I’ve recently received a few questions regarding MIDI, and I realized that I haven’t discussed MIDI all that much here on Home Studio Corner. While the majority of articles and videos deal with recording, mixing, productivity, etc., I would imagine most of us will utilize MIDI to some degree in our home studio setups.

Rather than do an exhaustive series of posts on MIDI, I thought it would be helpful to do address some of the most frequently asked questions. After all, if you’ve never used MIDI before, it’s a pretty mysterious new territory.

What does MIDI stand for?

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface.

What is MIDI?

MIDI is simply a communication language, a way for different devices to speak to each other. Keyboards need to speak to other keyboards and sound modules. Computers need to speak to keyboards. Computers need to speak to lighting systems. The list goes on and on. Rather than develop different communication languages for each of these scenarios, a smart group of audio guys got together in the 1980’s to come up with a universal language for musical instruments. And so MIDI was born.

What is MIDI used for?

MIDI allows one device to talk to — and therefore control – another MIDI device. For example, MIDI can be used to have one keyboard play the sounds off of another keyboard, or even multiple keyboards.

MIDI can also be used to control lighting. If you’ve ever been to a concert where the lights were flashing to the beat of the music, chances are those lights are being sync’d up to the music via MIDI.

For most home studio owners, MIDI will primarily be used to play virtual instrument software. (More on that in a second.)

What does MIDI sound like?

This may seem like a silly question to some, but it’s actually quite common for people to want to “hear” MIDI. There’s a misconception out there that MIDI and audio are the same thing. They are not.

MIDI is simply a communication language. Audio is what you hear.

Here’s an example I use a lot when explaining MIDI. Compare MIDI to watching TV. The TV is the audio. The remote control is the MIDI. We use the remote control to tell the TV what to play. We can use it to change the channel, turn the volume up and down, etc. However, you would think I was crazy if I asked you what the picture quality was like on a remote control. “Hey dude, does this remote do 1080p?”

It’s just silly, right? The remote control simply controls another device. It’s the same with MIDI. MIDI is simply a way to control one device with another one. The TV remote has no video. MIDI has no sound.

How do I convert MIDI to Audio?

Ah…the age-old question. “Can I get a MIDI to 1/4-inch cable for my keyboard?” As we discussed above, MIDI is simply a control language. The only way to have MIDI produce any audio is to connect it to some sort of sound module.

I can see where the confusion comes in here. My first keyboard, a little Yamaha PSR, had both 1/4-inch outputs and MIDI outputs. Naturally, I assumed both of these are audio outs. After all, when I played a note on the keyboard, sound came out of the speakers. It’s important to separate MIDI from audio if you want to have a good understanding of how MIDI works.

When you use a keyboard, like that little Yamaha, you’re actually using both a MIDI controller (a remote control) and a sound module (the part of the keyboard that outputs sound). When you play a middle C on the keyboard, it sends a MIDI message to the internal sound module to play a middle C. That MIDI message also tells the module how loud to play it, whether or not to use the sustain pedal, etc.

Since the sounds on that Yamaha keyboard weren’t all that great, I eventually used it as a stand-alone MIDI controller. I would use the MIDI output to connect it to my computer. At that point, I would play a middle C on the keyboard, and it would trigger a middle C on whatever software sound module I was using on my computer (also known as a virtual instrument).

This is how you “convert” MIDI to audio. You have to use a MIDI signal to trigger audio playback from a sound source. Now that you have audio coming out of something (either a keyboard or a software plug-in), you can record that audio just like you would any other audio signal. Keep in mind, though, that you’re recording audio, not MIDI.

Why should I use MIDI?

While I love every aspect of recording, from setting up the mics, to editing, mixing, overdubbing, etc., sometimes you just simply can’t accomplish what you want with microphones and performers. For example, you’re recording a rock song, and you obviously need drums, but you’re using an Mbox. You only have a pair of inputs. You need at least 6-8 to get a good drum kit sound. What to do?

Perhaps you don’t have the cash to buy a 003, a bunch of mics, stands, and cables, to record the drum kit. Or perhaps you don’t have a great place to even record drums. Here’s where MIDI can be your friend. Using a virtual instrument like EZDrummer, you can program a realistic drum sound, all without ever miking up a kit.

Obviously, in a perfect world you would mic up an amazing kit in an amazing room with amazing gear. That probably won’t happen for most of us. Enter MIDI.

The other benefit to MIDI is that you can edit/fix the performance after the fact. You can play in a keyboard part, then fix any missed notes or timing issues by simply dragging and dropping the MIDI note within your DAW. This is huge for me. I’m a pretty good keyboard player, but I’m not great. If I miss a note here or there, it’s okay! I can just go in and fix that one spot without needing to re-record the entire track.

More to come…

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’m not trying to explain every intricate detail behind MIDI, but hopefully this has given you a good, basic understanding. I’m planning some videos to show MIDI in action inside of Pro Tools, so stay tuned. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to my RSS feed to receive the latest updates from the HSC.

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  • Haggis33

    If I route a midi out from my piano/controller ‘out’ to my sound module ‘in’ & also A midi ‘thru’ from my module back to my piano ‘in’ Should I get the audio output through the piano audio lead. I would like to use my piano Efx on the modules output.

    • Nope. MIDI doesnโ€™t carry audio. You will need to use the actual audio output of the module.

  • Ruskin Herman

    Hi, still there? …late incorporation to MIDI, but here goes my question : I’m hooking up a 16 step sequencer to a drum machine (Arturia beatstep-Alesis Sr 16) . I want to set it up so Arturia does sequence (not play pad mode) and the Alesis only to work as sound module (no pattern playing) , now, if I have a drum set selected, will each step on seqer be a different drum or will it be the same one ? can the sequencers encoders change this ? …how do I program for thisuse ? thanks .

    • Sorry Ruskin, that’s not something I would know how to help you with.


  • CameronN

    I remember reading on gearsz about a guy who would call up guitar center and ask for a MIDI to 1/4 cable as a joke.

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  • Tim

    I’m just getting into using midi mostly for drums (Superior Drummer). No place to record acoustic drums anymore. Just wondering if there is a way in Pro Tools 8 to record multi-levels of a kits on the same instrument track. Like record just kick and snare. Then go back over that and add high hat, cymbals, etc… . Everytime I try and do that, it seems to record over the kick and snare I just recorded. So, I have to go in and manually click the midi notes in midi editor, for what I want. It takes forever. Am I missing something, or is this just not possible and I have to play the whole kit at one time or continure to do the manual thing? Thanks.

    • Yup. It’s called “Midi Merge.” Open your transport window. Hover the mouse of the button that has a couple arrows on it. It’s called MIDI merge. It allows you to record additional MIDI notes over the top of the notes you’ve already recorded, but you have to turn it on first. Just click, and you should be good to go.

      • Tim

        Thanks alot buddy. That seriously helps tons.

  • Mac88s

    The reason MIDI got such a bad rap for years is because most people don’t use it properly. Non-musicians trying to create MIDI sequences sounds like, well………………. a MIDI sequence. Its all about proper quantizing, feel, dynamics, velocity, note duration, articulation, proper virtual instruments, etc. Then re-recording to digital audio gives you all the tools you would have using open mics in a room anyway. Comp, EQ, FX, etc. I havn’t used a live musician besides myself and live vox for years and my recordings are played live by various artists with good success. Not tooting my horn here, just trying to make the case, its about the operator and not that 4 letter word “MIDI”!

    • That’s a really good point! I’ve found that the biggest way for me to make a MIDI sequence sound more realistic is to spend some time tweaking the velocity levels. If every snare hit is exactly the same velocity every time, it’s not gonna sound all that realistic, and it probably won’t sound all that good. Thanks for the input, Mac88s!

      • Mac88s

        No doubt Joe. Especially on the whole kit, seperated to individual tracks giving you more control! Velocity makes all the difference with hats, shakers, tambs, triangles, congas, etc. Also another biggy to me is volume automation with instruments. With strings, woodwinds, brass, percussive swells, crescendos, decrescendos, articulation and tapering – automation is a must. I hear string lines all the time on the radio that were not automated. Dead give away. Panning automation for harps, wind chimes, gongs and Tubular bells gives a nice effect also. Lots and lots to do with MIDI!!!!!!

        • Shawn Manigly

          Joe, you’re spot on with velocity. Velocity gives life to tracks in my opinion.

          Another program that people should check out to rid the fear of “midi” drums, is BFD2. I got it a couple months ago and haven’t looked back. As opposed to other drum programs, it’s real drums(with actual kit names, not knockoff names), and you have so much control it’s ridiculous. You not only have a direct fader(and individual mic/dynamic levels of each kit piece), you have room and ambience level controls as well. You can write the midi notes in, or hook it up to a controller/vkit to get a lifelike performance. If that’s not good enough, you can program the notes by hand and add a “humanize” effect that alters the note velocity to feel more authentic.

          • I do love the humanize function. Great points, guys!

  • carlisle

    thanks Joe for the post that helps a lot ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I’m using MIDI on my latest project with my band. I just bought an M-Audio Fast Track Ultra (man I hate typing that out)… and as much as I’d like to record my acoustic kit… just not in the cards. So with my TD12, I recorded to MIDI in Reaper, cheated a bit by quantizing and tweaking the midi,then I recorded from the 4 outs of the TD12 to separate tracks. This way I can get the kit sound I want and have the benefits of separate tracks for my kit. If i end up not liking the recorded kit, I can always re-record with a newly tweaked kit since I already recorded the performance to MIDI.

    Pretty slick if I say so myself. MIDI isn’t too hard once you figure out what it does and what it can do for you. Great article!

    • That’s a pretty slick setup, indeed. Don’t be ashamed of the Fast Track Ultra! M-Audio makes good stuff.

      • No… not ashamed of the M-Audio… I love it and it’s perfect for what I need to do. I just don’t like physically typing out the whole product name! Ha! Ha!

        • Ah…that makes more sense. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Great break down Joe. I often hear people say things like, “Those sound like MIDI drums” or “Why doesn’t this keyboard have sound?”. It’s actually a very common misconception and was one of the first topics I wrote on. Looking forward to your article on MIDI and Protools 8.

    • Together we will one day rid the world of these misconceptions. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Shawn Manigly

    I have the Axiom 25 and run Pro Tools 8. I’ve only used the Axiom to control virtual instruments, but i know there are preset sounds in there. However, there is no quarter inch out on the axiom , and it’s powered by USB. Anyone have any idea how to access the preset sounds, and be able to record them in pro tools?

    • I’m pretty sure the Axiom is just a MIDI controller, with not sounds at all.