How To Route External Hardware Audio Effects w/ Ableton Live

Dubspot’s Michael Walsh takes us outside the box and explores some options for expanding your sonic palette with external hardware effects routed through the aux Send and Return channels in Ableton Live. You can also apply this technique to most other popular DAWs.

Audio Effects Introduction

In an earlier article called “Understanding Audio Effects: An Overview of Types and Uses” we explored the basics of audio effects in an effort to help our readers who are just getting into the world of music production. Audio effects can add depth and dimension to your sounds, and they are really one of the essential building blocks of electronic music. This week we will explore some options for expanding your sonic palette with external hardware effects routed through the aux Send and Return channels in Ableton Live. Most music production software such as Logic, Reason, and Ableton Live come with built-in audio effects which can sound fantastic. However, a problem you may run into is that tracks coming out of these programs can end up sounding very similar. This is advice that Moby offered in a recent interview that we did with him on our blog here:

“Today it’s all software based, so it’s much more accessible. But the danger is that it all sort of sounds the same. It’s very easy to stay purely in the digital realm because it does everything.” – Moby

Using Hardware Effects for a Unique Sound

One of the easiest ways to incorporate an outside element into your Ableton Live workflow is to route sounds out of Live and into a hardware effects processor, then back into Live. If you happened to catch DJ Kiva’s APC40 dub performance, he used this technique extensively to create his dubbed out sound. In the video below you’ll find Kiva using a Korg Kaoss Pad that has been routed out of Live and back in again to create effects that you can’t find inside the program alone.

Routing External Hardware Effects into Ableton Live

The following steps are similar to DJ Kiva’s setup for routing external effects into Ableton Live. I’ve replaced his Kaoss Pad with a Roland SP-404 sampler, which offers audio through and effects processing on audio. You may find that hardware gear that you own such as Korg Electribes, Monotrons, synthesizers or drum machines can process audio. Guitar or bass pedals can also create unique sounds that can help shape your sonic identity.

Two Sets of Outputs from your Audio Interface

You can use any type of effects processor for the following setup as long as you have an audio interface that can handle the inputs and outputs. To make this work, you’ll need an audio interface with at least two outputs and one input. They can be mono (and your effects will also be mono), but optimally you’ll want two stereo outs and at least one stereo input. One output is your master sound output and the second output will be routed to the effects device. The input will be used for the effected signal. In the following example, I’m using a Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 audio interface (channels 3 and 4 for input and output) that is connected to the SP-404′s ins and outs. The master output is set to 1/2 volume.

1. Go to Live’s Preferences under the Audio Tab and make sure you have your interface selected as the Input and Output device.

2. Select the Output Config button and activate the output pairs you will use.

3. Select I/O button next to Live’s Master track.

4. Select the “A Return” track.

5 Under the “Audio To” tab, select “Ext. Out” and then choose output pair 3/4.

.6. Create a new Audio track in Session View and set “Audio From” to “Ext. In” on pairs 3/4 and then set the monitor mode to IN.

7. Connect a set of cables from outputs 3/4 on your interface to the inputs on your effects device. In this case we have connected to the inputs on our SP-404.

8. Connect a set of cables from the outputs of your effects device to inputs 3/4 on your audio interface.

9. Enable your effects processor..

10. Now back in Live’s Session View you’ll find Send levels for channels A and B above the volume faders on each track. Try playing a loop of some kind on an Audio track and turn up the Send A knob to route effects to your hardware processor.

11. Make sure that the volume levels on your Audio and Return tracks are turned up before you adjust the Send A knob. Now, slowly turn the Send knob to feed a processed signal from your device back into Live.

Tip: You can easily record the incoming signal and use it on a separate track in your session.

12. One thing to note about this setup is there can often be a small delay or latency when routing these types of effects. However, a bit of latency can sometimes add to the character of a reverb or delay effect. Also, you can correct this timing offset by adjusting the start point of the sample in Live’s Clip View.


Ableton Live Producer Certificate Program

At Dubspot our world-class instructors provide the most complete and cutting-edge Ableton Live learning experience. The Ableton Live Producer Certificate Program is the flagship of our music training. After completing this program, you will leave with a portfolio of original tracks, a remix entered in an active contest, a scored commercial to widen your scope, and the Dubspot Producer’s Certificate in Ableton Live.

About This Program

This program is about learning Ableton Live by going through the entire process of being an artist, by developing your own sound through a series of sketches and experimentation. You will also learn the ins and outs of this powerful software through a series of exercises designed to help you master the steps involved in producing your own music. After a level of getting familiar with the tools that Ableton has to offer, you will then develop your sonic ideas into full-length tracks. You will be exposed to a variety of approaches to arrangement and composition, storytelling techniques, ways of creating tension and drama in your music. At the end of the day, it is the sum total of your choices as an artist that define your sound, and levels 2 – 6 will give you the experience of actually completing tracks to add to your portfolio.

What’s Included

  • Ableton Live Level 1: Beats, Sketches, and Ideas
  • Ableton Live Level 2: Analyze, Deconstruct, Recompose, and Assemble
  • Ableton Live Level 3: Synthesis and Original Sound Creation
  • Ableton Live Level 4: Advanced Sound Creation
  • Ableton Live Level 5: Advanced Effect Processing
  • Ableton Live Level 6: Going Global with your Music

Additional Information

Visit the Ableton Live course page for detailed information on this program here.

If you have questions, please call 877.DUBSPOT or send us a message.

  • Tonwelle
  • 12/7/2011

Hi, video of DJ Kiva was great! Wish to have the opportunity to visit these courses if not living in Germany. Anyway, my question: is there any big difference to use this method instead using the Ableton External Audio Effect device?
Best regards!

  • Dave Cross
  • 12/7/2011

Quick note: once you’ve familiarized yourself with audio routing, you can replicate this with a Live effect called “External Audio Effect.” It’s expressly made for this purpose.

One nice bonus of “External Audio Effect” is that it takes into account track freezing and rendering. It’ll prompt you to ready your external EFX box when it needs to write your work to disk for later playback.

  • AfroDJMac
  • 12/7/2011

Thanks for this, it’s a clever way of using external devices as send/returns. Are there any differences or advantages to using this method instead of using the external audio effect plug in on the return track (other than the ability to record the effect directly to a track)? Perhaps in regards to latency? Thanks again for another interesting way to get things done in Live!

  • Michael Walsh
  • 12/7/2011

Thanks! If you are familiar with the signal flow of Ableton the external audio effect works brilliantly. We wanted to focus this tutorial on the basics of signal flow for noobs as well as offer an alternative (with the ability to record that track as you noted). What I personally love about Ableton is that there are usually a few ways to achieve an end result (much like Photoshop for designers).

  • AfroDJMac
  • 12/7/2011

Michael, that certainly is one of the beautiful things. Thanks for this tip, I’m going to give this a shot later :)

  • Andre
  • 12/7/2011

Any tips on getting around not having inputs 3/4 on my audio interface? I’m using an Apogee Duet which only has 2 inputs.