Ableton Live and Akai’s Endless Encoders

Have you bought an Akai MPK225, or something similar, and plugged it into Ableton Live only to be stumped because its "endless" rotary encoders are mapped to a device as absolute encoders by default? No? Well, sorry—you've picked a bad time to casually browse through my website, because I'm about to get technical.

On the other hand, if you answered "yes”—you are not alone.

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I had a such a great time last week at the Friendly Forest (Creative Workshop Studio in Nashville, TN). Made some new friends, hugged some old friends, spent equal time in space exploration and playing respectable music which may actually end up on an album one day.

I also hopped around like a kid at Christmas between these two kits, and if you thought this post was just an excuse to be a drum geek for a sec, then you are RIGHT.

On the left is my 1970s 3-ply maple Ludwig; on the right is Teddy Morgan’s new sweet “Questlove” kit. The Questlove is so, so tiny but sounds surprisingly punchy under a set of mics. The rebound off of these little drums is way different than what I’m used to and it made it a joy to play. There are lots of vintage Zildjians and new Istanbuls and goat hooves and metal bits and spurs and blades and chains and shakers sprinkled about, too.


When I was kid, I only knew B.B. King as a caricature of himself. He was a large, round man, always smiling, played old-time music on a big black guitar worn high on his belly.

I first gave the man some serious thought while watching an episode of The Cosby Show; I still didn’t know much about him but I knew that guest stars on the show were usually legendary in some way, and so I paid attention. I thought he was entertaining and fun, nothing I hadn’t heard before, somewhere, but that piercing mellow guitar tone instantly made his music a signature.

Fast forward several years…

I had learned to play a decent blues shuffle over the years but never really studied it; it was something I did as an afterthought, da da, da da, da da. My friend Teddy Morgan decided that had gone on for far too long and popped a CD in the van, and it was there, on some anonymous stretch of Midwest interstate, that I was introduced to the music of B.B. King for the first time.

This music was alive; it was a living, breathing soul brought to life by a ferocious but restrained rhythm section and a powerful voice punctuated by a sharp, quick guitar. It was the sound of generations of music that came before it and hints of the directions it would take in the future.

It’s no surprise that a young me would dismiss B.B. King as something vaguely familiar, because he was familiar; I was born into a world whose music had already been shaped by him. His contributions are almost swept away by the sea of people he inspired.

B.B. King is blues music, one of those delicate genres whose relevancy today is maintained mostly by its legacy. But, oh, what a legacy.

Live: A Few Questions

So I’ve gotten a few questions about my Ableton Live “series,” some of which I’ll answer eventually but here are a few I probably should have touched on:

Will my [so-and-so] computer work for this?

Chances are—yes? Currently I use a 2011 Macbook Pro, with a quad-core i7 and 16GB of RAM. It’s getting a little wheezy now, but at the time it was hot potatoes and I’ve never had an issue with my Live setup. For years before that I used a 2006 Macbook with a duo core and 4GB and never had any issues, either. If you’re having CPU issues, there are a bunch of things you can try to reduce the load.

I’ve got a [so-and-so] interface, will that work?

Chances are—yes? My opinion on interfaces is that they all sound good these days. I mean, it’s really hard to buy a bad sounding interface. If you’ve got something that’s working for you and sounds good and gets along with your computer, by all means stick with it. It’s easy to buy a crappy interface with bad drivers, though, so if you don’t own anything yet it’s worth researching reviews from people with the same computer you have.

Why aren’t you using USB MIDI?

USB MIDI is pretty awesome, really; MIDI isn’t that resource heavy and a USB bus is more than enough for it. (And you get bus power too!) The main reasons I shy away from it are:

  1. I use the Roland SPD-SX as my primary MIDI controller, and at the time I bought it the USB drivers were a little screwy. I’ve used its USB bus since then but I stick with MIDI, just in case.
  2. I need more than one input, so to have enough ports I’d need to run a USB hub, which is more tiny little cables with delicate connectors than I feel like dealing with.
  3. USB spec only allows for runs of ten feet, anything longer than that needs a powered repeater cable or a powered hub in between.

Basically, it’s mostly a matter of personal convenience, and a little peace of mind. If you’ve only got one or two controllers and they’re all fairly close to you, or if your interface doesn’t have standard MIDI ports, USB is the way to go.

Live, Pt. 3: The Click Scene

Welcome to a third post of a behind-the-scenes look into my Ableton Live setup. The first posts are something of a primer, describing the gear I use and the basics of setting up a mix; from here, I dive a little deeper into the Ableton waters. If this is your first time here, or if you’re new to Live, you might want to start at the beginning.

The Click

One of the first things I set up in a typical Wits session is the click track. A click is a really helpful tool on the show; I use it both as a quick reference before counting off a musical number and occasionally as a metronome when a consistent tempo is helpful. Live has a built-in metronome which is routed by default to the cue mix, but since mechanical beeps are a little less than inspiring I prefer to use clips on a dedicated track.

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Live, Pt. 1: The Gear

For my first foray into describing how I use Ableton Live, I figured I’d start with what I actually use it to do and what gear I need to make that happen. A pretty typical Wits session will look something like this (click thumbnails to see full size):

Ableton Live session view

If you’re super-new to Live, this screen might look a bit intimidating, but it’s all pretty simple once you know the basic layout. Let’s dive right in.

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How I Use Ableton Live

Of all the things I’ve learned about using Ableton Live, the biggest is that it will result in questions. Lots and lots of questions, like: What’s the laptop doing?, or Where are those sounds coming from?, or I saw you hitting a lot of pads, what’s with that?, or Are you checking your email from on stage?

So, I thought I’d take advantage of an afternoon off and share with the world my Ableton Live setup for Wits, which has more things going on in the laptop than per usual for me.

Live can handle a lot of needs, and my Wits setup covers them all pretty gracefully. I’ll break up this tutorial/sneaky-peek likewise:

Now, one of the best things about Live is it’s really versatile, I mean, REALLY versatile, and there are about 100 different ways to accomplish any given task. If you’re an Ableton wizard you might sigh and shake your head sadly when you see my setup but this is what’s working for me. For the sake of these posts I’m gonna assume you’re not an Ableton Wizard but, at the least, have a working knowledge of Live and how to get around it.

Cool? Cool. First up: the gear.

Happy 2015! Here’s hoping it’s one giant cookie carnival for everyone.