More than any other DAW, Ableton Live shines when used together with a controller. Just think of the effort they put into building the new Push controller.
But few of us have a dedicated hardware controller, or could afford one. Why not take advantage of the high-quality touch screen of the iPad? It can serve as a great portable Ableton Live controller.
With just very few steps you will be able to jam and assemble your tracks in Live in a more natural way. And it’s also a great tool for live performances.
About the OSC Protocol
The Open Sound Control (OSC) protocol has been around since 2008. It was developed by the research center CNMAT, and has affirmed itself as a modern alternative to MIDI. It actually does not define a hardware interface, but is typically transmitted over wifi and ethernet.
Compared to MIDI, it also has a very high-precision resolution, so it’s no surprise it has been adopted by so many applications and control devices.
Step 1: Purchase and Install TouchOSC
TouchOSC, developed by RJ Fisher, is a great little app for iOS devices. It makes use of the OSC protocol to communicate with your computer and DAW. It does also many other nice things, but we will just focus on Ableton Live for this tutorial.
It costs $4.99, and is almost the only investment you'll need to make to have a great touch controller (excluding the iOS device itself of course!).
So, the first step is basically buying and installing TouchOSC on your iOS device. The iPad is preferable for its screen dimensions, but an iPad mini or iPhone will work nicely as well.
So head to the app store and purchase it. The installation process is really straightforward, so we can move on to the next step.
Step 2: Install LiveControl
Ableton Live, unlike Logic Pro, does not natively support OSC connections, so you need a third party tool here. But don’t worry, the guys at LiveControl have already covered the problem (and for free!).
LiveControl is a nice little tool that will work as a bridge between TouchOSC and Ableton Live. It works for Mac and Windows, supports Live 8 & 9, and it can be downloaded directly from the LiveControl website.
Once downloaded, you must perform a few tasks:
- Install the MIDI remote scripts which come in the .dmg (launching the “LiveControl installer”), since you’ll need them later in Ableton Live.
- Copy the LiveControl app to your Application folder and launch it.
- Install LiveControl using the provided installer. This will install the application and the Live scripts.
- Install MIDI Yoke, another free program which will work as a sort of virtual MIDI port. Installation is straightforward: download the installer, launch it, reboot, and you are ready to go.
- Launch the LiveControl application.
Once launched, the LiveControl window will appear.
On the “Connected Device” setting you should see an empty field for now, while the “MIDI Port” setting displays the actual MIDI ports used by LiveControl.
On a Mac, LiveControl automatically provides two virtual MIDI ports called LiveControl 1 and LiveControl 2, so you will have to select one of them. On Windows (after you have installed MIDI Yoke, as explained above) you should select “Out To MIDI Yoke: 1”.
Step 3: Connect Everything
To allow TouchOSC to communicate with your computer (desktop or laptop) you just need to put your computer and the iPad on the same network. Let’s just stick with the iPad for now, but the process is the same for any other Apple device.
Wifi is the natural, easiest choice of connection, but if you want to be sure that your latency will remain as low as possible, just create an ad-hoc connection between your iPad and computer. This is much more effective than sharing an access point or similar, where other devices are competing for bandwidth, or distance can significantly increase the communication time.
So, if you completed all of the previous steps, you should have the LiveControl application open on your computer, and the TouchOSC app opened on your iPad, with your computer and iPad sharing the same network.
On TouchOSC, tap the first button (in the “Connections” group), which will allow you to set the OSC host (LiveControl).
After a few seconds the LiveControl host should appear in the “Found Hosts” list of the new screen. Just tap on it, and the Host values above should change to match it.
Make also sure that the outgoing and incoming ports are different. The default values should be 5000 and 9000 respectively.
To check if your connection is successful, you should see your iPad name in the LiveControl window, in the “Connected Device” field.
Step 4: Set Up Ableton
It's time to open Ableton Live at last! You've already installed the LiveControl scripts, and should easily be able to select them in the Preferences > MIDI Sync panel.
Add “LiveControl TO” as a Control Surface, and just leave the Input and Output fields as “none”.
You should now see a red box surrounding some (or all) of your tracks in Live Session view. That box highlights the tracks your are currently controlling with TouchOSC and can be changed directly from the iPad.
Step 5: Set Up Your TouchOSC Template
Once everything is correctly connected, it is time to have fun! The core of TouchOSC is its templates, which display your controls graphically, and you can actually change and control them from the app.
You can set the current template (or layout) in the initial options screen, clicking on the Layout button.
The included templates are quite good, so you can stick with them for now. The one made for Ableton Live is called LiveControl iPad (or LiveControl if you are running it from an iPhone).
Once you have selected the template, you can go to the layout by clicking on the “Done” button on the top toolbar. To return to the options screen from the layout, press the small grey circle button at the top right corner.
If everything went fine, you should see your current clips and tracks in TouchOSC, and touching the controls on the iPad should correspond to actions on Ableton Live.
Spend some time getting acquainted with the controls, which are divided by screens. You can switch screens with the buttons at the top of the screen:
This is the initial screen (see the screenshot above), and for a Live artist this represent the main control room—the place where you launch clips, change scenes, stop tracks, and change tempo. This screen offers also basic mixing functions like volume and mute (pressing shift).
A basic mixer screen, where you set track volumes, panning, sends, solo, mute, record arm. It's also where you control the main transport with start, stop, record and metronome switching.
This is a very handy screen, where you can control your tracks effects, with the wonders of a touch screen!
All the track inserts are automatically mapped for the active track (you can switch tracks with the buttons at the bottom of this screen), and so, all you have to do is just select the insert effect and do your tweaks.
The remaining screens are a nice Sequencer (nothing too fancy, but it can be useful in a live improvisation setup), XY Pad (similar to Device but with XY assignable pads), Drums Pads and Keys.
There are of course alternatives to TouchOSC, but maybe none so cost effective.
- Liine Lemur is one of these, and it may be the best MIDI/OSC controller you will ever find. Powerful and highly configurable, you can do wonders with it, but it costs almost $50. It’s aimed more at high-end performers with very specific needs. It’s no coincidence that LiveControl2 (the new version of LiveControl) is built over Lemur instead of TouchOSC, to give users a more advanced level of control.
- DAW Remote is another alternative. While not an expensive app (the cost is $9.99), it’s useful, beautiful, and meant to work mainly as a transport and mixer controller, with faders, knobs, and a jog wheel. But, as you know, to fully control Ableton Live you need a different set of controls (and maybe more configurable ones).
- TouchAble is another tool. It costs $24.99, and has a feature set somewhere between TouchOSC and Lemur. You may want to give it a try if you find TouchOSC too limiting, and are on a budget.