Why do I need MIDI?...

 

You may not, but I can tell you that your musical life will be greatly enhanced if you spend a little time working with MIDI.  From a practical standpoint you can create melodies, harmonies, riffs, scales, bass lines, percussion or entire symphonies for use in practice, recording or live performance.

You may think of MIDI as those cheesy sounds coming from your computer speakers.  Well, it used to be that way and still is if you are using a cheap sound card, but with today’s computers and incredible amounts of storage space high quality MIDI sounds via instrument wave samples make MIDI a serious musical tool.

So, what do I need to get started with MIDI.  At the minimum you need a computer with a sound card to play back midi files.  Windows media player or any similar player can play back midi files.  Next if you want to change the notes, key signature, time signature, tempo etc. you will need software that allows you to see the midi as notes on a staff or in a piano roll view.  There are many programs out there that do this.  What if you want to play something and have it record to MIDI?  You will need a MIDI controller which usually comes in the form of a piano keyboard.  Older keyboards with MIDI in, MIDI out and MIDI thru ports will work if you have the right jacks on your sound card.  The best way now, is to use your USB port with a MIDI keyboard or controller.  A simple controller can be as inexpensive as $75.

OK, I have done all that and it still sounds cheesy, what do I do?  As I will explain later on, MIDI is not sound, it just tells a synthesizer what, when and how to play a note.  The quality of the sound is directly related to the quality of your synthesizer.  This is where you can spend some money but the results are incredible.  I use Cakewalk’s Dimension Pro.  This Soft Synth comes with about 8 gigabytes of samples but you can easily get up to 20 gigabytes and more with big orchestral samples.  Just a few years ago a hard drive with just 1 gigabyte of storage was rare and now we have a terabyte which is a thousand gigabytes!  You can store a lot of stuff on that.

MIDI is like a communication language that allows different pieces of music equipment to talk to each other. With a MIDI cable or USB, your keyboard can talk to your computer, and your computer can talk to a synthesizer or sound module.

You might think MIDI is only used in the world of music, since it stands for…

Musical
Instrument
Digital
Interface

…But some people even use MIDI to run lights for theatrical shows.

A MIDI cable is like a tube with 16 little pathways inside it. Each pathway is called a channel. So you can split MIDI information in your computer into 16 different channels, and have it play 16 different instrument sounds on a synthesizer.

If you’re working on a song, your MIDI setup might look like this:

Channel 1: Piano
Channel 2: Guitar
Channel 3: Bass
Channel 4: Trumpet
Channel 5: Saxophone
Channel 6: Trombone
Channel 7:
Channel 8:
Channel 9:
Channel 10: Drums
Channel 11:
Channel 12:
Channel 13:
Channel 14:
Channel 15:
Channel 16:

If you only wanted to use 7 sounds on your synth, you would only use 7 of the 16 MIDI channels.

Most keyboards have MIDI connectors, labeled: IN, OUT and THRU, all new ones have USB as well.

 
You connect the MIDI “OUT” of your keyboard to your computer via a USB port or similar connection, to allow your keyboard to talk to your computer. And you connect your computer to the MIDI “IN” of a sound module, so you can hear the various instrument sounds.

MIDI “THRU” allows you to use more than one synthesizer at a time.

Since most computers have synthesizers built into the sound card that comes with them, your computer might be sending MIDI information to its own sound card.

The beauty of MIDI is that that even an hour-long song can be a very small file, because MIDI is not music; it’s only bits and bytes of information that tells your sound card what to play.

If you emailed me a MIDI file, it would use the sounds from my computer’s sound card. And even though those sounds might be slightly different from the sounds on your computer’s sound card, I would still hear bass where it’s suppose to be, piano where it’s supposed to be, etc.

Each MIDI channel sends a bunch of information. When I press a key on my keyboard, the cable that carries that information to my computer says: “Jon just pressed a key, and the note associated with that key is “G.” It also tells the computer how hard or soft I played the note and how long I held it.

MIDI is incredibly useful. If you just played a magnificent performance, except for a few notes, you can select those notes on your computer screen, and change them to what they should be, and even shorten or lengthen them.

If you played a solo using a guitar sound, you could use the same MIDI track to try out other sounds on your synthesizer - a flute, trumpet, or even a sitar. Since MIDI is only sending information, not sounds, you can keep changing your synth sounds till you find one you like.

You could take the same solo and change the “patch” (preset sound) on your synthesizer to a guitar sound that has effects (reverb, delay, chorus).

To experiment more with the solo, you could copy the MIDI part to another channel. Now you have the same information on two different channels and you can assign the second MIDI channel to a different instrument. So your synthesizer might play your original guitar sound on channel one and the same part simultaneously on another instrument, say a flute, on channel two.

You could even assign the second channel to be percussion, so while your first MIDI channel is playing your monster guitar solo, the second MIDI channel is playing percussion that corresponds exactly to it – because every time MIDI tells your sound module you pressed a certain key, it can tell the second channel to play a percussion “hit” with it.

While MIDI used to be the domain of keyboard players, there are now MIDI wind controllers, so you can blow into an instrument that has keys like a clarinet or sax and it will translate what you do into MIDI information. There are also MIDI guitar controllers.  Wind controllers are $500 and up while a good guitar controller is more.

There are thousands (perhaps millions) of MIDI songs you can download to your computer. And these songs will play using your soundcard’s synthesizer.


A lot of movie scores and background tracks are played using a MIDI controller (a keyboard, wind controller, MIDI guitar controller, etc.) and software samples (string sounds, brass orchestras, rock guitar parts, etc).

MIDI has changed the world of orchestrating, because now, at the touch of a button, you can try out different textures of music and different combinations of instruments that formerly would have required a live orchestra. And while you may not be able to duplicate what comes through a live musician, you can play with different musical colors to your heart’s content.