Live 8: Playing Software Instruments


In this lesson you'll learn how to use Live's MIDI capabilities to play its built-in software instruments, as well as any VST or Audio Units instruments that are installed on your computer.


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 Device Browser, which is located in the upper-left section of the application window. Click on the Device Browser's selector to bring it into view:


Device Browser Selector

The Device Browser

The instruments and effects in the Device Browser are grouped into categories using folders. To open and close a folder using your mouse, click on the small triangle to the left of its name:


Device Browser Selector - Instruments

Whenever the Browser is focused, you can also 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.

Open the Instruments folder to access Live's collection of built-in software instruments. The contents of this folder will vary depending upon which Ableton products you have enabled, but in the full version of Live, it will contain at least the following:

  • Impulse, Simpler and the External Instrument device
  • Instrument Rack and Drum Rack folders:

List of Instruments

Loading a Simpler Preset

We're going to load a Simpler preset.

To get there, navigate to the Simpler icon and unfold it. Then open the "Piano and Keys" folder and select the "Keys-Acoustic Piano" preset":


Simpler 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:


Drag Preset

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


Preset in Track View

Playing the Instrument via MIDI

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:


Arm Button

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, as we'll see in a moment).
  • 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 Track View:


Track View Meters

[Troubleshooting: If notes played on the keyboard don't seem to arrive in Live, then please see the tutorial Getting Started 3: Setting Up Your MIDI Controller.]

Using the Computer 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:


Computer MIDI Keyboard Switch

  • 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 Z and X keys will transpose the range of the computer MIDI keyboard;
  • The C and V 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:


Status Bar

Note: The keys of your computer keyboard can also be mapped to arbitrary controls in Live, as described in the Reference Manual's "MIDI and Key Remote Control" section.

Keep in mind that all I/O from your computer's keyboard is mediated by the computer's operating system, not Live. Because of this, the computer MIDI keyboard is best suited for auditioning sounds; an external keyboard or control surface should be used whenever more precise tactile input is needed.

Saving Presets

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


Preset Save Button

The new preset will appear in the Device Browser next to the original, highlighted and ready to be renamed:


New Instrument Preset

Your self-made preset will now be accessible through the Device Browser and can be loaded into your other Live Sets.

Hot-Swapping Presets

Live's Library provides a great diversity of sounds, so whenever you feel like exploring another preset, simply click on the Hot-Swap button in the device's title bar:


Hot-Swap Button

The preset last chosen will appear highlighted in the Browser, this time with a matching Hot-Swap button to its right:


Hot-Swap Button on a Preset

By pressing the Hot-Swap button, we have created a temporary link between the Browser and the device in the Track View. Selecting a preset then hitting the Enter/Return key on your keyboard will replace the previously loaded instrument with the new preset; if the preset belongs to another instrument, like Impulse, Live will even exchange the device for you!

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

The Live Browser also offers a convenient search function that will find presets by keyword. For example, click on the Browser Search button, then type in "bass" and hit the Return key to list all bass presets in Live's Library:


Browser Search Button

Using External Plug-Ins

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 open the Plug-In Browser using this selector:


Plug-In Browser Selector

Note: You might have to activate Live's plug-in support if you are using plug-ins for the first time. The Plug-in Browser's Activate button will lead you to the File/Folder Preferences, where you can set up your plug-ins.

Any plug-ins that you have will be listed in the Browser, organized first by format, then by creator. Instrument plug-ins can be differentiated from effect plug-ins by the tiny piano keys that occupy the lower half of their Browser icon:


Plug-In Instruments

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


Plug-In in Track View

The Metronome

Before we finish this lesson, let's take a quick look at how to record your performance into the Arrangement, which is Live's multitrack tape recorder.

It is important to record in sync to ensure that everything will later play in sync. The easiest way to record in sync is to use the built-in metronome, which is activated via its Control Bar switch. You'll find it in the upper-left corner of the application window:


Metronome Switch

The metronome ticks when Live is playing. Press the space bar to start playback, then adjust the metronome's volume using the Master track's Cue Volume control:


Cue Volume

Press the space bar again to stop.

Recording and Playback

Our next steps will start the recording process. Our MIDI track is already record-enabled - we activated its Arm button earlier so that Live would respond to MIDI notes:


Armed MIDI Track

Press the Control Bar's Stop button twice to reset the Arrangement position to 1.1.1:


Transport Stop Button

Now press the adjacent Global Record button (This is probably familiar to those of you who have used multitrack tape machines: Individual tracks can be armed for recording, then the Global Record button enables recording for those armed tracks.):


Global Record

Finally, press the Control Bar's Play button (or use the space bar on your computer's keyboard) to begin recording:


Transport Play Button

As recording progresses, you'll see a new MIDI clip being created in the track:


MIDI Clip Recording

To stop recording, press the Stop button. Press it a second time to reset the Arrangement to 1.1.1, then listen to your performance by pressing the Play button.

Hint: To scroll the view backward or forward, or to zoom in or out, grab the beat-time ruler along the top of the Arrangement with the mouse and drag left, right, up or down.

Looking Inside the Clip

There are lots of things you can do with your newly recorded clip.

Arrange the clip with respect to others in a song: You can grab clips by their title bars to move them to different positions, drag their sides to change their length and more.


Clip Title Bar

Edit the clip's contents and settings: To see the contents of your new clip, double-click its title bar - the MIDI notes contained within the clip will appear in the Clip View at the bottom of the application window:


MIDI Editor

To toggle between the Track View, where the instrument and the effects reside, and the Clip View, which shows the MIDI clip's details, either hold [Shift] then press [Tab], or click on one of the corresponding overviews at the bottom of the application window:


Detail Overview

Editing Notes

The MIDI Editor has its own beat-time ruler, which can be used for zooming and scrolling horizontally, just like in the Arrangement. You can also click and drag on the area to the left of the piano keys to zoom and scroll the editor vertically:


MIDI Editor Scroll Area

If you disable the Draw Mode switch in the Control Bar, you can select and move notes using your mouse:


Draw Mode Switch

Move groups of notes by dragging a selection box around them.

Each note has its own velocity marker at the bottom of the MIDI Editor. This marker denotes note velocity - the intensity with which it is played. Velocities can also be changed by clicking and dragging:


Velocity Editor

Where to Go from Here?

In this lesson, you learned how to select sounds, play software instruments and record MIDI notes. Using the principles demonstrated in this simple recording setup, you could go on recording, adding any number of tracks, each containing a different set of sounds. Use the commands in the Create menu to create additional tracks.

We suggest that you continue with the Lessons to see what else is possible with Live:

  • Live Versions: 8
  • Operating System: All