Live 10: Playing Software Instruments


Note: this lesson and an accompanying Live Set are also installed with Ableton Live and are viewable within the program itself. These lessons can be accessed from Live's Help View. You can read the lesson on the web or from within Live, but we recommend loading the Live Set that accompanies it as you follow along.

Live's built-in instruments and effects are accessible through the browser, which is located in the upper-left section of the application window. You can open and close the browser using its Show/Hide button:


The Browser

The instruments and effects in the browser are grouped into categories using labels. Click on a label to view the items in it.

You can use your computer keyboard's arrow keys for quick navigation:

  • The up and down arrow keys will move the selection up and down.
  • The right arrow key will open folders, and the left arrow key will close them. The right and left arrows will also move between the labels and their contents.

Click the Sounds label to access Live's collection of Instrument Rack presets:


We're going to load a sound now. Open the "Piano and Keys" folder and select the "Grand Piano" preset:


To load a preset, drag it to the right, holding it over the Arrangement track 2 MIDI. The mouse cursor will change to indicate that the preset can be dropped into this track:


After releasing the mouse button, you'll see the new preset appear in the Device View at the bottom of the application window:


Play the instrument

In order to play the software instrument, we first need to make sure that its track is armed. This normally happens automatically when an instrument is inserted, but you can do it manually by clicking on the track's Arm button in the track mixer:


Arming the track accomplishes two things:

  • It allows the track to receive MIDI notes from an external MIDI keyboard (or, in the absence of an external device, your computer keyboard).
  • It record-enables the track, allowing you to record what you play at any time.

If you have a MIDI keyboard connected to your computer, then go ahead and play a few notes now. You should hear the instrument as you play, and this should be reflected by the input and output meters which enclose the instrument in the Device View:


The computer's keyboard

If you don't have a MIDI keyboard available, you can use your computer's keyboard instead. To do this, make sure that the Computer MIDI Keyboard switch at the upper-right corner of the screen is enabled:


  • The letter keys in the upper row of the keyboard (QWER...) will play the black piano keys.
  • Those in the center row (ASDF...) will play the white keys.
  • The and keys will transpose the range of the computer MIDI keyboard
  • The and keys will change the velocity, or intensity, of the notes that you play.

The Status Bar at the bottom of the application window will provide feedback when pressing the transpose or velocity keys:


Saving presets

Perhaps you've adjusted the sound's parameter and created a sound that you want to save for later? You can save the sound's current settings at any time by clicking the Save Preset button in the device's title bar:


The new preset will appear in your User Library, highlighted and ready to be renamed:


Live's library provides a great diversity of sounds, so whenever you feel like exploring another preset, simply press the Q key on your computer keyboard or click on the Hot-Swap button in the device's title bar:


The preset last chosen will appear highlighted in the browser, and an orange banner at the top of the browser will show that you're in Hot-Swap mode:


By pressing the How-Swap button, we have created a temporary link between the browser and the device in the Device View. Selecting a preset then hitting the Enter/Return key on your keyboard will replace the previously loaded sound with the new one.

Once you've found a sound which suits you, you can press your computer keyboard's Esc key to exit Hot-Swap mode.

The browser also offers a convenient search function that will find presets by keyword. For example, to find all bass sounds, click the Sounds label. Then click in the search field and type "bass":



Live's built-in instruments and effects can be complemented by third-party plug-ins in VST or Audio Units (Mac only) formats. Using plug-ins is very similar to using the built-in devices. To insert a plug-in instrument, first click the Plug-Ins label:


NOTE: You might have to activate Live's plug-in support if you are using plug-ins for the first time. You can do this in the Plug-In Sources section of Live's File/Folder Preferences.

Any third-party plug-ins that you have installed will now be shown. Instrument plug-ins can be differentiated from effect plug-ins by the tiny piano keys that occupy the lower half of their Browser icon:


Just as with Live's devices, select an instrument and drag it into a MIDI track. The plug-ins custom editor window will open automatically. In the Device View, plug-in devices are shown with an assignable  X-Y grid:



Ableton offers these in-depth help and learning resources: