Control lights with your drumming

Control lights with your drumming

I just got someone asking me about this topic, how to control DMXis via Ableton Live with your drums, which reminded me that there are actually still a few connections to make. To be honest this topic wasn’t that present to me, not because I don’t use this MIDI to DMX connection, I am actually doing this @ every gig with my main band EGO VS EMO, not because I m not excited about lightning and creating great performance effects with DMX lights, I actually developed a few Ableton Live and Max4Live devices only for this purpose – so why is this not so present to me?

I think the reason is: for me it’s so logical and easy how this works and how to set it up and so easy to set up the ideas I get for using Ableton Live (+MIDI drumming) and controlling DMX lightning soft- and hardware. This actually sounds a bit snooty but that is not my intention, I just want to let you know controlling DMX via drumming is actually not a big step if you understood a few basic concepts of MIDI, so I thought I should write a little post about this, with a few links and examples.

First of all – this is basic lightning stuff, I am talking RGB LED lights here and I am mostly using a software called DMXis, which is a hard and software solution, which even can run as a VST or AU inside of Ableton Live, meaning all the colour faders could be even controlled directly in Ableton Live.

(I am using DMXis always in stand alone mode – because if it would crash in VST/AU mode – Ableton Live would crash as well. I am using IAC drivers, so internal virtual Midi ports to send the Midi from Ableton Live to DMXis – but if you are starting out with this whole topic, it would make sense to start in VST/AU mode to understand, what is happening here)

As midi has a value range of 128 (0-127) and DMX has a range of 256 (0-255), the Midi value just get scaled/multiplied by 2. So a Midi value of “127” will be scaled to “255” in DMX, a “0” is a “0”, a “1” is a “2”, a “2” is a “4” and so on…

E drumming to MIDI
So if you have your Roland or Yamaha e drum, SPD-SX or whatever you are drumming on connected to your computer, you are able to send Midi notes with a certain pitch and velocity to Ableton Live. The note and the velocity range here is 0-127. A midi note consist of two values, one is the pitch and one is the velocity and there is a standard for the different drum sounds called General Midi (GM) – meaning playing a kick drum on a Roland would send the note C1 to Ableton Live and Ableton Live has a kick sound if you are using a Drumrack preset from the library. This C1 will be send as a number, which will be number 36 (C#1=37, D1=38 and so on – you can check the numbers here and in a Drumrack you can see the names next to the notes as well.


What is a Midi Note?

A hit on your e drum would send 2 events, one when the note starts and one when the note ends – for us as drummers this is not a big difference if we only play short drum samples but imagine a piano player, of course Ableton Live needs to get a signal when a note is over to stop playing this piano note sample. This means when you are hitting your kick drum 2 events with 2 signals get send. Lets say you are hitting your kick pad as loud as it goes, so the highest value will be send out, which would be “127” – so here is the data the Ableton Live would get at this point:

start of kick/note  “36 (=C1)  127 (=highest velocity)”
end of kick/note “36 (=C1) 0 (=off)”

I hope this is clear to this point, lets start talking about DMX

Let’s take an easy example for the beginning – Lets say you got one RGB LED light with a 3 channel mode, this would mean each RBG colour would have one channel, on which you can send values. e.g.   Channel 1 = red, Channel 2 = green, Channel 3 = blue.

DMX software (usually) uses faders to create and send the light values (0 – 255) on the different channels. To keep it simple let’s say your LED light is addressed to 1 (addressing is another topic which will be easy once you understood the other thing, so lets forget about this for now) – this would mean your fader no1 would control the red light, fader no2 would control the green light and fader no3 would control the blue light. (magic!) –

So know we just put the 2 things together by midi mapping your kick pads midi note to the fader no1 (=red) via Ableton Live to DMXis – so the fader No1 would be triggered by the note and the velocity you are ‘playing’, start and end of note. The velocity would trigger how bright the red would light up, and as there will be a note off (end of kick/note “36 (=C1) 0 (=off)”) send as well this would set the fader to zero, “black out”) Remember, Midi will be multiplied by 2 if translated to DMX, so playing with a velocity of 50 will set the DMX value to 100 for example.

changing MIDI in Ableton Live
As Ableton Live comes with a lot off cool Midi effects, which are easy to apply and to combine you could change the incoming Midi to values which are more better for controlling lights. For example if you play really quiet notes but want full on lights you could use the “VELOCITY” device to set those hits to a fixed value of “127” or if you want to have the lights on longer then your hit is lasting, you could use the “NOTE LENGTH” device to set them even up to 60 seconds (that wouldn’t make sense but just to show you what’s possible here).

In my ABLETON FOR DRUMMER VOL.1 course, I have a whole module about triggering lights with midi notes and there is a downloadable midi effect rack – which will create different colours on every hit – there is a free preview and the device for download HERE.

I want to mention, that I don’t  send midi notes to DMXis for controlling lights, there is a much nicer and smoother way called MIDI CC (Midi control change) – the difference here is that I am able to blend from one colour to another and to get very nice colours you want to send certain RGB values. This is all really nice done in a few Max4Live patches already and I even wrote my own patch for this purpose, which you can check out here:  EMBDED –
You can download the patches in exchange for a Facebook like here :

With this tool you could set up midi clips with the colours and fades you want and midi map those clips to your drumming midi.

Well if you want to play a whole show and have different colour settings being triggered for every song by your kick for example , THIS DEVICE could be something for you.  – The Velo2MidiCC device wasn’t developed for DMX control rather then sound control, it lets you control audio effects, effect sends, sounds/sample parameters (e.g. filter frequencies, filter resolution) etc. – control ALL midi map-able parameters in Ableton Live with your (playing) velocity. As it is using MidiCC for that purpose, of course you can use this CC to send to a DMX software. Just switch between multiple devices of those or automate their on/offs with midi dummy clips when you start a new song and you will have a dynamic light show which will be synced to your playing.