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How to change sounds in one Ableton Live Set MIDI track


“How can I change my (drum) samples and sounds which I trigger in a Drum Rack when switching to a different song in Ableton Live? “

As I’m getting this question on a quite reguar basis, I decided to write this blog post/manual. Ableton Live has a great concept for having multiple presets for Instruments, Audio Effects and MIDI Effects on one (MIDI) track. This concept in Ableton Live is called “CHAINS”


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CHAINS + RACKS in Ableton Live

As just written the “chain-concept” is applicable for all Ableton Lives devices and even for VSTs and other plug-ins. You can have a big number of chains and they can include not only one device but a whole collection of multiple devices. Those chains are nested inside “RACKS” and depending on what kind of devices (instruments, MIDI or audio) you want to stack here, those RACKS will be “MIDI Effect Racks”, “Audio Effect Racks” or “Instrument Racks”.

For the example of changing drum samples nested in Drum Racks we will need to create an Instrument Rack.

Create an Instrument Rack

There are two ways to create an Instrument Rack:

-just select + ‘drag and drop’ an empty Instrument Rack from Ableton Lives device browser. (“Instruments” -> “Instrument Rack”)

Select Ableton Instrument Rack

-you can GROUP an existing Drum Rack sitting on a MIDI track:

Just right-click on the top bar of the Drum Rack and select “GROUP” (or use the short-cut CMND+G)

multiple Drum racks Ableton

Adding more Drum Racks and Chains

Once you have an Instrument Rack you can now add more Drum Racks (or other Instruments) into new chains. For this you need to open the “Chain View” on the far left of the Instrument Rack. Then you can drag and drop more Drum Racks in the empty area under the other already existing chains.

Change Drum Racks on one Track in Ableton Lie

Selecting which Drum Rack will be triggered

Up to this point all CHAINS = all Drum Racks will now receive the incoming MIDI and will trigger the sounds and samples. We now need to set up that the chains can be selected one after another. We can do this by the CHAIN SELECTOR parameter in Ableton Live and by applying each CHAIN to a certain range.

To do this we need to open the CHAIN SELECTOR EDITOR and to edit each chain to a value.

Seperate Chains in Ableton Live Instrument Rack

We are now already able to select the different chains (=Drum Racks) via the CHAIN SELECTOR, the orange line aboove all chains. Only the chains which are set to the number which will match with the chain selector selection will receive the MIDI coming in.

Select one Instrument in Ableton Live

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Making the selection more access-able and user-friendly

You are now already able to select the different Drum Racks via the chain selector by mouse or if you MIDI map the chain selector to some external MIDI controller via that as well. You could now already set-up automation via MIDI Dummy clips here already. But to make this more user-friendly (and for some later on here explained CPU friendly usage) we will use some MACRO-CONTROL set up here.

You can MACRO-MAP every parameter of RACKed Instruments/Drum Racks to the macros control knobs. For this you need to open the MACRO CONROL VIEW. A “MAP” button now shows up and when activated you can map parameters to the macros. You can now select the CHAIN SELECTOR AREA by click and then click on the MAP field under one macro wheel.

How to Map to Macros in ableton Live

The first macro knob here is now controlling the chain selection.

select different drum sounds in Ableton Live

Automating Drum Sound Changes

You can now select different drum sounds by mouse (or an external MIDI controller if you MIDI map this to the macro wheel). But when playing live you want those sounds and chains being selected auomatic e.g. when switching to another song.

You can do this via using MIDI DUMMY CLIPS sitting on this track. Just create a new MIDI CLIP in Session View (or in arrangement view).

Open up the ENVELOPE BOX and navigate to the “Chain Selector” parameter. You can now set a red dot here on the line and pick the number value you want to be triggered by this clip. Make sure you UN-LOOP this clip.

set up automatic sound change in Ableton Live

Everytime this clip is triggered now the chain selector will jump to the value you put in and will select the Drum Rack which is sitting in this chain.

This way you can set up a dummy clip + automatic change for every Drum Rack and chain you want to be selected.

Saving CPU (and RAM) usage

Of course having one track with multiple instruments and Drum Racks on their is using more of your computers CPU and RAM. You can save a bit of that usage here if you automate the activation of the instruments sitting in your tracks. This technique uses the Macro Control function of Ableton Live here as well.

You will have to MAP every ON/OFF switch of every Drum Rack. To make a Drum Rack to be switched to ON when its chain is selected, you need to change the values for the “MIN” and “MAX” for this macro mapping.

Set this up like this:

1st – MACRO MAP the ON/OFF button of your DRUM RACK to the same MACRO CONTROL knob (“Chain Selector”)

2nd – Change the MIN + MAX value in the Ableton Lives Mapping Browser for this mapping to the same value you picked for this chain in the chain selector.

Save CPU by switching devices on and Off

Now only when the chain selector macro is selecting the right value the Drum Racks(s) will be switched to ON.


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