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Using MIDI in Ableton Live - Beginners Guide

using MIDI in Ableton header

Today I will show you how to work with MIDI in Ableton. Let’s get started!

By the way - if you'd like to learn more about making music in Ableton feel free to check out our new course where we're explaining all the basics you need to get started.

1. Quick setup (Ableton Basics)

Let me start at the default screen of Ableton. When you load it up for the first time, this screen should show up. What I want you to do is to press the Tab key on your keyboard - it will take you to a second view, in which we’re going to be working in.

Ableton Session View

This second view is called Arrangement View. The first Session View is for collecting ideas and performing live, the actual production side of things always happens in the horizontal view.

Ableton Arrangement View

Now if you look on the right side you should have two tracks - one MIDI and one Audio. Thats because every single sound in Ableton is either coming from one type of those tracks. We will cover the Audio type of tracks later, so you can delete it by selecting it (clicking its name - Audio) and pressing delete (mac) / backspace (win). Another way to do this is to right click there and simply choose Delete

Delete Track

Now you have only got one track - MIDI. You can use the MIDI track to play any instrument you like - for example the piano, a synthesizer (like SERUM), or even drums. But before we can hear any sound, we have to load up an instrument. I’m going to take my SERUM synthesizer.

To load up an instrument onto the track, we need to find it. You’ll find a lot of instruments under „Instruments” - if you’ve got Ableton Suite, then check out the Grand Piano. You can type in „Grand Piano into the search bar at the top - when you click „Instruments” it should show up.

Ableton Plugins

Now, to drag any instrument onto a track, you can just double click its name and it should open automatically.

Open Serum in Ableton


Check out our new updated course:

"Making a track from Start to Finish"



2. Playing & Recording Instruments

Now we have the instrument open. To hear its sound you can use your computers keyboard (or if you have a MIDI keyboard, but thats entirely optional). Make sure this button with a dot inside (called Armbutton) is red. We use this button to switch between playing different instruments (when we have more tracks).

Activate Recording with arm button

Now you should be able to play the instrument by clicking keys on your keyboard from A to L. You can move left/right on the keyboard by pressing Z/X. Play around and get used to it.

Recording midi

Now we could find a simple melody and record it into the program. Thats easy to do: you need to press two buttons which are at the top of the program. One of them is Record (circle) and the other one is Play (triangle). You can play around to find something cool. To play in time, you can turn on  this button:

Metronom button

You will hear a clicking sound which will help you play in time. Now try to record something - it can be random notes. After you do that, if you click on the clip and press cmd/ctrl + L, the clip will loop.

Loop Recording in Ableton

Let us take a closer look at the clip now. To zoom in at it, place your mouse on the dark grey area above the clip - the mouse should turn into a magnifying glass. If you click and drag it up and down, youll zoom in and out. If you click + drag it right and left, youll move around the timeline.

3. Clip View

Lets zoom in at our clip.

Clip View

We still cant see which exact notes those are. To see that, we have to select the clip (just click at the bar on top). Now that the clip is blue after selecting it, you need to look at the bottom of the program.

Ableton Effect and detail view

The bottom of the program can display two things:

- the devices on a track - thats what were seeing right now, Serum is our device on the left,

- or it can display a selected clip in depth - to see or edit which notes were playing. Thats what we want.

Switching between those two views is done by clicking those two tabs at the bottom right corner: 

switch views in Ableton

switch view with shortcut

The same thing can be done by pressing Shift + Tab. 


Tip: Dont confuse this shortcut with Tab, which switches between Arrangement and Session views (between our current view and the starting view with columns). These two are probably the most useful shortcuts in Ableton. When I was starting out the variety of views seemed a little bit confusing - theres the Session and Arrangement view, and in each one you can change the bottom of the program to display the track devices or the selected clip.


Okay, so make sure youre in the Arrangement view and that youve got the clip selected. After pressing Shift+Tab youll see the piano keys and the notes were playing.

Piano roll view Ableton

Now if you hover your mouse over the red blocks, youll see the note names on the left (near the piano keys) - its a good way to learn the key names. 

Piano roll detail

Tip: Make sure the Fold button is off (that its grey). The Fold button will make the piano on the left disappear and it will only display the notes that were playing already.

Now if you click the grey bar at the left and drag left/right, youll zoom out/in at the notes, and dragging up/down will make you move up and down the keyboard. The grey bar on top acts just like the bar at the top of the program: dragging up/down is zooming in/out, left/right is moving through the timeline.

The zooming is a little bit weird at first, so mess around with it until youre comfortable.

Lets say we recorded this clip. Youll probably want to fix some things, to make sure youre playing perfectly in time.

You can for example resize the red blocks by dragging their left and right sides. You can also add more notes by double clicking anywhere - it will add a note between the lineswhich are called the Grid. When you zoom in, the grid will turn smaller so that you can make more precise adjustments. Try adding a new note (block) and resizing it. 

edit piano roll  piano roll editing

Remember to delete it afterwards by selecting it (clicking) and pressing delete/backspace.

4. Starting from a blank clip

Youre maybe wondering if its possible not to have to record a clip first, but to just draw in the notes. To do this, youd have to make a blank MIDI clip.

Select an area on the TRACK (at the top, not the CLIP). I selected the blue area:


selecting an area in ableton

 Next all you have to do is right click in the upper area of the selection (at the level of the baron top of our first clip) - the dropdown menu will show an option Insert MIDI Clip- thats what you need to click.

inserting midi clip

Watch out: If you right click below that area, the dropdown menu wont display this option.

right click upper area 

Now that youve got a clip, you could draw in your notes in the Clip View.

Thanks for reading, good luck with your music making!



k-pizzak pizza author soundcloud

I’m k-pizza, a chill trap music maker who likes to share his experiences with other producers. I’m regularly going to show up with music and content at PML.

Listen: https://souncloud.com/k-pizza

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