Getting Started With MIDI

MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) has been around for a long time – when I first encountered it in the early 1990s, it was already an old standard. It is quite remarkable that it has survived for so long, but that is probably because of its greatest strength – simplicity.

Meet the MIDI Maker

The most common use of MIDI today is for sending control messages to audio software running on a computer, by connecting a MIDI controller keyboard (or other device, such as a drum pad). Each time you hit a key on your controller, information about that action is sent down the cable to your computer, containing such data as which note you struck, how hard you hit it, how long you held the note for, any modulation applied, and so on. The advantage of this system is that such data can be encoded into very few bits of information. Instead of sending the audio itself, which takes up a huge amount of data (44.1khz at 16-bit means you are sending 16 bits 44,100 times per second), the system only sends instructions on how to produce the required sound. This also offers greater flexibility, as these instructions can then be applied to other instruments as desired – even though you may have played your original phrase using a piano patch, you may discover that it sounds better using a raging polysynth that you constructed at a later date.

But how does one get started down the MIDI path? Well, let’s say you’re using a computer, and you’ve got Reason installed. The next thing you need is an audio/MIDI interface of some sort. If you have a desktop computer, your built-in sound card may well have a MIDI interface already. It probably won’t look like the 5-pin DIN socket that the standard MIDI cable plugs into though – it may be called a joystick/MIDI port, and you will need a breakout adapter to use it, which can be bought in any decent music or electronics store. Plug the adapter into the port, then plug your standard MIDI cable into the adapter, then plug your MIDI keyboard to the other end of the cable. Now, go to Reason’s preferences tab, select the setup control surfaces option, add a controller. If you use the ‘find’ option and hit a key on your controller, Reason should detect the keyboard automatically, and you’re ready to go.

MIDI Controller and Audio Interface Combo

This is a very basic setup, but it will give you an idea of how MIDI works if you’re just starting out and happen to have an old keyboard lying around which has a MIDI-out port. However, if you want a nice, compact system for audio and MIDI (for example, if you’re gigging with a laptop) then it might be worthwhile getting a combined audio interface/MIDI controller. An audio interface is just another term for ‘sound card’ and you will need to get an external audio interface anyway if you have a laptop (laptop sound cards are not good enough for serious music making, but OK for relatively undemanding stuff). There are a lot of solid performers out there in the audio interface/MIDI controller range – since M-Audio’s Ozone came along, a whole host of others followed in its footsteps. The Ozone is light, compact, has a two-octave keyboard, mic input with phantom power, high-impedance instrument input and is a USB audio interface as well as a MIDI controller. I found it to be extremely easy to set up, and very reliable – you will have to have quite a few simultaneous tracks of audio running before it starts to struggle. Line6 have recently produced a very funky-looking offering in their Toneport 37 keyboard, and Novation’s Xiosynth 25 boasts an inbuilt synthesiser as well as interface/controller capabilities.

Things to watch out for when choosing an interface/controller include:

  • is it bus powered? (runs without being plugged into the mains – generally for controller-only use)
  • is it velocity sensitive? (responds to how fast you hit the keys)
  • does it have drum pads? (some people love these)
  • does it have sliders? (good for controlling mixer or synth parameters)
  • how many keys? (25-keys for portability or 61-keys for performance range)
  • does it have mic phantom power? (so you can use your nice condenser mic)
  • does it have high-impedance inputs? (for guitar and bass, also known as hi-z)
  • is it big and heavy? (if you’ll be moving it around a lot)
  • does it have MIDI-in? (if you have other MIDI gear you want to play through the interface)

These are just some of the issues that may or may not be significant to you – it all depends on how you’ll be using your rig. However, if you’re just beginning to get into using your computer to make music, then a combined controller/audio interface is definitely a good way to start. For more information on MIDI, check out Lentine’s Music for some introductory articles. A great source of MIDI information can be found at tweakheadz, as well as a wealth of other useful reading material for the digital musician.


Home | Canabrism | Guides | All Music Technology Posts | XML Sitemap