What is MIDI and how to use it


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MIDI is a powerful tool for musicians that helps them easily create elaborate, multi-layered compositions in any genre. The term stands for “digital musical instrument interface” and is the standard that devices such as keyboards, synthesizers, and computers use to communicate. While there are specific cables, the technology can work through USB, Lightning, and other connections. When fully connected, it allows the user to digitally control multiple devices, even from different manufacturers, to create everything from symphonies to intimate singer / songwriters’ ballads to virtual instruments.

MIDI is not really audio

Although it allows you to create audio, MIDI is not an audio signal. This is only information, so you can also call it MIDI data. For example, MIDI allows a controller, such as a keyboard, to tell a synthesizer to play B flat. The synthesizer creates this note, but only because the signal sent by the keyboard demands it. And instead of a keyboard, the signal could come from a computer, a separate controller, etc. There are endless possibilities.

The equipment you will need

MIDI configurations vary depending on the type of music you are creating. Your setup can be as simple as your personal computer and keyboard. You can also have a computer, digital piano, synthesizer, and drum machine. Or, you can skip the computer altogether and connect everything to a sequencer.

With MIDI, all of your components will speak the same language. With the right software or even just an inexpensive controller, you can control them all.

Photo by Quetzal Maucci

What is a MIDI controller?

A MIDI controller is a device that can send a signal to something that creates sound. In its simplest form, it’s just a button. More likely it is a variety of buttons, dials, and sliders. Many have a small keyboard, but there are versions with 88 full-size keys for those more familiar with pianos. You can find controllers from brands such as Arturia, ICON Digital, Korg and M-Audio.

Older equipment (and some current devices), like what you would see in music production photos from the early 1980s, use specific MIDI cables. These bulky, five-pin connectors resemble XLR microphone cables, but with a greater number of smaller pins. Most modern equipment connects via a USB cable. If your device only has MIDI connections, you will need an interface to connect them to a computer.

Synthesizers and drum machines are other common MIDI devices. These create a wide variety of sounds, and most are highly customizable. From creating the sounds of an orchestra to looping dance rhythms, they create music controlled by you or your software, often referred to as a digital audio workstation or DAW. Some of the best DAW brands include Ableton, ProTools, and FL Studio.

MIDI equipment to consider

There are endless options for MIDI hardware, and what you’ll need will depend on the type of music you want to create. Here are some good basics to get started.

1. Arturia MiniLab Mk II portable USB-MIDI controller

the Arturia MiniLab Mk II portable USB-MIDI controller is a compact 25-key controller with 16 knobs and eight pads to help you dial in the sound you want, including pitch bends. The octave transpose knobs let you access the range you want while maintaining the overall size of the portable controller. Tactile pitch and modulation bands allow for creative flourishes. This instrument can send either MIDI note information or continuous controller (“CC”) data. It connects via USB 2.0 and comes with its own software.

2. Korg NanoKONTROL2 Slim-Line USB MIDI Controller

the Korg NanoKONTROL2 Slim-Line USB MIDI Controller is a small keyboardless MIDI controller with one button, one fader, and three switches for each of its eight different channels. You can set them to control volume and panning, or specific functions found on your synthesizer or drum machine. It’s efficient enough that it doesn’t need external power, pulling everything it needs from the USB connection itself. It also comes with several software, including EzDrummer Lite, so you can set up virtual drum kits for your latest music production.

3. PreSonus ATOM production and performance pad controller

the PreSonus ATOM production and performance pad controller is a portable controller with 16 pressure and velocity sensitive pads which are backlit by red, green and blue LEDs. Its 20 additional smaller buttons, as well as four dials, are all programmable. It connects via USB and easily integrates with top software like Ableton Live and Studio One, making it a great companion for your next live performance.

Buy the full line of keyboard MIDI controllers from Adorama.

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