MIDI Basics

This MIDI Basics page aims to illuminate the mystery surrounding the valuable and flexible tool that is MIDI.

In order to use it for the forces of good, we must first understand what exactly it is so that it can help deliver your musical message to the world.

Let's start our discussion of MIDI Basics with an explanation of what MIDI stands for, Musical Instrument Digital Interface.

While this title is descriptive, it's not terribly useful.

If you only remember one thing let it be this...


But if you only remember two things let it also be this...

MIDI Data Is Not Music

Before we continue with what MIDI is... let's be crystal clear about what MIDI is not.

MIDI Data Is Not Music!

It can, however, be used by a computer to generate music. It is the digital binary data that carries information on how to produce sounds, but it by itself is not sound.

If you understand this you are ahead of the game!

And a good understanding of MIDI basics now will serve you well as we go forward.

Once again, MIDI data is a set of parameters that describes music.

Like sheet music, the notes on the page describe the pitch, duration, intensity, etc. for the song... but the paper itself is not music.

Sheet music requires the musician to play it just as MIDI data requires a computer to play it.

People run into trouble when they begin to think of MIDI data as an audible signal.

You can't hear MIDI data, just like you can't hear sheet music.

What's so great about MIDI?

The true value of MIDI is that it's 100% digital. What does that mean to you, the musician?

Say you want to record a song, but you play a wrong note at a certain part.

Another garbage take??

Not at all because you know MIDI data is digital.

You can go back and alter that note after you are done because the MIDI data is simply a list of parameters.

You can fix that one mistake, change the dynamics of a passage, change the whole key down a 1/2 step, slow down the tempo... you get the idea.

MIDI is your best friend when you need to put some lipstick on the pig you just recorded.

In addition to being very easy to change and alter after the recording is complete, MIDI data is great because it can be used to expand the possibilities of your home studio.

Going back to the sheet music analogy, it would be like taking the sheet music for the violins and giving it to the trumpets.

The pitches, note durations, etc. are the same, but the feel of the song is very different with the trumpets blasting away triumphantly.

To show this in action have a listen to the following audio clips.

Sample MIDI Tracks

Piano at 115 bpm                

Transposed down                

Now slowed to 100 bpm       

Now switched to strings       

Transitioning between those 4 versions took literally a matter of seconds. Using my digital piano I recorded the first version in MIDI format.

When I replayed the recording on my DAW software the computer was the one playing my piano instead of me.

This means I can use the transpose function or select a different instrument and in real time the sound is changed.

From there I simply hit record on my sequencing software, sit back and listen to the performance as it's recorded onto the hard drive via my Audio Interface.

This is the real beauty of MIDI, to be able to tweak, tinker with, and optimize your performance in a fraction of the time.

Adding MIDI to your Home Studio

Now let's use your new knowledge of MIDI Basics to add MIDI to your home setup.

There are different ways to get yourself "MIDI-fied".

To get started you'll need some sort of MIDI input device, also known as a MIDI Controller.

This will serve to generate your MIDI data.

Once you decide on an input, you will need to get some kind of MIDI input/output for your system.

This can come either as part of your Audio Interface , or as part of a dedicated MIDI Interface.

A MIDI input/output is standard on many audio interfaces that you can find for a very reasonable cost. Even the entry level units often have this capability.

I'd definitely recommend leaving the option open for MIDI in your home studio later on, even if you don't think you'll use it right away.

Of course you can also get a MIDI controller that talks directly to your recording system via a USB connection.

This uses up an open USB port, but with the benefit of not needing a dedicated 5-pin MIDI I/O.

I personally like using the MIDI interface on my Audio Interface as opposed to the USB because it frees up a USB port. The difference is more of a logistical one than a technical one.

Either method would work fine for adding MIDI to your home recording system.

Don't hesitate to return to this discussion if you need a refresher as we continue down the road.

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