Old-school syncing Ableton Live to other software


There are lots of blog posts, forum arguments, and YouTube videos that will explain to you how to use MIDI sync to synchronize Ableton Live with other music software. This is not one of those posts; instead, I will try to convince you why you should not try to do this, and recommend a better, albeit tougher alternative.

Why MIDI Sync?

There are lots of reasons why you’d want to sync Ableton Live against another piece of music software. Maybe you’re using Live to add a few loops or time-sync’d effects to your DJ set, but you want to DJ with Traktor instead of Live. Maybe you’ve got multiple laptops and multiple performers and you want to use the same MIDI clock to make sure that Live is on time. And so forth.

Normally, the conventional wisdom is that you’d set up MIDI synchronization and slave Live to some other external MIDI sync source. On Mac OSX, the Network MIDI interface provides a convenient way to create an ad-hoc sync between two Macs. Throw a PC into the mix, and things get a bit tougher, so usually the solution is to send MIDI between two soundcards. If both apps are running on the same computer (ie, syncing between Traktor and Live), then sometimes a loopback device can be used. In the case of Traktor, it provides a loopback device capable of sending MIDI clock.

Sounds great, why shouldn’t I?

In a nutshell, MIDI is too unreliable for tight synchronization. MIDI is a very slow protocol, and it simply was not designed to transport large amounts of streaming data which is required here. Among the problems which you will encounter here are:

  • Drift, which occurs when the two hosts are no longer in tight sync. Programs like Traktor can force a re-sync, but this usually causes Live to drop audio and jitter for a split second while it re-syncs. Not good.
  • Packet loss, which occurs when the MIDI sync stream is broken. In this case, the only way to re-establish sync is to stop the master host and restart playback. Also not good.
  • Slow follow, which occurs when (God forbid) you want to change the tempo of the master host. The slave will eventually catch up to the tempo changes, but there is a noticeable lag, and sync will probably be totally off by the time the tempo stabilizes.
  • Networking and complexity. Murphy’s law states that if something can go wrong, it will. If something is tedious and hard to set up in the safety of your studio, you can pretty much guarantee that it’s going to go completely pear-shaped when you try to take it on stage.

So what to do?

Over the years (since Live 4, specifically), I have experimented with MIDI sync of multiple laptops or multiple hosts on the same machine. For the reasons mentioned above, it just doesn’t work that well. At least, not nearly well enough that I would trust to go onstage with such a setup.

So, in my experience it is better to assume that sync is not a viable option, and instead I prefer to run it old-school. First, start the master host, and then type the tempo into Live. If you don’t know the tempo, then tap it in. It really helps to assign a MIDI button to tap BPM, as well as assign buttons to increase/decrease the tempo. If you can peek at the screen on the other laptop, then you are pretty much guaranteed to get an exact tempo, which is far easier than regular beat-matching.

Next, turn on the metronome and get ready to start Live. Wait until the “1” downbeat and start Live’s playback slightly before the 1 is hit. Use the “nudge” buttons to fine-tune the sync. Again, it makes sense to map the nudge buttons to MIDI. I also usually map the “m” key or a MIDI button to the metronome, as it can get annoying after sync is established.

If there are tempo changes you will need to use the MIDI keys to change Live’s tempo, but you will find that this actually works much better than MIDI sync would. However, if you are doing some ultra-crazy breakdown with the tempo, then usually it makes sense to break sync and mute Live until thing settle down.

Final thoughts

If you are using a setup with multiple laptops, then think of Live like a big turntable, not a magic host. I’ve heard that some hosts, namely BitWig (not yet released at time of writing) will support their own high-bandwidth sync protocol. I, for one, greatly welcome this feature.