MIDI Basics for Modern Musicians

MIDI basics for modern musician


You will agree with me that it is easy to overlook the basic stuffs. But, when you have someone remind you, you will wonder why you haven’t thought about it. In this post, I want to treat the MIDI, one of the things you should know about whether you are a new musician or one with experience.

A MIDI (Music Instrument Digital Interface) is a tool for controlling every other instruments in your studio. It can help you shape your music the way you like. As a newbie, you want to be the next synth-master or a professional mixologist. And no matter how new you may be, you must have come across the word – MIDI.

A MIDI controller is a tool that will help you become the musician you like. It is a powerful tool for people in the digital world. As a caveat, it can get complex and complicated. But you can grab the underlying concept with ease.

The beginning of a revolution

What is the MIDI? What can it do for you? And how is it fairing in the digital world? MIDI is getting more popular day by day. With more platforms adopting it – both the software and the hardware way – it will soon become a necessity for aspiring musicians and DJs. Android devices now have a connection with MIDI.

iOS devices are getting dedicated apps developed for just MIDI. It is a matter of time before a musician will become irrelevant without the knowledge of MIDI. When the idea of the MIDI was conceived, it was to ensure smooth communications and a universal connection without any restriction from any company. It is a system that is built to integrate gear from any company without hindrance.

Some of the things you can do with MIDI includes:

  • With the amazing power of MIDI, you can control one keyboard with another keyboard, as long as they are connected.
  • You can record your sound to your computer, play, and edit it on the computer. Then you can play that same sound on your keyboard again. Ensure you install your sequencer program before attempting to edit MIDI data.
  • You can download MIDI data online and playback on your instrument. You can load the data to your instrument using a USB thumb drive.

What the MIDI doesn’t stand for

  • MIDI don’t make sound.
  • It’s just a data.
  • If you understand this, it will save you a lot of stress later on.

Now, let’s compare a MIDI to a computer to make things simpler.

When you press a key on your laptop keyboard, the keyboard sends a code (which is transmitted through the ASCII protocol) as a text to the CPU. This is then displayed on your screen. The same way, when you press a key on a MIDI keyboard, a code is transmitted – using MIDI specification – to a tone generator which recognizes it and plays it.

Aside from this, MIDI also transmits information about your style of hitting the keyboard, the volume levels about based on your foot pedal position. In fact, may Broadway shows now employ MIDI technology to control lighting. Many companies are now using it for home security control. And you can also use it to play ring tones on your phone.

MIDI presents a lot of opportunities for musicians and those outside the profession. Most importantly, MIDI is not limited to just controllers. And is not always hardware based. You can run many software-based virtual MIDI instruments on your phone (Android and iOS), tablet (especially iPad), and your computer.

MIDI Channels

There are 16 channels for transmitting MIDI messages. This means there are 16 distinct channels through which you can send MIDI data, all defined by ports. At one end, you have where MIDI data is sent and the other end is where it is received – this is where we have MIDI receivers. So you can send different data through each channel without one obstructing the other.

You can send different information to different devices at once. You can be playing bass in Channel 1 and a cool beat in Channel 5. All these could be done through a single USB connection.

MIDI Devices

Most MIDI devices comes with 5 pin DIN cables. They also have MIDI ports which is three – MIDI In, Out, Thru.

connectorsTraditional MIDI uses these connectors, which allow multiple devices to be connected at once. However, newer versions are connected through Bluetooth or USB cable.

The MIDI In is responsible for accepting MIDI data coming from external sources. The MIDI data controls the tone generator in your synthesizer while the MIDI Out sends out MIDI data to the other devices in your setup.

The Thru port is responsible for sending data to the the MIDI system. This data is not different from the one that was received by the In and it takes a very short time for this process to be completed.

MIDI Message

There are only two widely used MIDI message – MIDI note-on and note-off. The note-on is created when you press a key. The note-off is created when you release the key. The MIDI note message on the other hand defines how hard the key was hit, how long, and what channel the note was played on.

Other Applications

You can also record MIDI data. And you can manipulate it in different ways that is not possible with audio. This means you don’t have to commit to a particular sound when you record it with MIDI unlike when you record audio. You can record a note at a slow tempo and play it at a faster pace later on. This will not affect the pitch at all. Adjusting notes and sound you have played is also possible with MIDI.

Most DAWs comes with advanced MIDI features and sequence program that enables you to adjust sound with ease. Another possibility is the Web MIDI. With this, you can play music remotely, stream MIDI data from the web for playback, and even take lessons. And you don’t need a strong internet connection to do all these things.

MIDI and Virtual Instruments

Since MIDI does not transmit sound, you need some sort of hardware that can help you translate the code sent by MIDI into something useful. This hardware is called virtual instrument. It is also known as plug-in or VI in short. Most sequencing program have built-in virtual instruments so you don’t need to purchase a plug-in separately if you already have that.

Virtual instruments usually come with different sounds or focus on a group or timbre. These sounds are designed to cater for people from different categories. So if you are looking for piano sounds, epic drum kits, etc, you will be able to get a plug-in dedicated to that.

MIDI is not just an object

Most beginners often asks questions like: “which is the best MIDI for my computer? Which MIDI is the best for mixing sound? MIDI is actually a concept. And you need to understand it before you venture into the world of music creation.

If you are just starting out, you are starting just at the right time because there are lots of resources like this article that helps you understand what MIDI is all about.

Standard MIDI File

The Standard MIDI file is a program that helps to improve the portability between different systems. There is a specification for MIDI standard that can enhance the compatibility between MIDI notation and sequencing programs. This file is represented in “.mid” and often includes many controls like pitch bend, notes, patch selections, etc. The advantage is that you can run varied programs on different systems without suffering compatibility issues.

General MIDI

The General MIDI is another MIDI specification that enables unification of sounds when played on different devices. To do this, a patch number is assigned to each sound. For example, a piano sound can be assigned a patch number of 31. Therefore, when you play the sound on different keyboards, it will always be a piano sound, even though it may not be exactly the same. If you want to learn more about the patch numbers assigned to different sounds, you can see this guide on MIDI.org.

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