A Comprehensive Guide to MPE in Ableton Live 11

Earlier this year, Ableton Live released Live 11, the most recent version of their music production software. Live 11 comes with lots of updated plugins and new features like comping as well as a handful of new devices. Live 11 also features enhanced MPE controller capability which is great for creating more expression in your music. Live 11 now makes it possible for you to record velocity, pitch, and vibrato automations on your MIDI tracks in real time. If you own an Ableton Push controller, this expanded MPE sensitivity really turns your gear into an expressive musical paintbrush.

MPE stands for MIDI Polyphonic Expression. MPE controllers use multiple dimensions of MIDI data like velocity, pitch, and vibrato to make your music more expressive. There are many MPE controllers on the market but the ROLI Seaboard is a great example of a MIDI controller that is capable of capturing your subtle expressions in real time. As you play, your MPE keyboard captures information from your playing style. Your MPE keyboard and Ableton Live can pick up data like the strength of your notes (velocity), and if you create some vibrato using your figures as a string instrument player would do, Ableton Live can transpose this data into lines of automation that you can later readjust.

Below is a quick demo of the ROLI Seaboard Block, a smaller version of the ROLI Seaboard. This demonstration showcases the sort of effects and plugin manipulation you can achieve with an MPE controller:

To begin using Live 11’s MPE feature, first make sure your MPE controller is connected properly to your computer. Next, open Live 11’s Preferences Menu and navigate to the tab ‘Link Tempo MIDI’. In the MIDI Ports section of this tab, check the MPE checkbox that corresponds with your keyboard. You can use Ableton’s Push 2 as your MPE controller as it is is a velocity and aftertouch sensitive device. By using Push 2, you can control up to three parameters in realtime. To use your Push 2 as an MPE controller, you’ll first have to change it’s aftertouch setting to poly. To change this setting press “Setup” on your device and change the “Pressure” setting to poly. Make sure the MPE checkbox is checked for your Push 2 in the MIDI Port tab in preferences. Once you’re properly set, you can get started using your MPE controller to manipulate your plugins.

Now, set up a new track with an MPE compatible device from Ableton or a third-party plugin manufacturer. Within an Ableton MPE compatible device, there is an tab titled ‘MPE’ that will help you map your parameter controls. This will be different in third-party plugins. If you’re using a third-party plugin, right-click on the VST in your MIDI track and click ‘Enable MPE Mode’ to activate your plugins MPE capabilities.

The MPE tab works with three main axises, a pitch, a slide, and an aftertouch/pressure axis. These axises correspond with the main functions of your MPE controller. You can customize the controls on your keyboard to be mapped to any parameter of your plugin device. For example, sliding your finger up or down the key you press can be mapped to change the oscillators wave form, changing the whole tone of you sound. Traditionally, pitch is mapped to your keyboards horizontal control. So as you slide your finger along your keyboard horizontally, the pitch of your note will change. You can map this function to effect a different parameter of your plugin like a filter or a gain control, it doesn’t necessarily have to effect pitch.

After recording a take on your MPE controller, you can now go in to edit the automations you made while playing. You can access and edit these automations by double-clicking the clip you created. This will open the ‘Detail View’. Next, navigate to the ‘Expression View’, the third tab in this window. The Expression View will show you all of the automations and data you created during your take.

Since MPE works by capturing data from each note you play and creating a channel for each note, you must first select a note you’d like to edit. Once you’ve reached this view, you can freely edit your automations. You can create new automations, make new breakpoints, or edit existing ones. You can create curved automations or clean up any mistakes you may have made during your take.

Take a look at this video from Ableton that visually demonstrates how to unlock MPE capabilities in you software and keyboard. You’ll see how to access these different windows and learn some key-commands to edit your automations quicker: 

Whether you’re scoring a film or producing your next track, MPE is a great tool for adding more expression to your projects. MPE controllers add another dimension of emotion to electronic music as you can now play your synthesizers with a similar sensitivity and realness as you would a physical instrument. Get creative with your MPE controllers and we look forward to hearing the emotion in your music.

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