Use your Mac with just the keyboard, without a mouse or trackpad! Introduction This tutorial teaches you mouseless or mouse-free computing on a Mac. I am using Ableton Live as…

How to use Ableton Live With Just Your Keyboard (Lose the Mouse!)

How to use Ableton Live With Just Your Keyboard (Lose the Mouse!)

Use your Mac with just the keyboard, without a mouse or trackpad!


This tutorial teaches you mouseless or mouse-free computing on a Mac. I am using Ableton Live as an example, but the methods shown can be used with any app on a Mac.

Why would you want to use the keyboard to do what you normally do with a mouse? Well, there are several reasons.

The first reason is avoiding or mitigating Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). 68% of people who use their computer 4-7 hours a day develop problems with their wrists and hands from using a mouse. RSI costs industry billions of dollars – $100 billion a year in the USA. You may have arthritis, or an injured hand.

Another reason is that it can solve certain problems faced by non-disabled people. For instance people have trouble dragging breakpoints in Live, or getting pitch to 0. I will show you how to overcome these sort of problems.

A third reason is that your mouse might break or stop working for a while, especially if it’s bluetooth! So mouseless computing is handy to know, even if you only normally use the custom task automation and shortcuts explained in this tutorial.

You may even find it quicker to go fully mouseless. If you learn the methods in the next tutorial, which every Mac user should, you will be using the mouse less anyway, so with a bit of practice it’s probably quicker to abandon the mouse completely.

PC owners can still follow all the general ideas, but you’ll need to try and translate them over using some other software. I will be interested to hear from anyone who gets a working PC version of this tutorial and the next one.

First let’s look at how to use a computer using just one finger on the keyboard…

Sticky Keys – one finger shortcuts for speed, ease and accuracy

Sticky Keys are a very handy and often underused feature in Macs. They are part of the Universal Access section found in System Preferences. You can set it up so that you press ⇧⇧⇧⇧⇧ (shift five times) to turn Sticky Keys on. Once on, you can leave them on most of the time, and just turn them off if you need to for some reason.

They work like this: the first time you press a modifier key such as ⌘, ⌥, ⌃, fn or ⇧, it (or they) shows up on the screen faintly. You can then press another key (which you want modified) without holding the modifier; the modifier is stuck down, just for this one time. So to press cmd d for example, you can press cmd and then d. This makes life a lot easier, especially if you just want to use one hand.

It’s even useful in normal typing because it means that you can hit shift and then the first letter of a sentence to capitalise it, rather than stretching your fingers awkwardly. Even though you are probably using two hands for normal typing, you perform these finger gymnastics because you are trying to keep your other fingers on the home row while reaching for the modifier. Use this method for things like question marks, brackets and so on.

Sticky Keys on a Mac

If you press the modifier twice, it stays on as long as you want. In this mode it appears brighter on the screen. This mode is great for when you want to do several actions using the same modifier, e.g. opening several views in Live which all use alt followed by a letter (see A higher state of mouselessness for easy ways to make custom shortcuts for anything in Ableton Live). It also comes in handy for certain occasional problem key combinations where the method I described first fails to work properly. I did find one like that, which was the shortcut I made in the ‘higher state’ tutorial for selecting the loop brace. For some reason I got it to work better if I used the two-press method. This mode is of course great for when you need a modifier to stay on the same way caps lock works. For example keyboard scrolling, as described below, would normally require you to hold down the alt or ctrl key. Not any more!

Once you are finished with a sticky key, just press it a third time to go back to normal, where Sticky Keys is on but not activated.

You can choose to display Sticky Keys on the screen. This is very useful, and the key is shown translucent for the first press, and then more opaque for the second one.Note that you can have multiple modifiers in different stages of ‘stickiness’, and this is obvious from the shade of the symbol on the screen. In other word you can have for example cmd alt, where cmd has been pressed twice and is stuck down, but alt has only been pressed one and so will come unstuck the next time a non-modifier key is pressed. Cmd will appear brighter than alt on the screen so you know where you are up to.

Sticky Keys means your caps lock key is redundant, so you can use it for something else. I made mine into a second delete key. It’s easy to do, but the caps lock key is a special case. You can only do it as described in the tutorial Custom keyboard layout.

Before we get stuck into the mouseless computing, let’s just take a quick look at a simple app that you might find handy…

Locating the cursor

You know those annoying moments when you can’t see the cursor? Normally you just grab the mouse and waggle it around to help you spot it. Well you can’t do that so easily working mouselessly. Actually you can really, but this method is way cooler and generally better. I find it quicker and easier, and I leave it on all the time. A great free app you can use is Mouse Locator. It takes 5 minutes to download and set tup, and works really well. You can press a key combination such as ⌃⎵ (ctrl spacebar) to reveal rings around the cursor. However it comes on automatically when you first begin to move the cursor after a specified interval when it’s been stationary. You can also determine how long it stays on for.

Here’s a fun alternative, a free app called Mouse Radar that comes with Dazzle from Omni. Free download. You can create a shortcut to load Dazzle so it’s not running all the time, I’ll deal with shortcuts to launch apps later.

Lose the mouse! Custom KeyRemap tutorial

Link here (it’s FREE!)

This is actually better than the official Mac Mouse Keys which is described later. It works well on my imac, even though it says it’s for macbook. It’s quick and allows scrolling and dragging.

KeyRemap mouse keys settings-2

I’m using the following settings:

M turns mouse keys on and off. Just press the M key for a tiny bit longer than you would in normal typing. A small window should appear in the corner of the screen to show Mouse Keys is on. Using M means that Mouse Keys stays on until you press it again, i.e. it is ‘sticky’. If you want a modifier that only works while it is pressed (what I call ‘non-stick’), use one of the other Mouse keys options in the app. I use the SD one for this. There is a bit of a knack to it actually. The instructions say press D first, but in practice I find it works best if you just hit them with two fingers quite positively. This method needs two hands so I rarely use it, but if you want a ‘non-stick’ option, there are a few.

KeyRemap window

Arrow keys or HJKL move mouse. The appropriate pairs will produce diagonals.

mouse keys fingering

D plus arrow keys or HJKL = speed up the mouse movement. This can go very fast, but you can adjust it in the Key Repeat section. You can do big but controlled jumps by tapping the arrow keys while holding D. Another tip – do a movement holding D to quickly get to one side or corner (you can’t ‘overshoot’) and work back in from there. You can slow the speed of the normal movements as well as the accelerated movements.

Mouse keys speed for KeyRemap

Experiment with arrow keys vs. HJKL. The arrow keys are easier to get your head around initially, especially when trying diagonals, but HJKL are in a more normal typing position, and closer to UIO for the clicks. Therefore HJKL are best in the long term.

F plus arrow keys = scroll, works great in Live. To scroll one handed use F plus HJKL. See next section for how to use the right alt key plus arrow keys, which you may find even easier.

U = click. Also works like a mouse to drag, ie hold U and move an arrow key. This applies even with a trackpad plugged in, which in my case is set to double tap to start a locked drag. For one handed drags use Mac Mouse Keys (see below).

O = right click. I is middle click, whatever that may be.

The following two are available when you add the private.xml file linked below. They are great for moving notes, extending them, dragging in audio and so on. See the Mac Mouse keys section below for how to use drag lock to achieve 0 in automation of +/- 50% parameter such as Pitch Bend.

N = drag lock

. = release drag lock

Some people have difficulty dragging breakpoints because when they click the mouse they move the cursor off the breakpoint slightly, and end up creating a new one close by instead of starting the drag. It’s easy to get around this problem. Hover over the breakpoint until it’s selected (it changes color), and start a mouse keys drag instead. This way it’s impossible to disturb the cursor position.

Another use is moving breakpoints horizontally. In Live you can move them vertically (cmd drag) or in any direction, but not horizontally. Simply use a locked drag and the two arrow keys.

Edit. Slower tracking speed option. Download the latest beta via Preferences and select a slower speed as per the screen shots here:

KeyRemap preferences for latest beta

KeyRemap Mouse Keys slower tracking speed

Keyboard scrolling with KeyRemap without Mouse Keys

You can also scroll vertically and horizontally in Live using KeyRemap without even turning Mouse Keys on. Use the arrow keys modified with the right alt key. This involves a custom file I made. It’s very easy – here’s what to do: first open KeyRemap preferences. Click on ‘Misc & Uninstall’. Click on ‘Open Private .xml’. Open that and paste in the text from the file below (open it with Text Edit or TextWrangler). Then save and select Preferences and Key Change. Select ‘Reload XML’. Tick the appropriate boxes to select the new options. There are 7 but you can just use the bottom 5. I’ve included a left hand version, using left ctrl as modifier. Here’s the custom file I made – download.

It can be useful to activate Sticky Keys if you want to scroll in a document or web page repeatedly. Sticky Keys is part of Universal Access preferences, and two presses of a modifier holds it down until pressed again. See the Sticky Keys section above for more detail.

With Mouse Keys (KeyRemap version) enabled, the left hand version still works. Hold ctrl and use QA for vertical and WS for horizontal movement. I actually modified my main script so that arrow keys modified by the right alt key will scroll while Mouse Keys is on as well as off. To do that navigate to the main script:

Save a copy to your desktop for safekeeping, and simply change the bit shown in the image below. Then reload the .xml file in KeyRemap as described above. You’ll need to redo this bit if you update KeyRemap.

customising KeyRemap scrolling

Mac Mouse keys

I actually prefer KeyRemap for this. However I’m including the standard Mac Mouse Keys for completeness. Also it can be used for getting +/- 50% automation such as pitch bend to zero easily (see below). Mouse Keys is accessed pressing the alt key 5 times. I’ve not found a way to change this shortcut, but it only takes a second. Yes it is pretty stupid to have to press a key 10 times to turn an accessibility feature on and off! You have to set Mouse Keys up in Universal Access preferences, and also position it in the Status Menu as mentioned in section 3.

Universal Access preferences on a mac

I included a diagram for the mac Mouse Keys in Easy Ways to Control Live, Part 1. Here’s an alternative image to guide you. You can quickly learn to do this without looking, and get a feel for how long to press to get various sized movements. It’s a bit slower than using a trackpad, but not massively slow after a bit of practice. It takes 3 seconds to cross my screen.

Mouse keys

In “A Higher State of Mouselessness” l show you shortcuts to jump the cursor around the screen to focus on the different sections of Ableton Live, so you should normally only need Mouse Keys for short distances. A double click is II, a right click is ctrl I. A drag is started with M and unlocked with . or I. It’s easy enough to drag a sample (for example) from Live’s browser to a specific clip slot this way. The arrow keys and delete key will still work, and you can allow the trackpad to still function as shown in the preferences above, when Mouse keys is enabled. The status is shown for a few seconds when you turn Mouse Keys on or off. To check the status later, hit ctrl F8 then down arrow to reveal the drop-down menu shown in the image below, or simply try moving the mouse cursor using the keys.

Mouse Keys status, reached by ctrl F8 down arrow

Dragging to 0 on pitch bend automation is a hassle in Live, even with a cmd drag. You can do it easily with a Mouse Keys drag, using cmd to refine the drag as you get close to 0. This is experimental so don’t forget to save your work first! This also works with KeyRemap mouse keys, but I can only get to exactly 0 with the Mac Mouse Keys. This may depend on your tracking speed setting. Don’t forget to unlock the drag before trying to disengage Mouse Keys, or you will think you have a screen hang.

Ableton Live Shortcuts

There are loads of useful shortcuts, and some that aren’t worth learning straight away. The best place to start is my tutorial on Ableton Live Shortcuts, commands and more. This was one of the first tutorials I ever made, and I still tweak it occasionally. There are dozens of shortcuts and commands in that article, most of which still apply in Ableton Live 9.

Mac Shortcuts

There are also some useful mac shortcuts for working mouse-free. Here are a few:

F6 = Show Desktop

F7 = Show Applications

Those are usually already set in System preferences: Keyboard: Keyboard Shortcuts: Expose, but you have to make sure ‘Use F1 etc as standard’ is ticked in the Keyboard section.

standard mac keyboard shortcuts-2

Also useful are the following:

ctrl F2 = Focus on Menu

ctrl F3 = Focus on Dock

ctrl F4 = Focus next or active window

ctrl F8 = Focus on Status Menus.

more mac shortcuts useful for Ableton Live users-2

Ctrl F8 should go straight to the accessibility menu, which you should enable in the Status Menus (the right hand section at the top of the screen). More on that in section 4.

Universal Access Menu on a mac in Status menu-2

Custom Shortcuts

See this tutorial for how to make basic Mac shortcuts in System Preferences if you don’t already know how to do it. I mainly just use F3 for Zoom In and F4 for Zoom Out. I don’t know if this is just me, but these suddenly stopped working in the 9 beta, a week before release, but I managed to find a good workaround using Menu item automation as explained in the tutorial mentioned below.

Custom shortcuts in Ableton Live

A higher state of mouselessness – custom automation and shortcuts

This is another other major component of MacAbleton’s mouse-free system for speeding your workflow and saving your hands from RSI. You can find it here in Part 3. In this tutorial you’ll find out how to make special custom shortcuts, each of which can carry out an automated task that would normally involve several different actions by you. So, replace several mouse/keyboard actions with one shortcut.

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