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Using ROLI BLOCKS with Ableton Live
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Using ROLI BLOCKS with Ableton Live

In our last blog post looking at ROLI BLOCKS, we talked about getting connected to your computer using the BLOCKS Dashboard (Which has since been updated to ROLI Dashboard). This useful app allows you to change the way your BLOCKS behave with the software you use. This time, we’ll be looking more closely at BLOCKS integration with Ableton Live - one of the most popular digital audio workstations on the market. We’ll cover getting connected, MPE controls, Ableton Link and exporting your projects from ROLI’s ‘Noise’ App. 

Loading the Ableton App for Lightpad 

For those of you looking to integrate your Lightpad with Ableton, you'll be pleased to know that ROLI have designed an Ableton App for the Lightpad in ROLI Dashboard. It has been programmed specifically to let your Lightpad control the session view and MIDI instruments within Ableton.

Loading the Ableton App from ROLI Dashboard is very simple. Select your Lightpad in the visualizer of the dashboard, then click on the Ableton app in the list below. The app will automatically load into your BLOCK after a few seconds. Once loaded it should look exactly like the layout of the Lightpad in the window.

The Ableton app for Lightpad has 3 layers - the control surface for session view, drum pads for Ableton's Drum Rack and note grid for any other MIDI instruments. Drum pads will only appear when Drum Rack is detected on a selected track. Otherwise your Lightpad will only cycle between session view and note grid layouts.

Lightpad Ableton App Controls

Here are is a quick breakdown of the controls and layout of the Ableton App for the Lightpad:

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  • The Ableton Control Surface. This is the default layout that you’ll see first. From here you can control the main functions of the session view.

  • Clip Launch Grid (1). The Ableton control surface has a 4x4 clip launcher matrix. Audio Clip's position and colour in the session view are mirrored onto the Lightpad's surface. When clips are playing, they light up green, and flash to the tempo of the project.

  • Scene Launch(2).The 4 rectangular blue buttons down the right hand side are for launching scenes. A scene is a row of clips that can be triggered together. This is particularly useful when you want to trigger a large number of clips at once.

  • Navigation (3). The buttons along the top of the control surface let you navigate through session view. You’ll notice as you press them, the relative position of the clips on the pad will change as the Lightpad targets a different 4x4 section of session view. In order, the controls along the top are down, up, left and right. 

  • Stop Button (4). The big red button on the top right stops all active clips at the same time. It still leaves the project playing incase you need to bring clips back in synchronously. 

  • Note Grid & Drum Pads. By pressing the mode button on the side of the Lightpad, session view will switch to either a Note Grid or Drum Pads dependant on the selected track. If you have a Drum Rack loaded in Ableton, the Lightpad will display corresponding drum pads. A MIDI track with an instrument or blank MIDI track will tell the Lightpad to load a note grid.

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In some cases, you may want to load the specific Note Grid / Drum Pad apps from the Dashboard. This will allow you to further customise your controls through the Dashboard or Ableton's MIDI mapping facility. 

Connecting Your BLOCKS to Ableton

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It's not just the Lightpad that works well with Ableton. All BLOCKS can be optimised for use with this DAW. Getting the two to communicate properly is vital in making the most of your set up.

If you're not already using Ableton Live, you can download a free copy of Ableton Live Lite bundled with your ROLI BLOCKS. To access it, visit and scroll to the bottom of your account page. There you’ll find an Ableton Live Lite code and a download link. Follow the on-screen instructions to install it. 

Before opening Ableton Live, make sure your BLOCKS are connected to the computer. Once connected, open Ableton Live. By default it will load a new project, or if you're opening it for the very first time, it may load a demo project. 

If you’re new to Ableton, its advisable to take some time to familiarise yourself with how it all works. The help menu on the right will help you learn the basics while the smaller info pane in the bottom left corner will describe the functions as you hover over them.

When you’re ready follow these steps to connect your Lightpad M to Ableton:

  • Open Preferences > 'Link MIDI' tab > MIDI Ports

  • Make sure your Lightpad is appearing in the MIDI Ports list

  • In the list, the first line should read ‘Input: BLOCKS Input’. Set toggles so ‘Track’ is ON, ‘Sync’ is OFF & ‘Remote’ is ON.

  • If you're using a Lightpad, it should also appear in your Control Surface list. Select it from the drop list under ‘Control Surface’. Then set ‘Input’ and ‘Output’ to your Lightpad

Once you’ve done this, you’re BLOCKS should start to interact with Ableton. Of course, you’ll a project loaded with clips and instruments to work with! A good way to get started is to try it out with the demo project that loads the first time you open Ableton. Or if you've been creating music in ROLIs app 'Noise', skip to the section on exporting projects from Noise to Ableton. 

MPE with Plugin Instruments

So we’ve established that setting up the BLOCKS with Ableton is relatively straightforward and gives you quick control over your DAW and the instruments within it. 

However, Ableton's isn't immediately accommodating for MPE (Multi-dimensional Polyphonic Expression) which is a big component in the way the Lightpad and Seaboard Block work.

For MPE enabled plugins, you will need to set up your Lightpad / Seaboard Block with Ableton as follows:

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  1. If you're using Lightpad - load the Note Grid app from ROLI Dashboard

  2. While still on Dashboard, click 'Edit' and make sure that the following settings are selected: 
    1. MIDI Mode: MPE

    2. MIDI Start Channel: 2

    3. MIDI End Channel: 3-16 (depending on how many voices you want. In the example above I have used 5 voices)

    4. Pitchbend Range: 48

  3. Open Ableton and create a 'host' MIDI track. Then load an MPE plugin such as Equator onto it

  4. Set the MIDI input of the host track to ‘no input’. This stops direct MIDI messages accidentally reaching the plugin

  5. Create up to 15 MIDI tracks after the host track. Each track will be a voice, so create as many track s as you need voices. 

  6. Set the MIDI input channel of each track starting with 2, increasing sequentially. In MPE mode, BLOCKS send 1 voice per MIDI channel. 
  7. Set the output of each MIDI Voice track you’ve just created to the MIDI channel hosting Equator

  8. Record arm each voice track. As a default, Ableton is set to only allow record arm on one track at a time. To fix this, open preferences > record / warp / launch and then make sure the box with ‘arm’ in the box is grey.

  9. Once record armed, start playing on notes on your BLOCK. You should see incoming MIDI through each channel as notes are played. This in turn will trigger equator and you’ll start to hear sound coming from it.

Playing mono-timbral instruments using MPE is also a possibility. This requires you to follow similar steps, however rather than load one instance to a host track, you have to load an each instance to each individual voice track. This can be challenging on the CPU, and would be particularly tricky to adjust each voice to be the same.

Max for Live

Frequent users of Ableton will know of the Max 4 Live add on. Its a bridge between Max MSP 7 and Ableton Live which gives you an environment to create custom plugins. A 3 month free trial for Max 7 is included when you buy a Lightpad or Seaboard Block. By installing the BLOCKS package, you are able to fully customise your Lightpad's layout and behaviour when interacting with Max 4 Live plugins. The possibilities with this are pretty endless, so we won’t go into it here. To get you started, check out these introductory videos from Cycling ‘74:

Live Link and Export

ROLIs native app ‘Noise’ also provides a bridge between your BLOCKS and Ableton Live in a couple of different ways. 

You can synchronise the app with Ableton using ‘Ableton Link’. This clever feature allows devices on the same WiFi network to identify each other and sync tempo. In this way you can jam in parallel with Ableton, or any other apps using Ableton Link. 

You can also export the ideas you develop in Noise straight to Ableton. This provides you with a great way to extend and expand the ideas you have developed in Noise.  Here's how you do it:

  • When you have a project you want to export, go to My Projects view

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  • Tap ‘...’ to the right of the project you want to export

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  • Select Export and it will give you options of how you would like to export your project

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  • Select ‘Ableton Live Set’ and tap export

Noise then wraps your project into an Ableton Live file with audio clips of your ideas ready for sending. If you decide to export as ‘Loops’, Noise exports your audio files as .wav without the Ableton wrapper. 

Once exported, you’re then given option to send via your available services. For example, you can airdrop it straight to a Mac OS device. Once downloaded the project will open and load the loops you’ve created into the same locations in session view. In other words your project is ready to go straight away, just how you made it in noise!

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So, as we’ve discovered in this guide, Ableton Live and ROLI BLOCKS can make a powerful combination. Ableton’s versatility unlocks a lot of the BLOCKS more advanced features. With a few different workflow options, ROLI gives you the opportunity to integrate with Ableton as much or as little as you wish to expand your creativity.

We hope this has been a useful resource for you. For more information on the ROLI range please visit our ROLI Product Page

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This new blog is presented by the team at Sound Technology Ltd, a leading distributor of musical instruments and pro audio equipment in the UK and ROI.