Controlling Ableton with the Komplete Kontrol A49

I was looking out for a MIDI controller and control surface for Ableton Live. The Komplete Kontrol S series and comparable Novation controllers were strong contenders, but then came the news of the new Komplete Kontrol A series. This caught my eye, because the pricing of these was well below that of the S series. Previously I switched out my old faithful but battered Korg Triton workstation for a Nord Electro 6D. The Nord is absolutely the right keyboard for my purposes, but I already knew I would miss the pitch bend and modulation controllers. The Push is perfect control surface, but there is some flow missing when you really want to play on the keyboard and interact with the sounds.

Enter the Komplete Kontrol A49. I first tried the controller at the Amsterdam Dance Event and there I noticed that some things were not working right. The person that demonstrated the device there said that it needed some firmware updates. This was some weeks before the official release. After the official release I ordered it and started working with it. Immediately it showed the same limitations in controlling even the Komplete Kontrol application that comes with it. Selecting a sound works fine. You can browse instruments in the Komplete Kontrol application with a ‘prelisten’ sample for every sample by just clicking, turning and nudging the Browse button as a joystick. All other buttons and knobs remained dead.

Komplete Kontrol A49 Browser
Komplete Kontrol A49 Browser

An update!

Then after a week an update to Komplete Kontrol rolled out and a firmware update for the A49 controller. Only after that the knobs came to life as macro controllers within the Komplete Kontrol application. Then the next step came where I installed the keyboard on my desk to work as the main controller for writing songs within Ableton.

Ableton can use ready made scripted or compiled templates to allow MIDI controllers to work as control surfaces. Sure enough when you dig into the documentation of the A series MIDI controllers, you will find reference to copying the right scripts into the Ableton system folders. Essentially you need to copy over scripts from a Host Integration/Ableton folder to Ableton program data control surface script directories. This allows the control surface scripts to appear in the Preferences popup of Ableton under the Link MIDI tab. Once the script is selected, the A49 should not only be able to control instruments and play them, but it should also be able to control Ableton itself. Also the transport controls, like Play/Record etc.

Do not follow the instructions!

However, that’s where it all breaks down. When following the instructions you will end up with just the MIDI template on the controller. The transport controls remain dead. Fortunately when browsing several forums, I found that the instructions are wrong. Probably copied and pasted from the S series. The essence is that you have to ignore the part where it says that you don’t need to specify templates for the Input and Output settings of the control surface scripts. Setting these to the Komplete Control A DAW options magically enables the transport controls. From then on you have to manually switch back to the MIDI controller template by using SHIFT – Plug In/Midi. Don’t forget to also enable the Remote settings for the Komplete Kontrol MIDI ports and you will have it all.

Select Komplete Kontrol DAW input output

The instructions from Native Instruments will also give you a Kontakt instrument rack that maps controller inputs to Kontakt instrument macro’s and now you are completely in control (or Kontrol hahaha). By all means it is not that easy to get to all the good stuff, but at least its there. This is now my workflow:

  • Want to browse Kontakt instruments? Start the Komplete Kontrol application and use the Browse option to quickly browse instruments. Also the sounds from others then Native Instruments can be browsed I noticed. I am using Spitfire eDNA Earth and Epica for instance.
  • Want to start recording in Ableton? Use the Track/Instance transport controls. Even including the loop , metronome and tempo tap options. The controller knobs control the mixer levels of the Session channels.
  • Want to play and control instruments? Press SHIFT Plug-In/MIDI and make sure you have MIDI mapping to the controls. Make sure you have the knob controls mapped to macros in your instrument. You may need the Kontact instrument rack for that.

The verdict? Its not very intuitive and it takes some getting used to, but all in all you get a very playable semi weighted MIDI controller and a controller surface that really can give you the basic controls that replace the keyboard and the mouse. A nice touch is the touch sensitivity of the knobs. The tiny display informs you of the current function of a knob if you only touch it.

 

Trying out the Spitfire eDNA Earth instrument

I will try to write about my impressions with the Earth instrument. However, I will not completely review it. For in-depth reviews please check MusicRadar or TheAudioSpotlight or others. For me, ever since Camel Audio was bought by Apple and its Alchemy synthesizer disappeared as a standalone virtual instrument, I felt lost. Alchemy had a granular synthesis engine and a unique way to parameterize its sounds. The unique sound of this instrument disappeared and there was nothing to replace it. Omnisphere apparently is capable of recreating some sounds, but that is mainly because it can synthesize anything and its priced accordingly. The moment I heard a demo for Earth, I heard back some of that Alchemy sound again.

Technically its a completely different beast, compared to Alchemy. The Earth sounds are based on an orchestral sample library, but are then processed by the Kontakt engine to sound, cinematic, outer worldly and sometimes electronic. Yes its a Kontakt instrument, so you need at least the Kontakt player. Inside Kontakt you will find the eDNA interface of this instrument. As an owner of a Komplete Kontrol A series keyboard, this is very convenient. It means I can use the Komplete Kontrol browser to quickly browse through the sounds and immediately tweak parameters of the sounds once loaded.

The Kontakt engine and the eDNA interface of Earth takes some getting used to. To make sure you fully understand its workings its a good idea to go through the walk through on the Spitfire Audio site. In short, every sound consists of two samples from the library. Which are mangled, then mixed, then chopped up and lastly processed by a set of effects. Very important is to see that you have sounds, but also full versions of the same sound. The full version contains the full range of orchestral samples. This allows you not only to start with a fixed set of samples, but eventually switch out one of the samples for another.

The result is that you get a sound that is usually cinematic. Sometimes a wash or a drone in the background and sometimes a sharp stab in the foreground. Because of the mangling and the chopping, sounds can really get that grainy Alchemy sound, or a dirty sound. None of the patches is really clean. I can only say: I love it. All sounds immediately inspire to let you build a soundscape. Even better, with a Komplete Kontrol Keyboard you can also immediately start changing the sound, bringing it even more to life.

If are looking for cinematic sounds, drones, or dirty stabs and you want an affordable synth then I invite you to take a look at this Kontakt library. In most reviews you will find some comments on eDNA interface of this instrument and I have to agree that it can be kind of hard to find your way in elements that are not inviting you to click or drag. After some getting used to it is not that bad. All in all: recommended!

Experimenting with alternatives for the piano keyboard

Eek a mouse!

Inputting music with a mouse and a computer keyboard, even though its possible in most DAWs, is (as I see it) very limited. Firstly in its expression, it misses touch sensitivity so by default every note typed has the same velocity. Not good. Secondly because when you start adding expression, for instance by drawing it with the mouse, you are focusing on the details not on the song.

Keyboard input
Keyboard input

What better way than a MIDI piano keyboard that allows you to input music in an expressive way in one go? Well, it might be that the piano keyboard is not your thing, but a guitar or flute is. Then you might want to use that to input notes. But other than recording the sound from the instrument is that any use when you want to record different sounds? Probably not. The most flexible way to record music is through MIDI notes and expression. The recorded notes can be connected with different synthesized or sampled sounds and voila. Lots of room for experimentation.

Enter the pads

As a keyboard player I am used to find my way on a piano keyboard, but why would I then be interested in alternatives? In short, I personally am not. Until now I have tried finding my way on new pad based alternatives:

The last one is the latest addition and the inspiration to start writing about it. The Push and the Launchpad were in a way less inspiring to use than the Lightpad M or so it seems. Also, the Lightpad M is nice and soft.

When trying to find my way on the Push, I found that its main inspiring purpose for me is controlling the Ableton Live Session View. For the Launchpad this also seems to be the main purpose. This is the view that you would use when playing live, or when jamming and piecing together a new song. The jamming and piecing together a new song has some clever tricks to allow you to enter musical notes and make sure you’re never out of key.

Push chord key
Push chord key

But then you have to set the right key to play in. And what if your song modulates through several keys? Not very intuitive there when I tried it. Most dance mixes keep it simple, so fair enough. And of course since its first inception these products have evolved and I might not have caught up. It is probably better than ever, but probably most for people that do not enjoy playing on a regular piano keyboard.

Triggered!

Maybe you noticed that I said musical notes, because its different for drums. When the pad changes to a drum pad it is actually better than hitting the piano keys. The mapping on screen is already a square 4×4 pad in Ableton and when you have the same mapping on the pads of Push or the Lightpad M it all starts to make sense.

Ableton Drum Kit
Ableton Drum Kit
Lightpad M Drum Kit
Lightpad M Drum Kit

I found that the Lightpad M takes some practice (for me), but in the end really results in inspiring drum tracks. Until now I used Xfer Nerve as a drum machine and then layered real drum loops and recording over it. Starting with the Lightpad M I see an alternative. Expressive in the Roli way and intuitive.

Also this year I saw a lot of pads appearing on stage supplementing regular keyboards, mostly not synths but controllers by the way. I imagine that these pads mostly trigger a few notes and samples

Dua Lipa live keys and pad
Dua Lipa live keys and pad

The labeling on these is so tiny that you can’t see it from the audience, but I’m guessing its mostly the Launchpad. The Lightpad M is, like others of its kind can also be charged and used wirelessly, MIDI over Bluetooth. I would personally not bet my live performance on a wireless Bluetooth connection, but that’s just me.

So in short. I am sold on the concept of using pads for triggering sounds and drums, being a piano keyboard player. If I look around on the live stages, its here to stay. When you are not a piano keyboard player it might just be your new way to play notes.

How to remain creative

I know its quite pretentious to state that I would know how you can remain creative, but this is for me just a space to remind myself how I get things done. I hope this can help you in some way and inspire you to be creative. Please comment if you have your own tricks to remain creative. Maybe these will also help me.

So this is how I work:

#1 Keep a notebook at hand
I always have my phone on me and even if i am on the train or on holiday, I always have my online notebook at hand on my phone: OneNote. It can be something I hear. It can be something I think of or feel. I know I have to write it down immediately. As part of a general notes page, or as title of a new song or as a part of new lyrics for a new song. Even though I am quite sure that I would remember it again in the evening or even five minutes later, this usually turns out not to be true. So I Write It Down!

I let OneNote sync to the cloud and use the same notebook in the studio. Notes that change while on the road sync to the studio and vice versa. Eventually lyrics take their ‘final’ shape and then they are updated and saved as such. New versions get added and my OneNote pages always contain all lyrics from all songs and all lyrics and remarks that I collected while on the road.

#2 Work out of the box
Nothing is more inspiring than a real instrument. Even though it is entirely possible to write a song with a mouse and keyboard, its not my thing. Usually after practicing just playing away can easily result in new ideas. I try to record ideas immediately and with any fitting name its a joy to browse through all loose ideas and stumble upon a new song.

#3 Do not repeat
The thing that will surely kill creativity is putting some section of a new song on repeat. Even when perfecting a part of a song or a new idea I avoid putting it on repeat. After three times its time to look at another part of the song or start working on something new. All kinds of controllers, like the Ableton Push might try to make me work in a repeat loop, but I stay as far away from it as possible.

#4 Work fast, keep focus
Know your gear, don’t get stuck in finding stuff out while you need to be recording. Eventually when working on one song for a long time the dreaded hearing fatigue will kick in. Time to stop and do something different. Preferably not related to making music. Start listening again the next day at the earliest. Preferably in a different setting. Al too famous is listening in a car of course. If it sounds right there, you’re getting somewhere.

Fixing phase problems in a mix

Please note: If you are experienced in mixing this article will probably state the obvious. This blog is mostly intended as a “note to self” and everybody else that cares to take interest.

Recently one of my music friends Hanny told me that she had performed at a gig with her new band HannaH (check it out) that was broadcast live on local radio. Of course, she had asked for a recording that could be used for promotional purposes. There seemed to be no problems with the actual broadcast, but the recording behaved very strangely. When listening on a phone, the guitar disappeared. When you listened with headphones, your head would explode. The whole mix seemed strangely unbalanced. Phase problems… But we got out of it with a result that was even better than the original!

How did we get here?

These kind of phase problems probably have a very simple reason. In a stereo mix, somehow two wires in one channel were wired the wrong way. One bad cable can do the trick. What happens if some or left or right channel wires are wired the wrong way? The signals cancel each other out. Simple math shows it:

But the top signal seems ok, right? Well its drawn maybe a little incorrectly. The top signal actually has a little more richness of the waveforms to it and a little of cancellation. When used right, you will have a Phaser effect. Something you can find in any DAW and set of guitar effects as an effect that also wobbles the phase to add a little excitement and widening to a otherwise boring signal. Overdo it, or mistreat a stereo signal and you get cancellations and left and right stretched to far. It can result in headaches while listening.

How to get out of here?

So you now you have a mix with phase problems and its not your mix, just a stereo sound file. Aside from plugins with the purpose of fixing phase problems, is there a way to get out with just the tools you have? Fortunately for me there is. Ableton has a utility effect section that centers around treating left, right and mono signals from a track. I am quite sure that your DAW has similar built in effects.

The trick here was to duplicate the signal and create one track with the phase difference signal and one track where left and right were mixed into a mono signal.


Now one track only featured the guitar. Proof that there was a phase problem with just the guitar in the stereo mix. The other track featured everything except the guitar. When mixing both in mono suddenly I as able to remix the recording! Do you want more or less guitar in this song? No problem? All problems solved for HannaH. Good enough in mono, because the audio was for promotional purposes. Once again like in a Dutch football proverb: Every downside has its upside. Happy mixing!

Working together on songs over the Internet

Regularly i try to work together on songs or remixes with other musicians. Sometimes far away and sometimes close, but without actually sitting together at the mixing desk. For me the common way for this collaboration is the use of stems.

Stems are the raw sound files of a song, track by track. Or submix by submix. Usually, with as little as effect processing as possible. Or with full effect processing if needed for specific tracks. It is also common to give the return channels as separate tracks, so the other side can mix back some effects if needed.

Stems You've Got Me
Stems You’ve Got Me

These stems can be send to a fellow musicians over the Internet. On the other side you colleague then creates a new empty project and copies all the sound files in separate tracks on his or her side. This should allow your partner in music to replay the entire track from any DAW without any need for the original components that were needed to create it. He or she then can remix the song to your liking and replace tracks with your own arranged versions of that track. Voilá, a new mix or arrangement of the same song.

Did you realize that these stems are also an excellent backup for your projects? If your PC suddenly dies, you might find that you are not able to recreate the same setup with the same plugins. Or if you get an update from hell that breaks your song setup, you’ll still have the stems to recreate the mix.

If needed you music pal cal return the stems of his or her remix of the song and you can in turn start remixing and rearranging that!

Tips:

Do not forget to also tell the other side the original recording tempo. This will help make a smooth start building a new project with the audio files.

It can help to aptly name all the sound files, otherwise the other side will waste a lot of time finding out what all tracks contain. Like “Vocals Chorus Backing” and “Base drum”.

Sharing the stems can be difficult because of the sheer size of all raw audio files. Do not fret: Dropbox or Wetransfer can do the job.

Simple home recording vocals

I have been in and out of the biggest and very small studio’s, but by no means my home setup can match any of the studio’s i have had the honor to work in. Its a PC, headsets, monitors, an audio interface and a microphone essentially. Yes, there also other gear, but i could work without it. Specifically for working with vocals, there is not much more that you would need.

Hardware and software

I have invested in a better microphone. A nice condensor with tube preamp from sE. The audio interface is one of the Focusrite Scarlett models. The headsets are from Sony and Sennheiser, not too expensive. Bought for acceptable audio quality and wearing comfort. The monitor speakers are a pair of very basic Behringer types. You can’t mix on headphones alone. The PC is a bit on the weak side, but 64 bits and 16GB of memory with SSD. The whole setup as i have it should set you back around 1500 euro’s.

Then there’s software. I use Ableton and that is on its own enough to turn this hardware into a studio. I have invested in plugins for all kinds of purposes, but again they are not needed. Another 100 euro’s and you are in the music business.

Setup

Then there is no separate recording room or mixing room, when i record vocals it is all in the same small room in the attic. Call it a mess, stuffed with musical instruments and a PC. To compensate for the noise that the PC will make and the poor room acoustics I put the microphone inside a nice sE recording filter and behind a plop filter. The setup looks like this.

Heddy recording
Heddy recording

The actual noise from the PC is getting through, but is low enough to be taken out by a basic gate. When recording i make sure that the levels reach halfway from 0db in Ableton, which would be around -18 db. This leaves enough headroom and allows the noise floor to be gated out in my case.

Recording

As you can see, the trick to not using a separate recording room is the use of a headset. For the first recording sessions i was very nervous, so i put a lot of effort in setting up a separate routing in Ableton to allow for a real headset mix. With  Cue Out to another output. In practice now i just throw the Master Out into two headsets. One for me and one for the performer. Of course the monitor speakers are switched off while recording.

Personally i work with a complete arrangement, before adding vocals. This means in Ableton i will be recording in the Arrangement view. Recording in the Session view is maybe more your thing. It depends on your workflow. Just one thing, whatever way you work, make sure you know your DAW. There is nothing more frustrating then wasting the time of your singer with finding stuff out and messing up. Recording should be swift and when you have “flow” it should not be interrupted needlessly.

This also applies to the hardware of course. Messing with cables and mixer routing is a waste of everybody’s time. Know your software. Know your hardware. Need another take? Bang, start recording. Is the recording okay, but could maybe done better? Save this track. Record another. Compare. Play back. Which is better? Go back to the first recording? Okay no problem. One line went great, the next not so great? Keep the first line and only record the next line. Punch in, punch out recording. Practice this before inviting your guest performer. It makes the difference.

Tricks

Try to listen carefully while recording. Strange plops or noises? Are the words right? Did you get all parts recorded? As a rule, don’t immediately start mixing during or straight after recording. Rest your ears and have a listen again, the next day. Then start mixing or discover that you need another recording session. It happens.

And okay i admit, i also cheat a little, specifically with my own vocals. I use Melodyne from Celemony (autotune) and Nectar from Izotope (vocal processing). Two tools to get great sound with small means. It also allows for doubling voices for multiple layers of vocals and it saves a lot of studio time. Please make sure your performer agrees on you cheating.

Starting the making music blog

Why start a blog about making music when there are so many blogs? When there is youtube where you can learn anything about everything in 10 minutes? This blog is more a reminder to myself. Making music is about inventing something new for every song.

Of course i hope that you can also find something here that inspires you, or helps you when you get stuck. This blog is about working in a small home studio and performing on stage. Also probably some words about publishing your music and having fun or frustrations doing so. Enjoy!