[Happy to say I was able to shave off several steps from the setup process after 2 years of learning both Ableton and Guitar Rig to a new degree. No need to setup Dummy Clips to fire midi notes, you can simply have the Looptimus pedal speak to the Guitar Rig Pro 5 MFX plugin from midi track to audio track. Cool stuff.]
I am here to tell you yes - yes, it is real. But it wasn't so long ago that it used to seem so very, very far away.
For over a year I struggled with finding the right midi foot pedal to use as a guitar multi-fx stomp box whose factory presets were under my control. The foot pedal itself should be solidly made, work effortlessly, be endlessly customizable and fit whatever workflow I wished to place it in within Ableton. It should also be affordable within reason. On the software side, I also desired component and effects that could also be handmade and drag-and-dropped based on my preferences and taste from the most atomic of elements in the signal chain.
My path was full of missteps. I spent hundreds on impressive-looking and sounding gear like the Apogee Gio, and made compromises trying to make it work despite fatal flaws when used with Ableton instead of what it was meant for, Logic and Garageband (both also excellent, of course, but I am an Ableton man). The Gio has amazing A/D conversion and great sounding audio, the switches are high quality, the build is solid aluminum with a nice finish, the switches light up for good visibility during performance... I could go on. For my needs, I realized too late that I needed a foot pedal that did not double as my audio interface, as I wanted to do vocals as well and the Gio had only one In/Out. There are ways around this, but in my experience Ableton and Audio/Midi Setup both do not love "Aggregate Device" setups, and so I really wanted one Audio Interface with multiple I/O. I now use a Apollo Twin Duo (one guitar channel and one mic channel, two out - one for headphones and one for studio monitors). I love it, but that is the topic for another day.
The Gio also had another flaw - if it did not connect to Logic or Garageband within a certain amount of time, it would shut down to assumedly conserve power. While I would normally be in favor of this feature, since I was using it with Ableton Live alone I would get 5-10 minutes into using it as a midi footswitch for FX and live sampling and bam, the darn thing would become unresponsive unless I unplugged it, replugged it back in, and then remapped it and initialized it in Ableton Midi Sync Preferences and because it was an Audio Interface, also in the the Audio In/Out section of Prefs. Also, the switches on the product sent momentary data, not on/off for the typical stomp box behavior. I am not gonna stand there and hold down the trigger just to get distortion for a few bars. Huge bummer. I thought about rewiting Logic or MainStage into Ableton, but then I realized I would be doing all my effects processing outside of Ableton and it would defeat the point completely!
Quite frustrated, I researched a workflow utilizing a Behringer FCB1010 in Ableton. Each foot pedal sent a midi note or cc, and it seemed like the perfect idea. There were many many switches which is nice for using it as an effects box and live looper (which was my true, full intent), AND there were two expression pedals which would be awesome for a Wah-Wah and Volume Pedal, side by side... and it only cost 150 bucks? Where do I sign up?
Well, apparently where you sign up is your local city college to enroll in classes in Computer Science, Fortran, Python and whatever other scripting needed to actually get this piece of gear rigged up to work the way you would like to with Ableton. Now, I am a bit of a gear head, have a school background in Engineering, am very techie-inclined, and I am a pretty deep Graphic Designer who works in 3D mediums - this can be some complicated stuff to slog through. I have also been playing guitar over 20 years. However, the amount of reviews on Amazon, product message boards, complaints of poor support, attempts that had gone D.O.A. by folks who were trying this out, etc. - sounded like something that would drive me nuts to setup. I don't mind technical stuff, but man sometimes you just want to play music and be totally right brain - nothing like technical problems to take you out of the moment. So forget that.
Luckily, a ray of hope shone through last September when I was making my usual monthly rounds through Kickstarter.com (if you don't do this, I highly recommend it. It's an exciting space especially for musicians). I came across a prospective product made by LoopCommunity.com called the Looptimus. After some short reading and checking out the videos I immediately backed the campaign. It was made to work with Ableton Live. It was totally plug and play if you just wanted to get started, but it was endlessly customizable if you wanted to tinker. It was solid as a brick and was made of aluminum which made it super light as well, but heavy enough to not skitter across the floor when you stomp it. It was affordable as well. It had 20(!) banks of 6 midi switches, each of which fires a note, cc or whatever you want. For anyone who read my post about Midi Channel re-routing, you will appreciate this - you can easily(!) change the Midi Channel on the pedal itself without messing with software!!! This means when you have to deal with less-than-flexible hardware that have a midi channel baked into them with no recourse or way of changing it, the Looptimus can be flexible and save your flow, allowing more devices at once to be used with Live (for the laymen out there, you only get 16 midi channels to use with applications like Live, so it can be quite limited if you are really into gear like I am). You can buy it now directly from the makers at LoopCommunity since the Kickstarter is now over - I love it and give it my full recommendation. With that, the hardware portion of the problem was solved.
Let's dig in further. With hardware out of the way, this is where the software part of the equation comes in. I have been use Native Instruments' awesome Guitar Rig Pro 5 for several months and had already gone through all the presets, marked my faves, rated them with the 5 Star system the program uses, and began to create my own tones from scratch. Amp emulation, compression, reverb, auto-wah, even Hendrix-like reverse guitar in real time - I needed these presets in Ableton but Guitar Rig runs in a shell as a VST inside of Ableton, which means there was an impenetrable layer of software between the Midi notes my Looptimus would fire off and the plug-in software that needed to receive them to change effects.
In tandem with the hardware problem, I had simultaneously been trying to wrap my head around this particular software problem for months as well. There was much googling, asking around, tweeting and research going down. The problem with issues like this and most issues with Ableton is that the dilemma becomes "How do I succinctly search for the correct descriptive terms to get the results I need?" In this case, I needed to know "How do I get the Looptimus to cycle through presets or custom blends of tones I made in Native Instruments' awesome Guitar Rig Pro 5 software when loaded as a VST/Plug-In on an Audio Track?" I was so close, yet for months I was so far.
Two months ago I stumbled onto a general audio message board that had nothing to do with Ableton, and someone on it back in 2006 (not usually a good sign) was discussing how to change presets in Guitar Rig with Midi notes translating into the needed Program Change messages that speak to Guitar Rig. Now, I had known that Native Instruments also created a few generations of a hardware Midi Footpedal that was also an audio interface made to work with Guitar Rig, called the RigKontrol - and then seemingly end-of-life'd it. It looked pretty awesome but you can't buy them anymore. For legacy support however, the Guitar Rig interface is still littered with references and settings for this ghost pedal I have never owned. Luckily, they left a setting within the Prefs area of the Guitar Rig VST that has a "Add Controller" workflow and a "Midi Learn" capability. This is our chink in the armor between Live's Midi Mapping and Guitar Rig 5's Program Control changes - the answer has to do with creative Midi and Audio Track Routing. Yay for message boards - if you get into Ableton at all you will spend a lot of time on them when things come up.
Here is the lowdown - we are going to load a "Guitar Rig 5 MFX" plugin on our guitar's Monitor-In track, create a Midi track that will accept an incoming Midi stream from the Looptimus pedal, route the midi from that track into the guitar's Monitor-In and select "Guitar Rig 5 MFX" audio plug-in as the receiving party. Through it's deprecated "Midi Learn" feature, it will already know which midi note to expect and which Effect Preset to apply to the guitar signal, thanks to a little customization we will do within Guitar Rig itself. *Whew!* This took me months to figure out, so bear with me and try the below process step by step, and you will get there.
Please note that you will need:
- a Midi foot pedal that sends on/off midi notes, not momentary ones. (just save yourself the frustration & get the Looptimus)
- Ableton Live 9 (not sure if Suite is required, but I will be using Suite).
- Guitar Rig Pro 5 MFX (comes standard with Guitar Rig Pro 5).
- last but not least, patience - but I promise it is worth it.
How do you get there, and how do you do all of this? Let's go check it out.
1) Create a new audio track (⌘T) and name the track "GTR IN." On this track, you need to set "Audio In" to be "Ext. In," then choose your guitar's audio channel. Then set "Monitor" to "In." Then set "Audio" to "Master." You should now be able to hear your guitar through your headphones or monitor speakers. Add an instance of "Guitar Rig 5 MFX" to the track. NOTE YOU MUST USE the MFX version, not the FX version or this whole project will not work. If you know for sure you have installed Guitar Rig Pro 5 and it does not show up when searching in your Ableton browser, you might have to go to Ableton preferences by hitting ⌘+comma, go to File Folder, then Re-scan Plugins and check on Use Audio Units and Use VST Plugin System Folders.
2) Open the "Guitar Rig 5 MFX" plug-in. At the top three menus in the left pane you need to click the third choice, dubbed "Options." From there, the "Controller" tab should be open already, but if it is not click on it to load it. The area will be empty, but at the bottom of that area on the left is a button that says "Add Controller." Click this button once for every button you have to assign as a stomp box/preset on your choice of foot pedal. I am using the Looptimus which has 6 assignable buttons, so I will be using 6 presets.
3. Now go back to the Presets Tab above, and spend some time deciding which tones you would like from the Guitar Rig Pro library, or just choose X amount of them for your X foot pedal slots and drag them into a new Preset Attribute in the grid at the upper left. You can do this by first double-clicking in an empty grid slot, which will results in an editable text area. Name it "Pedalboard 1" or something similarly descriptive. Once you finalize the name, you are now free to drag presets into that Preset Attribute Group, think of it like an iTunes Playlist or a photo album in iPhoto - you are not moving the presets into that group, you are simply creating a pointer to the original file so you can group them and cross-reference them in several ways - i.e. Pedalboard 1, Pedalboard 2, etc. Once you get all of them added, make sure the group name is selected/highlighted. This grouping is going to make it easier to add each preset to a Controller back in the "Options" > "Add Controller" view. NOTE: You can always replace all the presets inside the group later on once you have all of this setup, so don't let that hold you back.
4. Time to get these effects assigned to some switches! Go back to the "Options" > "Controller" view a few tabs over, and then start with the controller you created at the top of the list.
First, name it the same name of the effect you are planning to assign to it so you can keep things straight. Then to the right is a drop down that says Menu. Click it to fly it open, and then hover to "Preset Selection > Jump to... >" and then choose one of the 6 presets you selected in your group in the previous step. Had we not done that, you would have had to scroll through hundreds and hundreds to find what you are looking for - trust me, it's gets annoying. This saves a lot of time!
If you are using a smaller screen like a Macbook Pro 13" or 15" instead of a huge Cinema Display, you might not easily see the right click flyout menu when you click on the Menu button. This took me forever to figure out, but the right click menu will show up tiny either above or below the Guitar Rig window making it very hard to find and see. You need to locate it and then roll the mouse up and down on it to get it to unfurl and show you all the options - at first glance you might only see the LOCK option since it is the top most choice and the rest is hidden.
5. I chose "Wurly Guit" for my first preset. Ensure that the checkmark section on the first controller displays the preset you have selected and that the checkmark is checked "on" like so:
6. Now go through this process for all your other presets until you have them all assigned. Go ahead, I'll wait...
7. OK. With that done, now we have all our effects assigned to virtual Controllers, and they are waiting for the right signal to fire to tell them it's time to apply/change a preset. As you click through your footswitches, you should hear your chosen presets being applied to your guitar signal.
8. When you are done with all of that, close the Guitar Wing window and save this instance of the Guitar Rig Plugin as "Pedalboard 1" or something similarly descriptive. You can do this by hitting the upper right-most disk icon on the header of the Guitar Rig plugin on the Audio Track's device view (see pic below). I have a few of these now, so it is good idea to number them and label them effectively. Each one will be a different Multi-FX Stomp Box array for you to play through, and they can be hot swapped in at anytime from Live Set to Live Set.
15. Save this effect and all the mappings into your default Ableton set, or into whichever sets you want to use it in.
Let's hope Ableton Live 10 finds an even better workaround for this stuff, or that Native Instruments' Guitar Rig 6 makes a more intuitive way to map presets to switches!
So... The Endless Stompbox lives! I told you. Have fun with this, and let me know if you have questions about the setup.