How to use plugins with Ableton

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Matthew M. White
@matthewmwhite
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Whether you're new to music production or you've been in the game for years, having the right digital audio workstation (DAW) is vital for your craft. Using built-in and external plugins elevates the experience even further by giving you the ability to add various instruments or effects to your musical creation.

In this article, we'll cover how to use plugins in three of the most popular systems: Ableton Live, Ableton Live Lite, and FL Studio.



You might want to stay "plugged in" for this.

How to use plugins: Ableton Live

Since its launch in 2001, Ableton Live has dominated the electric music scene. Producers and DJs are attracted to the software for its easy-to-use features, user-friendly workflow, as well as integrated plug-ins.

But what is a plugin?

A plugin is another piece of software that "plugs" into the main recording software you're using (in this case Ableton Live.) Essentially, it allows you to enhance your musical experience by introducing various instruments and effects into your work. .

There are two types of plugins you can use in most DAWs. Those that are built-in and those that come from third-party manufacturers.

Ableton Live comes with its own set of great plugins. These include high-quality sounding instruments, sound effects, utilities, and more. These integrated systems are accessible the same way whether you are using a MAC or a Windows PC. This is how it works:

  1. In the sidebar, find the sound you want to use (eg, synth). The embedded plugin will appear.
  2. Drag the plugin to the main project area in the center of the screen. This will automatically add the sound to the project you are working on.

Ableton's built-in plugins are great, especially if you're new to music production. However, these native plugins do not use much processing power. If you want to make your music even more advanced, you should consider using third-party plugins.



You can easily download different plugins online. There are free versions as well as ones you have to buy. Here's how to configure external plugins:

On Windows:

Windows computers and PCs often use VST (Virtual Studio Technology) plugins, which work on universal platforms. Here's how to use them:

Configure your VST plugin directory

  1. In Ableton Live, click on Options then on “Preferences”, then select “Plugins”.
  2. Check that "Use custom VST plug-in folder" is enabled.
  3. Select "Browse" and choose the folder where all your VST plugins are located.
  4. Click "Rescan" to ensure that Ableton Live has refreshed your list of installed plugins.

Open "Plug-in Devices" and add a plug-in

  1. In the main window, click the gray icon with a black plug to open the "Plug-in Devices" tab. You will see a list of all plugins that Ableton Live can see on your computer.
  2. Double click on the instrument/effect you want to use in your track from your list of available plugins. You can also drag and drop it.

Choose a VST preset

VST presets are synth patches and other programs downloaded to your system, which appear in the lower left panel. Click on the drop-down list to select your chosen preset.

Adjust your settings

  1. Press the "Play" button next to the label of your chosen plugin (eg SodaSynth). This will take you to the settings area.
  2. Adjust VST parameters directly in Ableton Live.
  3. Right-click a parameter to configure MIDI mappings and automation curves.

Once you've completed the multi-level steps listed above, it's time to start producing. Once your plugin is added, start recording or writing a melody from your MIDI keyboard or MIDI editor.



On a Mac:

When using Ableton Live on your Mac, you will have the option of using VST or AU (Audio Unit) plugins. Although the decision is entirely up to you, it is worth mentioning that VST is the best option if you are planning to share your work with a Windows device because it has universal functions. AU can only be used on Mac.

Here's how to set up VST and AU plugins on your Mac.

  1. Download the installer file you want to use from the plugin makers website. The plugin should automatically install on your Ableton Live.
  2. Launch “Live”. To do this, go to "System Preferences", then "File Folder" and "Plugin Sources".
  3. Activate the “Audio Unit” folder.

How to use plugins: Ableton Live Lite

Ableton has a good reputation because most of its developers and engineers are musicians themselves. The software features some of the most powerful audio instruments and effects available to help you on your music production journey.

As seen with Ableton Live, Ableton Live Lite also comes with its own set of built-in plugins. To use this feature simply:


  1. Find the sound you want to use in the sidebar on the left side.
  2. Drag the plugin to the main project area in the center of the screen. This will automatically add the sound to the project you are working on.

Each time you refresh your Ableton Live Lite, all installed plugins will appear automatically. If you have already opened the software when installing your plugins, you will need to rescan, so that it recognizes all new additions. Here's what you need to do:


  1. Head to "Live," then "Preferences" in the upper minibar.
  2. Click on “Plugins”.
  3. Tap “Rescan Plugins”.

The same method applies to both Windows and Macs.

Once your plugins are successfully installed, here's how to use them.

On Windows:

Once you have successfully downloaded the chosen plugin, open the Ableton Lite software again and follow these steps:

  1. Click on the "Plug-In Device" icon located in the sidebar on the left side.
  2. From the list of available VST plugins, select the one you want to use and add it to your job by double-clicking on it or dragging and dropping it into your main job.
  3. Start composing!

On a Mac:

  1. Once the plugin is installed, launch “Live” by going to “System Preferences”, then “Files Folder” and “Plugin Sources”.
  2. Activate the “Audio Units” folder.
  3. Start composing!

Let the music play

Electronic music has undoubtedly come a long way since the days of synthesizers in the 1980s. These days it's not uncommon for DJs and artists to rely on Ableton or FL Studio software at gigs. live. So knowing how to use plugins is essential if you are in the world of music production.

Built-in plugins are a great option for beginners. But if you are planning to take your production skills to the next level, you can consider introducing third-party plugins for more creative possibilities.

Are you new to music production? Have you used or are you planning to use plugins? Which software do you prefer to use? Please share your experience in the comment section below.

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