MIDI Guide – What is MIDI?
MIDI Guide Part 1: What is MIDI?
MIDI is the abbreviation for a protocol (a system of digital “messages”) which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. MIDI is used to allow electronic musical instruments, midi controllers, computers, and other gear to communicate between each other. The type of information that is sent via MIDI includes:
- Messages that determine notation, pitch and velocity
- Parameters that control volume, panning of audio signals, vibrato and similar audio properties
- Timing signals that specify tempo and synchronize the tempo between numerous devices
To say the least MIDI is a revolutionary innovation in the production of music.
MIDI Guide Part 2: Misconceptions About MIDI
This section is going to cover some common misconceptions about MIDI and clarify them. To get you on the right track to understanding MIDI I’ll provide a couple generic questions about MIDI and then answer them accordingly. Oddly enough the answer to both of these questions is no, but I’ll provide a detailed explanation of why these are inaccurate descriptions of MIDI.
1. Isn’t MIDI a piano or keyboard type of thing? No MIDI is not just a keyboard. There are keyboard midi controllers, but they are just one type of midi controller among a handful of different devices that send MIDI data. Other types of MIDI controllers include devices like Maschine and Akai MPD which have drum pads for triggering audio samples, along with boards that have a variety of knobs and sliders to automate and control parameters inside of a DAW using MIDI information. There are a few digital DJ “turntables” as well that utilize the MIDI protocol.
2. Does MIDI generate sound or audio signals? Nope. It might appear that the MIDI controllers are creating sound when you see someone playing a midi keyboard and audio being generated, but the MIDI information is merely telling the sound generators (whether a synth inside a software sequencer or DAW, or a hardware synthesizer) what to do and when. The audio signal is not made up of MIDI information, it is simply the output of a different device or software after receiving MIDI information.
You can hold down F Sharp on your MIDI keyboard all day but without something to receive the information, no sound will be generated. From pitch bends to panpots, MIDI can trigger these events, but they are simply parameters inside of a plugin or other musical device/software being told what to do by the MIDI information.
You can think of it as your television remote. Your remote doesn’t create pictures on your screen or the audio coming from your television, but it can tell your TV which channel to play or what volume level to output. MIDI controllers and MIDI data doesn’t create sound. It just tells other devices – typically devices that produce audio signals – what to do and how to do it.
Recording MIDI Data in Your DAW or Sequencer
Many MIDI keyboards are as easy to hook up as plugging in a USB cable. Plug and play MIDI controllers are common, but some require drivers which should come with the MIDI controller or be available for download on the manufacturers website. If you have a DAW (digital audio workstation) or sequencer, you can most likely manipulate the majority of the parameters inside of it with MIDI controllers. Once you have your MIDI controller sync’d up with your DAW, you can hit the record button and the MIDI information sent can be recorded inside the DAW or sequencer.
One of the greatest benefits of recording MIDI data in comparison to audio signals from real instruments, is that you can edit the information later. If a guitar player makes a mistake while recording, often you only have the option of recording it again or salvaging the correct sections and re-recording the part with the mistake. If you mess up while recording MIDI data to your DAW, you can just go in and modify it to be correct.
Below is a video example of recording MIDI data into a DAW, in this case FL Studio:
Recording automation is a breeze with MIDI as well. If your midi controller has a fader/slider/mod wheel/etc then you can assign it to a parameter inside your DAW (with most DAWs). Some common things to automate with MIDI would include volume, panpots, pitch, LFOs, and filters.
Below is an example of other parameters being automated using MIDI data. This time it’s a parametric equalizer in Ableton Live:
What is MIDI – MIDI Guide Summary:
There are hundreds of options available for using MIDI and the applications are endless. I didn’t want to go into MIDI connections or I/O in this article because a lot of it is situational and this is simply a primer for MIDI use and a brief explanation of what MIDI is. To learn more about MIDI and connecting MIDI to different devices and I/O view this MIDI connections guide.