Integrating Hardware Instruments and Effects in Ableton Live

Despite the flexibility of software, there's no denying that using hardware instruments and effects is still hugely popular. Rory Dow shows how to get the best of both worlds in Ableton Live.  

Despite the abundance of software effects and instruments, something about the character and tactile interface of a real instrument will always appeal to musicians. Luckily, Ableton Live is more than capable of integrating them. In this article, we'll show you how.

Basic Requirements

The most important requirement for using external hardware effects or instruments within Live is a multiple input/output soundcard. Every signal that needs to get in or out of Live will need its own dedicated inputs or outputs on the soundcard. Let's take a look at a simple but typical setup:

All hardware must be connected to the soundcard before it can be used in Live.

All hardware must be connected to the soundcard before it can be used in Live.

In the example above we have a soundcard with 4 mono inputs and 4 mono outputs, a drum machine, a reverb unit and a pair of monitors are connected. The orange lines represent an audio connection and the arrows indicate the direction of the audio. The green line represents a MIDI connection. The more gear you have, the more inputs and outputs you need on your soundcard. 

Setting Up Live

Assuming correct hardware connections are in place, there are a few things to check in Live itself. Head to the Preferences' Audio tab and ensure that any required input and outputs are enabled by clicking the Input Config or Output Config buttons.

Audio inputs and outputs must be enabled in Audio Preferences.

Audio inputs and outputs must be enabled in Audio Preferences.

You can choose to use inputs and outputs as mono or stereo pairs.

You can choose to use inputs and outputs as mono or stereo pairs.

Any synths and drum machines that are connected via midi will need the relevant MIDI ports enabled in the Preferences' MIDI tab.

Enabling MIDI hardware ports.

Enabling MIDI hardware ports.

Here we can see two ports enabled. The leftmost ON button enables that port to be used for MIDI output. The middle ON button is used to send MIDI clock signal to that output which is useful for any instruments which can sync to clock, such as drum machines.

Creating Custom Devices

Now that all the relevant audio and MIDI ports are enabled, let's take a look at a couple of simple but extremely useful Live devices which will get any external instruments and effects working within Live. The beauty of these two devices is that when properly setup, they will allow hardware instruments and effects to be dropped into a project in exactly the same way as a native Live device, or VST/AU plugin.

The External Instrument Device

The first of the two devices is the External Instrument Device. Head to the Live Device Browser, open the Instruments folder and drag the External Instrument device to a new MIDI track.

Live's External Instrument device.

Live's External Instrument device. 

Its job, as you might have guessed, is to handle all the routing of audio and MIDI from a particular external instrument. It's quick and painless to setup:

  1. In the “MIDI To” chooser, select the MIDI port to which your instrument is connected.
  2. With the port selected a new chooser will appear underneath to select the MIDI channel.
  3. In the “Audio From” chooser, select the audio input channel(s) to which the instrument is connected.
  4. The “Gain” knob can be used to adjust the level of the signal. I recommend leaving this at 0.00dB and adjusting the Gain on the instrument itself to get the perfect level.
  5. Use the “Hardware Latency” slider to compensate for any latency introduced by the instrument.

It's that simple. Record-arm the MIDI track and play your instrument, either from the instrument itself, or from a connected MIDI controller.  Live will handle all the MIDI and audio routing. If you hear a 'doubling' of the instrument, it's possible that you could have direct monitoring enabled on your soundcard. This needs to be disabled.

Because the audio from the instrument is being processed through the Live channel, it can be treated just like any other audio channel. Try adding insert effects or using send busses to add some reverb or delay. You can even Freeze the track just like a software instrument!

The last step is to save your new device. Hit the Save Preset icon in the top tight corner of the device and name it in Live's browser. Now whenever you want to use that synth or drum machine again, you can just drag it to an empty MIDI track. 

The External Audio Effect Device

The second of our two magic devices, the External Audio Effect device is for external effects units such as reverb, delay, chorus, distortion etc. Head to the Live Device Browser, open the Audio Effects folder and drag the External Audio Effects device to an audio track or return track.

Live's External Audio Effect device.

Live's External Audio Effect device.

There are a few more options to go through on the External Audio Effect device, but again it's easy to setup:

  1. In the “Audio To” chooser, select the audio output channel(s) to which your effect is connected.
  2. In the “Audio From” chooser, select the audio input channel(s) to which your effect is connected.
  3. The two “Gain” knobs can be used to adjust the level of the signals coming in and out of the soundcard. 
  4. Use the “Dry/Wet” to mix between the Dry signal (before it goes to the effect) and the wet signal (after it comes back from the effect).
  5. Use the “Phase Invert” button to invert the phase of the signal coming back from the effect.
  6. Use the “Hardware Latency” slider can be used to compensate for any latency introduced by the effect.

Remember to save your newly created device so that you can use it in the future without going through this setup again.

So we now have an external hardware unit that will behave exactly like a software effect. Put your newly created device on any audio track to use it as an insert effect or put it on a return track to use it as a send effect. 

The hardware effect unit will often have a wet/dry parameter on the unit itself. It is best so set this to 100% wet and then use the Wet/Dry knob on Live's External Audio Effect device to control the blend.

As you can see, integrating external instruments and effects into Live is relatively simple. There's nothing quite like playing a real instrument and tweaking real knobs, the immediacy and tactile interface is something that software just can't replicate. Best of all, you can be confident that Ableton Live will integrate them without fuss.

Rory Dow is a musician, sound designer and writer. He spent 15 years as a freelance musician writing for television before side-stepping into music software production. The majority of his work is taken up as a trainer and sound designer for London-based software company FXpansion but he also likes to write music and articles and is a ... Read More


hi, is it possible that MPV does the same kind of tutorials but with logic and/or some others daws , in case they can use the full potential of a hardware synth ?
thanks a lot
Hi Gaby,

Hope these 2 articles for Logic help:

it only has 2 outputs can i still use this to integrate hardware instuments into live?
sorry...what i meant to post: I have the original Apogee duet, it only has 2 outputs can i still use this to integrate hardware instuments into ableton live?
shuckinfit - Yes you can use your Duet for instruments. Just not for effects (which need additional outputs and I assume you're using the two Duet outputs to connect to your amp/speakers.

Just connect your instrument to either a mono or stereo input and follow the instructions for the External Instrument Device.
is it possible to just monitor with headphones and use the duets 2 outputs for effects?
shuckinfit - I don't think so. I'm not an expert on the Duet, but with most audio interfaces, the headphone output simply mirrors the main outputs.
Shuckinfit -- you can create a aggregate audio device that uses both the onboard soundcard and your Duet, in which case you can use your onboard soundcard as the main out, and your duet for the effects loop.

Here's a video that shows you how to make an aggregate audio device.

Once you've created the aggregate device, just tell Live to use it in the audio preferences.

I use this feature of OS X to wire together two firewire interfaces for 32ch i/o
Hi Rory,

I have the Duet 2 with 4 outputs and replaced my Apogee One with the Duet2 specifically so I would be able to route audio and soft synths from Ableton, etc. through external hardware and pedals to warm them up, have more natural delys, et. al. It seems like this should be possible with the Duet2's 4 outputs, but I have not been able to figure it out after hours of trying, google'ing, and following this article. Please let me know if you have any insight into how I might be able to do this. Am I doing something wrong, or is it not possible?
Thanks and Best,
Hi Michael,

The Duet 2 should be just fine. Connect outs 3 & 4 to your hardware effects and connect the output of the effects to Duet inputs 1 & 2.

Assuming that the Duet is sending and receiving signals ok from the effects unit, the only remaining step should be to setup the Ableton External Effects device as described in this article. Oh, and don't forget to enable all the Duet's inputs and outputs in Live's Audio preferences.

Hope that helps.

- Rory

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