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Live is a great tool for making music on the computer and, as we saw in a previous article, you can leverage its MIDI capabilities to talk to external MIDI gear. There are a lot of great sound making tools that don’t live inside of our DAWs and Live makes it easy to incorporate these into your sessions. In this article we will examine the External Audio Effect and External Instrument devices to process with and record from analog sources.

In a previous post we managed to get MIDI control of a synth, but what if we wanted to record the result of our MIDI manipulations? If you have an audio interface with more than 2 outs you can easily accomplish this with Live’s External Instrument device. You can also do this an audio interface with only 2 outs or your internal sound card, but you’ll have to take extra care to avoid feedback.

Ableton Live External InstrumentTo get audio from a hardware synth into Live, start by dragging an External Instrument in from the browser. At the top of the device you can define where your MIDI is going. If your synth has a MIDI input and you wish to control it from Live, set the ‘MIDI To’ to the appropriate MIDI port. In this case I am sending out to a MIDI interface via a QuNexus. Choose whichever external MIDI port you are using. Below that you select which input on your interface the synth is sending audio to. You also have a Gain dial, and some latency compensation at the bottom. Most (all) interfaces introduce some amount of latency in the A/D and D/A conversions. You can find the amount of latency in your set in the ‘Audio’ section of Live’s preferences. This setup functions essentially like any Live synth or VST plugin. You can send MIDI from clips, a device or a controller, and the audio coming out the other side is ready to be further processed. This is great if you are working on a session and generating ideas with an external piece of gear. You can use Live’s built-in sound generators and effects right alongside an external synth. If you’d like to print the output to an audio file, set the ‘Audio In’ of an empty audio track to the input on your audio interface receiving the synth. You can also grab the output of the track with the External Instrument on it (if you have further processed the audio).

Ableton Live External AudioThe other approach to getting analog sounds into your sessions is by sending audio out to external processors like guitar pedals, rack mount delay/reverb units, filters, etc. If you’re a guitar player you probably have some stomp boxes laying around. This is a great way to add more tools to your toolbox. The process is pretty much the same for an external audio effect, but they take audio in instead of MIDI. Drag an External Audio Effect device in from your browser and define the input and output for your external effect. You get a few extra options with this device, including a phase inversion toggle and a dry/wet control. Since you are sending audio both out and in you’ll have to compensate not only for the input latency, but for the output latency as well. Again, all of this information is available in Live’s preferences. A lot of analog sound processors have unique characteristics and can impart subtle nuances to musical signals. Running drums through a distortion unit or a synth pad into a chorus/delay combo can yield some fantastic and tweakable musical effects.

These two devices, paired with some crafty M4L MIDI magic, can open up your Live set to almost any electronic music toy you get your hands on. Although I love using a computer for making music, sometimes it just feels better to get your hands on a musical object and have fun twisting knobs. As always, direct any questions, comments or concerns to