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MIDI Effect Tutorial: How To Use Ableton’s Scale

Ableton€’s Scale is a powerful MIDI effect that allows you to constrain every note on your keyboard to a specified scale. For example, if you wanted all of your keys to play only notes within an A minor scale, Ableton’s Scale can do this.

In this tutorial we will take a look at how Scale works and map out some of our own scales.

The Basics Of Scale

A full octave of notes runs 12 keys (both white and black) on a keyboard.

Here is what one octave looks like on a keyboard:

In this octave there is the potential for a scale. A scale is a sequence of notes within the octave that fits a musical key.

Below is an example of a C Major Scale:

If a song is in the key of C Major, you could play any of those notes, and it would make “musical sense” within the song.

Any of the black keys (sharp/flat notes) would not fit within a C Major scale. This is where Ableton’s Scale comes in.

With Scale, you can make it so that the black keys (sharps/flats) are forced to play the same notes as the white keys. For example; an A# note on your keyboard would be shifted with Scale to play an A note

Sure there are doubles of some notes (the A# key plays an A note, as well as the A key), but this means it’s impossible to play the “wrong notes” in any particular scale.

Ableton’s Scale In Action

As a simple exercise, we’re going to force all twelve of our keys to play only C notes.

    1. Drop a soft synth (Analog or Operator is fine) onto an empty MIDI track.
    2. Under the MIDI Effects folder in Ableton’s File and Device Browser, drop “Scale” onto the same MIDI track.

Your copy of Scale should now look like this:

Click to activate each square on the bottom row of Scale.

Play some notes on your keyboard. Notice no matter what key you hit, you’re always getting a C note.

The only difference is when you reach the end of 12 keys, it changes an octave higher or lower.

Using Scale’s “Base” Knob

Even though we have a simple “All C Notes” scale programmed, let’s change the base of the scale with the “Base” knob.

  1. In Scale, locate the knob labeled “Base”.
  2. Shift the knob up once to C#.
  3. Play some notes on your keyboard.

You should only hear C# notes being played. What’s happening is that Scale has shifted the “Base” of our notes to C#.

Shifting The Key Of A C Major Scale

Lets program a C Major scale (I know there is a preset for this, but learn by doing!):

    1. Change back our base scale to C on the “Base” knob.
    2. Reset back to the “All C Notes” scale by click on the lowest notes horizontally.

Your scale should look like this:

    1. Leave the first two horizontal boxes (C and C#) at a “C” note.
    2. Bring the next two horizontal boxes (D and D#) 2 steps up to a “D”
    3. Bring the next horizontal box (E) 4 steps up to an “E”
    4. Bring the next two horizontal boxes (F and F#) 5 steps up to an “F”
    5. Bring the next two horizontal boxes up (G and G#) 7 steps up to a “G”
    6. Bring the next two horizontal boxes up (A and A#) 9 steps up to an “A”
    7. Finally, bring the last horizontal box (B) 11 steps up to a B.

Your final C Major scale should look like this:

  1. At this point, all you have to do is turn the “Base” knob to any desired key, and your scale will conform to that key.

Here is what the key shift looks like:

I highly recommend visiting this site which has tons of visual scale charts. Use this to practice programming your own scaled into Ableton’s Scale.

The Other Options Explained

Okay, so you have a grasp of how the basics of Ableton’s Scale works. Let’s dissect the other options that are a part of scale.

Transpose – Use this option to transpose your performance up a certain number of steps. Similar to the “Base” knob, however, this option does not change the root of the scale.

Fold – If a note is six semitones away from the original, this button will shift it down an octave. Say you have a C1 and next to it you have a G#2, enabling fold will shift the G#2 to a G#1.

Range and Lowest – These options allow you to set the range of keys that are affected by Ableton’s Scale. With the Lowest note selected, and a certain range set, you could theoretically map a scale to only a set amount of keys.

Practice Your Scales!

As I mentioned before, the more you work with the scale, the better you will get used to it. Not all of use have the time or ability to learn all the scaled on a keyboard.

Ableton’s Scale offers a powerful alternative, and with a little bit of forethought, can be used to create scales ranging from the simple to the exotic!