only simplifies Ableton’s potential for complexity but it provides a familiar look and layout for both the audience and performers. For those looking for a unique sound, many of these hardware processors contain great presets that are rarely heard. Globetrotting beat-boxer, Beardyman (above), relies on his voice and a bevy of analogue synths and effects to craft a totally original sound. Sometimes, going analogue might be one way to make a digital setup work.

ableton liveeffects processorskaoss pad effects
Comments (65)
Add Comment
  • E Rock

    Geez, what a sad colony of trolls underneath me…Thanks for sharing your set-up man, I run a kp3 as my final output but have never thought of splitting the audio like this. My buddy also has one so I wanna give this a shot!

     The only thing lacking was the use of midi; I noticed you didn’t have these clocked. If you don’t mind me suggesting:

     Get a midi box, like a M-Audio 2×2 for example, run it out your other USB port, run a midi cable out the box into your first kp3, then daisy-chain another midi cable to the second kp3. This should get you all clocked up, with Ableton as the master. I’ve had trouble trying to run Ableton via USB to the kaossPad before and it doesn’t read for some reason…Also, another more recent approach has been using another midi controller USB, then running a midi cable into the kp3 for the clocking.

     As for Ableton, a cool trick a friend showed me is to run four decks (audio channels), with 1 and 3 set to the A-Sends, and 2 and 4 set to the B-Sends. Throw an EQ8 on each individual channel, and use the frequency shift on the “1” for each one. This is a cool way to blend in between your tracks without having to use the Ableton crossfader or volume sliders.  Hope this helps!

    • Rwuljonq

      you seem like knowledgeable on the subject so I’ll chance asking……I’m interested in recording my kp3 beatbox sets into ableton with this method, do you suppose you could link 2 kp3′ to an external clock source, say a korg triton keyboard, run that connection into your midi interface and use ableton as your master clock? or perhaps run midi out of the kp3’s directly into the midi interface and simply use ableton as your main clock?  

  • Itsbentheboy

    these ideas are awesome and inspire me to keep using ableton, as well as other software and keep an open mind. 

    i really hope an ableton section opens in the forums soon

  • Grumpy

    I have a lot of respect for the way technology is being used for ‘DJing’ these days (me being from the 2 turntables and a microphone era) but this bobble head, constant (unnecessary) knob touching and wrist flicking posing bollocks bores the tits off me. If something clever was being achieved then great, but in the instance, sadly, no.

  • Jay Man

    “The focus here is on the hardware, each “deck”, and how they mix together. The laptop is no longer the focus.”

    Sorry, but this is not the case (in both videos), all music is from the laptop. The KP3 is not controlling any decks. The loops are created on the laptop, the only thing the KP3s are doing is manipulating sound with effects.

    “The Kaoss Pad is particularly interesting because it can also be used as a MIDI controller to trigger your Ableton clips”

    Then next paragraph says,

    “Probably the biggest assets of utilizing external audio processing is
    that they eliminate the taxing demand of MIDI assignments and VST usage
    on your CPU. Back when I used MIDI for live performances (with my trusty
    MPD26), I used up to ten tracks, all with different types of effects
    loaded onto them. Even with 8GB of RAM and an i7 processor, my laptop
    was having trouble keeping up with all of my MIDI assignments. I even
    slimmed the number of tracks down to two (see below), and although Live
    ran noticeably smoother, it still wasn’t as punctual as I wanted it to be.”

    Sorry Meatman, it just seems like the wrong software for the 2 Deck type of setup you’re aiming for especially considering the high power of the laptop you mentioned.

  • Jay Man

    I’m sorry DJTT crew I get so much good info from your site and love it, but as a KP3 owner I got exited about this article until I realized what the actual message was. After rereading the article I then understood what you were getting at, which is freeing up CPU usage and reliability in Ableton by using the KP3s as they were made for, effect banks, only difference is using Ableton instead of decks/tables.
    I was hoping for them more as a midi device (again after rereading that was not the intention here). All the attention WAS on the music coming out of the laptop, then manipulating it with KP3 effects, then mixer EQs & effects. OK I doubt that there is a mixer on the market that has 128 effects, let alone control different effects on each channel at the same time (which is the only bonus I can see here). I don’t think I even saw the DJ use the sampling banks for recording or for resampling, (just re-watched 2 clips by Meatman and no sampling or resampling, which would have given beat-splicing and other bonuses).  There was no MIDI use at all (no USB cables a give away!) No disrespect at all but I think Ableton is just not the suitable software for this case unless both KP3s are used as both MIDI & effects.
    As for Beardyman, remember he normally doesn’t use software in his Beat-box sets, it’s preloaded samples (minimal) on KP3 & then sampling and resampling his voice (also he is the king of all KP3s!!).
    For this type of set I would recommend different software (Traktor, etc), or again using KP3s as both MIDI & effects, (which works really well on Traktor with Core2 Duo 4g Ram)
    This is not a put down, but it just confused me and seemed a waste of effort, and it has put me off Ableton if it cant accommodate 2xKP3s as MIDI controllers because of software stability.

  • D Witt

    great idea, but I was definately expecting more creativity with the set

  • D Witt

    great idea, but I was definately expecting more creativity with the set

  • Physical Patrick

    I sold Kaoss pad 1,2 and 3 …i found the parameter increments didn’t have enough steps…. it was less than midi’s 127 each parameter had like 8 steps…so 8 different settings you could choose from (may be exaggerating backwards with the 8 but probably only 16)   thats why TouchOSC on the ipad is so awesome because parameters go to the 6th decimal….every time you touch it it does something different!!!

  • James 'Pioneer' Burkill

    a backwards step to me midi blew open the dj gear world world although it speed is poor it is 30 year old tech maybe manufactures need a new standard of midi with more speed

  • Dj essentials

    What I take from this article is a way to use your existing setup as a possible way to introduce more traditional djs to ableton. I like the mixer use to control the EQ and the crossfader, but I’m not keen on the kaoss pad for effects. Like what was said earlier in the comments about the effects built-in to ableton. It just makes more sense to use those. I would like to see a mixer with a layer of midi control to control effects. The deck fashion of the kaoss pads just seem to be faking the funk to me.


    A kaoss pad for each channel? Seems too spoiled… I have a kaoss pad 3 myself and I’m about to sell it. A few good sounds but that’s it. Its limited. Many FX on the unit lower the overall volume of the signal when used and break the flow, plus the sampler time you get to use is limited as well. KP3 is nice to bend effects, but thats it, you just bend them in fixed ways.
    I agree on aliviating the burden of effects from a pc or laptop to increase performance, but KP3 falls short sometimes.

    • louieq

      Many FX on the unit lower the overall volume of the signal when used and break the flow, plus the sampler time you get to use is limited as well.
      This is why you cue before you use an effect! Not to mention that it’s also a MIDI controller and also a sampler.

      • AENSLAED

        Cueing the effect doesn’t have anything to do with the real performance of the effect itself… The problem here is that if I want to use an effect on the PK3, and if it lowers the overall volume I have to use another (what if thats the effect I like to use?), and that’s not ok, what’s the point of that effect if my audio has to suffer? This happens in many effects of the PK3… the effects are good, but having to compensate every time for the volume decrease the KP3 induces, then that’s a deal breaker for me.

    • Jay Man

      As a KP3 owner I cannot agree more, sound quality definitely sacrificed and volume level can vary a lot. I use it with Traktor as a midi as well as effects directly, but mainly midi for my Traktor effect banks and EQs. Only keeping and using it because they are worth next to nothing second hand

  • Djcl.ear

    External effects are a great idea. And the touch able Kaoss seems like a perfect hands-on controller for this.
    However having DSP inside the  do not have digital inputs/outputs!! hence forcing users to add extra ADC/DACs on our signal chain… a big No No.
    Up to now, the only Kaoss with dig ins/outs available, comes imbeded in own Korg Zero 8’s hybrid mixer. However it needs modding for proper functioning, other than that, it seems to be the perfect set up for Ableton + Kaoss +DJ Multimixer.
    Besides, apart from the need of a Firewire connection on yout laptop (to keep the unconverted dig signal), you HAVE to add an external SPDIF DAC to avoid this mixer Hiss problem on its analogue outs…
    All in all, it adds up as a rather complex and costly set up, but a very good one.

  • Wobblsmi

    ……The focus here is on the hardware, each “deck”, and how they mix together. The laptop is no longer the focus…….
    And then in his performance video he stares at the laptop and cant keep his hands off the keyboard whilst barely using the pads.  P O S E R

    • Stinky Flow

      thats why I’m moving away from software completely.. tired of seeing DJs peering at their screens as if they just received an interesting email. haus ohne maus!

      • Traze

        Stop watching the DJ and listen to the tune, poser.

  • Audio Domini

    can i get a video of this in action? it sounds epic!

  • George

    I appreciate articles on DJTT that deal with ableton and with no disrespect to louieq I wish Ean would post more relevant articles regarding ableton techniques that a setup like this. Don’t get me wrong. I respect it. But it isn’t a realistic way of using ableton in venue situations.

    Much respect…

  • louieq

    OP here: The article is having issues at the moment and we’re working hard on getting it back up as soon as possible.

    Feel free to ask me any questions regarding my set up, and check out for a demo.

  • Piki

    where is de article content???? I can see only a pic!!!

  • proben

    am I the only one who doesn’t see the text of the article at all?

    • louieq

      We’re working on it!

    • Spacecamp

      Fixed. Too many cooks, yo! 

  • Jamez Penson

    I don’t really see what this has to do with ableton! This set up could be used with any source: Ableton, Traktor, Serato, Cdj’s even Vinyl!!! (I used to use 2 cdj’s and 2 Kaoss pads myself)

    You could also get a similar functionality with a mixer that has multiple FX channels (i.e. the Denon DNX1700 or Allen & Heath DB4)  which would then take up less space and wireing up, the only thing missing would be loop funcionality, however if your useing ableton setting up loops inside ableton is a lot quicker and more reliable than using an external source!

  • Audiomontana

    I think this article / ??? /  doesn’t really contain the substance to form any sort of critical discussion matrix.  Watch persons (reading) who are figureatively ‘reading at the fourth grade level’  form into whatever favorite comic book club they wish they could be in.   Music production and performance and set-ups will vary vastly .. but its the interaction of putting beats/layers together to make something that actually sounds decent and has good energy… THAT FURTHERS THE ART AND CROWD … that should be the focus.  Im sorry but this article really doesn’t scratch the surface or even incite me to dso anything new.   Its taking an ‘of the moment’ idea and just applying it to what everyone is doing already.  Simple and short. 

  • Uhm

    calling that “battle style” is a huge misnomer… this guy couldn’t battle his way out of a paper bag. “Deck style” would have been proper…  it seems to me is this guys jut trying to add legitimacy or “street cred” to his ableton setup with the scratch mixer combo.

    • GOD

      get over yourself, loser

      • Wobblsmi

        ableton rocks, this guy D o e s n t

    • House DJ

      Yup, you’re right. Everyone else thinks your comment is elitist but the problem is, these are the same idiots that splice up house into a million micro genres. Nothing wrong being accurate. I don’t think he’s trying to add street cred. I think it’d be better if he just said “Traditional DJ Setup”. 2 decks on each side of a mixer was around way before battling. I think every DJ should get over themselves. They’re not musicians.


    Cool article, and a unique take on a DJing setup. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • Skeet skeet

    Sweet sweater.

  • Bcoflan

    i thought it was cool. he tried to do something in a new way and although it might seem unnecessary or he is doing it for the “pretty lights,” so what? He is doing something his own way and it sounded good

    • Jay Man

      I agree, it seems the problem is, what he wants to do (in this video and article it’s “battling”) Ableton (a top class software) just doesn’t cut it reliability/stability wise. $800 worth of hardware, that another top quality software suite (eg. Traktor) could do for under $300

  • JuanSOLO

    I watched the whole vid, nice tunes. I like the set up and idea. It’s creative, I bet it’s a lot of fun, and it sounds good AND unique.

  • Yyuo

    i was expecting more kaospad use and less thinkpad use. and less beer drinkage?

  • kramerbuccs24

    Very cool post, introduced me to the concept of external mixing! The S4/Traktor Pro 2 combo has me spoiled 🙂

    • Jay Man

      The idea of this article was to show how to eliminate the use of effects in Ableton, but there is $800 worth of hardware (just the 2 KP3s), nearly the same price as the S4/Pro2 combo! And Traktor Pro2 is very stable with a good effects range and inbuilt recording!!  Doesn’t make sense to me.

    • This Guy

      “Sometimes, going analogue might be one way to make a digital setup work.”

  • Swag

    WTF? lets make these articles plausable. I sure as shit cant afford 2 kaoss pads lets along that whole set up. i got ableton but so does everything. show us how to do it with a pieve that is more likely to be in the homes of your readers. Maybe a native instruments product, or some midi controller. 

  • Stinky Flow

    open your ears, open your eyes and open your mind before you open your mouth =)

  • Stinky Flow

    The Korg Kaoss series is truly legendary!!! I own both the Kaossilator Pro and the Kaoss Pad 3… a team which is greater than the sum of its parts. Not only are the interfaces superbly intuitive but their possibilities are astounding. The Kaoss pad 3 is a killer effects unit as well as a fully customizable MIDI controller with a X-Y touch pad interface. A great addition to anyone’s arsenal, whether analogue or digital.

  • Wavemass

    ahh, not impressed.. Who needs a battle mixer with Ableton? You need a multi channel house type mixer to really get into ableton. This set up seems like a waste, two channels only at a time? Meh, use Traktor, Serato, or PCDJ.. Ableton is all about the producer in you, layering loops over tracks and more complex mixing, this little set up is a toy for someone who wants to waste some $$ on flashing lights..

  • Eugene Whocares

    “The internal effects in Ableton Live are amazing, and a crucial part of most productions.”

    But then the author goes on to tell us about his problems with VST effects and never even mentions Ableton’s own effects.  The effects that are quite efficient on the CPU, compared to VSTs especially, they don’t crash, at least I’ve never heard of or had one crash Ableton for me in multiple years that I’ve been familiar with the software.

    So why not just dump your cracked VSTs, and those VSTs that aren’t cracked but are freeware, yes, dump those too, and just use the amazing effects that are actually part of Ableton?

    • louieq

      You’re absolutely right, Ableton’s effects are really efficient compared to most third-party vst’s and vsti’s. Even still, I’ve encountered some really annoying problems with MIDI in general, especially not having all of my MIDI controllers recognize when Live is fully booted up.

      This happened to me in a live setting several times. I would boot up Live only to have some but not all of the controllers recognized. It didn’t kill my set, but the lack of effects still made it limiting.So from those experiences, I found that I needed a setup up that was robust, fun, and most of all reliable.

  • Joseph Chang

    I can only imagine how intense joel zimmerman’s (deadmau5) set up must be now with his new ‘Expert Griefing Machine’. 

  • Scottkrot

    wtf is the cupcake clan?

  • cabdoctor

    I have a lot of questions. 

    How are you handling your loops?  Ableton or the Kp3s
    Are you using pre-organized set list or making on the fly song selection?
    Are you using the midi functions of the kp3s at all for Pause/Play/Next Track/Nudge Up/Down?
    Are you using and midi clock functions to keep your Kp3s in sync with the tempo on Ableton?

    • louieq


      1. Loops and clips are handled by Ableton. Loop effects can be done on the KP3.

      2. All of my music is on one .als set, so for the most part I was picking songs at random.

      3. No MIDI, but I’ve been planning on experimenting with it. Could be really interesting despite my problems with MIDI.

      4. No clock functions either. The auto-BPM is decent, but the best way to make sure the BPM’s match is just to tap, or match up the BPM on the Kaoss Pad with the master BPM on Live.

      Glad you enjoyed it!

      • cabdoctor

        Thanks for answering those questions for me!

  • Eric Tuan-Pham Quang Le

    Looks like tons of fun. A little intimidated by the daisy chaining, though. And once more, acknowledging the fact that Ableton is a beast that requires a bit of taming. XD

  • Beastmode

    Is there gonna be a video of you using this live? I’m really interested in seeing it being used

    • louieq

      Sure is!

      Glad you enjoyed it!

  • Anon

    Hmmm i like this idea, gonna have to try it. 

    I’ve used an Novation launch pad alongside my cdj’s and mixer before with Ableton and its a lot of fun! 

    Also great to see Ableton getting some recognition from dj’s instead of just producers! Please DJ’s everywhere… dont be afraid of Ableton (everyone thinks its only for producers). A lot of reputable djs/producers use Ableton in their live sets 😉