Ableton and your modular synthesizer can be a great combination. With CV Tools, included in Ableton Live Suite 10, you can bring the digital and analog worlds together by using the included devices. For syncing Live to your modular, you can use CV Tools’ Clock and Trigger devices – they work with any audio interface. All of CV Tools’ other devices require a DC-coupled interface to work correctly.
But not to worry, if you don’t own a DC-coupled interface or don’t have Live 10 Suite, there are other ways to connect your modular system with Ableton Live. Before we take a closer look at the options, we recommend you check out this article on using external hardware with Ableton Live.
MIDI to CV
A modular synthesizer works with Gate and CV signals. These are analog signals that send voltages to the different modules of your system. A CV signal is a continuous signal, used for controlling pitch or modulations like LFO’s and Envelopes, for example. A Gate signal is a trigger signal, used to control one-off events, like playing back one sound or starting or stopping a sequencer.
One of the easiest ways to convert digital MIDI signals to analog Gate and CV signals is via a MIDI-to-CV interface. There are a lot of options available, both as standalone hardware or as Eurorack modules. Every MIDI-to-CV Interface works by converting a digital MIDI signal (that can transfer up to sixteen channels of information through one single cable) to analog CV or Gate signals.
Since Gate and CV can only carry one signal per cable, you need a lot of channels if you want to be able to control multiple elements of your modular system. The Hexinverter Mutant Brain for example, has 16 outputs: 4 for CV and 12 for Gate. You can control 12 trigger events and can connect 4 continuous CV signals to different parts of your modular. Configuring the Mutant Brain has to be done through a web page and SysEx commands.
Most MIDI-to-CV devices feature a single MIDI plug, but there are some devices that sport a USB port as well. The Doepfer A-190-3 and Intellijel µMIDI both have a MIDI and a USB plug so you can connect your computer directly to your Eurorack system. Depending on the quality of your MIDI-to-CV interface, there can be some latency in your system. More on latency and timing issues later.
YouTuber BoBeats takes you through the functionality of Hexinverter’s Mutant Brain:
In addition to dedicated MIDI to CV converters, there are a number of semi-modular hardware synths and controllers that have converters built in. The Moog Grandmother and Mother 32, Korg MS-20 mini, Make Noise 0-Coast, Behringer Crave, Pittsburgh Modular Microvolt, Arturia MiniBrute and Roland System 1M are just a few examples of this ever-growing niche of relatively affordable synths that allow both hands-on sound patching and control via MIDI.
If you only want to make sure your modular is synchronized with Ableton, try sending an audio pulse to the system. Here it’s important that the audio pulse is a very short sound with plenty of volume. This way, your modular understands this as a pulse. A good sound example comes from modular manufacturer Make Noise. You can download it by following the link below but, and this is Very Important: make sure your speakers are off! At high volume, this sound can damage your ears and/or your speakers.
Turn off your speakers or headphones, then download this free audio pulse.
Put the audio pulse in a Drum Rack and send out sixteen pulses per bar. Route this track to an output of your audio interface and send this signal to your modular system. This so-called Clock signal can go into any input of your modular that’s labeled ‘Clock’. You can copy the signal using a Multiple in your modular to send it to other modules.
If you want even more synchronization, create a second Drum Rack on a different channel and make sure the pulse plays every first beat of the bar. This audio signal can go to any of your modules with a Reset input. This way, when Ableton Live is on the first bar of a beat, it will send a reset signal to your modular.
The advantage of this method is that you don’t have to deal with latency issues, since you are only sending an analog signal to your system. The disadvantage is that you have to sacrifice two outputs of your interface and you can’t send CV signals.
In this One Thing video with producer and sound designer Richard Veenstra (xndr) you can learn more about using audio pulses in Ableton Live:
A further option is to use any of the products from Expert Sleepers. This UK company makes modules that are meant to transform signals from Ableton Live to your Eurorack system. It does so by using a Lightpipe cable, also known as ADAT. As soon as you connect an Expert Sleepers module to your audio interface using a Lightpipe cable, you can use these ADAT channels in Ableton Live.
Expert Sleepers has a software package called Silent Way, which includes tools to send CV and Gate signals from Ableton Live to your Expert Sleepers module. Select one of the ADAT outputs in Live and an LED on your Expert Sleepers module will blink, glow or light up, depending on the signal you feed it from the software.
Some Expert Sleepers, such as the ES-8 or ES-9, are full blown audio interfaces that can be hooked up to your computer directly using a USB cable. You can expand these interfaces with modules like the ES-5 for even more outputs. The video below explains how to set up the ES-8 within Ableton Live:
Link is a feature in Ableton Live that keeps devices in time over a wired or wireless network (such as Wi-Fi). No additional hardware or software is needed – Link makes sure all connected instruments are synced at all times. Of course, your modular system probably does not have Wi-Fi and isn’t connected via Ethernet to your local network. However, there is an option to integrate Link in your modular setup.
Enter The Missing Link from Circuit Happy. Just connect the box to your Wi-Fi network and attach Clock and Reset cables to their respective outputs. As soon as the box receives a Link signal, it will send this to your modular. If there is no Wi-Fi network available, The Missing Link can act as an Access Point, meaning that you can connect your computer to The Missing Link’s network.
The Missing Link is also a class compliant USB MIDI Interface, which means that you can not only send a Clock and Reset signal to your modular, you can also synchronize other MIDI hardware via The Missing Link. Wireless connections can introduce latency, but Circuit Happy provides you with a solution. If you are experiencing timing issues, adjust the delay compensation directly on the box itself, just as you would do in Live. An alternative to the Missing Link is Seismic Industries Spink0, a DIY-module with Ableton Link integration.
Circuit Happy has a short video explaining how The Missing Link works:
Latency and Timing Issues
Due to the nature of modular synthesizers, you might experience latency issues when using your modular system with Live. Some modules are completely analog and therefore introduce no latency into your signal flow. But an ever-growing number of modules are digital or have digital components which lead to latency in your signal.
Adding a computer to your setup may add even more latency. That’s why it’s important to know how to tackle timing issues if you experience them. For more information about latency and how to deal with delay compensation or driver error compensation, please read this article on How Latency Works.