Using external hardware with Live

  • Live Versions: 8 - 9
  • Operating System: All

Working with hardware devices

Live allows for seamless integration of external gear such as synthesizers, drum machines, samplers and effects.  

In order to use your hardware with Live, you'll need to send a MIDI signal from Live to the device - to play notes, sync the device and/or control its parameters. You can monitor, process and record the hardware in Live using an audio interface. You may also choose to monitor the audio through an external mixing desk.

This step by step guide will show various methods of working with external hardware in Live.

Step 1 - Connect your hardware

Using a MIDI cable connect the MIDI out of your MIDI interface to the MIDI in on the hardware device. Many audio interfaces and some MIDI controllers will have MIDI ports built in or you can use a dedicated MIDI interface.Then you'll need to connect the audio out of the hardware device to the input on your audio interface. In this screenshot a Korg Volca is connected to a Focusrite Saffire 6 audio interface, which also comes with MIDI ports:Screen_Shot_2017-05-23_at_15.58.59.png

If you wish to control Live or record MIDI data into Live from the hardware, then you should also connect a MIDI cable from the MIDI out of your hardware device to the MIDI in of your MIDI interface. 

Some modern synths, drum machines and samplers may also have a USB port which supports MIDI over USB and/or Audio over USB (like the Roland Boutique Series), in which case you can connect them directly to your computer with a USB cable.

Step 2 - Configure Live's audio preferences

If you are monitoring hardware within Live (thus being able to process its sound with audio effects and/or record it directly into Live) then you need to correctly configure the audio interface in Live's audio preferences.

Open Live's preferences to the Audio tab. Enable your audio interface and click "Input Config":

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Then enable the inputs which are connected to your hardware:

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If using a device which supports audio over USB, then you can select that device as the audio interface in Live's audio preferences. On Mac OS, it's possible to select two different devices as Input and Output Device. On Windows this is not possible - you'll need to select the same device as both the Input and Output Device. 

Step 3 - Configure Live's MIDI Preferences

MIDI Output Ports

To configure your MIDI ports, open Live's Preferences' to the Link/MIDI tab.

First, enable the "Track" switch for the corresponding Output MIDI port. This allows you to send both MIDI notes to your hardware device to play notes and MIDI Control Change (CC) messages to automate its parameters such as the Filter Cutoff, Resonance, ADSR and everything else that can be tweaked in realtime. Note: Not all devices respond to MIDI CC messages. Check the specifications page for your device to see if that is supported.

In order to sync an external device with a built-in sequencer, or if your device has MIDI sync-able arpeggiators or LFOs, activate the "Sync" button for the corresponding Output MIDI port. For further details about sending or receiving MIDI clock messages in Live, please see our dedicated article on Synchronising Live via MIDI. Note: It's advised not to activate both "Track" and "Sync" on the same port. Activating both can affect the timing of the signals being sent, as MIDI transfer has a set bandwidth.

Leave the "Remote" button disabled for the Output MIDI port.

For a detailed explanation of each of these functions, please check this article about Live's MIDI Ports.

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MIDI Input Ports

You can also receive MIDI from your hardware device if it has a MIDI output port. For instance, you can use a Synthesizer's keyboard to send MIDI note data to Live, record MIDI patterns from a drum machine and/or receive MIDI CC data from a device's knobs and sliders - in effect using them as MIDI controllers.

Enable the "Track" button for the Input MIDI port the MIDI Out of your hardware device is connected to. This will allow Live to both receive MIDI notes from the device and to record any parameter tweaks from the device as Control Change (MIDI Ctrl) envelopes in a MIDI Clip (If your device supports output of CC messages)

If using a synth with a keyboard, to avoid redundant messages turn the synth's local control off. This means that playing keys or tweaking knobs will not affect the synthesizer directly, but only send these messages from its MIDI Out to Live; these will then be sent back from Live to your synth through its MIDI In. Please refer to your synthesizer's manual to find out how to disable local control (depending on the manufacturer this might be called something else).

Step 4 - Control the hardware from Live

There are two methods of controlling and monitoring hardware from Live.

Method 1 - Using the External Instrument device

The External Instrument device is the most convenient way of using hardware in Live. It allows you to play and control your external gear in a similar way to using any Live Instrument device. MIDI and audio are combined into a single channel. You can then add MIDI effects before and audio effects after the device. Set both the MIDI output port and the audio input port(s) which are connected to the hardware device. 

Live will try to compensate the audio latency when using the External Instrument. Depending on the actual hardware device you are using, some additional latency might be introduced (for example, if you are using a digital synthesizer or a software-based synth on a different computer).

You can fix this by adjusting the "Hardware Latency" slider on the External Instrument device: by adding a positive value, you introduce a negative delay in the incoming audio, to get it in sync again with the other tracks in the set.

For full instructions on how to use the External Instrument device, please reference the Live manual. Please note, this device is only available in Standard or Suite.

The following screenshot shows Live controlling and monitoring a Korg Volca Bass using External Instrument:

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Method 2 - Using a pair of MIDI and Audio tracks

You can also use a MIDI track configured to send MIDI to the correct MIDI output port, then a separate audio track configured to receive audio from the correct audio input. The audio track's monitor should then be switched to "In" in order to monitor the sound. MIDI effects need to be added to the MIDI track and audio effects to the audio track.

The disadvantage of using this method is that automatic latency compensation is not possible, and you will need to adjust the timing manually by adding a negative track delay on the MIDI track until it's in sync. Normally the total amount of latency listed in "Overall Latency" in Live's audio preferences should be entered as a negative track delay, eg -6.49. In case there is additional latency in the device itself, you may need to adjust this amount further by ear until its in sync with the rest of your set.

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Here's the same Korg Volca Bass being controlled by a separate MIDI and audio track, and with a track delay added to keep it in sync with the rest of the set:

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Further options: Controlling Multitimbral devices (Multi mode)

If your hardware device supports Multi mode (also known as Multimbrality), meaning that you can control more than one patch or sound at the same time via different MIDI channels, the setup will be a little different - especially if your synth or audio interface doesn't provide multiple outputs or inputs.

If your synth comes with separate multiple audio outputs, you can use several instances of the External Instrument device. In this situation, each patch on the synth will be assigned to a specific MIDI channel and will send audio from a dedicated analog output into a dedicated input of your audio interface. Load the External Instrument into each MIDI track and configure the respective MIDI and audio channels accordingly.

If your synth only comes with a single (stereo) output instead, or if your audio interface does not have more than one stereo (two mono) input pairs, we recommend using discrete MIDI and audio tracks as shown below.

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This way, all sounds will be merged into one track.

If you intend to record the various patches as separated tracks, it will be necessary to perform a number of audio recordings, muting all but one MIDI channel each time. Again, using this method no automatic compensation will take place - you'll need to adjust the track delays accordingly.

Further options: Using Program Change Messages

You can change between different patches, patterns or presets by sending MIDI Program Change messages using dedicated MIDI clips.

To do this, use the "Pgm Change" controls located in the clip's Notes box. Add the relevant Bank, Sub Bank and Program number and upon launching that clip, the hardware device will change the preset accordingly.

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Be aware that the device might need a little time to actually change the preset after receiving the Program Change message. If the clip contains notes right at its beginning, these might still be audible with the previous patch.

If you don't wish to play back MIDI notes, but rather want to use Program Changes to trigger new patterns (e.g. on a drum machine), you can create an empty MIDI clip with "Pgm Change" settings. When you launch this clip in Live, it will trigger the corresponding pattern on your external machine.

Please refer to the manual of your hardware device to see how Program Changes are implemented, as this differs from machine to machine.

Step 5 - Using External Audio Effects

The External Audio Effect device allows you to send audio out of Live and into an external hardware effect device then route the processed audio back into Live.

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In order to use this you need to connect an audio output, or pair of outputs, from your audio interface to the input(s) on the hardware effect, then connect the audio out of the hardware effect to an input, or pair of inputs, on the audio interface. The Audio To chooser selects the outputs on your computer’s audio interface that will go to your external device, while the Audio From chooser selects the inputs that will bring the processed signal back into Live. For further instructions about the specific functions of the External Audio Effect device, please reference its section in the manual. Please note, this device is only available in Standard or Suite.

Depending on your audio interface, you may need to configure a routing in the interface's dedicated control panel (if any). Please refer to the manual or manufacturer's website for further instructions.

Step 6 - Recording the hardware as audio

There are a few different methods of recording the output of your hardware as audio in Live. These vary depending on your preference and how it's actually being controlled in the first place. If you wish to record the hardware into Live first, in order to have an individual recording of that part to be combined with the whole set, then we recommend methods 1-3. If you wish to simply export a render of the entire track as one piece, then use method 4.

Method 1 - Record audio in a blank audio track

This method is recommended if you are modulating the hardware in realtime from the actual hardware itself - for instance tweaking the filter cutoff on a synth while recording a pass.

Create a blank audio track. For mono hardware devices set the "Audio From" to route audio directly from a single audio input which is connected to the hardware device. This allows you to record a mono track directly into Live, rather than an unnecessary stereo track.

If the hardware device is already outputting in stereo, you can instead change the "Audio From" to receive audio directly from the track itself. You can choose between Pre Fx, Post Fx and Post Mixer - we recommend Pre- FX as this will then allow you to record the raw audio from the hardware in case you want to further process or adjust any effects afterwards.

If using External Instrument, keep the monitor of this audio track set to "Off" (to avoid doubling the sound), then arm it for recording. If using a pair of MIDI and audio tracks, the tracks's monitor will already be set to "In". Simply arm it for recording.

Here's a screenshot showing External Instrument monitoring the audio from the Korg Volca Bass and then audio track 2 recording directly from the input on the audio interface in mono.

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Here's a screenshot showing the same synth being recorded internally within Live in stereo. The audio is tapped to record Pre FX:

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Method 2 - Export the individual track

If don't need to tweak or modulate the hardware from the device itself, you may choose instead to export the individual track out. Choose Export Audio/Video from Live's file menu (Shift + CTRL/CMD + R). Once confirmed this will render the track in real time. You can set it to auto-restart on dropouts, or continue regardless:

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Method 3 - Freeze and Flatten the track

This method works similar to Method 2, just instead of choosing the export command - right click the track and Freeze and Flatten it. If you wish to retain the MIDI pattern, you'll need to either duplicate the track first or copy the pattern to another MIDI track, as it will be deleted once flattened.

Method 4 - Render the entire set

You may also choose to keep the hardware entirely "live" until the moment you export your track. Choose the Export Audio/Video command from Live's File Menu. The disadvantage to this method is that if you wish to make any subsequent tweaks to the arrangement or mix-down, you'll need to re-do the whole recording all over again. 

Step 6 - Minimizing Latency

While it's almost impossible to completely eliminate latency in a computer-based recording system, there are various strategies which can reduce it.

Reduce the buffer size and raise the sample rate

The smaller the buffer size, the smaller the latency.  Keep in mind that a buffer size too small might also cause excessive CPU load.

On the other end, a higher sampling rate also reduces the amount of latency. As an example, imagine using a buffer size of 44 samples: with a sample rate of 44.1Khz (samples per second), the latency would then amount to 1millisecond. If we now double the sample rate, it is clear that 44 samples will now correspond to half a millisecond latency, since we would have twice as many samples per second. Under Preferences → Audio, Live will indicate the overall latency according to the buffer size and sample rate in use.

Direct monitoring

Direct monitoring allows a user to listen to the input signal on an audio interface with near zero latency - useful if you're playing an instrument along in real time while recording. If your audio interface supports this feature, then the input signal is passed directly to the headphones and outputs of the device for direct monitoring - thus bypassing any computer-based latency - while also sending the same audio to the computer for recording. If you're routing your hardware first through an external mixing desk before entering your audio interface, then you can also direct monitor the hardware with zero latency through the mixing desk.

Understanding Driver Error Compensation

Certain class compliant audio interfaces can introduce an inherent latency in recorded audio. It is possible to compensate for this in the recorded audio using Driver Error Compensation. Once the necessary amount is set, the recorded audio will be adjusted automatically to ensure that it lines up correctly. To set this up properly, check the lesson "Driver Error Compensation" (Help > Help View > Show All Built In Lessons > Hardware Setup > Driver Error Compensation). Please note that this function only works if the monitor on the recording track is set to "Off".

Reduced Latency When Monitoring on MIDI tracks

MIDI tracks with Monitoring active (set to "In" or "Auto" with the track being armed for recording) can be out of sync, as explained in detail in Live's manual.

To avoid this problem, you can activate "Reduced Latency When Monitoring" in Live's Options menu. This option will be saved with the Live Set. Please read our dedicated article on understanding Reduced Latency When Monitoring.

While this setting will use the lowest possible latency, it might cause noticeable clicks when enabling the Record Arm button for a track, especially if you have set a low audio buffer size in your audio settings.  

Further Reading

Check our article on Latency Compensation FAQs