9 January 2016

Triggering external hardware from Ableton

Ableton as a controller

This post deals with connecting your sound card to Ableton and the settings needed to send midi clip data to external equipment. In our case, we wanted to send midi signals out to lighting rigs and smoke machines for our theatre production.
This information is designed for PC use, there will be slight (but not significant) differences when using a Mac. I will cover how to:

  • Choose your Audio Device and set it up
  • Create a midi clip and route it to the midi out
  • Connect to DMX controller and deal with timing issues

Choose your Audio Device and set it up

Open Ableton and select Preferences from Options/Preferences (or Ctrl + ,) to get this screen, which should default to the Audio tab. If not, select it.

Make sure your Audio Device is plugged in and any Drivers that came with it are installed. Connect your speakers (with everything switched off).

Driver Type

For your Driver Type choose ASIO. If this is not available you can go to ASIO4ALL to download an ASIO driver. Restart the PC after installing any new drivers.

Audio Device and Channel Configuration

Select your Audio Device from the Audio Device drop down list.
The Input and Output Configuration buttons let you select which of your Sound Cards inputs and outputs will be available for Ableton to use. Choose the appropriate ones to input or output in Mono or Stereo.

Here are my input and output configurations:

Now your audio interface and Ableton are connected.
Let's look now at how we create a midi clip and rout it to the Midi out of your Audio Device

Create a midi clip and route it to the midi out

Connect the midi out from your Audio Device to the midi in of the external equipment - could be a hardware synthesizer or in our case lighting and smoke machine gear.

Here are the Midi input and output connectors on my Audio Device.

Create a new Midi Track

Create a new Midi track using Ctrl + Shift + T. Go to the Instruments folder and select 'External Instrument and drop it on the new Midi track. In the External Instrument dialog select your Audio Device and the Midi Channel you want to send data on (in our case Channel 9).

You can leave Audio From at the default as we won't be receiving any audio to this track.

Connect to DMX controller and deal with timing issues

DMX is a standard for digital communication networks commonly used to control stage lighting. In our case the DMX controller is a Chauvet 40 from Chauvet lighting. Midi sent from Ableton can be used to trigger scenes and chases for playback. The midi cable from the Audio Device is connected to the Obey™ and the Obey™ 40 will respond to MIDI input.

Midi note values

The values of each note programmed into the midi track will send specific midi value data to the DMX controller which can be used to trigger via DMX, for example, strobe, fog bursts, lighting changes or chases. The note values can be found here.

Timing issues

It may be that your lighting rig or fog effects are a little slow in responding. One way to deal with that is to use the Ableton Delay function to advance the midi trigger by some milliseconds.

Select the 'D' button to visualise the delay and advance the midi track by say, 15 ms (see example).
Another possibility is simply to go off-grid and move the midi notes earlier or later as needed.


There are many other ways to do this. I'm sure you can order a Pizza via Ableton, but it's easier to pick up the phone.

Basically it is
  • Ableton Live sending Midi notes --> Midi to DMX Converter Software --> Lights
  • or Midi CCs (0-127) --> Midi to DMX converter --> DMX (0-255)
You could use a midi controller such as the APC40 or Push to send midi CC data to control the DMX lighting directly in real time.

A unit such as the DMXIS from Enttec will plug straight to USB so you just send the Ableton data out on that USB.

Here is a nice video covering this method.


Thanks for your interest !