By now you’ve all probably seen that excellent video of Kid Beyond illustrating his usage of Ableton Live. Pretty cool, right? If one had such a system, you could loop yourself playing guitar, beatboxing, etc., all perfectly in sync with programmed drum/MIDI tracks and other performers.
Here’s how to set up your own system in a similar hands-free operation style, for about US$10, without having to solder anything. It’ll take you about an hour once you gather the parts required, or less. No joke.
You will need:
- A QWERTY keyboard, preferably with a USB connector. Otherwise, you’ll have to buy an adapter to fit your laptop, which costs extra. You can get one for $7.50 at AllElectronics.com, but you can find them even cheaper at your local thrift store’s “technology pile.” I got mine for $2.
- A flathead screwdriver.
- Ableton Live. Ed.: Live is a perfect choice here, but you may find this useful with other music apps, as well — or even in a VJ set. -PK
- A free keyboard-mapping utility called Autohotkey (if you’re running Windows). If you’re running Mac, the program to use is calledIKey.
That’s it. Here’s how to make it go:
1. You’re going to remove a significant number of the QWERTY keyboard’s keys, leaving only those spaced far enough apart to operate with your foot. Identify which keys you want to keep with a magic marker BEFORE you go hog-wild with the screwdriver, otherwise you’ll lose track of which is which. I ended up with 12 remaining keys, in two rows. Your feet may be smaller or bigger, so experiment with it.
2. Glue some squares of larger, stiff material to the keys to give your foot a bigger target. I used some plastic lenses (20 cents apiece at American Science & Surplus) and hot glue. Epoxy or a plastic welding cement might work better in the long run.
3. Plug the keyboard into your computer and boot up Ableton Live.
4. Download and install either Autohotkey (WIN users) or IKey (Mac).
5. Here’s the almost-tricky part: In Ableton Live, you need to create a new project with six audio tracks. Arm recording on all tracks. Turn off monitoring for all tracks except one.
6. Use the keymappping function (click the “KEY” button in the upper right hand corner of Live’s screen) to assign a keystroke to each track’s “record/play” button. It doesn’t matter which keystrokes you assign, because we’re going to be remapping them anyways. For this example, the keys I used were !,@,d,h,k, l.
7. Create a new script with Autohotkey and enter something similar to what’s pictured below. The 12 keys left on your QWERTY should be put at the start of each line. The idea is that as each key is depressed, Autohotkey remaps those into a sequence of keystrokes.
I chose to have my top row of buttons select the track, delete whatever’s there, and begin recording. The bottom row of buttons hits “play” on the corresponding track, which stops recording and begins looping on the corresponding track. You can re-trigger loops this way also.
Here’s an image of my keymaps in Live and the AutoHotkey script I made. Pretty simple, all things considered. I would be happy to share my blank Ableton set and accompanying AutoHotkey script to any windows users who need a little help getting started.
If you’re running Mac, here’s an idea of what you’ll have to do using IKey. It’s very similar but slightly different. For instance, we permanently glued the shift key down, to skirt some of IKey’s trigger-key rules.
8. Save the script, activate it (you’ll see the AutoHotKey icon appear in your taskbar), and you’re good to go. It’s that easy.
The end result? Not too shabby:
You can hear a track recorded by myself and bandmate Cameron Moore using two MIDI-linked Ableton Live setups here.
Note: Cameron runs Mac and I run Windows, and we had no issues.
Check the forums for a more in-depth discussion, and feel free to ask questions. Also, if you decide to undertake this project, please post your results!