Use Your Keyboard as a MIDI Controller In Ableton: A Complete Guide

Keyboard as a MIDI Controller In Ableton
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Ableton Live is a powerhouse for live performances, but it’s equally adept in the studio for music production. But what if you don’t have a MIDI controller?

No worries. Ableton Live has a built-in feature that turns your computer keyboard into a makeshift MIDI controller.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through how to set up and use your keyboard as a MIDI controller in Ableton Live.

Why Use Your Keyboard as a MIDI Controller?

Before diving into the how-to, let’s address the why. Using a mouse to draw MIDI notes is cumbersome and not intuitive. It’s like painting with a stick instead of a brush.

Ableton’s “Computer MIDI Keyboard” feature allows you to use your computer keyboard to play MIDI notes, offering a more tactile and immediate way to get your musical ideas into the software.

Enabling the Feature

  1. Access the Feature: Open Ableton Live and look for the piano icon in the top right corner.
  2. Activate: Click on the piano icon or simply press “M” on your keyboard to activate the Computer MIDI Keyboard feature.

Understanding the Keyboard Layout

  • White Keys: The keys from ‘A’ to ‘L’ on your keyboard correspond to the white keys on a piano, covering a full octave from C to D.
  • Black Keys: The keys in between, like ‘W’ and ‘E’, correspond to the black keys or the sharp notes on a piano.

Additional Controls

  1. Change Octave: Use ‘Z’ to go down an octave and ‘X’ to go up.
  2. Velocity Control: ‘C’ and ‘V’ allow you to control the velocity or the intensity of the note. Lower velocity gives a softer sound, while higher velocity makes it louder.

Practical Applications

Use Your Keyboard as a MIDI Controller In Ableton

Playing Chords

One of the most compelling uses of Ableton Live’s Computer MIDI Keyboard feature is the ability to play chords directly from your computer keyboard.

This is a game-changer for those who want to quickly lay down harmonic structures without the hassle of drawing each note individually.

The Basics: Major and Minor Chords

Let’s start with the fundamentals. Major and minor chords are the building blocks of most music genres. In this setup, you can easily play both:

  • Major Chords: To play a C major chord, you would press ‘A’, ‘D’, and ‘G’ simultaneously. This corresponds to the notes C, E, and G on a piano, which make up a C major chord.
  • Minor Chords: For a C minor chord, you’d press ‘A’, ‘D’, and ‘F’. This corresponds to the notes C, E flat, and G, giving you a C minor chord.

Expanding Your Chord Vocabulary

Once you’re comfortable with major and minor chords, you can start to explore more complex chord structures like 7th and 9th chords.

While these might be a bit trickier to play on a computer keyboard due to the limited range, you can still get creative by switching octaves using the ‘Z’ and ‘X’ keys.

Real-World Application: Songwriting

Imagine you’re in the middle of a songwriting session and inspiration strikes. You don’t want to lose that creative spark by fumbling around with your mouse.

With this setup, you can instantly play the chords that you hear in your head, making the songwriting process more fluid and intuitive.

Layering and Texturing

Another advanced technique is to layer multiple chords to create a richer sound. You can record one chord progression, then layer another on top with different instruments or synth sounds.

This adds depth and texture to your music, turning simple chord progressions into lush sonic landscapes.

Velocity for Emotional Depth

Don’t forget about the velocity controls (‘C’ and ‘V’). By varying the velocity, you can add emotional nuance to your chords. For instance, lower velocities can make your chords sound softer and more intimate, while higher velocities can add excitement and intensity.

Drum Programming

programming drum tracks in ableton with computer keyboard

Switching gears from chords, let’s talk about another crucial aspect of music production: drum programming.

Ableton Live’s Computer MIDI Keyboard feature is not just for melodic instruments; it’s equally effective for laying down drum patterns.

Here’s how to get the most out of this feature for your drum tracks.

Finding the Right Octave

When you switch to a drum kit in Ableton, you might notice that the drum sounds are not automatically mapped to the keys you’d expect. No worries.

Use the ‘Z’ and ‘X’ keys to shift octaves up or down until you find the right mapping.

This is crucial because drum kits in Ableton often span multiple octaves, and you’ll want to make sure you’re triggering the correct sounds.

Real-World Example: Crafting a Beat

Let’s say you’ve loaded up a classic 808 drum kit. You find that the kick drum is mapped to the ‘A’ key, the snare to the ‘S’ key, and the hi-hat to the ‘D’ key.

With this setup, you can easily tap out a basic hip-hop beat directly from your computer keyboard. It’s as simple as alternating between the ‘A’ and ‘S’ keys for the kick and snare, while sprinkling in some ‘D’ key taps for the hi-hats.

Velocity Matters in Drumming Too

Just like with chords, velocity plays a significant role in drum programming. Use the ‘C’ and ‘V’ keys to adjust the velocity of your drum hits.

Lower velocities can simulate softer drum hits, adding a sense of dynamics and realism to your drum patterns.

For example, you can use lower velocities for the verses and ramp up the intensity with higher velocities for the chorus.

Advanced Techniques: Ghost Notes and Rolls

Once you’re comfortable with basic drumming, you can start incorporating more advanced techniques like ghost notes and rolls.

  • Ghost notes are softer, subtler hits that add complexity and groove to your drum patterns.
  • Rolls are rapid successions of the same drum hit, often used to build tension or excitement.

Both of these techniques can be executed by skillfully manipulating the velocity and timing of your key presses.

Looping and Layering

Ableton Live allows you to loop your drum patterns easily. Once you’ve recorded a basic loop, you can overdub additional layers to create more complex rhythms. This is especially useful for genres like electronic music and hip-hop, where intricate drum programming is key.

Advanced Tips & Things To Keep In Mind…

Keyboard as a MIDI Controller In Ableton

Ableton Live’s versatility extends beyond its musical capabilities; it also offers robust control customization through its key mapping feature.

However, when you’re using your computer keyboard as a MIDI controller, you might run into some conflicts.

Let’s break down how to navigate these issues like a pro.

The Conflict: MIDI vs. Key Mapping

When you enable the Computer MIDI Keyboard feature, it takes precedence over any key mappings you’ve set up in Ableton Live. This means that if you’ve mapped, say, the ‘A’ key to toggle a certain plugin on and off, pressing ‘A’ will now trigger a MIDI note instead. This can be disorienting and disrupt your workflow if you’re not prepared.

Real-World Scenario: The Trap

Imagine you’ve mapped the ‘A’ key to activate your reverb plugin, and you’re in the middle of a session. You switch to the Computer MIDI Keyboard to lay down some chords, forgetting about the key mapping. You press ‘A’ expecting to hear a note, but instead, your track is suddenly awash in reverb. Confusing, right?

Solutions: How to Avoid the Pitfall

  • Disable MIDI Keyboard: The most straightforward solution is to disable the Computer MIDI Keyboard feature when you’re using key mappings. This ensures that your custom controls work as intended. To toggle the feature on and off quickly, remember that pressing ‘M’ is your shortcut.
  • Use Different Keys: If you find yourself frequently switching between MIDI input and key mappings, consider using keys for your mappings that are not part of the Computer MIDI Keyboard layout. For example, use the number keys or function keys, which are not used for MIDI input.
  • Visual Cues: Keep an eye on the top right corner of the Ableton Live interface. The piano icon will be highlighted when the Computer MIDI Keyboard is active, serving as a visual reminder to avoid any key mapping conflicts.

Advanced Tip: MIDI Controller as an Alternative

If you have access to a physical MIDI controller, you can use it for your musical input while reserving the computer keyboard exclusively for key mappings. This eliminates the conflict altogether and allows you to take full advantage of Ableton Live’s customization options.

Final Thoughts…

Akai Professional MPK mini mk3

Ableton Live’s Computer MIDI Keyboard feature is a lifesaver for those without a physical MIDI controller. It’s not a replacement for a full-fledged MIDI setup, but it’s an excellent tool for quickly capturing ideas and laying down tracks.

Or, if all of the above sounds a little too much like hard work, just get yourself one of these MIDI controllers – it’s cheap, it works like a dream, and it’ll save you a mountain of headaches.

As noted in the box below, the AKAI Professional MPK MK3 is an ideal solution for beginners or just anyone that’s curious about dabbling with a MIDI controller.

It comes with everything you’ll need and a whole lot more besides. We’re huge fans of this exceptionally well-priced, feature-rich MIDI Controller.

Akai Professional MPK Mini MK3

The Akai Professional MPK mini mk3 is a compact, USB-powered MIDI keyboard controller featuring 25 velocity-sensitive keys, eight assignable Q-Link knobs, and eight backlit MPC-style pads. It is a brilliant little gizmo and it works with all major DAWs

  • Ultra-portable
  • Feature-rich
  • Bundled software
  • 8 MPC-style pads
  • 25 mini keys

But if you’re interested in finding out more about other options, check out our guide to the best MIDI keyboards you can buy right now – we’ve included options for all budgets.


Master Your Music To A Professional Standard Even if You’re A Total Beginner

This step-by-step framework is the exact process I use to master music professionally. It is the culmination of 20+ years of experience, condensed down into a single, easy to follow workflow

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