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Playing notes from your computer keyboard in Ableton Live

by | 17 Jun 2014

Playing notes from your computer keyboard into Ableton Live is incredibly easy, but for new electronic musicians it can become confusing when trying to figure out which key on your computer keyboard is triggering which musical note on your Live Device or third party plugin. So, like always, I have set out to explain it as simply as possible with a diagram.

In the diagram above I have replaced the computer keyboard’s typical key names with musical note names that correspond to the black and white keys on a regular musical keyboard… so, we can see that the A key on our computer keyboard plays the note C, and directly next to that and moving to the right are the notes D, E, F, G, A, B and then C again (but an octave higher than our first C). In the row above we can trigger the black keys (or ‘sharps’) from a keyboard, but you’ll notice that not all of the computer keyboard’s keys trigger a musical note here. This is because there’s not necessarily a black key between every white key on a musical keyboard. From E to F there’s no black key, nor from B to C. So, if you strike Q, R, or I on your computer keyboard, you won’t trigger any note and therefore shouldn’t hear anything. This is the part that stumps many new users.

On the row below our ‘white keys’ on the computer keyboard we also have some controls by which we can transpose the keys an octave up or down (Z moves down and X moves up). As long as the Computer MIDI Keyboard switch is activated (see my blog post about navigating Live, or find it in the top right hand side of your Live window) you can easily check which octave is selected by a quick review of the status bar at the bottom of the Live window when striking the C or V keys.

Next to the octave controls, the C key (on your computer keyboard, not the note ‘C’ from a musical keyboard) changes the input velocity down by 20 units and V changes it up by 20. This discovery demonstrates one of the limitations we can experience when playing notes from our computer keyboard… the keys are not velocity sensitive. However we can easily edit the velocity of any note in the velocity editor window inside any clip in Ableton Live, and at least with C and V we can change the input velocity if we are planning to enter some notes with a desired velocity that is high or low. Just as we can check the note range in the status bar, we can also check the current velocity setting by striking these keys and taking a look at the status bar.

However… there’s a little more to it, depending on which Instrument you’re using. If you’re using Drum Rack or Impulse, the way the keys work is different to devices such as Operator or Simpler, so making sense of it all requires some understanding of how things are laid out on these devices before working out which key to strike to play your desired note…

There are only 8 pads on this Device, and the notes are hardwired to the white keys that follow on from C3 or ‘middle C’ on a musical keyboard. So, when using your computer keyboard, the keys A, S, D, F, G, H, J and K will play each of the pads from left to right. If you can’t trigger the sounds with these keys, check the octave to which your computer keyboard is set (and remember that you can adjust the octave by striking Z or X to transpose up or down).

Drum Rack
This device uses both the black and white keys, so it can be confusing when switching between this and Impulse, because on Drum Rack the cell next to C3 is NOT D3, it is C#3… meaning that we need to use the W key on our computer keyboard to trigger this note. It’s also easy to use the Pad Overview on the left of your Drum Rack pads to navigate across many octaves (the Drum Rack’s pads are actually organized into groups of 16). Don’t forget that you can use Live’s info view and hover over areas of the Drum Rack to find these items.

In its straightforward operation, Drum Rack allows us to store up to 128 different sounds, with each triggered by its own pad. Inside each of these pads sits another Live Device: Simpler. Simpler is a single-sample sampler, that normally plays back one sample at a different for each musical key or note selected. That is, it will play the sample at its original recorded pitch if the note C3 is selected, but any move up or down the keyboard will alter the pitch accordingly. Drum Rack is different, because it acts like a shelving unit for 128 different instances of Simpler, and each of these is set to play the sample at a single pitch. Moving up or down the keyboard changes the Simpler to be triggered, rather than the pitch of the same sample.

Synthesizers, Samplers, Plugins etc.
Most other Devices or plugins will behave like a Simpler that isn’t sitting inside a Drum Rack… that is, they will change the pitch of a sample (if a sampler) or an oscillator (if a synthesizer) when transposing up r down the keyboard. If you’re confused about how Simpler works on its own compared to how it works inside a Drum Rack, try experimenting with both by dragging the Simpler in and out of the Drum Rack and then playing some different notes.

Oh, and don’t forget: to use your computer keyboard you need to activate the Computer MIDI Keyboard switch and ensure the Arm Session Recording (or Arm Arrangement Recording) switch is activated!


Mike Callander
Ableton Certified Trainer