Ableton Livecoding with Caffeine

Livecoding access can tame the complexity of Ableton Live.

I’ve written a proxy system to communicate with Ableton Live from Caffeine, for interactive music composition and performance. Live includes Max for Live (M4L), an embedded version of the Max media programming system. M4L has, in turn, access to both Node.JS, a server-side JavaScript engine embedded as a separate process, and to an internal JS engine extension of its own object system. Caffeine can connect to Node.JS through a websocket, Node.JS can send messages to Max, Max can call user-written JS functions, and those JS functions can invoke the Live Object Model, an API for manipulating Live. This stack of APIs also supports returning results back over the websocket, and for establishing callbacks.

getting connected

Caffeine creates a websocket connection to a server running in M4L’s Node.JS, using the JS WebSocket function provided by the web browser. A Caffeine object can use this connection to send a JSON string describing a Live function it would like to invoke. Node.JS passes the JSON string to Max, through an output of a Max object in a Max program, or patcher:

connecting the Node.JS server with JS Live API function invocation

Max is a visual dataflow system, in which objects inputs and outputs are connected, and their functions are run by a real-time scheduler. There are two special objects in the patcher above. The first is node.script, which controls the operation of a Node.JS script. It’s running the Node.JS script “caffeine-server.js”, which creates a websocket server. That script has access to a Max API, which it uses to send data through the output of the node.script object.

The second special object is js, which runs “caffeine-max.js”. That script parses the JSON function invocation request sent by Caffeine, invokes the desired Live API function, and sends the result back to Caffeine through the Node.JS server.


With this infrastructure in place, we can create a proxy object system in Caffeine. In class Live, we can write a method which invokes Live functions:

invoking a Live function from Caffeine

This method uses a SharedQueue for each remote message sent; the JS bridge callback process delivers results to them. This lets us nest remote message sends among multiple processes. The JSON data identifies the function and argument of the invocation, the identifier of receiving Live object, and the desired Smalltalk class of the result.

The LiveObject proxy class can use this invoking function from its doesNotUnderstand method:

forwarding a message from a proxy

Now that we have message forwarding, we can represent the entire Live API as browsable Smalltalk classes. I always find this of huge benefit when doing mashups with external code libraries, but especially so with Live. The Live API is massive, and while the documentation is complete, it’s not very readable. It’s much more pleasant to learn about the API with the Smalltalk browsing tools. As usual, we can extend the API with composite methods of our own, aggregating multiple Live API calls into one. With this we can effectively extend the Live API with new features.

extending the Live API

One area of Live API extension where I’m working now is in song composition. Live has an Arrangement view, for a traditional recording studio workflow, and a Session view, for interactive performance. I find the “scenes” feature of the Session view very useful for sketching song sections, but Live’s support for playing them in different orders is minimal. With Caffeine objects representing scenes, I can compose larger structures from them, and play them however I like.

How would you extend the Live API? How would you simplify it?

The Node.JS server, JS proxying code, and the Max patcher that connects them are available as a self-contained M4L device, which can be applied to any Live track. Look for it in the devices folder of the Caffeine repository.

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