How To Route External Hardware Audio Effects w/ Ableton Live: Setup and Routing Examples

A couple weeks back we explored the basics of audio effects on our blog 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. But 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:

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

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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 Ableton and into a hardware effects processor, then back into Ableton Live. If you happened to catch DJ Kiva’s APC40 dub performance in May, he used this technique extensively to create his dubbed out sound. In the video above you’ll find Kiva using a Korg Kaoss pad that has been routed out of Ableton and back in again to create effects that you can’t find inside the program alone. After seeing this video I asked Kiva to go over the basics of how to set this up.  It wound up being easier than I thought it would be and it’s brought a lot of new ideas to my workflow.

Routing External Hardware Effects into Ableton Live

Below is 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 that 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 create your sonic identity.

Make Sure You Have Two Sets of Outputs from your Audio Interface

You can use any sort 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 (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 your preferences and go to the audio tab. make sure you have your interface selected as the input & output device..

2. Under input & output tabs, activate the additional ins & outs you will use.

.3. Open Ableton’s i/o tab by the master track.

4. Select the “Return A” track.

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

.6. create a new audio track in session view and set i/o to Ext. 3/4 and monitor mode to IN.

7. Connect a set of cables output 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 outputs of your effects device to inputs 3/4 on your audio interface.

9. Enable your effects processor..

10. Now back in your Ableton 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 audio track 1 and turn up the Send A knob to route effects to your hardware processor..

11. Make sure that the level on your audio track (“Aux Signal” in the examples) is turned up when you hit send A knob on any music channel, it will now send signal to your device and come back into the session. You can now easily record the incoming signal and have it on a separate track in your session.

12. One thing to note about this setup: there can often be a small delay when routing these sorts of effects. When I asked Kiva about this he mentioned that this can sometimes add to the character of a reverb or delay. If you want to fix this timing offset you can adjust the start point of the sample in Ableton.

Michael Walsh is the Editor of Dubspot’s Blog, a producer of audio/visual art and a journalist living in Southern California. Read more of his work at


  • 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.