The whole subject of MIDI can be very confusing when you are setting up your first home recording studio. Here are some of the really common questions we get asked.
- What is MIDI and what does it do?
- What is the difference between MIDI and Audio recording ?
- My MIDI keyboard doesn’t make a sound how does it work?
- How do I connect my digital piano to my computer?
- I’ve got my keyboard all connected up, now what can I do?
- I play guitar can I use MIDI?
- My MIDI keyboard doesn’t seem to be working how can I test it?
Sound familiar? Hopefully we can answer all these questions for you. Then you can get on with playing and recording!
Quick link: if you are not sure what is the difference between MIDI and Audio recording then we have made a video that will help!
First things first, let’s start with exactly what MIDI is.
MIDI – A Brief Definition
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It is a means of swapping information between suitably equipped electronic musical instruments, and PC’s. It is very important to realise that the information being transmitted is control or performance information, NOT the actual sound itself. However, as you will see, the transmitting of this control information makes all sorts of things possible.
Assuming you have a MIDI keyboard, as you play all the information gets transmitted as a series of messages – which notes you pressed at which time, how hard you pressed them, when you used the pedal and so on. It’s a bit like formatting a piece of text in a Word Processor.
The information that is transmitted down the MIDI cable can then be used in all sorts of cool ways.
Firstly it could be used to play an instrument other than the one you are playing – including software instruments on your computer. This means you can have a keyboard controller that contains no sounds of its own, but simply transmits your playing information and uses the synthesisers on your computer’s soundcard to make the sounds.
There are a number of benefits to this. One is you can buy a controller keyboard with full-sized, weighted keys,for a reasonable price compared to buying an expensive personal keyboard or digital piano, thus getting you started with computer music making on a real budget. Two is you are not stuck with the sounds of your keyboard. You can make any sound – electronic or sampled from a different instrument.
Apart from making different sounds, MIDI software can ‘record’ the information you transmit and make it available for you to edit graphically.
This is the basis of many composing and notation packages. You simply play the keyboard in real-time, then get a graphical view of what you just played which you can then edit and play back.
You get to choose how you view your ‘performance’. The information might be displayed as notation, or as a piano roll, or as a list of events.
By editing, you can easily correct mistakes you have made, transpose a whole piece (or just one section of it) speed it up, slow it down, add extra tracks using different voices…the possibilities are only limited by your imagination.
You don’t need to be able to play that well to get started – play one hand at a time if necessary, or very slowly, then use the software to correct mistakes, put two hands together, and speed the whole thing up!
If you play by ear, then you don’t have to edit through reading music, but can use the other graphical editing features of sequencers if you prefer.
A lot of music software takes the controller information it receives to do other things – like accompany you, or perhaps to check whether you have understood concepts in learning software.
So for example, suppose you are trying to practise your scales – you can get software that will say whether you played the right notes. Suppose you want to learn a piece. If you have a perfect MIDI file of the piece (millions are available on the internet or for purchase on disk), you can compare your performance and gradually learn the correct notes, adjusting the tempo to suit
Finally you can directly play one MIDI instrument with another, which can be great for live performances and advanced studio techniques.
It is the MIDI standard that has made all these things possible, and gives you the opportunity to use your computer to help with your music making. MIDI devices all understand the same language no matter which manufacturer made them, so you can genuinely hook them all up together with ease.
Of course MIDI isn’t perfect. In the search for a general standard, compromises have had to be made. And because it was first proposed back in the early 1980’s, the protocol had to be limited by the processing power available at the time.
However, the great thing is it is a universal protocol which is brand independent. The benefits of being able to link all kinds of different equipment together, and share the results in MIDI files which will play back on any MIDI device cannot be underestimated. The amazing range of educational packages now available is a direct result of the MIDI protocol, and the far-sighted group of manufacturers who developed it way way back in time.
Want More Detail on MIDI?
The MIDI Manufacturer’s Association have put together a useful website with tutorials, links to MIDI products and loads of resources.
You can also find hundreds of books on MIDI at Amazon. Everything from basic guides to advanced MIDI programming.
Common MIDI Questions Answered
Hopefully this article has helped you understand what MIDI is. You might now want to read our most popular article which tells you exactly how to connect your keyboard up to your computer.
So what is the main difference between audio recording and MIDI recording? If you record audio then you record the sound you are making where as MIDI is recording your actions. If you want to record the sound of your keyboard or other instrument then we have another article which explains exactly how to do this.
If you are a guitarist then it is possible to use your guitar as a MIDI controller. Although it is so easy to edit MIDI information that many guitarists use a keyboard in if they can’t play very well because in some ways it is quicker. Especially if you want to make drum tracks and bass lines.
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Over to you …
Have we answered all your questions? If you’re still confused or want to know more then post a comment below and we will try to help you get up and running.