Join Daniel Mintseris for an in-depth discussion in this video Changing external instrument presets, part of Performing with Ableton Live: On Stage with St. Vincent.
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The idea of connecting digital instruments together has been around for a long time. In fact, that's the reason MIDI was invented and standardized over 30 years ago. Using MIDI which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, we can have various electronic components interact, control each other and otherwise become a more integrated musical system. In more recent years some instruments that have not been traditionally able to participate in the onstage MIDI conversation became MIDI capable. For example, the original Minimoog was purely analog but its recent reincarnation the Moog Voyager, added a full MIDI implementation.
Guitars are perhaps some of the more MIDI resistant instruments around, but that barrier has slowly been breaking down as well and guitar effects can now be switched remotely using MIDI foot controllers, such as the MasterMind by RJM. The MIDI protocol can get arcane and archaic. Very quickly but thankfully, you don't need to know too much about it to use it effectively. The program changes with it's most basic functions and here's how to use it in Ableton. I create a new midi track specifically for the purposes of changing presets on one of my external instruments, say the Long Voyager.
I'll name it accordingly. I'll set MIDI From to Null Input, just to make sure none of my controller data ends up going through this track. I'll set the MIDI Output to the MIDI interface port I'm using to communicate with the Voyager, say port 1. Make sure there's a MIDI cable connecting the MIDI Out of port 1 on your interface with the MIDI in on your external instrument. Next, I'll specify the MIDI channel on which the program change message will be transmitted. I'll leave this on channel one but it can be any channel as long as that's the channel on which your external instrument is set to receive MIDI.
That last step is to have abled and sent a program change to the port and channel I just specified. I'll start by creating an empty MIDI clip in this track and unlooping it, since it will only need to fire once. If you look in the notes box of this new clip you'll see a program change section, it has three fields. Bank select, sub-bank select and program change. Quite often, this last field is all you will need. Drag up or down in the field to scroll. Or just type in the number of the program to specify the preset on your external instrument.
I'll go with program number ten. The bank select and sub-bank select allow you to also specify banks and sub-banks if required or you can leave them blank. You'll have to investigate how the presets are organized in your instrument, whether banks are used, et cetera. Anyway, as soon as I launch the clip the program change message is transmitted, and the Voyager should switch to the preset I specified. Ableton gives you two little indications that the program change is being sent out. First, there's this one green dot in the MIDI track readout, and also there's the MIDI Track Out indicator in the upper right corner.
Watch the indicators as I launch the clip. It's not much, so aside from these, you'll just have to watch your external instrument and make sure the presets are switching. I'll put the program change number in the name of the clip for easy reference. Now we can repeat this for the second song. Create a MIDI clip, on loop. And specify another program change, say 21. I'll rename this as well. When you launch the clip, the preset on the voyager should change again. If you have more than one instrument to send program changes to. Go ahead and set that up in the same way in additional MIDI tracks.
Make sure to use either a different port, or a different MIDI channel. That'll help avoid any signal crossing, there are a couple of small quirks you should be aware of regarding program changes. The first is that the program change number you specify in the MIDI clip may not be the number of the preset you're trying to select on your external instrument. This is due to differences in how various instrument manufacturers choose to number their presets. One example is the RJM Mastermind. It has 25 banks of presets each.
And they're not numbered consecutively. So for example number 16 in the program change midi clip corresponds to number 31 on the Mastermind. With some instruments, your numbers could be off by one. This can happen if the instruments are numbered from zero to 127, rather than from one to 128. It can get a little confusing now and then, but usually not hard to figure out. The second quark becomes apparent if you re-trigger the program change MIDI clip. For example, the last program change I sent was number 21, when I launched this clip.
If I now launch the first clip again, it'll switch to number ten as expected. However, if I now try launching the same clip again, the number ten program change will not be sent out again. You won't often need to worry about this, but it does come out, for example when the preset is changed manually on the instrument. And you need to reset it to the original from Ableton. To work around it, send a different program change than the one you want. Quirks aside the program change implementation is simple, solid, and time tested.
When there just aren't enough hands or feet or enough time to switch to that next sound, it's a great solution.
First, Daniel provides a tour of his setup, starting from his keyboard riser—the hub of communication on stage. With Ableton and a series of MIDI controllers, he's closely connected to all the other instrumentalists. Then he demonstrates the process of building a show file and creating sound presets for every song. Daniel also explains how to use the Drum Kit as a MIDI controller for drum sounds, and how to make program changes on the downstage Moog and guitar stations. Finally, in our interview with Daniel, he closes down the course with insights on what it's like to be a musical director, and how he balances technology and musicianship to bring ideas to life.
- Setting up the keyboard and Ableton Live
- Creating and using click tracks
- Creating song presets
- Switching sounds within songs
- Automating presets
- Working with Ableton drum racks
- Sending program changes
- Preparing audio stems for playback
- Audio routing
- Keeping things in check with line-check files and backups
- Insights on music and technology