Welcome to Day 18 of 31 Days to Better Recordings.

We’ve talked about recording instruments with microphones quite a bit, but what about virtual instruments?

What if your song needs a piano, and you don’t own one?

What if you need an orchestra, but you don’t have the cash to hire the Nashville Symphony?

Then it’s time to take a trip to MIDI Town.

I Know What You’re Thinking…

Are you a recording snob? “MIDI is lame and sounds fake.”

I know. I kinda used to be a recording snob, too. Then I just tried out some of the virtual instruments out there. The truth is…a lot of them sound amazing.

If you mix them right, and if you factor in the cost of finding/hiring that weird instrument you’re looking for, virtual instruments make a lot of sense for most home studio folks.

The Benefits

Not too familiar with MIDI? Never really tried it? You should. Check out my Intro to MIDI video. That’ll get you moving in the right direction.

MIDI has some obvious benefits. Here are just a few:

  • Access to instruments/sounds that you would otherwise be unable to find/create.
  • The ability to edit the performance after the fact. This is HUGE. Play a wrong note? Play the wrong chord? Just go back and change those notes. You can’t do that with audio recordings.
  • The ability to change the sound after the fact. Recorded a piano part, but want to know what it sounds like as a Wurlitzer? Click…click…done.
  • The ability to quantize, i.e. automatically align the timing of notes to a grid. (Watch my video on How to Quantize MIDI.)

Do I use MIDI on my songs? Heck yes. ALL of the drums from my album Out of Indiana were created using EZDrummer (a MIDI drum module). I’m a fan.

The Downsides

As with most things, there are some downsides to using MIDI. Here are a few:

  • The patches sound fake. Yep, sometimes that’s the case.
  • The sounds are too perfect. Believe it or not, a pristine, crystal clear piano may NOT fit into your recordings. Sometimes you need something a little…dirtier.
  • You can waste a lot of time just finding the right sound for your song.
  • The ability to change/tweak the sounds and performance can lead to endless adjusting, never being satisfied, never being finished.

Needless to say, MIDI is a language we should all be able to speak. As a recording engineer, it can only help you to have a good, working knowledge of MIDI.

Day 18 Challenge

Do you like MIDI? Do you use it when you should perhaps be using a microphone and actually recording something? Explain.

Do you hate MIDI? Don’t you think you should give it a chance, and learn how to use it to make your tracks sound awesome? Explain.


27 Responses to “Day 18 – Take Advantage of MIDI [31DBR]”

  1. Bfunk1978

    MIDI is so nice for me – I don’t play bass, for example, or drums. And I can program drums with EZDrummer and a step sequencer, add a little bit of humanizing (like a bit of swing, and playing with note velocities) and it can be very effective. Also, the MIDI drummer doesn’t speed up throughout the song. :p

  2. Joe R.

    I depend on MIDI! It does not always stay on the finished track, but it helps me piece together the arrangement.

  3. Travis Whitmore

    I must say, I haven’t used MIDI much yet. But I’d love to start working with it some soon. My goal for using MIDI is to be able to customize a nice groove click/loop pattern quickly.

  4. Arjun Ramesh

    I have grown to like MIDI more over the years than when I first started. The virtual instruments in Logic are exceptional and they offer a lot of great sounds for the money. I have also become a fan of EZdrummer and Strike 1.5. Since I do not have a drum kit at home, I used to use Ultrabeat (Studio Tight Kit setting) in Logic and program every hit in the grid, which was grueling work, as I did it bar by bar and then exported it. When I got Strike and EZdrummer, it really cut down that work by hours. Plus, it sounds more real than Ultrabeat. It won me over.

  5. Larry Couch

    I have no problems with MIDI, I played on stage for 2 years with a guy that kicked left-handed bass and you NEVER missed having a “real” bass player. And like Brett, what I ultimate would like to do is play the drum parts myself on an electric set, then go in and fix the mistakes. With that said, what I really need is some advice on what kind of controller to get that has trigger pads built-in. There’s so many on the market, I’m getting that “huge dinner menu” anxiety.

  6. Hector Gutierrez

    I LOVE MIDI I personally use it A LOT and for me it depends on how much you invert to the sounds to the results you are going to get, although SOMETIMES some pretty basic MIDI samples sounds great! I personally use a lot of MIDI in piano using the Galaxy Vintage D pianos, which is a Steinway and Sons 1922 piano which sounds amazing. I also use the audiobro LA Scoring Strings for my film scoring jobs. This little program I bought was about $1700 bucks but it sounds so real you cant even realize it. And I use a lot of Superior Drummer 2.0 which you can hear in Joe’s record and the drums sound amazing, but you do have to tweak some stuff to get that great sound. I believe MIDI is starting to take off in the recording industry world, and surely in a few years a lot of stuff will be based off of that.

  7. Matt

    Until now, I’ve not really used midi very much. However, in taking Joe’s HSC Production Club, I’ve decided to learn more about midi. I’ve already made use of it by customizing drum parts in EZDrummer and I plan to use it for some organ that I hope to put in one of my songs.

  8. Christopher w

    I love midi, and being a keyboard player the “unlimited” instrument patches opened me up to more than just a piano and a few organ sounds.

    when I first found out about MIDI and patches I was like that youtube video of kids opening a N64 present.

    but unfortunately now I feel like the technology is driving the creativity, not the other way around (like it should be). but when I do create something with MIDI I purposely “destroy” the quality, e.g. putting some notes out of time slightly and messing with velocity’s (not much if I play them in using my keyboard) and other slight things to make it sound more human.

  9. Jens

    I´m a huge fan of EZ Drummer … it´s my personal drummer in the box. Then for pre-production the bass-guitar in my songs is the EXS24-Sampler in Logic feeded with some cool bass-guitar-samples from Best Service Pro Samples.

  10. Ben P

    I’ve found that if I’m using MIDI, and it sounds a bit too perfect, I would send the sounds through a pair of speakers, such as PA speakers and record them. This not only gives a dirtier sound but also allows the sound to travel through the air and emulate it sounding more. It’s a really good way of using MIDI and audio together.

  11. Scott

    I personally love midi. I use midi for drums, bass, piano, keyboard, synths; anything I can’t produce in my home studio.

    I’m a big fan of things like Toontrack, XLN Audio, and Groovemonkee all selling “track packs” that are played by real drummers and using those on my tracks. It gives it a real feel without having to hire a drummer or spend hour programing.

  12. Preshan

    MIDI is useful if you are unable to access the instruments that a MIDI VI can provide. However, there’s nothing quite like a real recording of a real instrument/choir/orchestra etc. But with the quality of sampling these days, the gap is closing very fast.

    I use MIDI drums all the time now, as well as organ and piano.

    From what I’ve seen over here in Australia, most home recordists are introduced to MIDI long before they are interested in buying mics and preamps and making real recordings. But that’s probably because electronic music is really big here too. In other words, it’s hard to find someone here that says “I hate MIDI” because the chances are they grew up playing with MIDI instruments. Whereas I’m sure in Nashville, MIDI is more of an afterthought for engineers because they love making real recordings with good gear (the way I like it) 😀

  13. iain

    I use midi when I’m working alone. If I’m with a guitar player, and he needs a bass track, I’ll lay down a bas guitar with him, or the other way around. If I’m alone, working on something just for me, I’ll use midi so I can tweak in different ways. I’ll also use midi if I simply do not have a symphony orchestra… which is pretty much always.

  14. Wayne Johnson

    I use midi for drums and for bass mostly. My skills as a keyboard player are limited but I am getting better at it. I have Drum Tracker from Toontrack which makes drum replacement easy and creating and copying midi files. Groove Monkee has a great set of free midi files with maps for most drum softwareincluding Steven Slate and Session Drummer. That’s my 3 cents worth today.

  15. rick

    As someone trying to get down song ideas and what they *might* sound like, it’s not super important to me that they sound as “realistic” as possible. And let’s face it… while there are some awesome sounding plugs out there, I still haven’t found a plug-in to replace the guitar.

    But MIDI is a great songwriting tool and sure helps my workflow, with limited time and talent.

  16. Bob Sorace

    I love MIDI, my favorite things to work on are songs that are all MIDI. There may be an acoustic or a vocal, but the rest is all MIDI. As for the “fake” sound? There are some real stinkers out there but mixed together they could sound really good.
    I’ve also re-amped some MIDI stuff like Piano to give it a more realistic flavor.

    I also love EZDrummer, and I really need to take the time to try “nudging?” the parts so it’s not so “perfect”. I can really tell that the drums are machine-like and although it still sounds great, it’s just missing that human element that nudging the snare here and there could provide.

  17. mgjr73

    I use MIDI for most of the reasons Joe have outlined. In my case, it’s not practical and I don’t have the money/resources to obtain instruments (or players) such as piano, strings, etc…

    For drums I use EZDrummer and now that I have a MIDI keyboard it will be even a lot easier to program drum tracks. I’m just discovering other VSTi’s that I can control with my MIDI keyboard. But I will probably be using MIDI mostly for drums and piano.

  18. Brett

    Hey Joe, I love the site. I’ve learned more from it in 6 months than I have in 15 years of amateur home recording.

    Anywho, I use midi mostly for drums. I use a Roland V-drum kit and send the midi out of the drum brain to my midi card and then into Sonar. I’m able to track my drum performance as a “live” midi performance and then send that out to EZDrummer or SessionDrummer. It allows me to get a drum track down very easily, albeit very badly as I’m not a very good drummer, without having to step edit a midi sequence. Its also great because I’m able to 1) use a variety of different drum sounds and 2) if I’ve screwed up my drum performance here and there I can tweak the midi performance data to make it sound right.

  19. Phil Harmon

    To me, MIDI is like going to workout. I don’t necessarily enjoy it, it takes longer than I would like, sometimes I drop something on my foot, but I always walk away feeling good.

  20. Jeddr

    I really don’t like midi. I’ve used it on several projects and I still fail to get a good result. Probably, I’m to blame for that, but I’ve given up!

  21. Vinnie

    I love MIDI (Logic user, surprised? XD).

    With a LOT of tweaking, MIDI can be believable…but its a lot of tweaking. I’ve found that the way to make MIDI samples sound best is to use them to their strengths; for example, Kontakt’s strings sound horrible for melodies and solo violin lines, but are great in a quartet arrangement as a ‘pad’ for other instruments.

    If you go through all your MIDI instruments and find what the samples sound good at, and what they’re not so good at, and bear that in mind when arranging, you’ll have some awesome sounding MIDI parts 😉

    • Edith Ballistics

      Swede, is that you?
      I concur that MIDI is an absolute necessity for the home producer, especially during the writing process. It’s a no-brainer to get the working tracks in MIDI, and replace any of the ones that sound fake with a live player. In many cases the difference between what sounds real and fake is the arbitrary over-use of strict quantization.

  22. Chepster

    I hate MIDI, mostly because I’ve never took the time to learn it, and also because I always thought that it sounded cheese! However, nowadays MIDI is quite powerful and has lots of options to make the instruments sound very realistic. So now I know that for my own benefit I’m gonna have to learn it.

  23. Stanley Mishler, Jr.

    I use midi mainly with drum replace to help fatten up weak drum tracks. Usually a kick or a snare. I blend them with live drums sometimes to help keep the live feel in my tracks. You should definitely try this it can actually give a track a different feel.

  24. John

    MIDI on all keys and strings def. The trick is with say, strings or brass, to listen to how these sections are arranged by other people and attempt to create parts that play by the ‘rules’. I.e., violas play beneath violins, you probably dont need to play full on chords for string pieces, otherwise you’ll have no space in the mix left for other instruments.


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