Garnish Music Production School | Nashville


Instrument Basics [instrument-basics]

What the heck is an instrument? Is it a MIDI thing? Is it audio? Is it a plug-in? An effect? The answer?


It’s all of those things. In this chapter we will look at what makes software instruments so compelling. We will explore how and where they are loaded as well as the special considerations that may accompany their use. Finally, we will take a short tour of the instruments included in Ableton Live (Standard).


As convenient as instrument plugins are — and they are really convenient — it’s important to understand that they are a combination of a few key parts.

First of all, they are MIDI devices. They do not record sound; they interpret MIDI events and generate sounds. This was discussed in [+Getting Stuff In There][getting-stuff-in-there], where we compared MIDI to the performance of a piece of sheet music. In this analogy, if the MIDI data is the sheet music, the instrument is the musician and the, well… instrument.

In this case, the instrument is also a plugin. There is no reason you couldn’t pipe this MIDI data out to your favorite hardware synthesizer and have it played there. You’d need to record the signal to an audio track. But this is essentially what you are doing with an instrument plugin: it’s just being done virtually.

The virtual instrument exists as a plugin. This is a modular bit of software that can be loaded into an instrument track and swapped out with other plugins at will. The instrument plugin interprets the MIDI data and is responsible for generating the sound. The sound then appears on the instrument track — exactly like it does on an audio track.

Instrument plugins take care of this entire chain of events, from the MIDI data, to an instrument, to a track that produces sound — all in one place. This makes software instruments extremely versatile and powerful. Sound can be manipulated within the instrument plugin, the plugin preset can be changed, or the entire instrument can be exchanged with another.

Loading Instruments

As with all Live elements, instruments are loaded from the Browser. Keep in mind that the Browser makes little distinction between presets and the plugins that use them. You will find many presets in Live, scattered between Browser categories such as Instruments, Sounds, Plug-ins, Packs, and of course within the User Library. When navigating the Instrument category, the top-level menu will reference an empty instance of the plug-in instrument (e.g. Simpler), while items that are categorized within are presets. Either of these may be loaded from the Browser by dragging into the track title bar, the device area or by using the hot-swap feature.

External Instruments

You can, in fact, record MIDI without a MIDI instrument loaded. Actually, this is what MIDI was designed for. Software instruments are a recent thing. Back in the day, you’d record the MIDI signals from a keyboard and the DAW (we called it a sequencer back then) would play them back out to your external keyboards every time you pressed play. Synthesizers don’t ‘know’ if it’s you playing them (live) or if it’s coming through the MIDI cable. All that would be left to do, at the very end, would be to record the instrument’s actual sound. We’d usually hold off on that until we were absolutely sure everything was perfect. There was always some bloke who would decide to change the key of the song at the last possible moment. There’s always one…

You can do the same in Live. It would be called an external MIDI instrument.

A Quick Tour of Live’s MIDI Instruments


A traditional a drum sequencing instrument which defines a percussion kit including up to eight individual sounds or samples. Samples can be arranged into groups of measures using a piano-roll interface. Many options are available to pre-process these sounds including basic tools such as equalization, attack, delay, and pitch-shifting.


Live’s main sampling instrument workhorse. Samples can be either pitch-shifted and/or warped. They can be looped or sliced, and individual slices can be subsequently rendered into another instance of simpler or in a…


A polyphonic subtractive synthesizer.


Designed for synthesizing sounds via a wide range of controls; it can be bought separately
in addition to Ableton Live. Operator implements FM synthesis string variation of four FM operators.


Featuring multisample support for third-party sound and sample libraries, and supporting the SoundFont protocol (, Sampler is also capable of wavetable and granular synthesis.



Stretch, shape and morph sounds using Live’s latest and intuitively designed Wavetable engine.



__Physical Modeling Instruments__

The following three instruments use what we call physical modeling technology to reproduce the acoustic behavior of a physical object, modeling physics to virtually emulate the way instruments produce sound in nature.


This synthesizer is designed to simulate the characteristics of mallet percussion instruments.

Collision’s interface is divided into tabs, which are further divided into sections. The Excitator tab contains the controls for the Mallet and Noise oscillators.
The Excitator sound source features a pair of oscillators called Mallet and Noise, which feed into a pair of independent (or linked) stereo resonators.

Try It Out?

  • Start out with Mallet adjusting the Stiffness and Color. Add some velocity to the volume (V).

  • Turn on the Noise and bring up the sustain level in the envelope. Using Noise is essential to create blown, pipe like sounds but with lower env settings also creates ambience and dirt for percussive sounds.
  • While the oscillators produce the initial component of the sound, it is the Resonator parameters that have the greatest impact on the sound’s character.
    The Resonator tabs contain the parameters for the two independent resonator sections. The Link tab allows you to adjust both resonators simultaneously.

Each stereo resonator can be toggled on or off via. the switch in its tab. Keep in mind that if both resonators are turned off, no sound will be produced.

  • Start out with Resonator 1 only and 2 off.
  • Move the little ball to adjust Decay and Material (decay color).
  • Switch from Medium to Full for optimal sound quality.

The Listening and Hit controls (choosing where we listen to/hit the object) allow you to change the stereo image while also affecting the sound.

  • Add some Inharmonics and tweak Brightness.
  • Explore some of the other Resonant Objects.

You’ll notice that depending on your choices, some of the controls are going to change! Here’s a short description from Live’s manual:

Resonant objects


simulates the resonance properties of beams of different materials and sizes.


A specialized variant of the Beam model. Beam reproduces the characteristic overtones of marimba bars — produced as a result of the deep-arch-cut of a marimba’s bars.


simulates the sound produced by strings of different materials and sizes.


is a model of a rectangular membrane (such as a drum head) with a variable size and construction.


simulates sound production by a rectangular plate (a flat surface) of different materials and sizes.


simulates a cylindrical tube that is fully open at one end and has a variable opening at the other (adjusted with the Opening parameter.)


simulates a cylindrical tube that is closed at both ends.

Now we can add Resonator 2 as well to the mix. I recommend that you switch the structure from serial to parallel to avoid boominess or peaks. Resonator 1 and 2 can have totally separate controls and volumes.
Settings can be copied from 1>2 and Resonator can be linked for simultaneous control.

The wonderful resonators within this instrument are also available as an audio plugin (see [+Effects: Specialized][effects-specialized]).

Pitch Envelope:

let’s us create initial pitch bend and gliding effects.


The mechanism of the electric piano is actually quite simple. A note played on the keyboard activates a mallet that hits a fork assembly consisting of a tine and a tone-bar. The sound of the tine resonates the tone-bar which is, in turn, amplified by a magnetic coil pickup like the kind found on an electric guitar.

Once activated, the tone bar will continue to resonate on its own for a long time. But releasing the key applies a damper, muting the sound more quickly.

The Electric interface is divided into five main sections.

The first four main sections (Mallet, Fork, Damper and Pickup ) correspond to the sound producing components mentioned above. The global section parameters affect overall behavior and performance settings such as pitch bend and polyphony.


is a synthesizer dedicated to the emulation of string instruments, it produces sound by solving mathematical equations that model the different components in string instruments and how they interact.

A Few Words About Racks

Racks are covered in [+Mixer Basics: Signal Flow, Device Chains, and Mixdown][mixer-basics-signal-flow-device-chains-and-mixdown] but let’s take a moment to discuss them briefly here as well. Racks offer ways of combining multiple elements into a single device. They come in a few different flavors: Effect Racks, Instrument Racks, and Drum Racks.


Of all of these, Drumracks most resemble an instrument in the way in which we have discussed them in this chapter. Drumracks offer us an easy way to assign a single sample to a key — typically, with single notes. But Drumracks are still complex instruments, capable of assigning almost any other instrument, sample, or even effect to one of their virtual pads.

Instrument Rack

Instrument racks are covered in [Mixer Basics: Signal Flow, Device Chains, and Mixdown] [mixer-basics-signal-flow-device-chains-and-mixdown]. Instrument Racks are powerful tools that allow us to create complex chains of instruments, effects, macros, and pretty much anything else in the Live universe.

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