Bill Van Loo writes to tell us about a QWERTY keyboard that started its life as stock Apple hardware and wound up a custom-configured, custom-painted controller for Ableton Live:

I just finished reworking an old USB QWERTY keyboard to serve as a custom keyboard for controlling Ableton Live, and thought you might like a look. The whole thing is well-documented with photos and comments at my Flickr site:

flickr set: Custom keyboard for Ableton Live

The basic idea: instead of buying an expensive controller to expand my tactile control of Ableton Live (or building something custom with MIDI controllers), I decided to use an old USB QWERTY keyboard and custom-paint it to enhance its use as a live performance device.

The big idea behind the keyboard is that the humble QWERTY keyboard offers a ton of control possibilities, thanks to the flexible keymapping capabilities of Ableton Live. I’ve been using the built-in keyboard on my Powerbook for a while now to trigger clips in performance, but it’s tough for a couple reasons. First, it looks like you’re writing e-mail during a show, and that’s kinda boring. Second, all the keys look the same (minus the markings, of course) – there’s not much that lets you navigate easily in low-light conditions and in the heat of the moment on stage.

You can see a full write-up here:

custom USB QWERTY keyboard for Ableton Live [Ableton forum]

Great work, Bill! There are some particularly handy tips in the forum post about painting plastic — good stuff to know. Bill promises next-up he’ll have a custom-painted 16-fader MIDI controller.

I think we’re going to need a regular Pimp my Studio. I want some undercarriage light effects on my Roland SH-201.

  • Android

    if only it were a KeyTar version

    nice work though!

  • Thanks for posting this! I hope you all enjoy it, and I'm already thinking of ideas for future enhancements. I've been doing some work with metal fabrication in a class I'm taking, and a custom case with built-in LEDs might be in the future…

    Also, you can check out my music, some of which is made with Ableton Live, at my site:

    Thanks again!


  • Wow! That's awesome!

  • gustavo

    Very cool! This brings back some nice memories. Back in the day (1999-2000) I played a lot of shows using Reason, along with a sticker-covered apple USB keyboard. I'm surprised at how few people realize what a nice, cheap controller a simple USB computer keyboard can be. Where else can you find a tactile control surface with 101 switches for usueally less than $10 (or free if you live in the SF Bay Area and scrounge around on trash day).

    I also used the apple wireless keyboard quite a bit, but it was a little too nice to paint or sticker: In this photo, I'm playing a show, remotely controlling Ableton Live. Sort or like a keytar. πŸ˜‰

  • gustavo
  • Silverfish

    Nice work!

    Does anyone know of a way to use two keyboards at once with Windows XP (ie one is on CAPS, the other isn't)? I'd love to get an el cheapo usb keyboard to use with Live, but I'm stuck on PC for a while.

  • Yes Silverfish. You can use as many keyboards as you can manage to hook up to your PC with XP at the same time.

    My collaborator and I are doing that exact thing right now. We have one keyboard with normal keys for typing and each a modified keyboard for ableton control. So we have three hooked up total. One of them is even wireless. We also have two wireless mice so one is within reach on both our sides of the setup. We just have to make sure we are'nt grabbing for the mouse at the same time.

  • Right; the only problem, of course, is that the computer can't differentiate between the two keyboards. The letter "Q" will still be "Q." If you need more keys, you might consider a gaming keyboard that can be programmed to send different shortcuts — lots of good options, many of them cheap ($30 or so).

  • Easy fix. CAPS LOCK. Two keyboards. One keyboard with CAPS LOCK on and one keyboard with CAPS LOCK off.

    Then you have 'Q' on one board and 'q' on the other which in Live are separate mappings.

    Currently seeking a way to shift lock so we can get all the alternate characters that CAPS LOCK doesnt effect. Maybe just tape down the shift key on one keyboard. Does shift effect just the keyboard that is typing or the the OS? Have to go test.

    There are some keyboard remapping programs out there as well that we are finding useful.

  • Oh, yeah, good point, Jeremy. πŸ™‚ Function lock and number lock should give you a fair amount of additional differentiation, at least on my MS keyboard here, for instance. And since you can do what was done here and remove some keys, you could disable keys that don't function …

  • Custom keyboard = rock! I have been planning a Resolume keyboard to go with my SFF pc, post New Year. I've just picked up an Airbrush as well… Need Dragons or Unicorns on your 201 Peter?

  • Damon

    Wonderfully executed…

  • You've got 40 buttons for clips? Is that enough, or do you group clips and trigger them from a single button?

  • Well, right now I'm using a one-to-one mapping, so a button corresponds to a clip. I don't tend to play the type of "2-hour-long-no-pause-DJ-style" live sets any more these days, so I don't have to have a ton of clips loaded up. Instead, I generally play a few pieces, talking to the audience in between, play a few more. I'll generally break up my stuff into two Live sets, so having 6 rows of clips is plenty for now.

    It must be said, I haven't had that much time to actually play with the keyboard yet, although it was lots of fun in the testing I've done so far. One nice thing about the way it is now is that I can always re-arrange the keys if I find I need something different!

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  • Charlie Harris

    Can someone help me with info on using two or more USB keyboards. How do you get Win to recognise the separate keyboards ?

  • nev

    Hmmm yep is there any way to get a Windows machine to recognise two separate keyboards ?

    The CAPS LOCK or SHIFT key is always applied to both.

    Google has failed me so far… πŸ˜‰

  • maxc

    same problem, please help anyone…

  • benirras03

    Hello! I hardly know anything about this, but I just came across this blog while looking for a controller for ableton live for my boyfriend, and I think this is SO cool! He is gonna love it…so I'm gonna get him the keyboard and paint and rederict him to this site so that he can do it himself too πŸ™‚

    My question is: do i need a specific keyboard with a 'x' number of keys? Any other specifications I should be looking for?

    Many thanks! and great job man!

  • Very nicely done. I can’t imagine that doesn’t skyrocket productivity!

  • Very nicely done. I can’t imagine that doesn’t skyrocket productivity!

  • Very nicely done. I can’t imagine that doesn’t skyrocket productivity!