So what is MIDI? It’s a great question.
There’s tons of confusing topics in music. Some of them you’ll never need to learn. Because they’re just not that useful for your process… If you’re making EDM there’s no point is learning how to tune a banjo right?
But other parts of music production are important for ALL producers.
It’s a versatile tool that allows you to do so much in the studio.
It turns a MIDI controller into any instrument you want with VST plugins. It gives you huge editing power, and syncs your entire studio into a lean and efficient track factory. And that’s just a few of the benefits… But it’s a huge subject with a lot to learn. So what is MIDI?
To get the most out of MIDI you need to know what it means, when it works, and how to use it. To be honest, I’m pretty new to MIDI myself. I’m still learning.
But I’m going to share a few key concepts that helped me understand it when I was just starting out.
This MIDI guide will give you everything you need to know for making MIDI a powerful part of your process—from basic MIDI connections to using MIDI to generate an entire composition.
If you’re already using MIDI, I’ll also cover some useful tips to get the most out of your current setup.
So let’s get started!
What Is MIDI?
MIDI is short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It’s a language that allows computers, musical instruments and other hardware to communicate. A MIDI setup includes the interface, the language that MIDI data is transmitted in, and the connections needed to communicate between hardware.
Who Invented MIDI?
MIDI was first developed in the early 80s to standardize communication between music hardware.
Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi proposed the idea of a standard instrument language to the other major manufacturers, including Oberheim, Dave Smith Instruments and Moog, in 1981.
Over the next year, representatives from every major manufacturer worked together to create, modify and perfect MIDI.
The MIDI standard was unveiled in 1982. Kakehashi and Dave Smith both later received Technical Grammy Awards in 2013 for their key roles in the development of MIDI—about time!
All these companies put aside their personal interests for the common good of all of us. MIDI is the glowing result that’s still the basis for tons of music today.
Isn’t it cool what happens when we all work together!
Now you know how MIDI was born, so let’s get our hands dirty and start using it.
MIDI Notes and MIDI Events
When using a MIDI instrument, each time you press a key a MIDI note is created (sometimes called a MIDI event).
Each MIDI event carries instructions that determine:
- Key ON and OFF: when the key is pressed/released
- Pitches or notes played
- Velocity: how fast and hard the key is pressed
- Aftertouch: how hard the key is held down
- Tempo (or BPM)
MIDI also carries MIDI clock data between 2 or more instruments. This allows for perfect synchronization between your whole setup.
MIDI clock data is dependent on the tempo of your main device—usually the sequencer. So if you change your main tempo, MIDI ensures that your setup stays synced. It’s like a tiny digital band leader for all your gear!
The most common MIDI setup uses a sequencer as the main hub. Sequencers are used to record, edit, send and playback the MIDI data that makes up your project. They can be hardware like an Akai MPC or sound station, or a computer running a DAW sequencer or other sequencing program.
The sequencer is the hub for your track. It sends instructions to all the different parts of your setup, records your performance, and keeps track of your overall arrangement. MIDI is what makes it possible.
What MIDI Isn’t
Let me clear something up real quick. ‘Cause it’s a super common mistake.
MIDI does NOT transmit an actual audio signal.
MIDI is data. It’s a set of instructions that machines use to speak.
Sequencers record the data transmitted via MIDI. They DO NOT record the actual audio signal. That’s why a MIDI sequence on your piano roll appears as small rectangles.
NOT a waveform like an audio track.
Which is what makes MIDI so beneficial. MIDI data is compact, editable and easy to move around. Think of the MIDI notes you record as instructions for how the machine should be played back. The MIDI notes aren’t the actual audio clip itself.
So instead of hearing the actual audio recording played back to you, the MIDI notes you record tell your synthesizer or drum machine to trigger any sound you’d like.
This makes auditioning a new sound on the same performance super simple. MIDI also allows you to edit a performance independently of the actual sound, which means you don’t actually have to record a new performance just to try a new sound out.
It’s exactly like a player piano. Your MIDI notes are the same as the roll that makes the keys play on a player piano play by themselves. It’s just the digital version.
Got it? Ok great.
Here’s how to get connected and start MIDI’ing.
In order to get the most from your MIDI setup, you need to understand each connection in your MIDI configuration.
Most MIDI connections are made using a 5-pin DIN cable.
These audio cables are most commonly referred to as MIDI cables (fairly obvious but still important).
While most MIDI connections still use strictly MIDI cables, some setups only require a USB to USB connection, or USB to MIDI depending on your gear or MIDI interface situation.
To get MIDI data from your setup into your DAW, a MIDI interface is often needed. A MIDI interface allows your gear to send and receive MIDI data to and from your best DAW software or sequencer of your choice.
Find out more about MIDI interfaces here.
MIDI In, MIDI Out, and MIDI Thru
Let’s go through each MIDI port type and talk about what they do.
- MIDI OUT
The MIDI OUT transmits MIDI data from a device like a sequencer or a synthesizer to another source. If you’re using a DAW or sequencer to send information to outboard gear, then your sequencer’s MIDI OUT would go to the gear’s MIDI IN. Most times your sequencer or DAW is the only time you use the MIDI OUT. The rest of the instruments in your chain will use MIDI THRU or MIDI IN.
- MIDI IN
The MIDI IN receives MIDI data from another source. The MIDI IN on your gear is used to receive instructions from your sequencer or another piece of hardware.
- MIDI THRU
MIDI THRU duplicates the data coming to the MIDI IN port. This allows you to connect multiple devices without needing multiple ports on your sequencer or MIDI interface.
MIDI THRU allows you to connect all your gear together with one central sequencer. It’s called ‘Daisy Chaining.’
No THRU? No Problem.
Most modern gear with MIDI capabilities comes with a MIDI THRU port. But some units do not include MIDI THRU capabilities.
A simple fix is to use a MIDI splitter. It gives you multiple THRU ports (I’ll talk about this more in a sec) so no daisy chaining is needed.
Since the THRU duplicates the information coming to the MIDI IN, you can send information ‘THRU’ to the next device.
So everything can be plugged and synced without having to MIDI connect every piece of gear to your sequencer. It looks something like this:
MIDI OUT → MIDI IN → MIDI THRU → MIDI IN → MIDI THRU → MIDI IN
This chain can go on until all your MIDI channels are filled right up.
Which brings us to the next important MIDI topic…
MIDI data is transmitted on MIDI channels. This means you can sequence up to 16 different sounds from one instrument. as long as they’re on different channels.
Most MIDI instruments are capable of transmitting MIDI data on 16 different channels. Which might not seem like a lot.
But 16 channels is a good creative limitation to have. 16 channels to send MIDI data on should be more than enough.
16 channels is a good creative limitation to have.
Hot Tip: Don’t get confused with the MIDI TRACK number in your DAW. It’s easy to mix up the MIDI track number with the MIDI channel.
Setting the MIDI Channel
To communicate properly, your DAW or sequencer and your MIDI controller have to be set to the same MIDI channel.
Picture it like your gear phoning each other—they have to use the right number to get in touch!
Each sequencer, controller and instrument has its own process for setting the MIDI channel. So check your manual for the details.
MIDI channels can be a bit confusing. So let me explain.
Say you wanna make a lead part AND a bass line from the same synth. Your DAW or MIDI sequencer can record the MIDI notes of your lead line and your bass line from the same synth as long as each sound is assigned to a different channel.
If the channels are set properly, the bass line and lead will play as an entire composition when you play it back. You can repeat this process for all 16 possible channels and edit each layer independently.
Note: your synthesizer needs to be multitimbral in order to playback multiple sounds.
So arranging, editing, and playing back an entire track from one instrument is possible with the help of MIDI.
Picture it like your gear phoning each other—they have to dial the right number to get in touch!
So now you understand HOW to hook up your MIDI operation. Perfect.
Now let’s find out WHY that’s a good thing.
The Benefits of MIDI
I know what you’re thinking, “why can’t I just connect the audio signals of all my gear, isn’t that way easier?”
The truth is, recording only audio tracks is limited compared to what a tight MIDI setup offers.
MIDI helps to make your performances better and in less time.
The true power of MIDI is that it allows for continual editing of both the sounds and performance without any need to re-perform the part.
Don’t like the piano sound? Trigger a new one. Changed your mind about the chord progression? Edit the MIDI sequence and re-trigger the sound. These are just a couple of the ways MIDI benefits your workflow.
In fact, even the simplest MIDI loops can expanded into a full multi-track session in no time.
Put simply, MIDI helps to make your performances better and in less time.
Let’s look at a few common MIDI setups and talk about the upside of each one.
Common MIDI Setups
MIDI Controller and DAW (Computer)
This is the bread and butter of today’s home studio. It’s the most common MIDI setup for a reason—It’s simple, portable, affordable and powerful all at once.
A MIDI keyboard paired with your DAW gives you access to infinite creative tools. With the help of VST plugins this setup turns your MIDI controller into whatever you want it to be: Millions of different synths, drum machines, guitars, flutes, horns, or pretty much anything else you can dream up.
It’s the most common MIDI setup for a reason—it’s simple, portable, affordable and powerful all at once.
The power of this simple and affordable set up comes from assigning parameters in your DAW. The MIDI controller can control any VST plugin you can get your hands on.
The trusty DAW piano roll allows you to edit sequences and compose with the help of the controller to play your parts.
Plus many MIDI controllers come with knobs, pads and sliders that are assignable as well through your DAW.
This setup it light and intuitive for composing all genres of music via MIDI. As music production becomes even more accessible, this pairing will become more common as a studio setup that’s more than capable.
Computer, MIDI Interface and Synthesizers
This setup is a bit more complex than your classic MIDI controller and DAW configuration.
The main benefit of this setup is the full analog sound it gives while still being able to sequence, edit, and arrange directly from your DAW.
The rich analog sound of the hardware, paired with the sampling, sequencing and arrangement capabilities of your DAW is a perfect and versatile studio setup.
But of course, none of it would be possible without MIDI. In this situation, your DAW acts as the main hub for sending and sequencing all the MIDI information.
Using the DAW Piano roll, each hardware unit can be told to play a specific sequence of notes across all the possible MIDI channels. Not bad for a few cords!
Sequencer, Drum Machine, and Synthesizer
Not all MIDI setups have to be computer-centric.
Sometimes getting out of the box is the best way to keep your productions interesting. DAWs are powerful allies in music production. But all the options can get a bit mind boggling.
Keeping your setup hardware-based is a great way to hone your sound. And MIDI is the key to syncing it all up.
In the above example, the hub of the setup is a Yamaha RS7000 Music Production Studio. It’s a sampler and sequencer similar to the AKAI MPC family. It has full sampling capabilities allowing you to load and chop samples or re-sample its own internal sounds.
Not all MIDI setups have to be computer-centric.
But the real power of the RS7000 is the sequencer. With the help of MIDI, the RS7000 is capable of triggering, controlling, sequencing and sending MIDI events to each unit in the setup.
It’s all possible with the MIDI splitter (small black box in the middle of the diagram) which I talked about earlier.
Through the MIDI connections, the RS7000 offers real-time (you playing live), grid and step sequencing (editing the performance while playback is stopped) for each instrument in the chain.
Once the instruments are sequenced, samples—like a drum break or chopped loop—can be added to the track via the RS7000. This is an all around versatile and powerful setup that harnesses all the benefits of MIDI without needing a computer or DAW software at it’s core.
MIDI Is Never MIDI-ocre
Now that you know the power of MIDI, try it in your own studio.
MIDI gives you access to every sound you might need on a track and all the editing power you need to make your workflow fast and seamless.
It’s a complicated subject and each setup works differently. If you’re having trouble, don’t hesitate to get in touch! I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about your own setup.
Because MIDI is never MIDI-ocre!