Using Multitimbral Instruments in Ableton Live

What's the big fuss about using multitimbral instruments in Ableton Live? Amongst others: more CPU efficient, better mixing potential. Rory Dow shows how to set this up.  

With musicians making use of multi-core CPUs in the studios, and software manufacturers taking advantage of the extra power, plugins are becoming increasingly complex. Often instruments will respond on multiple MIDI channels, or employ multiple outputs, quite often both. If you have ever wondered how best to deal with these multitimbral audio and midi routings inside Ableton Live, then read on.

A little background

Multitimbral - what does it mean? Literally, it means an instrument can produce multiple timbres at the same time. More specifically, it has come to mean that an instrument, whether it be synthesizer, sampler or drum machine, can respond and make different sounds on different MIDI channels.

Multiple MIDI channels

A multitimbral instrument can respond differently using different MIDI channels.

Multi-output - This means that an instrument can make use of more than one mono or stereo audio output. Great for processing different sounds with EQ and other effects. In general, a multitimbral instrument almost always have multiple outputs. The two make sense together.

Multiple outputs

Having multiple outputs makes mixing multiple sounds much easier.

For our example here, I'm going to use FXpansion's Geist, although the following steps are written in such a way that you could use any multitimbral, multi-output plugin.

Geist is a sampling drum machine with 8 “engines”. You can think of an engine as a drum machine on it's own, so we effectively have 8 drum machines in one plugin. Geist can trigger the sounds on its 8 engines using midi channels 1 to 8, and it can also make use of up to 16 outputs. For this example, we're going to assume that each engine will use one output (so we'll only be using 8 of the 16 outputs).

In summary:

  • Engine 1 responds to MIDI channel 1 and the audio will come out of Sub Output 1
  • Engine 2 responds to MIDI channel 2 and the audio will come out of Sub Output 2
  • Engine 3 responds to MIDI channel 3 and the audio will come out of Sub Output 3

… and so on up to engine 8. You get the idea.

Setting up the instrument

Firstly, we need to create a MIDI track and drag our chosen instrument to it from the Live plug-in browser. Make sure that the track monitoring is set to OFF. This track will not actually process any audio or MIDI. It is here purely to host the instrument itself. We'll call it the 'instrument host track'.

Instrument host track

Our 'instrument host track' won't be used to process MIDI or output audio directly.

Setting up the first MIDI track and output

Add another MIDI track. This will be the first of the multitimbral channels. Go to Live's device browser and drag the External Instrument device from the Instruments folder to this track. The External Instrument device is going to handle all the MIDI and audio routing to and from the instrument host track.

In the External Instrument device, we need change three options:

  1. In the first “MIDI to” drop-down menu, select the instrument host track. Here, its called “1-Geist”. This is track to which the External Instrument device will route all its incoming MIDI.
  2. In the second “MIDI to” drop-down menu, select the first MIDI channel from the list. You should see 16 channels listed, each with the name of the instrument after it. Here, it is also called “1-Geist”. 
  3. In the “Audio from” drop-down menu, select the first output from the instrument host track. Here, its called “Sub Output 1-Geist”.

External Instrument setup

After setup, the first MIDI track should look something like this. The External Instrument device is handling the audio and MIDI routing to and from the instrument host track.

Setting up the remaining MIDI tracks

Now we've got our first channel setup, we can make any remaining channels very easily:

  1. With the existing channel selected in either the Session or Arrangement view, hit Command-D / Control-D to duplicate the track. 
  2. On the newly created track, go to the External Instrument device and change the MIDI channel (the 2nd “MIDI to” drop-down menu) to the next channel down the list and the “Audio from” drop-down to the next one down the list. 
  3. Repeat the two previous steps until you have as many tracks as necessary.

All tracks are set up

All our tracks are set up. Each of the 8 MIDI tracks is sending to the instrument host track on a different MIDI channel, and receiving audio from a different output.

Playing the instrument

We now have all the tracks necessary with MIDI and audio routing. If your instrument is set up correctly, and responding to multiple MIDI channels with sounds or presets loaded for each channel, you should now be able to play your instrument multitimbrally by selecting one of the MIDI tracks, changing the track Monitor to IN (as shown in the above picture) and playing on your MIDI controller.

MIDI channels are important at this stage. Each MIDI track will listen to all MIDI channels from your MIDI controller by default so it doesn't matter which MIDI channel your MIDI controller is sending, just which MIDI track is armed to monitor or record the incoming MIDI.

Saving your setup as a template

So we don't have to go through this setup process for every song, we'll save these tracks as a template which we can load into future projects whenever they are needed.

Firstly, select all the MIDI channels and the instrument host channel and hit Command-G / Control-G to group the tracks together. Now drag this Group track to Live's browser (it will need to be on one of the File Browser tabs). This will create a Live project file on your hard drive which can be dragged into any project and will setup the channels and instrument exactly as they were when saved.

Saving the project

Saving the whole group as an Ableton project file means it can be
imported to any future project to save time.

There are other ways to deal with multitimbral instruments in Live, but I've found using the External Instruments device to be the best way to handle all those MIDI and audio channels.

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


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