Using a DJ Controller with Ableton – Mapping, Drivers, other MIDIs

Using a DJ Controller with Ableton - Mapping, Drivers, ther MIDIs
If you’ve been getting into making beats and sampling stuff in Ableton but don’t have a dedicated Ableton midi controller, why not use a DJ controller instead?

You might be wondering, is that even possible? What MIDI signals does it send? Could you use it to fire up samples with the various buttons? Could you use the jog wheels for Ableton chain selectors?

Using a DJ controller in Ableton is possible if the controller sends a MIDI signal (so it can be mapped). You’ll need to set up settings and do the mapping, but after you do that, using the pads and the different knobs for modulating and controlling like tempo fader will be easy.

In this comprehensive guide, I’ll explain how to:

  • Map a DJ controller in Ableton
  • What to do if Ableton doesn’t recognize drivers
  • Use DDJ-400 with Ableton
  • Use DDJ-400 with other MIDI controllers
  • Connect turntables to Ableton Live

I believe you’ll find all the information you need. Let’s dive right in!

Mapping a DJ Controller in Ableton

If Ableton recognizes your controller on the MIDI ports, you should be able to map everything fine to control your audio decks.

You need to set it as a MIDI input/output/controller device in preferences before it’ll do anything. 

When you enter MIDI mapping mode, you should see additional MIDI mappable options below your audio tracks and above your master fader volume.

For instance, above the master fader volume is an up arrow and a down arrow – this scrolls the selected area. The play buttons above your track faders will trigger the clip that’s in that selected area.

So, if you have two audio tracks serving as your decks for mixing, you just need one pad for each for the play button and one each for the stop clip button.

You can likewise use the ’11’ midi thing over the master volume to a knob to scroll within scenes.

Again these are only viewable when MIDI mapping mode is enabled – but this should fix all your difficulties.

To map a DJ controller in Ableton:

  1. Click the midi mapping button
  2. Click the fader or button you want to map 
  3. Waggle that control on the controller till it displays in the list down the side. 

You might need to tweak some of the numbers, so stuff like EQ pots zeroes correctly, but apart from that, it’s straightforward.

  1. If you are mapping encoders, a drop-down menu shows in midi mapping mode at the bottom of the screen for different encoder modes. Sometimes you need to tweak that too, and sometimes encoders take a few attempts to map, so continue doing it if the encoder does its thing.

Sometimes the lights on the controller won’t work so don’t worry. It’s all normal.

Using DDJ-400 with Ableton

If you’re trying to use your DDJ-400 as a 2-channel midi controller for Ableton, in the Mixer Output tab of the driver, you’ll need to set USB 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, and 7/8 to match with your Ableton tracks 1, 2, 3, and 4 individually.

The Ableton tracks will all be running Ext. Out to these corresponding outputs.

Now, if you want to send your Ableton Master channel to a separate output in my mixer so you can hear Send FX, the Send FX will be the only audio going through your Ableton Master because Ableton tracks 1-4 are routed Ext.

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What you can do is digitally route the DDJ’s output to Ableton.

The DDJ only has RCA outputs and a USB connection to the laptop. This is how you can use DDJ-400 and Ableton live at the same time from the same RCA output.

  1. Hit the midi button top right of Ableton and then hit the effect you want to map and then touch the button on the controller you want it mapped to.
  2. When you map it, it will be adding the map to the mapping list down the left-hand side. You’ll see a yellow bar at the bottom of the screen. This gives you different options for how the mapping is translated from the controller.

Getting crossfader to work

To get the crossfader on the DDJ-400 mapped to the crossfader in Ableton:

  1. Open the automap control preferences. Go to the layout.
  2. Click on the crossfader in the automap.
  3. Click the learn button on the nocturn and move the crossfader in Ableton.

If you have a Macbook, you can also try this:

I have a DDJ-400 controller added in the Mac Audio MIDI setup (not sure if this is required).

  1. Link MIDI tab under MIDI ports
  2. Input DDJ-400 (make sure Remote is set to On)
  3. Hit MIDI assign button top-right main Live screen > highlight crossfader > move DDJ-400 crossfader > all works.

That’s it.

DDJ-400 with other MIDI Ableton controllers

The problem connecting DDJ-400 with Ableton is that sometimes we cannot use both the DJ controller and MIDI controller like AKAI MPD218 at the same time from DDJ-400 RCA output.

The problem is the “Exclusive mode” on windows, and if you disable this mode, it is possible to use the DDJ-400 as audio output, but Ableton won’t recognize another midi controller. And you maintain the exclusive mode Ableton won’t connect.

Using a DJ Controller with Ableton - Mapping, Drivers, ther MIDIs

The solution with a mixer that would work is:

DDJ400 to the mixer > audio interface to the mixer > and then the mixer to the speakers.

However, I saw that latency could be an issue since I was syncing things digitally between Rekordbox and Ableton with Ableton Link but adding the analog output later down the line on the audio interface. So, even with an external audio interface, you reckon it would still be tough for the laptop to handle.

Connecting DDJ-400 with Ableton & Rekordbox

First, I must say that integrating this with only one laptop/computer will be a difficulty as you would be running two big, low-latency applications (Ableton and Rekordbox) at the same time.

Also, low latency routing of audio will be tough (Mac’s easier than PC’s).

Ableton Link with Rekordbox works kind of fine, but you have to give yourself totally over to sync (so you need to beat grid everything correctly). If there is a constant latency, you can use Ableton’s offset to compensate.

If you have a 4×4 interface, you can send each deck separately and bypass the mixer section of RB – then you can plug that into an external mixer.

You can do some magic with Core Audio Virtual devices and a Loopback driver like Blackhole. That way, you should be able to set up two stereo outputs from Rekordbox (one for each deck in “external mixer” mode) and then use those as input channels into Ableton on two tracks.

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Then you could use the speakers and headphones as outputs and cue both decks and any number of Ableton channels.

What to Do if Ableton Doesn’t Recognize Drivers?

If you tried to set up a DJ controller as a general mappable MIDI controller with Ableton, you might have a problem with the drivers that are installed, but the DAW doesn’t recognize them.

Usually, a controller is a class-compliant USB, MIDI, and audio device, so you shouldn’t need drivers for anything other than ASIO support.

I’ve experienced this with my Pioneer DDJ-1000 using Ableton live’s MIDI mapping mode. I was using it as a sound card for my monitors to my laptop, and I noticed it was sending MIDI into Ableton when I used any of the controls other than the master volume. 

If Ableton doesn’t recognize drivers you should:

  1. Press the command+m to open midi mapping mode
  2. Click a parameter
  3. Move one of the knobs till it shows up in the menu

On Macbook, you can go into your audio midi devices utility (in your utility folder in your Applications folder) and set it up as a midi device. 

Afterward, your laptop should “understand” what you’re using your controller for. 

Using Standalone DJ Controller with Another MIDI Device

If you’d like to use a controller like the XDJ-RX2 in Ableton, you could use the controller to play a set live and add effects from another MIDI device on top of your live set.

What you want is to use it in standalone mode (using a USB stick) and add another MIDI device as a controller.

You would then feed the analog outputs of the DJ controller into your interface, then record the two sources on different channels in Ableton to edit and add effects, etc.

Technically, there may be significant latency (delay) through the system, making it difficult to mix. Other associated difficulties like phasing and some of the effects could sound strange but can add an extra dimension to your live sets if done right!

For me, it was not worth the trouble and complexity to run the setup you suggest just for DJ effects. If you want more effects than the DJ controller offers, you would be better off with a hardware effects box.

With all those effects, I don’t mess with Ableton for DJ effects (even though I have a workroom running Ableton + a studio packed with synths + hardware effects – Korg chaos pad).

Connecting Turntables to Ableton Live

I’ve been producing for a few years using Ableton. If I wanted to scratch samples into my song, I would load my track into Rekordbox and use my DDJ-400 controller. When I decided it was time to move over to the real deal, I purchased two AT-LP120 turntables (Amazon link) and a mixer. 

I was wondering, is it possible to have a track playing in Ableton and have turntables connected to Ableton to scratch samples into the track? Would I have to buy an audio interface as well to do this? I never needed one, but would I have to have an RCA cable going into the interface and the interface hooked up to my MacBook through USB?

Somehow I found all the answers, but it surely wasn’t easy. 

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You can connect your turntables to Ableton Live to scratch samples into your track. The simplest option is to have a separate audio interface and an analog DJ Scratch mixer. You connect the turntables to the analog DJ mixer, and then you connect the outputs of the DJ mixer to your audio interface going into the computer.

Your DJ rig is like any other analog instrument (e.g., violin) or microphone in this situation. You set up an audio track for the DJ mixer in Ableton Live and go crazy. You can utilize all your Ableton audio effects on the signal coming from your DJ rig. Very cool. However, one flaw is that you cannot alter your Ableton Live sounds with your DJ mixer. Like if you wanted to crossfade within a record and your Ableton mix. 

Audio interfaces take in audio from almost any source – microphones / guitars / turntables / telephones / TVs / etc. – digitize it and transfer it to your laptop. If you only want to set up your turntables, you’d need an audio interface with two inputs. If you’d want to have room to grow your setup, see audio interfaces with four or eight inputs.

I’d recommend something like this (Amazon link).

Also, you would require to get an RCA -> 1/4″ cable to go from your mixer to the interface. Something like this.

Why I Love DJing in Ableton Even Though It isn’t Optimal

With Ableton, I can make personalized re-edits of every song I play, which takes my sets to another level. 

Rekordbox/Serato/Traktor can help you set loops and cues, but it’s not working on rearranging the song without a vast deal of memorization of which cue point to press when. And once I do an edit, I can play it forever, in every set.

Sure, CDJs or vinyl is the norm for pros. But that’s different than Rekordbox or any other DJ software with a DJ controller.

I love DJing on Ableton, and I know I’m not the only one. Richie Hawtin talked about how he got begun using Ableton in his DJ sets and ultimately moved to use it solely.

I sometimes do go obsessive and re-edit every single song, but I limit myself to 20 mins of preparation per song to create an edit, and that includes both the warping of a loose drummer like rock/reggae/funk as well as producing a quicker edit with intro/outro. 

Another thing I love about DJing in Ableton is the “follow” actions. I usually create an edit with an: intro, part 1, part 2, and an outro (which is often just the intro again).

And then on the fly, I can either go from part 1 directly to the outro or, if I’m feeling what the song is doing, use the “follow” actions to move to a second part of the track to keep the song playing for longer.

Now, why do I do all of that? Because after all of that training, I’m a hell of a lot more skilled at using Ableton to make my own songs, something I’m far worse at than DJing. But I’m much faster now making any basic copy/paste/zoom/loop/etc. functions of Ableton. It makes producing more pleasurable to be efficient. Basically, you’re going to learn abilities you can use in two places.

Tray Fiddy

Tray has come to terms with the fact he will probably never be a famous DJ.... but that hasn't stopped him from mixing and researching audio equipment. Tray has over 12 years of experience DJing at home and events.

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