MIDI mapping in Ableton 9 tutorial

by John Carney last updated Aug 24, 2017
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MIDI mapping in Ableton Live is an essential tool,

But it can be confusing to a new comer of Ableton or even music production in general.

Today we’re going to go through everything you need to know in order to understand this powerful feature.

From explaining how MIDI works, setting up, to advanced techniques for creating sets of MIDI mappings inside Ableton, which you can use again and again in all of your projects!

If you’ve came here looking for an answer to why Ableton MIDI mapping isn’t working, then this tutorial has all of the answers for you.

table of contents

What is MIDI?

If you’ve been producing or performing music for any amount of time, I’m sure you’ve heard the term “MIDI”. But to make sure we’re on the same page, let’s just quickly go over what MIDI actually is.

Originally developed back in the 80s, Musical Instrument Digital Interface (or MIDI for short) is a communication standard for musical hardware which allows separate pieces of equipment to “talk” to each other by sending performance data back and forth.

80s midi connection diagram

MIDI doesn’t actually send any audio, just signals or “MIDI messages” which a piece of software (in our case: Ableton) will interpret and use to either generate sound using a MIDI note message, or control internal functions of the software - i.e. move the master volume slider when you turn a knob on your equipment.

This is why MIDI keyboards and controllers don’t produce any sound, their use is to simply interact with the software by sending MIDI messages.

retro woman with midi keyboard

What is MIDI mapping?

The ability to MIDI map is one of the most useful features in Ableton Live. Rather than being tied to your mouse and computer keyboard, MIDI mapping enables you to connect a performance friendly instrument to your computer such as a MIDI piano keyboard (i.e. LPK25 mini) or MIDI controller (i.e. APC40) and control functions inside Ableton.

This way of working is much more natural for music creation and performance, plus it’s a lot more enjoyable than being hunched over a computer screen for hours, clicking away.

laptop displaying ableton live, next to an ableton push and arturia beatstep in a night club setting

Ableton’s built in MIDI mapping engine allows you to select what each button/knob/pad on your MIDI controller/keyboard will control inside Ableton when you press/turn/tap it, allowing you to take any controller or keyboard which sends MIDI data, connect it to Ableton and create a set of custom controls, specific to your own unique workflow requirements!

For example, lets say you want to focus your attention on mixer controls, you can map your MIDI controller to functions like track volume, panning & mute. Or if you want to control the various parameters of a virtual instrument or device then you can map it to those.

We will go through the steps involved in creating MIDI mappings but first and most importantly, you need to make sure that your equipment is setup correctly inside Ableton.

How to setup up your midi controller / keyboard ready for midi mapping in Ableton Live

Setting your equipment up correctly is super important. It’s actually a very simple process but this is often the point where people not familiar with the process are left wondering: why is Ableton MIDI mapping not working?

So I suggest you get this right first, before going any further!

1. Connect your MIDI keyboard/controller to your computer

First things first, connect your equipment to your computer. This will be via USB which you can plug directly into the computer’s usb port and you’ll be ready to go.

Some people use a piece of equipment called an audio interface as a hub between the computer and equipment. An audio interface is normally used for connecting analog gear such as microphones and other instruments to a computer but an audio interface can also act as an external sound card.

diagram connecting laptop to audio interface via usb

If you’re experiencing latency issues between your equipment and computer then using an audio interface can help remedy this.

Once connected, fire up Ableton Live.

2. Set your preferences

Go to the preferences menu inside Ableton. In mac, this is found inside the Live menu and on Windows you’ll find it inside the Options menu.

In the preferences menu, click on the “Link Midi” tab and look for the MIDI Ports section. If you have connected your midi controller and Ableton has recognised it then you will see its name listed here twice, both as an input and output option.

the midi tab of preferences menu inside ableton live 9

You now just need to turn Track and Remote on for both of these and close the preferences menu. That’s all there is to it and should only need to be done one time, your equipment is now ready to be MIDI mapped!

How to MIDI map a control

Ableton’s midi mapping engine is simple to use, here are the steps you need to create a mapping.

1. Turn on MIDI Map Mode

The first thing you need to do is put Ableton into MIDI map mode. To do this, find the MIDI Map Mode Switch (labelled MIDI) which is located in the top menu bar towards the right hand side.

When you click this, you’ll notice a lot of things turn blue. This means you’re in mapping mode and Ableton is waiting for you to add some mappings.

the midi activation button selected inside Ableton Live, all mappable controls displaying blue

2. Select a parameter you want to control

Everything displayed in blue is MIDI mappable, which as you can see is quite a lot! click a control you want to map and you’ll see that it becomes highlighted in color or a border appears around it.

3. Attach it to a physical input on your controller/keyboard

Now turn/twist/press the physical input on your MIDI controller/keyboard that you want to control it with and you will see a value appear over the control. This tells you that a MIDI mapping has been attached to the parameter.

4. Test your mapping

To test that the control was mapped correctly, turn off MIDI Mapping Mode and move the physical input on your MIDI equipment. If all went well then the corresponding parameter inside Ableton will also move / change.

That’s really all there is to it, to add more mappings simply turn MIDI Mapping Mode on again and create some more.

Managing MIDI mappings

You can see a full list of all the mappings you have created inside the Mapping Browser. After turning MIDI Mapping Mode on, the main browser window on the left hand side automatically switches to the Mapping Browser. So just ensure that you have this viewable by clicking the arrow near the top left of the screen so that it points to the right.

Ableton Live midi mapping browser, open and displaying a list of mappings

To delete a mapping, you can either select the parameter directly or in the mapping browser and press delete on your computer keyboard.

Tweaking MIDI mappings

In the Mapping Browser, there a some controls which can be tweaked depending on what they are.

Track Activator Buttons (also known as mute buttons) can be inverted, meaning if you use a toggle control on your controller, you can reverse it so that when your controller toggle is on, mute will be off and vice versa.

Device parameter mappings have 2 extra options which allow you to specify min & max percentage values. For example, you can tell Ableton, to only turn a device parameter to 70% when the physical knob on your MIDI equipment is turned all the way to right.

Saving MIDI mappings

The way to go about saving your mappings is to simply save your Ableton project, then whenever you open that project again you’re mappings will be there and ready to go.

This way of saving mappings has a major drawback, you need to re-map everything each time you create a new project. This isn’t a good workflow and very time consuming, luckily there a couple of ways you can get around this problem with varying success.

1. Save your mappings to a blank template

Rather than starting with a completely blank project each time, this method works by creating all of your MIDI mappings in a blank project and saving it.

Whenever you start a new project you should then open this specific project as your starting point and go from there.

Unfortunately If you forget to use it as a starting point and get deep into a new project before realising your mistake, then you’re out of luck, you’ll need to re-map everything manually.

To avoid your inevitable forgetfulness, you can set it to be used automatically whenever you start a new project. To do this, use the “save current set as default” button found inside the preferences > file / folder.

the save current set as default option inside Ableton Live's preferences menu

2. Save instrument rack mappings

If you only want to save mappings for devices and VSTs (Virtual Studio Technology) then its possible to export these separately for re-use in any project.

To do this, you should first ensure that your device is inside an Instrument Rack, then you can drag and drop it into the browser window where it will be saved as a .adg file.

An adg file can be pulled into a project with all midi mappings instantly available.
This method is limited to instrument racks only, saving tracks in the same way doesn’t save mappings.

Here’s a great video which quickly walks you through this process

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNGPEcb0k0c

3. Use a MIDI Remote Script

MIDI Remote Scripts are similar to MIDI mappings but one of their big bonuses is they’re totally separate from your projects. You can load one at any point from the Preferences menu and all of the mappings contained in it will instantly automap to your controller/keyboard.

Any equipment which has its own custom set of Ableton functions that automap to the controller, will most probably be using a Remote Script to achieve this.

Ableton provides a large collection of Midi Remote Scripts purpose built for specific controllers. Inside the 'link midi' tab of the preferences menu, you'll see the title 'control surface'. You can select upto 6 different control surface scripts.

list of midi remote scripts contained in ableton

You can create multiple Remote Scripts and switch between them whenever you need to, or even add shift buttons to give each control on your equipment multiple functions.

As well as being able to do everything that regular MIDI mapping can, MIDI Remote Scripts also have the ability to control Ableton Live in ways which regular MIDI mapping can’t.

For example, with MIDI Remote Scripts you can control anything on the currently selected track inside Ableton, this includes volume, sends, mute, panning etc. Just create one set of mappings and control any track in your project.

Also, if you’ve ever used a MIDI controller such as an APC40, you’ll have seen that it puts a red outline around an 8 by 8 grid of clips inside Ableton, similar to the one in the picture below. With this you can control the clips and tracks contained within it as a group.

the apc40 redbox displayed inside Ableton Live

Plus you can move the position of the redbox around your project, giving you access to multiple groups of tracks.

The drawback of these scripts is how complex they are to write, you need to be an expert in coding python which has always been the barrier holding alot of people back.

You can however, generate these scripts automatically, using our app which you can find here. It contains a massive selection of dynamic MIDI mappings for building the perfect setup for your MIDI controller or keyboard. Plus its all done from an easy to use point and click interface, no coding required. Have a look at this tutorial on creating a midi remote script using the remotify app

Full list of Ableton Live 9 MIDI Mapping options

Tap Tempo

Ableton will automatically change the song’s bpm and all warped audio clips to match the tempo at which you tap this button.

Tempo (MIDI continuous controller)

Set the current song’s current tempo using a MIDI CC style control.

Tempo nudge down

Temporarily decrease the the tempo of the song. This is helpful when attempting to syncronize your song with another source such as a live musician.

Tempo nudge up

The same as Temp nudge down but this button temporarily increases the song’s current tempo.

Metronome

Turn on and off the Metronome.

Quantization Menu

Choose the global launch quantization. This can be done with a button mapping (each press will move the quantization selection down one) or with a portimento/knob/endless encoder.

Follow on/off

Turn follow on and off, when on, the display will scroll along during playback and keep the song’s current position visible.

Play

Start playback of the song.

Stop

Stop playback of the song.

Arrangement Record Button on/off

Turn arrangement record on/off, when this is on it will record into the arrangement.

Midi Arrangement Overdub on/off

When this is on, existing notes in MIDI clips in the Arrangement will be mixed with, rather than replaces by, newly recorded notes.

Automation Arm on/off

When turned on, any parameter changes you make, will be recorded the session clips. This is a great way to record varying versions of a clip directly in the session view.

Re-enable Automation on/off

When you press this, any parameters that are currently being overridden in the arrangement or session clips will be re-activated.

Session Record Button on/off

This toggles between playback and overdub for any playing clips which are currently playing in armed tracks. In MIDI clips, notes and automation can be overdubbed where is only automation can be overdubbed in audio clips.

Prepare Scene for new recording

This will stop playback for all clips in armed tracks and start a new recording for each of them in a scene where new clips can be recorded. It will create a new scene if necessary.

Punch In Switch on/off

When you activate this, it will prevent recording in the arrangement view prior to the “punch-in point”.

Punch Out Switch on/off

Just like the Punch In Switch, when activated it prevents recording after the “punch-out point” in arrangement view.

Loop Switch on/off

Turn the Arrangement Loop on and off.

Draw Mode Switch on/off

This turns draw mode on and off which is used inside Clip View for drawing MIDI information and automation curves inside clips.

Track Select

Map buttons to the title bar of individual tracks, this will select the track when the button is pressed on your controller/keyboard.

Clip Slot Select

Map a button to a specific clip slot. If the clip slot is empty and the track is armed, clicking the clip slot will begin a recording. If the slot contains a clip then the clip will begin playing. When it will begin playing is based on its quantization settings.

Clip Stop Button

Stop the clip that’s currently playing in the track.

Track Launch

This will launch the clip in the currently highlighted scene.

Monitoring

You can switch a track between 3 monitoring settings.
When this is set to “on”, it will play any externally connected signals (or other tracks) through its own mixer and devices. You can also use MIDI from other sources to play instruments / drum racks that are on the track.
When set to “Auto” it will only do this when the track is armed.
“Off” means that it will only use its own clips or instruments as the sound source.

Send (MIDI continuous controller)

Set this to a knob/endless encoder etc type control on your MIDI equipment to adjust the track’s contribution to the corresponding return track’s input.

Track Pan (MIDI continuous controller)

Adjust a specific track’s position in the stereo field.

Track Volume (MIDI continuous controller)

Adjust the output signal of a specific track in your project.

Track Activator / mute

Activate this button to hear the output of a specific track or disable it to mute the track.

Solo/Cue

This switch has 2 different uses. When set to ‘Solo’, turning the switch on will mute all other tracks except for this one. When the switch is set to ‘Cue’, enabling the switch will send the track’s output to the channels selected in the Session mixer’s Cue out chooser. Cue is useful in a DJ style setup for preparing clips using headphones.

Arm Session Recording

Turning this on will record-enable a track’s clips. Armed tracks record signal set in the Monitoring settings for the track.

Scene Launch

Set a button on your equipment to launch all clips in a specific scene.

Stop All

This will stop all clips currently playing in your project. When they stop is based on the global quantization settings.

Back to Arrangement

Use this button to make Live play the contents of the Arrangement view. Any changes you have made in session view will stop.

Scene Up & Down

Move the selected scene up & down

Preview/Cue Volume (MIDI continuous controller)

Adjust the volume of the preview/cue dial. Any tracks which have ‘cue’ turned on will be affected by this.

Crossfade Assign

Set a button on your controller to this and loop through 3 settings which determine how a specific track is affected by the crossfader.
If both A and B are off then the crossfader has no effect.
If A is on then the track fades out as the crossfader moved right across its center position.
If B is on then the track will fade out when the crossfader moved across the center to the left.

Crossfader (MIDI continuous controller)

You can set this to a slider control on your MIDI instrument for a smooth fade from left to right (see crossfade assign) or you can map buttons to the left and right positions of the crossfader for quick position toggling using buttons on your equipment.

Set / Delete Locator

Assign this a button on your controller and you can drop locators in your arrangement at any point during playback.

Previous Locator & Next Locator

Jump to the previous locator / start of the song and the next locator / end of the song.

clip view

Clip mappings aren’t clip specific. They usually apply to whichever clip is selected.

nudge backward

(The left button in the image) Set this to one of your buttons/keyboard keys and you can jump backward in the playing by the amount set in the global quantization.

nudge forward

(The right button in the image) The same as nudge forward but jumps forward in the playing clip based on the global quantization.

clip scrub control (MIDI continuous controller)

(The middle button in the image) With this set to a control on your equipment you can scrub the clip play position forward and backward. Think of it as the same functionality as a jog wheel on a DJ Controller.

clip quantization

Change a specific clip’s quantization setting.

Clip Transpose (MIDI continuous controller)

Adjust the pitch of the clip in semitones

Clip Gain (MIDI continuous controller)

Adjust the clip’s playback volume

set start & set end

(The 2 set buttons in the image) Assign these to button’s or notes on your equipment to set the start and end markers at the current play position.

start & end (MIDI continuous controller)

(The 2 sets of 3 boxes in the image) You can scroll the start and end positions in the clip to specific values.

loop switch

Turn on and off the clips loop switch.

set loop position

(The top set of 3 boxes in the image) Set the loop position, this can be done while the clip is playing

loop position (MIDI continuous controller)

Move the clip’s loop position

set loop length (MIDI continuous controller)

loop length (MIDI continuous controller)

(The bottom set of 3 boxes in the image) Select the length of the loop inside a clip

Midi step input left & Midi step input right

Set these to buttons or keys on your controller to move a clip’s insert marker to the right or left, one step at a time.

midi editor preview

When enabled, this will allow you to listen to all changes or modifications made to MIDI notes as they’re created and moved.

Device Select

Select a specific device on any track in your project.

Device Activator

Activate or deactivate a specific device in your project.

Device Parameter controls (MIDI continuous controller)

Map controls to specific device parameters.