There are good articles out there on setting up your external synthesizers with Ableton Live, such as this one from Sound on Sound magazine.
But in this post I wanted to gather info on going a bit further, and show how I use Push with my setup:
The basic idea is to use Ableton’s External Instrument Device, along with Max for Live editors, so I can leave all my synths to the side of my studio, and load and edit presets, and play all my synthesizers directly from Push (though you could do this with any other MIDI keyboard too).
Once you drag the External Instrument onto a MIDI track, you need to set the MIDI output to go to the synthesizer you want to control, and the Audio Input to come from the synthesizers outputs. I use an RME Fireface 400 for both, and an additional MIDIsport 4×4 for more dedicated MIDI channels. If you have a lot of synths, it’s helpful to have a patch bay or mixer too to bring the audio back in. I use a Focusrite Octopre, connected by ADAT to my RME FF400, which gives me 18 ins/Outs, connected to my half-normalled patchbay, so I can route anything to anything. This way, I have all my ins and outs permanently set up — with my setup I save this external instrument as a preset, and call it up from Push’s browser, and I can play notes from Push’s diatonic grid, with all the correct routing already setup.
Some synthesizers, like my Arp Odyssey and Sequential Circuits Pro One only take Control Voltage, not MIDI. So I can convert MIDI to CV with Stretta’s max for Live tools (Stretta has some crazy shit going on).
For MIDI to CV, you’ll need to have a DC coupled audio interface or a MIDI to CV converter. I found my RME FF400 already has a DC output (the headphone jack 7/8 only). MOTU makes DC coupled interfaces too, more info on compatible audio interfaces here.
I ended up buying a hardware midi to CV converter to make things simpler, and I just split the CV from one unit with a Y cable to go to the Pro One and Odyssey. That’s probably not supposed to work but it does just fine.
But I also want to be able to change presets on my synth with Program changes. So now I need a Max for Live device to send Program changes. Here‘s a cool one that lets you store some of your favorite presets too.
Note that many synthesizers need to be set to ‘allow’ external program changes in their setup menu, and many older synths like the Arp and Pro One don’t have a way to save or access presets. So now I can play, and change presets of my external synthesizer. What if I want to edit the parameters of that synth?
Some synths make it easy, and accept CCs. Here‘s a cool Max for Live device that lets me do that. You can write the parameter name and CC number on the device and save presets for each synth.
You need to read your synth manual to see what CCs to send it.
This is about the limits of my knowledge — I can open these types of patches up, change some CCs around enough to make a few editors, so here’s a few I made for my synths:
Studio Electronics SE1X.adv
These are very hacked together, are not bi-directional and some parts don’t work (like bank switching). I offer no support – but please let me know if you improve them!
Other synths need to be controlled by Sysex. Here‘s a really cool editor for the Roland JX8P, which sends syses to the Roland to control it, and also syncs with your iPad, so you can control parameters with your iPad.
It’s on my list to make these kind of editors for my Oberheim Matrix 6R and Xpander (unless you or Christian Kleine do it for me first).