MIDI Chain Racks in Ableton Live

Ableton has excellent MIDI editing tools for the creative musician. Period. In this article Gary Hiebner shows how to mangle and manipulate MIDI using Racks in Ableton Live.  

Sure Ableton is great for tempo syncing and warping audio files, but where it shines is with the manipulation of MIDI data. Ableton comes with a selection of MIDI tools which, when combined with Ableton's Rack feature, makes it an unstoppable force with editing your MIDI data. I'm going to show you how you can create very useful and interesting devices with Ableton MIDI effects and Racks to implement into your song creation and live performances. I will be using the Chord MIDI effect combined with the macros in the Racks; through this I will be able to change the MIDI note and chord whilst the clip is playing.

Step 1 – Setting up The MIDI Chords

First I have inserted a Simpler on my MIDI track. I have opened the 'Spectral 16' Simpler preset from the Live 7 Legacy pack (which can be downloaded from www.ableton.com/livepacks).

Simpler Instrument

I want to set up a MIDI Rack that allows me to change the notes of a single note, and in the Rack I want to be able to change my single note to a selection of chords.

First I have drawn in a C note that is half a bar long. I have then looped the one bar MIDI clip.

On the MIDI track I have inserted a Chord MIDI device. Shift 1 is set to +12st, and Shift 2 and Shift 3 to +7st and +5st respectively. 

Chord MIDI Device settings

Select this MIDI plugin, right click on it and select Group (or Command-G). This will create a MIDI Rack. Create 4 chains and rename them as follows:



+12st +7st

+12st +7st +5st

Now click on Chain to show the Chain Selector. Expand the Rack to show the Macro section, and click on Map Mode. Now click on the Chain Selector, then the 1st Macro. The Chain Selector will now be mapped to this macro. I have renamed the macro to CHORDS. Also in the Min and Max section of the Map Mode change them to 0 and 3 respectively. This will minimize the Chain to only navigating through the 4 chains, and no further.

Map Mode Chord Device

Step 2 – The CHORDS Rack

On each Chain I want to insert a different Chord device.

On the +12st Chain insert a Chord device with a Shift of +12st.

Chord Rack +12st

On the +12st +7st Chain insert a Chord device with Shift1 of +12st and a Shift 2 of +7st.

Chord Rack +12st +7st

On the +12st +7st +5st Chain insert a Chord device with Shift 1 of +12st and a Shift 2 of +7st and a Shift 3 of +5st.

Chord Rack +12st +7st +5st

The 0st Chain won't have a Chord device, as I want this Chain to only represent the root note of C.

As you play the C looped MIDI clip and you tweak the CHORDS macro you will hear the root note change between the different chord creations.

Step 3 – The NOTES Rack

I want to do the similar process but now I want to create a MIDI Rack with different chains that will change the root note within the C major scale.

Select the CHORDS Rack and the right click and select Group again (or Command-G). This will create a new MIDI Rack with the CHORDS Rack nested within the new Rack. Rename this Rack to NOTES. Create 7 new chains and rename them C, D, E, F, G, A, B – in that order.

Notes Rack C

I have inserted a Chord device on each chain again, but this time each chain has the following Chord device settings:

C: No Chord device as represents the root note

D: a Shift 1 of +2st

Notes Rack D

E: a Shift 1 of +4st

Notes Rack E

F: a Shift 1 of +5st

Notes Rack F

G: a Shift 1 of +7st

Notes Rack G

A: a Shift 1 of +9st

Notes Rack A

B: a Shift 1 of +10st

Notes Rack B

Now assign the Chain Selector to a Macro. I have renamed the Macro to NOTES. Limit the Max to 6, so that the chain only moves between the created chains, and no further.

Notes Rack Chain Selector

Step 4 – The MIDI Chain Selector

I am going to create one more Rack to nest these other Racks in. Again, select the NOTES Rack and right-click and choose Group to create a new Rack with the nested NOTES and CHORDS racks. I am going to Map the NOTES and CHORDS macros to a new macros in this Rack. I have renamed them to NOTES and CHORDS on this Rack.

What is also nice is to be able to limit the length of the MIDI notes. The Note Length device works quite well for this. I have inserted a Note Length MIDI device onto this Rack, and have mapped this to a Macro as well.

Midi Chain Select

Make sure to set the Min and Max values again for the NOTES and CHORDS Macros.

Midi Chain Select Map Mode

Launch the C Note looped clip and start messing with these Macro buttons. You will see how you can alter the Notes, Chords and Note lengths of the clip. It is quite nice to have this available to you for a live performance so that you can create melodies on the fly, as long as the notes are in key and to a scale.

What I find works quite well is to add a Ping Pong delay after the Racks to get the sound to bounce around the stereo field and feel less static.

Add Ping Pong Delay

You can assign the CHORDS, NOTES, Note Length and the Ping Pong Delay Wet/Dry knob to knobs/faders on a MIDI controller for more control of this rack.


As you can see making use of Ableton's MIDI devices and Racks can really open up some new opportunities with Live. Adding to this, the abilities of the Chain Selector, and the assigned macros really opens up the world of MIDI with Ableton. In your next productions make use of the MIDI devices, Ableton's Racks, and the Chain Selector features. You might surprise yourself with interesting note creations and patterns.

Download my MIDI Chain Rack if you wish to explore this further.


For further Ableton tips make sure you look at these tutorials:





Gary Hiebner is an enthusiastic South African Sound Designer and Apple Tech Head! Gary has been involved in the South African music industry for the decade, and in this time has also been involved in the sound design and music production for many advertising agencies and media houses. Gary is a devoted Logic and Ableton user, but he al... Read More


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