TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 53 MIDI – What Is It Good For?

MIDI…..what is it good for? Some die-hard traditionalists might answer – absolutely nothing!

War – Released By Motown 1969.

This sentiment, worked well for Motown in 1969 when they released ‘War’, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and made famous by Edwin Starr. But in the right hands, MIDI is an incredibly useful tool.

Hans Zimmer’s Legendary Orchestral Samples Are Used In MIDI Scores, By Musicians & Studios Worldwide.

With enough skill, a song or instrumental put together using MIDI can sound as dynamic, creative and expressive as any track put together using more traditional techniques. You’ll need a little patience to learn the basics and a degree of skill to take full advantage of all it can offer… with all technology, you need to know your equipment to get the best out of it.

MIDI can be used in a band setting with other musicians or can be the core of a one man band setup in a home studio. It’s also an extremely useful tool,  if you aspire to compose music for TV or film.


Some iPhone Ringtones Are Available in MP3 Or MIDI Format.

Its use is no longer restricted to the music studio. MIDI is used in many live performances and can now be used to control lighting equipment, as well as video images on stage. And partly because of its small file size, it has been used in ‘ring tones’ for phones (although recently, real compressed audio of popular hits has become the norm).

What Is MIDI?

The Musical Instrument Digital Interface is basically a communications protocol that allows MIDI compatible instruments like synthesisers, sequencers, sound modules, drum machines and computers to talk to each other. MIDI messages are sent and received through MIDI cables to MIDI ports, usually located on the back of the devices.

M-Audio USB/MIDI Interface.

A MIDI interface allows MIDI message exchanges with a computer. You can buy MIDI interface boxes with 2 ins and 2 outs if your needs are basic .But if you have a more complicated MIDI setup you may need something bigger that can handle 8 ins and 8 outs. The number of connections depends entirely on how many instruments or devices you will need hooked up at any one time.

5-Pin DIN MIDI Cable & MIDI Interface w/USB To 5-Pin DIN.

Some devices can connect with a computer and communicate MIDI through a USB cable. But normally, the cables have 5-pin DIN connectors on each end and plug into a MIDI IN, MIDI OUT or MIDI THRU port.

The IN port receives MIDI messages, the OUT port sends messages and the THRU port is used to create a daisy chain of devices. It enables messages received by one device to be sent out to another device’s IN port.

MIDI Ports In, Out & Thru.

MIDI data travels in one direction. It flows from the OUT port of a device to the IN port of another device. Data going through the THRU port of a device will have come from the first device in a chain. It is not generated by the device whose THRU port it’s going through.

Basic MIDI Setup With Two Keyboards.

So by playing a ‘master’ MIDI synth, you can trigger sounds on another MIDI device, synth or sound module. You can play multiple sounds from different synths at the same time, creating extremely rich and sophisticated musical textures.

MIDI Setup For 3 Keyboards. Note How The THRU Port Is Used To Daisy Chain Devices.

MIDI data can be recorded by a sequencer or computer, then played back. That data can be manipulated and edited in various ways. Note pitch, volume and length can be altered and mistakes can be fixed. All notes can be transposed, to play back in a different musical key. And different instrument samples can be assigned to the sequence data. So that a melody ‘recorded’ using a violin sample, can be played back by a guitar sample or any other instrument sample for that matter.

Basic MIDI Setup With Computer & Keyboard.

Sequencers allow musicians to build up song arrangements one track at a time, enabling those with good ears and a creative streak (who lack formal music theory or expertise on an instrument), to produce large and complex musical scores from basic musical techniques.

On most good quality MIDI keyboards, when a key is depressed an electronic signal is produced which tells the internal circuitry of the keyboard which note is played, how loud and for how long. And if you monitored the audio outputs of the keyboard, you would hear the note that’s being played. At the same time that the audio is produced, MIDI messages or signals are generated. Those signals include…..

Performance Data Messages:

  • Note On/Off: which note is played and its duration e.g. middle C for 1.5 seconds.
  • Velocity: how hard the key is hit, producing a soft or loud note.
  • After-touch: is there any change in the pressure on the key after the initial hit? For example, sometimes this is used to control or add vibrato to a sound.
  • Pitch Bend & Vibrato: is the pitch bend wheel or vibrato used while the key is depressed and by how much?

Remember, unlike an audio signal MIDI data does not contain sound as such, just performance information. There are other types of messages, which we’ll look at in more detail next week.

Diagram Showing MIDI Connections From Keyboard To 2 Sound Modules And Audio Out From All Three Going To Amp.

So let’s say you have a master keyboard, and a couple of sound modules set up in a daisy chain configuration and you want the master keyboard or a sequencer to control all the devices.

Each MIDI connection can handle 16 individual channels of MIDI data in a basic system (although there are multi-port MIDI interfaces which can handle many more). Each device can be programmed to receive MIDI data on 1 or more of the 16 channels.

The MIDI channels system can be compared to the way we receive TV channels. Your TV can receive many channels of programmes that are being transmitted, but you choose to tune in to one particular channel at a time.

The MIDI cable consists of 3 wires. One is a shield whilst the other two carry the data. So to send multiple ‘chunks’ of information, the MIDI messages are sent using a channel code. This tells the device on the receiving end which channel the data following the code is for.

On channel 2, you could assign a Strings sample on your first sound module. And on channel 9 you could assign a Brass section to the second sound module. Your particular MIDI keyboard or synth will have a System Parameters Menu – so check your owner’s manual for specifics.

Once you’ve assigned the various channels, your master keyboard can send the performance information to the various devices in the daisy chain. Each device only responds to the data received on their assigned channel. The first sound module in the chain after the master keyboard, receives all the data but only responds to the messages on channel 2, then sends on the data to the second sound module which responds to the messages on channel 9.

So even this basic MIDI setup allows up to 16 different instruments to be controlled at one time, from the master keyboard. Alternatively, if you have a multitimbral device, you can play up to 16 different parts from that one device.

Next week we continue our look at MIDI – what equipment you need for a MIDI setup, the different modes and types of messages.

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