Edit: Updated. Valid for Live 8 to 11.

Before you can start having fun with your MIDI controller, it needs to be configured in Live - this goes for MIDI keyboards and all sorts of other controllers sending MIDI data. If you bought a MIDI controller that is supposed to be plug and play... well, you still need to set it up in Live. Plug and play only means that you don't need to install any drivers for it. If you don't have a MIDI controller, head over to the tutorial that explains a way to use the computer keyboard instead.

So here's how to set it up:

  1. Check if there are any drivers available at the manufacturer's website of your MIDI controller. If so, download and install them first. If it said plug and play on the packaging, you shouldn't have to.
  2. Connect the controller to your computer. Most controllers use USB connections these days, so plug in the cable on both ends. Don't connect it through an unpowered USB hub (this might really mess up the MIDI data stream), but either a self-powered hub or directly to the USB port of your computer. Some controllers need to be connected to a power source and turned on.
  3. Older controllers only use MIDI ports, some offer both options. If you want to send MIDI to and fro, make sure you connect MIDI input and output of your device to the MIDI output and input of either a MIDI interface or an audio interface with those connections available.
  4. Now open Live and go to the Live Preferences (Cmd + , on a Mac; Ctrl + , on Windows computers)
    > MIDI/Sync (Live 8 and below)
    > Link/MIDI (Live 9 and 10)
    > Link/Tempo/MIDI (Live 11)
  5. Control Surfaces are available for the most commonly used MIDI controllers. If this is the case for your controller (List of all MIDI controllers with available Control Surfaces), choose the Control Surface for it as well its Input and Output. This will enable instant mapping. If it's a keyboard, also turn on Track for its Input under MIDI Ports. If Input and Output are shown in reddish, Live cannot detect the device (unplugged, off, broken driver).
  6. Some controllers require a preset dump. If so, the 'Dump' button becomes enabled. Make sure your controller is ready to receive the preset dump. If you're unsure how, check its manual for instructions. Then press 'Dump'.
  7. If there's no Control Surface available for your controller, ignore the upper part in the MIDI/Sync tab. You'll have to set it up under MIDI Ports instead. Don't despair though, it's not rocket science!

    • To use your controller to play notes (i.e. keyboard, drum pads), enable the Track button for the device's input.
    • To use your controller to adjust device parameters, enable its input's Remote button.
    • In Live 11, if your controller offers MPE support, you can turn it on under MPE.
    • If it sends visual or physical feedback, the Remote button of its output needs to be turned on as well.
  8. Controllers without a Control Surface for which you've enabled the Remote button, need manual mappings to be used.
    • Turn on MIDI mapping by clicking on the MIDI button in the upper right hand corner of Live or choose Cmd + M (Mac) or Ctrl + M (Windows).
    • Everything that's mappable will now be displayed in blue.
    • Click on the parameter you want to control, then move the knob/fader or hit the key/pad on your device you want to control it with.
    • Repeat the steps with whatever else you want to map. In the Browser (left) you will see the MIDI mappings you made. You can set the Min and Max for the parameter if available.
    • Once finished, click on the MIDI button again.
  9. You can also manually map controllers that do offer a Control Surface. Then simply set them up as if there was no Control Surface available and map the controls as desired.

Quick tip:

If there's no Control Surface for your controller officially available, there's still the chance there's an user created one. Quite a few nifty users have written their own MIDI remote scripts (a.k.a. Control Surface) for various MIDI controllers. Do a Google search for: *name of the MIDI controller* MIDI remote script. This might save you a lot of time doing manual mappings. Of course, if you know Python or are willing to learn it, you could write your own scripts. The following blog is dedicated to this subject:

Happy MIDI controlling in Live! And of course, if you have feedback or questions, leave me a comment below.

There are plenty more Ableton Live tutorials where this one came from.