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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