Using A Hardware Synth With Ableton Live

Integrating a hardware synth into an Ableton Live production workflow can really improve your workflow, as well as create some awesome and powerful sounds. In today’s tutorial, Mad Zach covers three techniques that he uses with his Moog Sub Phatty when working on a project.

Here’s a bit more on the techniques mentioned in the video:

Technique 1: Send Basic MIDI Loops To The Synth while playing a Drum Loop

This is the quickest way to start using a hardware synthesizer with a Ableton – we’re including it here because it’s the building blocks of tons of interactions between computer and synthesizer. The main steps here are:

  • Connect your synth (MIDI out of the computer/soundcard to synth, Audio back in from the synth)
  • Create a new MIDI track with an External Instrument on it and set up the MIDI/Audio settings
  • Make a new MIDI clip and enter a sweet melody
  • Hit play!

This enables you to tweak all of the controls on the synth while playing back the same notes – a great way to learn how your synth works and discover new sounds. Especially perfect for techno, house, and other loop based music.

Technique 2: Record A Noodling Session + Chop The Best Parts In Ableton

Experimenting on a synth leads to sounds that sometimes seem wildly unique. 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.

You’ll want to create a new audio track in the arrangement view of Ableton that records your synthesizer audio, but since the synth is still being monitored in the MIDI track, mute your new audio track. Record yourself for at least a few minutes so that you get plenty of material to work with. I usually recommend turning the lights down low and getting “lost” with the synth for however long you are into it. You can also use effects to spice things up.

When you’ve finished, chop up your favorite parts in time with a drum playing – try duplicating clips of audio and reversing them, as well as adding some effects automation on top of that for serious flair.

Download Mad Zach’s sub phatty session and chop it up yourself. 

Technique 3: Use MIDI Clip Automation To Control Synth Parameters

This technique works well especially with MIDI tracks that you’ve already put a lot of work into. In the video, I show a project I’m working on with G Jones. I’ve put together a cool-sounding bass line, and then (as in technique 1), run it through the hardware synth.

When you do this, look for specific parameters on the synth that sound good consistently. These will be the ones you select to be controlled with MIDI automation. Every synth as a unique set of MIDI input codes that correlate with the hardware controls – so open up the manual and find the correct code.

In the individual MIDI clips that you want to automate, open up the envelop controls and select “MIDI Control” and the correct CC code for the synth parameter. Then you can draw in automation in the clip just as you would if it were a software synth!

Note: Make sure you have “Remote” enabled in the Audio/MIDI preferences for your synth in order for this to work. 

Abletonhardware synthmad zachmoogsubphatty
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  • Scott Jenner

    I have a new Moog Sub 37 synth and cannot get it to record or playback audio from Ableton Live 9. Below is my setup

    Any ideas why it is not working and how to fix it? All drivers and firmware are up to date on the Moog, audio interface and laptop.

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  • Cosmodrome

    Doing just the same thing right now with my brand new Moog Minitaur. Things are a bit more complicated here, as the Minitaur does not recieve program change messages. So I have MidiYoke set up to share the Minitaur’s MIDI I/O between Live9 and Moogs SysEx-based Editor, since Live does not only require exclusive access to any MIDI device but also does not support SysEx messages at all. That’s what I call hardware support ;< …
    I got the word, there's some way to let MAX deal with SysEx – any expertise, someone? By the way – the audio chopping method certainly does the job if you only need material for your sampler or beat slicer. If you intend to use something like the Minitaur during live performance, of course, you'll just go with the external instument channel and probably a sidechain compressor – integration with the live set is great, as long as you don't mind changing programs by hand. And don't get confused between bank switches…

  • jackcole

    can you guys do one for effects like a compressor,,,ie a 3630

    • Cosmodrome

      That’s mostly a no-brainer: Instead of external instrument, choose the external effect, connect a pair of physical outputs to the compressor’s line in and vice versa *and* create an extra audio track with its audio input set to the (pair of) physical inputs connected to the compressors outputs. Set this one to “record” and do as described above, if you want to record the result. If you just want it for the session view, you don’t need the extra channel.
      You’ll -obviously- need a sound card with at least two independent output pairs (any card useable for DJing should do) and one (stereo) input.
      If your external effect is MIDI controlled you might want to create a MIDI channel for it, connect MIDI inputs and outputs (no audio needed) and either record the MIDI controls sent by the effect when you play with it’s buttons or consult the effects MIDI implementation chart and edit encelopes by hand.

  • Jake Bergeson

    Love my sub phatty, and I do methods 1 and 2 quite a lot with it, although I thought we couldn’t automate parameters with the sub phatty cause I thought you had to have a VST to do it like the voyager. Thanks ALOT! Totally helped my work flow with that one!

    Curious as to why you didn’t send the midi from the sub phatty over USB instead though?

  • Freeks

    You forgot to mention that by using External Instrument plugin you will get latency to your project. It’s ok when you play that External Synth, but when you try to use any VSTi’s you just can’t play anything live anymore due the latency. What you need to do is record the synth and DELETE the plugin. If you just put it “off” the latency stays.

    Better method then is not to use External Instrument plugin at all, but just create normal midi track that you route to the external synth. Then monitor synth with your sound cards mixer. No latency to the project. When you are ready with your synth then create track to ableton and record it in.

    • Jake Bergeson

      Isn’t that what the external instrument does in practice though? Instead of having a dedicated midi track and a dedicated audio track, you just have the track with the external instrument plugin in it?

      • Freeks

        Nope. If audio goes in to Live it adds latency to that sound. Live cannot do zero latency monitoring due the buffer size. Only way to do zero latency monitoring in computer is to use sound card mixer.

        External Instrument delays all tracks in Live by the amount of MS in the plugin settings.

        Do a test like this:
        New project
        Add VSTi and play it – no delay/latency
        Add another midi track with External Instrument plugin. In Hardaware Latency column add: 143ms Latency.
        Now try to play the VSTi. Now there is at least 143ms delay/latency. Delete the External Instrument plugin and play again: No delay/latency.

        So if you want to keep your project latency free use hardware monitoring via sound card mixer. Everybody who has ever recorded vocals knows how to use hardware monitoring since vocalist hate the delay that DAW monitoring adds. If they don’t hate it then you know that they are not that professional 😉

        • Jake Bergeson

          AH. Gotcha, that makes sense since monitoring with the hardware you don’t have to convert AD and then DA like you would through ableton. Makes sense. Good tip!

    • Eddywi5E

      Can you explain this a little better? I’m trying to connect an hardware without “External Instrument”….Thanks!

  • Oddie O'Phyle

    i was doing the “noodle session” method back with live7, although i found it a bit cleaner at the time to record using Audition. then i’d load the audio clip for manipulation in ableton. unfortunately with the release of the live8 kernal, i have dropped ableton in favor of mashine.
    i keep telling people that the old hardware they have has just as much value as it’s always had, even with the amount of VST’s out there… it’s all in how you use it.

  • Winston Reed

    What is the mic you are using to record with. It looks perfect for my needs. Also awesome article. the only outboard gear I have is the Dam drum 3. I wonder if it takes cc data 🙂

  • Ginkgo

    This is just what I was looking for. I used the first two techniques a good deal, but hadn’t been able to get the MIDI automation down. Right onw.

  • HBtt

    Another splendid article of Mad Zach ! I wonder if he is using the “Twister” for the drum rack…

  • 2finewavs

    Hey Zach,

    Is that a DSI Mopho on the desk there?

    How does that compare with the Phatty?

    • Mad Zach

      the tone is pretty good but it is a pain in the ass to program. The Moog has all (or at least most) of the knobs you need to get lost in synthesis right at your fingertips so is much more fun to play with

      • 2finewavs

        Thanks Zach,

        I had considered getting the Mopho keyboard because it has all the knobs missing on the tabletop version but for the same price the slim phatty sounds much better IMO. Who needs keys anyways 🙂

        • Mad Zach

          the mopho keyboard is really sick, on par with the sub phatty for sure.

  • Kurt Q-Co Cobbaut

    Great explanation, was looking for something like this. Now it’s seems really easy to setup 🙂 One maybe offtopic question. what is the software you use for making these video’s?? (i do mean the cam capture software and vocal outputs etc… 🙂

    • Rayalon

      Probably “Screenflow ” for Mac.

  • QAMRONparq

    You don’t have to manually program the envelope; you can record CC FROM the synth if you have a MIDI handshake set up or if you have everything over USB.

  • Mad Zach

    also guys if you want to check out an Ableton project where I used all analog sounds from the Moog check out (and help out with…) my crowdsourced EP project here:

  • Jared

    I love my Virus TI. I just plug in the USB cable, and I can use software or hardware. On top of that, I route several channels of midi/audio from my virus right into ableton.

  • chris

    this kind of synths (especialy moog) made some awesome sounds, and i felt in love – in the early 90s – with many tracks of these voluminous sounding moog synthysizers.

    • chris

      hey Folks. if u make music use the compressor (from Apple) for mastering. – listen to it. – maybe you need an older version – take a look at the force 😉
      btw: Apple is the only concern that works on stream-able codecs

      • chris

        blow dry
        (if someone wanna feel an orgasm in brain)
        stirred this two following tracks
        – Etnica – Starship 101 –
        – grand cheff – lady of steel –

        under 21 is strictly forbidden

        • chris

          – Mindsphere – Mindrama –

          • neutralizer

            don’t worry. The head grows back.
            Your trained graduated masters of shopping centers.

  • Hugh

    This has just made to desperately want a hardware synth!

  • plinders

    Good article, but I’d just like to note that not every synth can use MIDI CC data. First of all, the synth needs MIDI (obviously), and second of all, not all synths with MIDI support CC data (I’m looking at you, MS20-Mini).

    • Mad Zach

      good point. some of my favorites, like the sequential circuits Pro-One (check it here: don’t even take MIDI, only CV. But… limitation can also be inspiring, and you can always revert to the noodle session

      • Oddie O'Phyle

        thank the gods for midi mods.

      • Oddie O'Phyle

        …and you can always get a cv to midi converter.

      • Basil Simon

        There are also numerous midi to cv converters out there, both integrated into synths and as independent modular units. Some even have USB connectivity. Here are many: (and that was just with a quick google search). Of course, understanding modular synthesis and cv routing is important when hooking it up, but if you have gear that takes cv it’s worth learning about, regardless of whether or not you have midi I/O 🙂

    • AfroDJMac

      I love the MS20 Mini, but yea, what happened with the MIDI control of filters and other parameters 🙁
      Still a sick synth though!