How To Build a DIY MIDI Controller for Ableton Live with the Makey Makey

So you're fascinated with the idea of DIY MIDI controllers or devices that can interface with Ableton Live or any DAW... but don't know where or how to start? Makey Makey does the hard work for you.  

I recently got my hands on the Makey Makey. When I first saw it in action someone was using bananas to trigger a MIDI synth. Impressive. What was more impressive was the claim of how easy something like that was to accomplish with the Makey Makey kit. When that kit arrived it did not disappoint.

Prefer a video demo? Watch the accompanying video for this Makey Makey & Ableton Live DIY MIDI controller here:

What's Makey Makey?

Essentially the Makey Makey (MM) is an electronic controller board that can connect to your computer. The computer will recognize the device as a USB keyboard. That means after you connect a few alligator clips to a couple things and touch the trigger material, the computer will read that as a key being pressed on the keyboard. That can translate into many different things depending on which program is open.

Let's start!

I am going to show you how to set up a DIY 6 button MIDI box and hook it up for use in Live. But first I want to explain a bit about the simple circuits the MM uses, that way, if you wanted to, you too could play a VSTi via some apples and bananas. 

Using the Makey Makey, an apple, some alligator clips and your body to make a circuit.

Using the Makey Makey, an apple, some alligator clips and your body to make a circuit.

If you look at the top of the MM you will see the old school NES controller layout. There are pads labeled up, down, left, right, space bar, click and a long strip called Earth (common/ground) that runs along the bottom. Those, minus the Earth section, correspond to the same keys on a computer keyboard. So, for instance, if you close the circuit between the Space pad and the Earth pad while you have Live open, the track will begin to play.

The MM comes with a few alligator clips. That is a good thing because the board’s design is made for them. Let’s make a circuit and close it to get an idea of how this thing works.

Grab the MM, a piece of fruit (preferably fresh), the USB chord, and two of the alligator clips. 

If you haven’t yet, connect the MM to the computer and let it install its drivers. After the drivers are installed, open Live, or a text editor if you’d rather. Then connect one of the alligator clips to the Space pad on the front of the MM. Take the other end of that alligator clip and jam it into the fruit. 

Now that fruit is going to act as our trigger. 

Now take the second alligator clip and connect it to the Earth. The other end of that clip is to remain in your hand. That’s right, your body is going to be a part of the circuit. You can put it anywhere. For example, clip it to your watch band or in the waist band of your pants. You just need to make sure that the metal part of the clip itself is touching your skin.  

If you have done everything right (and I assume you have because it is extremely easy) if you touch the piece of fruit, the program you have open should act as if you just hit the Space bar on your keyboard. In Live that means play the track. In a word document it means enter a space. If you are playing Super Mario Bros, it means jump.

If you are trying to complete this circuit without a program open, you can see that the circuit is closed by a small green LED by the Space pad on the MM. 

The DIY 6 Button MIDI Finger Drumming Box

The DIY 6-Button MIDI Finger Drumming Box

The arcade finger drumming box

I have always wanted to make my own MIDI controller. That main hurdle in that process is what might be called the “brain”. Making one of those from scratch is not for amateurs. Luckily, the MM can act as such and that is exactly how I used it. 

What you will need to build your own beyond the MM is a small box that can fit 6 Arcade buttons, that is relatively deep and sturdy. The deep is to hold all the alligator clips and the MM. The sturdy is so it doesn’t break when you start drumming like a madman! The arcade buttons can be found at most electronics stores. They usually run around 3 dollars, but they are perfect for this project.

Next, you need to cut 6 holes in your box. If you are using cardboard, you can use an X-Acto knife, but if you went with plastic or something like it, you will need a drill. Put the buttons into the holes and tighten them with the backing nut. Don’t forget a small hole for the USB wire.

The first button

Now I will show you how to connect one of the buttons to the back of the MM. After that, all you need to do is duplicate the process. Make sure to unplug the MM. It is always a good idea to work with electronics that aren’t powered.

One the back of the MM, you will see a number of extra options. We are going to focus on the black strip with the letters W, A, S, D, F, G next to it. These are inputs for the corresponding letters on the computer keyboard. You will immediately ask yourself how to connect an alligator clip to them… you can’t. However, if you bought the MM Classic kit, there would have been 6 white “connector” wires. You can slide each of those into the 6 slots, then clip the alligator clip to the exposed end. I found that breadboard jumper wires worked easier, but the pre-tinned connector wires will work if you don’t have any jumpers laying around. 

You should have two options for connections on the arcade button. One will most definitely be label COM, or Ground. You want to connect another alligator clip to the one labeled Ground, then connect the other end of that clip to the Earth section of the MM.

The other connection should be clipped by the first alligator clip. The one that is connected to one of the letter inputs.

Closed circuit with button makey.


The first button is connected!

The first button is connected!

And that’s it. If you plug your MM into the computer and you press the Arcade button you just connected, you should see the green LED light up and the program that is open should respond accordingly.

Let's play

Unplug the MM and repeat that process for the other 5 buttons.

And all 6 buttons are ready to play!

And all 6 buttons are ready to play!

After your box is ready plug it back into the computer. Open Ableton Live and drop a drum rack onto a MIDI channel. Press some buttons. You will see the corresponding drum slots light up. All you need to do now is put some drum samples in those slots and you have a working DIY MIDI Finger Drumming Box!

Inside your DIY MIDI Finger Drumming Box.

Inside your DIY MIDI Finger Drumming Box.

There are ways to map the keys/buttons to specific things inside Live, but that is for another time!!

Good luck, and happy drumming!

Learn Ableton Live in these video courses in The AskAudio Academy.


Joshua Casper is an accomplished live performer, DJ, producer, and music educator. His specialties are centered in and around Ableton Live and Native Instruments. His educational material has been featured on and as well as a myriad of large music production websites. His music has been featured on Read More


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