MIDI has fast become a vital component of digital music making.
But what exactly is MIDI? How does it work? What does it allow you to do?
In this guide, we’ll answer all your questions connected to MIDI and share some easy-to-understand examples too.
What Is MIDI In Music? – Quick Definition
MIDI is an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It’s a protocol or communication standard that allows digital music gear, like MIDI controllers, computers, and other hardware, to talk to each other.
It was created as a standard in the early 80s so that companies could make their digital music products compatible with other brands. Kind of like if everyone in the world spoke English, we’d all be able to get on the same page.
But it’s not so much the technology itself but what you can do with it that’s really fascinating. Because MIDI itself does not transmit an audio signal. It’s information only.
How does that work? And why does that make MIDI powerful? Read on to learn more…
What Is A MIDI Controller? Answer:
There are many MIDI controller products out there, like the M-Audio Keystation 49 MK3, Alesis V-Mini, AKAI Professional MPK Mini Play, or the Native Instruments Maschine Mk3 Drum Controller.
You’ll notice that a MIDI controller often takes the form of a keyboard, because the keyboard features a standard and familiar layout. This makes it easy to tell what notes you’re playing at any time (assuming you know your keyboard, piano, and / or music theory basics). Of course, MIDI controllers alone do not produce an audio signal.
Then there are also MIDI controllers like the previously mentioned Maschine Mk3 Drum Controller that takes more of a “drum pad” form. Some controllers even combine the two – keyboard and pads.
But this is the great thing about MIDI, you see. MIDI is not a musical note. It’s information. And a variety of tools can be used to relay information between digital music gear. There are even MIDI guitars like the JAMMY G.
These controllers are used to “trigger” the notes of virtual instruments – synths, pianos, organs, basses, guitars, and more.
We’ve covered all manner of free VST instruments in previous guides, like the best free VST synths.
So, if you wanted to use your MIDI controller to play sounds, you would need to download a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), connect your MIDI controller to your computer (usually via USB), install a free VST synth (as an example), load up the VST you want to use, and arm the track.
The great thing about using a MIDI controller is that it’s unlimited instruments in one. You can use it to play whatever virtual instruments you want!
Examples Of MIDI
One thing we can’t show you is an example of MIDI, because it’s like an electrical signal. You can see its effects, but you don’t see the currents most of the time. MIDI is just information. It’s not an audio signal. You need a virtual instrument to produce a sound.
What we can show you are examples of MIDI controllers, MIDI tracks, MIDI sequencing, and so forth.
Let’s get into it.
The following video explains the basics of MIDI controllers, the difference between synthesizers and MIDI controllers, and more. The creator demonstrates using an Alesis V-Mini, which is a portable, 25-key MIDI keyboard.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t play the MIDI controller, so we found another video where the creator makes a beat from scratch using a MIDI keyboard. Nothing special, but it illustrates how a beat can be made using a MIDI device.
The following video shows you how to create a beat inside Logic Pro X. The process of making a beat starts at around 11:35, and prior to that, the creator goes through choosing a software instrument.
This video covers most of the ins and outs of creating and recording MIDI tracks and the methodology is usually quite similar in most DAW environments.
The following video illustrates how you can sequence notes (for melodies, chords, drumbeats, and more) without using a MIDI controller (inside Ableton Live).
Do I Need Virtual Software Instruments To Use A MIDI Controller?
You do if you want an audio signal of some kind.
A MIDI controller is not an instrument itself. All it does is relay information from one device to another.
That said, if you just want to sequence MIDI notes without an audio signal, you can still do that with your MIDI controller. So, technically, you don’t need virtual instruments to take advantage of your MIDI controller.
Still, if you want to get any sound out of your MIDI tracks, you’ll need to load up virtual instruments.
What Is A MIDI Track? Meaning:
In most DAWs, you can create different types of tracks. The most common are audio and MIDI tracks.
An audio track is relatively self-explanatory. It describes any track recorded organically – that includes a voice or instrument coming through a microphone, a guitar routed through an effects pedal or rackmount unit, a digital piano plugged directly into the audio interface, and so on.
When created inside your DAW, a MIDI track will be “empty.” It will not contain any information. But it will exist as a “clip.”
Once you set up your MIDI controller with a virtual instrument (as described earlier), and hit “record,” you’d be able to “record” your MIDI performance and the MIDI track would now contain information based on your performance. What’s great about this is you can easily swap out virtual instruments on the fly, even after the track has been recorded.
Alternatively, though, you can manually “draw in” the information you want (using a computer mouse). This is called MIDI sequencing. This is generally how producers like deadmau5 creates their songs. They sequence MIDI tracks one note at a time.
You aren’t required to take this approach, of course. You can use a MIDI controller. You can sequence your MIDI tracks. You can combine both approaches. We’ll explore more advantages of MIDI a little later, but the point is that MIDI is infinitely versatile once you know how to take advantage of it.
Do I Need A MIDI Controller To Sequence MIDI Tracks?
No, you don’t. And that’s one of the great things about MIDI.
Once you’ve created a MIDI clip / track inside your DAW, you should be able to draw in the MIDI information using your mouse.
The exact process can differ a little from DAW to DAW, but the concept is always the same.
You can specify the exact notes you want played by your virtual instrument, their duration, and even velocity.
You can “quantize” the information after the fact, making it tighter to the beat. Changing the tempo of the song should automatically “snap” the MIDI track into place too, without further modification.
You can also copy and paste any information you want repeated, without having to input all of it manually.
Isn’t That Cheating?
Some would say that it is.
Because sequencing a MIDI track doesn’t require that you know how to play a keyboard (or play it well), it might seem as though this entire process devalues music creation in general.
You can even load MIDI files inside most DAWs, which means you can compose something inside a different composition app or download one of the many MIDI files you can find across the internet and bring it into your project. You could then edit that MIDI information and turn it into your own song (note: we are not encouraging plagiarism).
And some DAWs even have grooves and chords stored inside, negating the need to start any track from scratch. MIDI chord packs have started growing in popularity, and they make for killer loops all on their own, without need for modification.
But there are a few things to think about.
One is that working with MIDI tracks is kind of an artform all its own. It’s like learning to play a new instrument. Not as difficult as mastering the piano maybe, but it can still take some time to “learn the lingo” and figure out the workflow. Not everyone will start out using MIDI to its fullest.
Two, some working knowledge of music is still critical. If you know music theory, you’ll be off to the races. Lots of musicians and artists don’t necessarily understand music theory, though, in which case experience will be the difference maker. With experience, you can figure out what sounds good, what works, and how to create what you hear in your head.
Three, it still takes time and effort. Sure, outlining your track with MIDI offers unprecedented levels of “easy,” but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t require some work. Making music is a process, no matter what approach you take.
Cheating is a matter of perspective, for sure, but there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with taking advantage of the tools at your disposal. And you will still find artistic merit in the works of many electronic artists.
What Is The Advantage Of MIDI?
We’ve touched on several advantages already, but here are some of the main reasons we think MIDI is great.
You Don’t Need A MIDI Controller For MIDI Sequencing
You can create MIDI tracks inside your DAW without a MIDI controller. And most if not, all DAWs let you “draw in” the information without the need of hardware.
You really can do most of your work “inside the box.”
The idea of a “portable studio” was still kind of a pipe dream when MIDI was first created, but today, with advanced DAWs, laptops, and other tech, it has never been easier for you to develop your musical ideas wherever, whenever convenient.
You Can Quantize Your Performances
Some of us aren’t confident keyboard players. We might know how to play a riff or two, but playing it perfect in time to a metronome, for instance, is still a challenge, and it’s a skill more than a talent.
Well, with MIDI, you can quantize your performance. And that instantly makes it “snap” to the “grid.”
You can apply more quantization or less. You can even edit after the fact to make the performance more human. But the point is, you can edit the performance after the fact. Besides moving the clip around, add fades, or adding cuts, you simply can’t do that with audio tracks!
You Can Change The Tempo
In the past, if you wanted to change the tempo of a song after the tracks had already been recorded, you didn’t have many options. Most of the time, you had to start your song from scratch.
If your song is primarily made up of MIDI elements, though, changing the tempo in the DAW shouldn’t do it any harm.
Let’s say, for instance, you’re happy with the MIDI synth part you put together but realized that you want to bring up the tempo of the song so your vocal and guitar parts work. This would be an easy task with MIDI.
As well, you can select and drag and drop information you’ve added to your MIDI clips, which means if you need to change the key of the entire song, that’s also a relatively simple task.
You Can Take Advantage Of MIDI Files Others Have Created
Don’t tell anyone, but this is exactly what I did for one of my cover projects.
The singer wanted to record live drums, or at the very least, an electronic kit.
The logistics alone, though, of finding a time and space, setting up mics, renting the necessary gear, and so on, can be dizzying. Not to mention, getting a perfect performance from a drummer who still needed a lot of practice could be a grueling process (I know from experience).
So, I suggested we find a drum track that had already been created as a MIDI file and use it in our project.
We loaded up a competent drum VST instrument, added a few effects, and we were off to the races.
I wouldn’t suggest doing this with every project, but it can work quite well in scenarios where you can’t get your band together and there are just too many barriers to physically recording the tracks you need.
You Can Swap Out Virtual Instruments
Like the part you created but don’t like the virtual instrument you used? No problem – swap it out!
Want to hear the synth part as a piano part instead? No problem – swap it out!
Want to layer the same part except with different instruments? Simple, just copy and paste the clip to another track (I did this for a recent project myself and layered a synth pad, synth strings, and piano).
MIDI is insanely versatile. You can make fast changes, regardless of what it is – bad note, bad timing, an instrument you don’t like, or otherwise. And because of that, it’s awesome.
You Can Copy & Paste
Again, this kind of goes back to the “cheating” thing, but if you’re happy with a part you recorded, let’s say an eight-bar riff, and you just want to loop it through the whole song, you can either a) copy and paste until the end of the track, or b) depending on the DAW, turn the clip into a “loop” and drag it out to the end of the song.
But it doesn’t stop there.
There are a lot of songs out there that give the appearance of having a different verse and chorus, but in fact are basically the same. They just have the same riff playing at a different octave!
All you need to do to achieve this in a MIDI clip is select the part you want to take up and octave and drag it up. If you want it to be a bass part, drag it down in the piano roll.
How crazy is it that we can create variation like this on the fly? Too crazy? Maybe.
How Can I Create MIDI Files?
Chances are you can create MIDI files inside your DAW. But there are also guitar tab apps, piano composition apps, drum machine apps, and other software that allow you to export your project as MIDI (so you can load it up in another environment).
And when I say “apps,” I don’t necessarily just mean smartphone and tablet apps, although there are some smartphone apps that let you export to MIDI too. I mean music creation software in general, which is available in abundance.
So, the basic process would be:
- Create your MIDI file inside your DAW. You can do this using the methods described above.
- Export to MIDI. If your DAW doesn’t have this option, then find one that does.
That’s about all there is to it!
What Can I Do With My MIDI Files?
This is mostly up to you.
At one point, I was doing a lot of composing inside a guitar application called Power Tab Editor. Most people would probably think I’m crazy for doing that, but because I’m a guitarist, it worked for me.
Sometimes, I would simply use the program to sketch out or save musical ideas for prosperity. You never know when you might want to dig something up later.
At other times, I would compose keyboard parts, export to MIDI, bring it into the DAW, and then choose a software instrument to attach to it.
I also used to make drum tracks inside Hydrogen. Because the program had built-in sounds, I could save to WAV, but if I had a drum sound I liked better inside my DAW, I would just export to MIDI and import it in my DAW.
So, you can archive your files and you can also import them inside compatible software.
What else can you do?
Well, if you want to share your creations with the internet, that would be an option. If you wanted to sell it, maybe there would be an audience for that. MIDI files are also great for those times you want to make a remix or derivative work.
The sky isn’t necessarily the limit, but basically there are a lot of things you can do with your MIDI files.
Where Can I Find Free MIDI Files?
For whatever reason, MIDI files aren’t as in demand as they once were. You will find plenty of sites that were created in the earlier days of the internet, with only a few newer sites that still host these files and continue to add to their libraries. It could have something to do with interest in general, but that’s neither here nor there.
Free MIDI files are still available in abundance, and you can find them on sites like:
Even though some of these sites aren’t regularly updated anymore.
Midi In Music Definition, Final Thoughts
I hope you’ve had the opportunity to discover just how powerful and versatile MIDI is.
And we hope it makes a lot more sense now. We know these things can be confusing, but we’ve simplified to the extent possible.