In this article I talk about how to setup and use your Novation LaunchKey with Ableton Live.
They say it is supposed to be simple to setup and work straight out of the box. As I have found, there is a lot more to it than just what they say. After watching YouTube video after YouTube video and reading so many setup guides, I came to the conclusion that with all that advice (most not the same), it was best to just tinker, and understand it myself.
So I am sharing this information of what I found by taking this route. If you are a new Novation LaunchKey and Ableton Live user, I’d suggest reading this and taking your own approach to getting both working in harmony.
Know Your Windows Device Drivers
Let’s start off by getting a little technical. I am assuming here that you are using Microsoft Windows 10. So if you are a Mac OSX user, you can skip this part and move onto the next section. You can still pick up some tips and insight on how to setup Ableton with LaunchKey though.
When we attach a USB MIDI device to Microsoft Windows, it detects it automatically as a Sound controller device. By going to Device Manager, we will be able to determine which connected devices have been recognized.
For example, in the picture above, we see my system has three USB MIDI devices:
- LaunchKey MIDI
- Launchpad MK2
Pay close attention to the names being given to these devices. These correlate directly to the display name property of the device driver. To see this, right click on the device to bring up the Properties window. Then, click on the details tab and select the Property to Display name.
It is important to note that I never installed any manufacturer specific device drivers for these three MIDI instruments. This means, Microsoft Windows automatically detects these devices when they go online and offline. All three are USB 2.0 devices that conform to a Microsoft class compliant USB/MIDI driver. That is, instead of the manufacturer writing its own device driver, it uses a general Microsoft Window USB MIDI device driver instead. If your manufacturer does have its own driver, use it. They will have their own to improve on performance and add additional features that the Microsoft class compliant driver does not have.
Since USB can transfer data way faster than MIDI, you can have multiple MIDI channels supported by a single USB cable. We’ll see how these channels (called MIDI ports) factor into Microsoft Windows, audio applications, and tools below.
Ableton Live Real Time Device Monitoring
When Ableton Live runs, it asks Windows what sound controllers are installed.
It monitors all these devices in real time. If you disconnect one of these devices, it will no longer show in the Link MIDI tab list. Prove this to yourself by running Live and then bringing up the Options | Preferences dialog box. Click on the Link MIDI tab and watch the MIDI ports as they become disabled when you unplug the USB cable to the device.
The Control Surface is a name that Ableton Live associates with the device. Notice that it looks similar to the device driver display name. It is different though because Ableton creates its own product group names.
Let’s take an example. With the Akai Pro MPK Mini keyboard, there exists two generations of that product:
- MPK mini – First generation
- MPK mini mkII – Second generation
Ableton Live gives them the category of a “MPK mini” Control Surface. Notice that the Control Surface name (“MPK mini”) is different than the device driver name (“MPKmini2”). Why Ableton presents audio devices this way is beyond me. As a user, all I care about is what unique MIDI device belongs to what unique MIDI port. To complicate matters even more, Ableton Live creates different names for MIDI inputs and outputs. Notice that they have underscores in them. In addition, if you look at your Ableton Live Session, in particular at the MIDI From drop down boxes for all the Session Tracks, they are not even the same. As a further gripe, Ableton Live truncates all the device definitions so its unreadable (poor user interface programming for a $800 program!).
So as you can see, it can get quite confusing just what you are working with. Ableton really needs to clean this up – its a terrible mess.
Short Version: Software Configuration with Ableton Live
If you don’t want to read the long version of how I setup LaunchKey with Ableton Live, you can simply mimic these settings and see if they work for you:
I would recommend though that you at least read through the long version once to be familiar with the reasoning to arrive at these settings in case you need to change them.
Long Version: Software Configuration with Ableton Live
My suggestion is to go slowly through this as there is a lot to cover. Play with Live and LaunchKey as you read. This is the only way you are going to familiarize yourself quickly. If you find it reacts different than what I have here, please leave a comment.
In the Control Surface MIDI section, for Novation LaunchKey we see the Control Surface name to be “Launchkey MK2” (Ableton’s given name) and the Input and Output names to be “Launchkey MIDI” (taken from the device driver display name) and “Launchkey MIDI Port 2”.
You probably are asking why there are two Control Surface instances for LaunchKey. After running a MIDI monitor (MIDI-OX) on all the known MIDI devices, I pressed my MIDI instrument keys and monitored MIDI notes. The only device that reported no output was LaunchKey MIDI (Port 2/MIDIIN2).
MIDI Ox knows about this device and has it listed. Ableton Live knows about this device.
So what does this mean for MIDIIN2/LaunchKey Port 2? It means its a Windows MIDI port. We aren’t seeing it listed in Windows Device Manager. Theoretically, we can have many MIDI ports associated with many different LaunchKey devices. The MIDI port is not the actual physical port that is on the back of your MIDI instrument. In LaunchKey’s case, it has none. This is an abstract “location” that Microsoft Windows defines to let MIDI applications (like Ableton Live) talk to.
You could then say, then why doesn’t my LaunchPad or Akai Pro mini have separate ports too! Good observation. I have no idea, to be honest. We do know that we can have multiple LaunchPad’s connected to a computer. Why there is no separate LaunchPad MIDI port, I don’t know.
Control Surfaces are MIDI devices that can be used for input, output, or both. You set this up in the Preferences | MIDI section:
Ableton Live, upon detection, fills this information out when you LaunchKey is connected. When you plug and unplug the device, this information is turned on and off. If you try to change the information, it will be overwritten with this information. So no matter what you do, these settings are fixed.
Each MIDI device is then associated with a MIDI port and can be set to three different Ableton Live input and output MIDI states:
It is important to note that the point of view in this dialog box is from Ableton Live’s perspective:
- When we talk Input, this is the flow from Novation LaunchKey to Albeton Live
- When we talk Output, this is the flow from Ableton Live to Novation LaunchKey
From Novation LaunchKey To Ableton Live: MIDI Input States
With Track State On, this lets Ableton Live receive:
- MIDI notes
- MIDI Continuous Controller (CC) device parameter settings in real time and store into a MIDI clip. These come from parameter changes via knobs, faders, buttons.
Since LaunchKey is being used as a MIDI controller for input, you will always want to set this On.
With Sync State On, this lets Ableton Live receive:
- MIDI clock or MIDI time code (MTC)
This is for devices like sequencers and drum machines who drive the MIDI clock to sync to. For the Novation Launchkey, you will set this to Off.
With Remote State On, this lets you:
- Map LaunchKey control settings to Live parameter settings
- Trigger MIDI clips
For the Novation Launchkey, since you have pads to control a scene to play/stop and clips to record into, you always want this On.
From Ableton Live To Novation LaunchKey: MIDI Output States
With Track State On, LaunchKey will receive:
- MIDI notes
- MIDI Continuous Controller (CC) messages
For the Novation Launchkey, its not used as an output device. LaunchKey is a MIDI controller that has no sound banks. Asking it to play MIDI notes and do something with MIDI CC messages does nothing. Therefore, you will want to set this Off.
With Sync State On, LaunchKey will receive:
- MIDI Clock signals
This is used for sequencers, drum machines, MIDI controllers and other devices to sync to the MIDI clock. For the Novation Launchkey, if you want it to sync to the MIDI clock, you can set this to On. However, since Novation LaunchKey is a MIDI Controller with no sound banks, it should be set to Off.
With Remote State On, LaunchKey will receive:
- Live Status information
- Motorized fader information
- LED information
For the Novation Launchkey, since it has pads that light up and an LED reading, you want this to be On.
Playing with LaunchKey Controls
Now we come to the fun part – using LaunchKey with Ableton Live. If you followed the setup configuration above, you should now see the benefits of using a LaunchKey with Ableton Live.
In Control Buttons
- If In Control Buttons are on, LaunchKey will map all the controls to Ableton Live automatically.
- If In Control buttons are off, the controls will send MIDI CC control messages instead.
By default, it probably won’t work very well with the devices you have. What you can do though is toggle the MIDI Map Mode Switch to be on, click on a parameter in the device, and turn a knob on Launchkey to associate it. Of course, if you got more than 8 parameters for the device, LaunchKey isn’t going to be able to map all its knobs to the device. In that case you are going to have to use your mouse. But for convenience, you can always choose the 8 most common parameters you are going to work with and map them.
In order for LaunchKey to talk to Live, we need to be aware of three important buttons:
- Top button – Enables/disables knobs
- Middle button – Enables/disables faders
- Bottom button – Enables Scene/Session when on; Enables drum rack when off
LED Digital Display
Shows the MIDI value parameter of the device control you are trying to change.
Track Buttons: Selecting A Track
The middle In Control button must be enabled. If you press the left or right track buttons on LaunchKey, this will cause the cursor in Ableton Live to set itself to a Session track. Try it and notice the navigation. It does not wrap around and comes to a complete stop at extreme boundaries.
If you press both buttons down at the same time, this will let you select a MIDI channel to send the output to. After you have decided on the channel, take your fingers off and wait a few seconds for the number to be set.
Lets you send MIDI pitch messages.
Lets you send MIDI modulation omessages.
LaunchKey does not come in a full 88 key piano format. Thus, octave buttons are needed to offset the range. You can change the octave offset by increasing and decreasing the value. By how much depends on the number of keys on your LaunchKey:
- LaunchKey 25: -4 to +5 octaves
- LaunchKey 49: -3 to +4 octaves
- LaunchKey 61: -3 to +3 octaves
If you press both Octave buttons together, this will turn this into a Transpose feature. You can transpose by +/- 12 semitones.
Fader Controls: Adjusting Track Volume
When the In Control button for the faders (the middle one) is enabled, adjusting the faders will correspond to the volume of each track.
Fader Buttons: Track Muting and Soloing
Along the bottom of each fader control are buttons. These correspond to the state of the Track Activator button and Solo buttons in Live.
To set for Track Activation (Mute) or Solo, the state of the 9th button determines this. If the 9th button is set to be highlighted red, Soloing mode is on. It should be noted that Soloing and Muting are not the same thing. You can choose multiple tracks to Solo.
Scene Up and Down Buttons
To move up a row (Scene), use the Scene up button.
To move down a row (Scene), use the Scene down button.
Appear to the far right of LaunchKey. In this order:
- Fast Forward
- Activate/Deactivate Loop Switch
- Arrangement Record Button
Rewind and Fast Forward are ignored when In Control is on for Ableton Live. This is because Live does not have these functions.
When the Top In Control button is turned on, this allows for parameter adjustments to the current track or instrument selected in Ableton Live. Move the mouse and click on the device if you have a chain of them to select it and use the knobs.
For Mixer settings on the currently selected Session Track:
Press the Top In Control button
- Press the track button to rotate through the device chain
- Press one of the top pads. This will choose a device bank from 1-7
- Turn the second rotary knob for the Panning
- Turn the third rotary knob for the Send A
- Turn the fourth rotary knob for the Send B
For Pot Selection Mode:
The Top In Control button is the Hold button. While pressing the Hold button choose a function:
- The brightest button in the bottom row is the currently selected function.
- Press Device, Pan, Send A, or Send B
- Release pressing both the button and pad
Turn the Top In Control button on
For example to change the pan for Session Track 2:
- Turn the Top In Control button on
- Turn the second rotary knob corresponding to track 2 to pan
Another example: Change the Device for a Session Track:
- Create a MIDI track
- Drag and drop an instrument into the track
- Press the Hold button and Device pad
- Click the MIDI mapping button
- Click a parameter in the device and turn a rotary knob to assign
- Continue for other parameters you want and associate with a knob
- Turn MIDI mapping button off
- Now use the knobs
For Session Control:
- Turn on the third In Control button
- The top row of pads is for triggering the Session clips
- The bottom row of pads is for stopping Session clips
- To play a Scene, select the Scene with the up/down Scene buttons. Then, press the button to the far right of the first row of pads
- To stop the current Scene from playing, press the button to the far right of the second row of pads
- Turn off the third In Control button
- Create a MIDI track
- Assign a Drum rack to this new MIDI track
- Drag and drop instruments, sounds, drums, into the Drum rack
- The Drum Rack will now be filled with instruments
- Press the pads on the LaunchKey to trigger
If you are a new Novation LaunchKey user trying to get your cool keyboard to work with Ableton Live, I hope this article helped. It took me two days to figure all this stuff out just by tinkering so don’t get frustrated if you don’t get it at first.
Leave a comment if you have additional insights or questions to ask. As always, please Subscribe at the YouTube Channel. I appreciate your support.