How To Solve Hardware MIDI and Audio Latency Issues In Ableton Live
Latency can turn your hardware heaven into a confusing and frustrating hell – especially with Ableton Live. We look at some strategies to get your MIDI and audio all synced up.
“Any signal in a computer-based environment is going to have a certain amount of latency.” So says Ableton on their website. In other words, latency is a fact of DAW life so get any idea of achieving zero latency out of your head right now. There’s latency involved even when you keep everything inside the DAW. Once you bring in outside systems like external MIDI and audio, things can get even trickier.
In this Hardware Focus, we’ll be tackling a topic many readers have been asking about – how to reduce latency in your studio setup. Specifically, optimal settings and solid strategies to reduce latency when working with MIDI and audio. We’ll be focusing on Ableton Live, as it seems to be particularly confusing, but many of these practices will apply to other DAWs even if the actual methods are different.
What Is Latency?
Also called lag, latency is “the time it takes for (a) signal to enter the computer, then travel through the software and back out through your speakers or headphones,” according to Ableton. Plugins all have differing amounts of latency that they add to a signal. Some are very small, while others, like limiters, add quite a bit. Limiter lookahead, for example, isn’t accomplished by magically seeing into the future. The DAW delays all your tracks by the amount of time it takes to perform this function, ensuring everything stays in time. For the end-user, we don’t experience any lag at all as the DAW adjusts everything for us. However, once you start bringing outside audio and MIDI into this environment is where things get tricky.
It takes time for audio to be changed into digital for use in the computer, and then back into audio for playback on speakers and headphones. Additionally, different pieces of equipment introduce varying amounts of lag. Hardware – particularly old hardware – is not very precise at all. While this inconsistency is part of its charm, it can also be a major headache.
So what can we do?
We can start by making sure our audio settings are optimal. Open the Preferences in Live and click on the Audio tab. Under the Sample Rate section, choose the highest In/Out Sample Rate that your system can handle.
Next, look at Latency. Lower Buffer Sizes will result in less latency. However, too low and you’ll get horrendous clicks and audio dropouts, as your computer won’t be able to process the audio quickly enough. Ideally, you’d like something around 10ms of Input Latency or less. Try a setting and play some MIDI notes into an instrument plugin. If you hear any glitches, go up to the next setting.
How about Driver Error Compensation? If you are getting incorrect readings from your class-compliant audio interface, you can use this setting to offset this. However, if you have an interface with its own drivers, it’s not necessary to adjust this. See Ableton’s site for more on this.
Something to keep in mind is that hardware such as synths and drum machines have their own latency. Messing with Driver Error Compensation won’t fix this. In fact, it could make things worse. We’ll look at how to compensate for external hardware latency next.
Additionally, Windows users should make sure they are using an ASIO audio driver.
Lastly, make sure that the option Delay Compensation in the Options menu is ticked. This will tell Live to match the internal latency across all tracks so that you do not experience any lag at all.
MIDI And Audio Latency
Now that we have things optimized for latency as best we can, let’s get some hardware involved and try recording some MIDI and then audio. First, we’ll use a Behringer Crave controlled by MIDI over USB. The audio goes out to a mixer, into a patchbay, and then into a first-generation Focusrite Scarlett 8i6 on inputs 1 and 2. Note that latency can be present in both MIDI and audio, and whether your connections are DIN cables, audio cables, or USB.
We’re going to use the External Instrument device for this. While there are a number of different ways to work with MIDI and audio in Ableton, this is the most convenient. This is because the External Instrument device adjusts for any latency in the system and compensates for it. Because of this, you can be sure that what you’re monitoring is going to be in sync with the sounds coming out of your DAW. (Compare this to monitoring on an audio channel recording from an external source. In this situation, it may sound fine but things will be recorded out of sync. We’ll get into this in a future article.)
In the example below, we’ve added an External Instrument device to a MIDI channel. We’ve selected CRAVE as the MIDI destination (remember, it’s USB so this will show up in the list of MIDI devices). We’ve also selected the appropriate MIDI and input channels. We can now play our external hardware instrument via MIDI.
It sounds pretty good but there could be some lag present. Remember, Live is compensating for latency in the system (DAW and audio interface) but not the hardware device. Let’s see how tight it is. We dial in a short, percussive sound and record four quarter notes via MIDI. Our playing is a little sloppy so we tighten it up with quantization. We want it to be tight, as we’re going to record audio next and compare it to the MIDI to check the latency.
Next, we create a new audio channel to record the Crave. We set the input to the External Instrument device, arm the channel to record, and press play. Now we can zoom in on the recorded audio and compare it to the quantized MIDI. The Crave’s MIDI is remarkably tight.
Let’s try it again with a different, older device. This time we’re going to use a Korg M1r, the rackmount version of the famous ‘80s synth. We use the same MIDI notes to trigger a similarly plucky sound and record in the audio. This time, there is marked latency compared to the Crave. Bummer. We definitely want to fix this. We could go in and manually fix it but this is not ideal. Instead, let’s adjust for the latency of the external device.
First, we need to know how long the latency is. In Options, turn off Snap To Grid. Next, highlight the space between where the MIDI note starts and where the recorded audio starts. The first one is about 6ms. The second is 6ms. However, the third and fourth notes are 5ms off. Remember we said hardware wasn’t consistent? Let’s say it’s about 5ms and start with that.
Next, we go back to our External Instrument device. At the bottom, there’s a setting for Hardware Latency. This is to offset the latency of our external device. We set ours to 5ms.
We then re-record the audio and check. Hey, look at that. Right on the money.
As every piece of hardware is different, it’s a good idea to save that External Instrument device as a preset so you can recall it anytime you use that instrument.
What if you’re recording instruments with no MIDI, such as guitars or pre-MIDI keyboards? We’ll look at that next time, as well as adjusting the timing on drum machines and external sequencers.
Author Adam Douglas
17th June, 2021
Reducing Latency in Ableton Live
- Live Versions: Live 9.2 and later
- Operating System: All
What is latency?
Audio latency refers to a short period of delay (usually measured in milliseconds) between when an audio signal enters and when it emerges from a system. In computer based audio systems a certain amount of latency, known as audio buffering, is necessary to ensure that playback, recording and processing results in an error-free audio stream without dropouts or glitches.
Note:While it’s possible to reduce latency, it’s impossible to eliminate it entirely.
In Live’s Preferences → Audio, the overall latency is calculated according to the driver type, audio interface, sample rate and buffer size in use.
How to reduce latency
1. Reduce the audio buffer size
The smaller the buffer size, the lower the latency. Bear in mind that very small buffer sizes may cause dropouts or glitches due to the increased CPU load. Find the sweet spot where the buffer is as small as possible without impairing the audio quality.
2. Raise the sample rate
Sample rate refers to the amount of samples which are carried per second. The higher the sample rate, the lower the latency. Higher samples rates will however put additional stress on the CPU.
3. Audio Input Device should be disabled if not in use
If you are not recording from an external source, then set the Audio Input Device to “No device” in order to reduce the overall latency.
4. Use ASIO audio drivers on Windows and Core Audio on Mac
It’s usually not possible to achieve low buffer sizes when using MME/Direct X in Windows. If no native ASIO driver is available for your device use ASIO4ALL instead. Core Audio is the default driver type on Mac.
5. Use a dedicated audio interface running native drivers
Dedicated audio interfaces will usually have native ASIO or Core Audio drivers which should allow lower latencies overall. Use a quality audio interface rather than your computer’s soundcard.
6. Don’t use Bluetooth devices or cast audio
Streaming audio wirelessly using Bluetooth or WIFI adds much higher latency. We highly recommended using a wired (USB/Firewise/Thunderbolt) interface instead, or using cabled headphones.
7. Reduce the CPU load
Lower CPU loads should allow lower audio buffer sizes. See our dedicated article on reducing the CPU load in Live.
8. Freeze and flatten plugins and devices which introduce latency
Certain devices, plug-ins, and track delays may introduce latency. These latencies or delays arise from the time taken by devices to process an input signal and output a result. Live’s Delay Compensation automatically compensates audio, automation, and modulation by offsetting all tracks by the required amount to keep them in sync with each-other. Tracks containing devices which introduce latency should be frozen and flattened to permanently remove the latency. Delay compensation must be active in the Options menu before you freeze and flatten the track.
9. Reset Track Delays
If you have track delays set to high amounts, then everything in the set needs to be delayed so that everything plays in time. Rather than using track delays, move clips backwards or forwards to get them to line up instead.
10. Remove any plug-ins which may incorrectly report their latency
If you’re experiencing unusual latency delete each plug-in one by one in order to find which one might be causing the issue.
11. Close the editor window in Max for Live devices
Max for Live devices will also introduce additional latency when their editor window is open. Close the editor to remove the additional latency.
How to reduce latency when recording or monitoring
Latency in recorded audio
Live only compensates audio recordings when the monitor of the recording track is set to “Off”. Recordings made while the monitor is set to “In” or “Auto” are not compensated.
Reducing latency of a monitored signal when monitor is set to “In” or “Auto”
When large negative delays are in use, or if a number of latency-inducing plug-ins cause the overall latency to become quite large, it might become impossible to record audio or MIDI in real time. This is especially problematic if you’re monitoring through Live. There are a number of ways of dealing with this.
- Use the “Reduced Latency When Monitoring” option
Activate “Reduced Latency When Monitoring” in the Options menu. This bypasses the additional latency in tracks which are either record-enabled or whose Monitoring is set to “In”.
- Use direct monitoring (if your audio interface supports it)
Some audio interfaces have a function called direct monitoring. The signal enters the interface and is routed back out through the headphone monitor mix, instead of passing through Live first. You can send a copy of the signal into Live in order to record it at the same time.
- Monitor through an external mixing desk
Instead of monitoring through your interface or Live, monitor through an external mixing desk. At the same time, send a copy of the signal into Live in order to record it.
Note: Reducing latency while monitoring only reduces latency for the monitored signal. For recordings, the monitor needs to be set to “Off” in order to correctly compensate the recorded audio.
Understanding what “Driver Error Compensation” is and when to use it
Your audio interface reports a specific latency value to Live. This value is used to offset recording audio and MIDI when the recording track’s monitor is set to “Off”. However certain audio interfaces may report an inaccurate latency, which will result in recordings which need to be manually aligned in order to sync up correctly. Driver Error Compensation allows Live to compensate automatically for any inaccurate latencies.
- Although the “Overall Latency” amount in Live’s Audio preferences is recalculated when Driver Error Compensation is adjusted, it does not affect overall latency in Live for playback (only for recording).
- Driver Error Compensation is only applied if the monitor on the recording track is set to “off”. If monitoring AND recording on a track where the monitor is set to “In” or “Auto”, then Driver Error Compensation is not applied.
- It’s only needed if you have an interface which is not reporting its correct latency to Live.
- It’s only relevant in situations where you are recording audio or MIDI from an external source.
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Latency can cause utter madness when recording instruments, vocals, or external hardware in Ableton Live. You might play or sing on time but the recording in Ableton is slightly off time. This is usually caused by latency with your audio interface.
Let’s take a look at what causes latency in Ableton and how to fix it.
What Is Latency
Latency is essentially the time it takes your computer, audio interface, and cables to transmit an audio signal.
There are 3 common areas latency can be created; in the audio interface, in your computer, and in your DAW.
Your audio interface takes time to convert the incoming analog signal to a digital signal.
Your computer will take a bit of time to process the digital signal from the interface before it gets to your DAW.
Any processing within your DAW also takes time and thus causes latency. In fact, in Ableton, if you hover over the title bar or any plugin or device, the latency will be displayed in the lower-left corner.
How Latency Is Created
In the case of recording guitar into Ableton Live, your signal chain will start with guitar. The guitar sends a signal through the cable and into the input of your audio interface.
This is where the analog to digital conversion of the audio signal takes place. It takes time to convert the signal from analog to digital. A small amount of time but time nonetheless.
From here your audio interface sends the signal into your computer. Your computer may be running other software which may impact the speed at which the digital signal is transmitted to Ableton.
Once the signal is in Ableton, any amp sims or Ableton devices you are running will cause latency. Ableton uses audio buffers to combat the latency caused by processing. The bigger the buffer the longer the latency.
The total time combined between the A/D conversion, computer processing, and Ableton processing results in your overall latency.
How To Reduce Latency
There are a few tips and tricks you can use to help reduce latency in your music production setup.
Ableton Live Latency Settings
The first place to go for optimizing your latency is in the Ableton Live Preferences menu.
Navigate to the Audio tab and look for the Sample Rate and Latency sections.
In the sample rate section, you should choose the sample rate you wish to work with. Most music audio is 44,100Hz while video and special audio tend to be in 48,000Hz.
Under the latency header, you’ll see 2 parameters (on Mac at least); Buffer Size and Driver Error Compensation.
Buffer Size is where you will choose the size of the audio block Ableton uses as a buffer. Audio will be processed in blocks ahead of the current playback location to help ensure smooth playback. Much in the same way Youtube buffers a video.
The bigger the buffer block, the more audio that is processed and the longer it takes. The smaller the buffer, the less audio that is processed and the shorter it takes.
You’ll want to set the Buffer Size to the lowest size you can without distortion or artifacts. To test this you can use the Test Tone section in the Ableton preferences.
It is good practice to aim for 10ms of latency or less if you can get it. Anything over 10ms usually becomes audible and will cause noticeable latency.
Sometimes an audio interface will incorrectly report the driver latency in the Latency section. You’ll notice this when recording with the monitor set to OFF. The recorded audio should line up in time with the music. If it doesn’t this is where Driver Error Compensation comes in.
DEC allows you to tell Ableton how much the reported latency and the actual latency are off. For more on this topic, check out Ableton’s article.
Now that you have your audio interface buffer settings dialed in let’s look at some other ways to cut back on latency.
This one is a simple one. If you are working on a large project, you usually have many devices or plugins open. All of these plugins are eating up processing power and CPU.
Freezing tracks can help “freeze” this processing power and will free up the CPU to focus only on what is necessary at the time of recording.
You can either unfreeze the track when done or flatten it.
External Hardware Latency
Hardware drum machines and synthesizer will have their own latency. There is no way for Ableton to fix this latency, but you can compensate for it.
On the MIDI track you are using to trigger your hardware, load up an External Instrument device.
In this device, you can route the MIDI and also route the incoming audio from your hardware. Essentially turning your drum machine or synth into a plugin.
Now record some audio from the hardware and check for latency on the recording.
If you find the track is recorded off-time, you can measure the milliseconds of the delay. First, turn off the grid in Arrangement view. Then zoom in on the audio with latency. Highlight the area between the start of the MIDI note and the beginning of waveform in the audio clip.
In the bottom left corner, you will see how long the latency is in milliseconds.
In the External Instrument device, set the number of milliseconds in the Hardware Latency box.
Your recording should now be on time!
Recording With Monitor Off
To go back to the example of recording guitar, you will most likely be recording with the track monitor set to Auto. This is great for listening to your recording but it actually introduces latency once you record.
It takes time to process any devices or plugins you may have in your guitar track. With the track monitor set to Auto, you will be able to hear what you are recording. But because Ableton must process the incoming signal, latency is added to the signal.
To fix this issue, set up 2 guitar tracks and arm them both for recording. Set the monitor on one track to Auto so you can hear what you play. Set the second track monitor to OFF. Recording with the monitor off removes the time needed to process the effects you apply to your recording track.
This is demonstrated in the image below. We recorded our drum machine playing some MIDI notes from Ableton. The top pink track had monitoring set to Auto and you can see the drum hit falls slightly offbeat.
Take a look at the lower track, we recorded this one with monitoring set to off and it is pretty close to the playing right on the beat. The delay we see in this track may be caused by a hardware delay.
Once you have your recording you can delete the offtime track and voila, your recording is on time!
Author: Mike P
Hi! My name is Mike! I’ve been an apartment producer/musician for 10+ years. I’ve played in punk bands, released EDM tunes on Beatport and iTunes, and have a semi-successful stock music portfolio. Read more…
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