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Inside the Ableton LIVE MIDI Note Editor

by | 21 Apr 2015

School of Synthesis’ Ableton Live certified trainer Mike Callander explains the basics of midi editing in Ableton Live’s MIDI Note Editor.

When you click into a MIDI Clip, you’ll see the MIDI Note Editor. If the Clip is blank (that is, it has no notes inside, as it should appear the first time you create a Clip) and the MIDI Track on which the Clip sits is also empty (that is, no Instrument has been added to it) the MIDI Note Editor will look something like this:


1 – MIDI Note Editor with no instrument loaded onto the MIDI Track


Once you add an Instrument to the MIDI Track, you may see that the MIDI Note Editor’s appearance has changed, depending on the type of Instrument chosen. If you add a Drum Rack (or in this case Impulse) the Piano Roll will no longer show note names such as C3, C#3 etc. but will instead show the name of the sample that sits inside the Instrument and corresponds to each respective key. In this instance below we have added Impulse to the MIDI Track, but there are no samples loaded onto that Instrument, and therefore the note names read Slot 1 (empty), Slot 2 (empty) and so on.


2 – MIDI Note Editor with Impulse loaded onto the MIDI Track (but no preset chosen)


If we swap the Instrument on this MIDI track to Operator, Simpler, Sampler or any type of synthesizer (see below), the appearance of the MIDI Note Editor window will return to what we saw in Figure 1, where the note names of a keyboard appear to the left of the Piano Roll, rather than showing “Slot 1 (empty)” or any other sample name. This is because Instruments of this type play either a single sample or a waveform at different pitches depending on the key or note name chosen, while for Instruments such as Drum Rack and Impulse, changing notes means that we are selecting or playing a different sample, rather than changing the pitch of that sample. It is also possible to use the Sampler Instrument in multi-sample mode, whereby each key can play back different samples, but in this case the sample name will not appear to the left of the Piano Roll, and the note name (C3 for eg.) will remain.


3 – MIDI Note Editor with Operator loaded onto the MIDI Track (which looks similar to Figure 1)


If we switch the Instrument (yet again) to Impulse, and take it a step further by choosing one of the Instrument’s presets, such as “Backbeat Room.adg” (which we can view by unfolding the Impulse item in the Browser’s content pane), the appearance of the MIDI Note Editor will change again to list the samples that have been loaded into the Instrument. Additionally we’ll see that the appearance of the Piano Roll has changed too (in case you didn’t already notice) and the black keys (often referred to as “sharps”) have disappeared. This is because the pads on Impulse are “hard wired” to the notes from C3 to C4 in the C-Major Scale (which uses white keys only). We can’t see these pads from the Clip View (which we are in to see the MIDI Note Editor), but we can toggle between the Clip and Device View with the keys SHIFT-TAB. From the Device View we can test this “hard wire” by touching the keys C3, D3, E3, F3, G3, A4, B4, C4 on our MIDI keyboard, or by touching the keys A, S, D, F, G, H, J, K on our computer MIDI keyboard (and for an explanation of why(!) see this article: https://schoolofsynthesis.com/blog/blog-post/playing-notes-your-computer-keyboard-ableton-live).


Impulse is really handy for making quick beats using only your laptop’s keyboard because the samples are quickly accessible with these keys, though they are not velocity sensitive, so we need to adjust velocity in the MIDI Note Editor’s Velocity Window to be more dynamic and expressive… more on that soon.


The Figure below shows a Clip with some notes entered that will trigger samples from the Impulse preset “Backbeat Room.adg”.


4 – MIDI Note Editor with Impulse preset “Backbeat Room.adg” loaded onto the Instrument Track, and notes added play the Kick, Snare and Hihat.


On Figure 5 (below) we can see how simple it is to select a few notes and move them to trigger a different sample. In this case I clicked on the Piano Roll next to the Snare note name (the second row of notes from the bottom) and this selected all notes on that row. Then a simple ARROW DOWN once on my keyboard moved those notes to the Kick row.


5 – Notes were moved from Snare to Kick.


This should help us understand that each note in the MIDI Editor window is not a sound in itself, but an instruction to the Instrument to play a sound. What the red rectangle represents is a number of MIDI commands including Note On, Note Off, Pitch and Velocity.


So, with only 4 simple commands we can transform our Instrument programming with incredible speed and ease. When we combine this knowledge with some knowledge of beat-making conventions, we can quickly turn a simple house or techno beat into something that sounds more like Drum & Bass. In the Figure below the notes that we moved from the Snare to the Kick were simply moved back, and then the Kick note that was originally on 1.3 was moved to 1.3.3, then a row of 16 Hi-hats was drawn easily by turning on Draw Mode (the shortcut for this is B on your computer keyboard) and clicking on the Hi-hat row at 1, then while holding the mouse button down, dragging along that row to 1.4.4. See below then try it for yourself.


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Does it sound more like Drum & Bass? Perhaps not yet. But what if you change the Global Tempo (at the top left of Live’s Session View) to 175bpm (beats per minute)?




Hopefully it is becoming clear that no matter what style you’re into, the language required to tell an instrument what to do has a VERY basic vocabulary. Note On, Note Off, Pitch (or in the case of Impulse and Drum Rack “play this sound”) and Velocity. So let’s talk about Velocity.


The MIDI Velocity Editor sits below the MIDI Note Editor, and the size of these windows can be adjusted by holding your cursor over the line between them until your cursor looks like a two-way-arrow, then by clicking and dragging up or down. Inside the Velocity Editor Window we can see one vertical line for each MIDI Note that sits in the MIDI Note Editor Window above. There are multiple ways to adjust Velocity. Most importantly, you must first choose which notes you want to change. For this example it was the Hi-hats, so the easiest method was to click on the section of the Piano Roll that would select all of these notes together. To achieve the Velocity changes that we see in the image below I turned on Draw Mode (B is the shortcut) and “drew” the curve in the Velocity Editor Window. To do this you can simply click inside that window and raise your cursor higher and lower as you drag from left to right, or imagine “scribbling” with a pen.


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Finally (for now), its up to you to think of other creative ways in which you can use what you’ve already learned to make this beat more interesting. It doesn’t need to be anything too complex, and in fact, even the smallest adjustment to your notes can yield interesting results. In the example below I selected the last two Hi-hat notes and moved them down to trigger the tambourine, with the result serving as a kind of punctuation at the end of every bar:


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