Ableton's alliance with Cycling '74 arguably dates back to the very birth of Live, as initial prototype builds of the software were first developed in their Max/MSP programming environment – but it wasn't until the advent of Live 8 that Max4Live was born. Initially offered as an upgrade above and beyond Live Suite, the integration of Max's object-oriented programming capacity and expansive user community quietly harkened one of the most important revolutions in digital music production.
Now any user with the know-how and curiosity can not only modify existing Max for Live patches – which include instruments, audio effects and MIDI effects – but also build devices from scratch. The Max for Live API more or less opened the hood of the ubiquitous DAW to an unprecedented degree, giving rise to truly infinite possibilities beyond the already powerful modularity of Live itself. Now included as part of Live 9's Suite package, more users than ever are discovering the vast potential of Max for Live. In terms of generating new musical material, Mono Sequencer is arguably one of the most potent devices to ship with the latest edition of Max for Live, so let's take a look.
The first step is to navigate through the Browser to our Max for Live MIDI Effects and locate the Mono Sequencer; Live 9's new and improved browser has a dedicated Max for Live category, so it should be easy to find. If you can't find it, you will need to download and install the Max for Live Essentials pack from https://www.ableton.com/en/packs/max-live-essentials.
Drag it onto any MIDI track in your set, or double-click to add it to a new one – then place an instrument of your choosing on the same track; for this example I'll use an instance of Analog, also included with Live 9 Suite (Pic 2 – bottom).
The darker central area of our Mono Sequencer device (Pic 3 – center) is where the sequencing magic happens.
Along the left-hand side, we have five parameters available for sequencing: Pitch, Velocity, Octave, Duration, and Repeat. By default, the grid to the right of this displays the 16 steps we can edit for each parameter, synced to 1/16 notes, all playing middle C. To create melodies, we can adjust the pitch of our steps by clicking above or below the central line. Right now, all of the steps are set to play, but individual steps can be toggled off and on using the buttons below the step editing area.
By selecting the different editable parameters on the left sidebar of the main area, we can alter different aspects of our sequence. Depending on the instrument in use, Velocity modulation (Pic 5) can add some welcome dynamism, while Octave modulation (Pic 6) can create dramatic shifts.
Duration (Pic 7) can also help make the rhythmic emphasis of your sequence considerably more dynamic, while Repeat modulations (Pic 8) can inject wild glitch-style effects into your MIDI patterns.
On the right of our main sequencer area, we have a parameter-specific loop mode editor (Pic 9). The top drop-down menu determines if and when the selected parameter's sequence resets. The second drop-down menu determines the sequence playback mode: up (forward), down (backward), up/down (forward then backward, effectively doubling the loop length), drunk (randomly staggering through the sequence), or random (selecting all steps completely at random).
If you have each parameter's playback and reset modes set differently, you can generate incredibly dynamic patterns even with a relatively short amount of steps. The sequence of each parameter can be fine-tuned by shifting forward or backward one step at a time with the left and right arrows; up and down in value with the up and down arrows; or, initialized by pressing the flat line button. What's more, each parameter's step can be randomized by an amount corresponding to the percentage indicator to the right of the Random button; to randomize the parameter, simply click this button. Pitch editing mode affords the ability to conform all the notes to a scale, selectable via the middle Key selection drop down menu and the scale type selection menu just to the right of it.
By engaging the Edit To button, any pitches as edited in the step selection area will automatically conform to the chosen scale when entered – where as Conform only forces notes to the scale after they've been written in, chromatically or otherwise. The Repeat mode also offers four repetition curve types. Finally, each step parameter has its own discrete loop brace, meaning that each parameter can cycle through a different range of its own sequence than the others might.
The step activation grid also comes with a separate loop brace, meaning steps can be turned off and on in a rhythmic pattern independent of the Pitch and other sequences being cycled through; try using a different length for this grid and you'll instantly hear new permutations of a sequence you thought you already knew inside out. The step activator also has its own Reset interval and playback Count drop-down menus, along with a step fill button that allows you to shift your current sequence left or right one step at a time, turn all steps on or off, or randomize them all.
To the right of the central step editor, we have some interesting global settings (Pic 11 – right). We can set our Pulse – the default rhythmic interval of each step being edited, with the default being 1/16 notes. We can also adjust the length of our sequence, down to a minimum of two or up to a maximum of 64 steps. If your sequence is feeling a bit stiff, you can always add some swing and adjust the amount via the Swing percentage field. There's also a global Reset interval and the chance to sync to Live's Transport or run freely in relation to it (while remaining synced to the clock, of course).
PRO-TIP: Add an instance of Live's Chord MIDI Effect after the Mono Sequencer and set the first finger dial to +7 to sequence perfect fifth chords! If you need them to conform to a scale, add Live's Scale effect after the Chord and program and edit as needed; try adding extra fingers for even fatter sounding chords.
Through pure experimentation, it's easy to arrive at some truly mind-bending sequences, sparking all sorts of creative output – but you might also want to experiment with variations on a pattern without sacrificing the original version of it. Thankfully, Mono Sequencer can store up to 12 different pattern variations, selectable via the MIDI-assignable knob (Pic 12 – upper left) in the upper left corner of the device. Using the three buttons in the bottom left below it (Pic 12 – bottom left), we can copy any pattern and then paste it to any of the remaining pattern slots as selected by the dial above; if you want to start again from scratch, just use the Init button to reset your currently selected pattern. Switching through different patterns on the fly can lead to extremely dynamic compositions on stage and in the studio; if you want to make sure patterns don't switch until the next downbeat, engage the Quantize button just beneath the Pattern selection dial.
PRO-TIP: If you want to capture the amazing MIDI the Mono Sequencer is spitting out, create a new MIDI track and engage Live's In/Out Routing Matrix; set the new MIDI track's top 'MIDI From' drop-down menu to the track with your Mono Sequencer on it, arm the new track to record, and begin recording into a new MIDI clip – voila! All the notes you've recorded are now available for editing inside the MIDI clip, and ready to be played through any instruments you choose.
Whether you're an old school gear head looking for a viable step sequencing solution or just toying with a step sequencer for the very first time, with only a few tweaks, Mono Sequencer should have you grinning in minutes. Generating delightfully complex, sprawling MIDI sequences has never been easier, and playing with this device should quickly convince any Live user of the horizon-expanding possibilities of Max for Live.