TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 54 MIDI Continued

Last week we considered – What is MIDI and what is it good for? This week we’ll continue by looking in some detail, at the type of equipment you will need for a MIDI setup.

We mentioned last week that various MIDI compatible synths, keyboards, sound modules, drum machines, computers and sequencers can ‘talk’ to each other. And that a MIDI interface is required when using a computer. So what part do all these various devices play and how do they work together?

Alesis Q25 USB/MIDI – 25 Keys, Keyboard Controller.

A basic MIDI setup will need…..

  • MIDI Sound Generator: This is what it says it is. It generates the sounds you will need for your music. It can be a synth, sound module, drum machine or sampler. The first synths equipped with MIDI were Sequential Circuits’ Prophet 600 and Yamaha’s DX7 (both in 1983). The latter became an almost instant hit, selling in huge numbers.
  • MIDI Interface: We briefly discussed the interface in last week’s blog. It allows your computer to receive and send MIDI messages.
  • MIDI Controller: These are devices that can control other devices. Initially, controllers were only keyboards. But today, there are controllers for keyboards, guitars, xylophones, drums and wind controllers for saxophones (and other wind instruments).
  • MIDI Sequencer: This device is often part of your computer software or DAW, but you can buy stand alone sequencers. It records the MIDI data and can also play it back. Remember, it’s not recording audio but the performance information.

Today’s equipment often combines one or more of the above MIDI essentials. For example, a particular synth could incorporate a sound generator, MIDI controller and sequencer, all in one device and maybe include a sampler too.

MIDI Sound Generator

These devices are the core to your MIDI setup. You will need at least one sound generator. However, if you’re home studio is mainly MIDI based, you will undoubtedly have several. As well as the hardware synths, modules and drum machines we’ve already mentioned, there are software synths and computer soundcards. Some sound generators are better than others. So let’s look at some in detail.

Korg microKorg Synth & Vocoder – Analogue Modelling, 37 Velocity Sensitive Keys.


Synths consist of sounds which are generated and a keyboard to play them on. Synths vary tremendously in size, complexity and price. Compare Korg’s 37 key model above to the 88 key Nord Stage 2 Series 88 HA88, below.

If your MIDI setup is centred around a keyboard, you need to consider…..

Keyboard sensitivity or feel: the cheaper instruments normally tend to dispense with keys that are weighted. In other words, it won’t feel like a real piano keyboard when played. If you’ve been classically trained, a weighted keyboard may be essential for you. If you’re an enthusiastic but not very skilled player, you may be able to save some money by buying an instrument without. Try both types, then decide which you prefer.

The Incredible Nord Stage 2 Series 88 HA88 – Hammer Action Weighted Keyboard.

Quality of the sounds: most expensive instruments from respectable manufacturers have hundreds of fantastic sounds. But there are some synths at the cheaper end of the scale that have great sounds too. Listen to as many different synths as possible, in your price range, to determine which are your favourites.

One thing you might want to consider is General MIDI. This is a protocol which provides consistent sounds between different MIDI instruments and makes. We’ll look at it in more detail next week.

Polyphony: generally, the more keys you can play simultaneously the better. 32 note polyphony is common these days. It may sound like a lot – after all we only have 10 fingers – but you can use up those 32 notes quite quickly. Some synths have sound ‘patches’ that use several different samples layered on top of each other to produce the desired effect.

Let’s consider an extreme example, a synth ‘patch’ may include 4 different voice/choir samples and 4 separate strings layered to form a particular sound. That single sound patch has used up 8 of your polyphonic voices. Meaning your 32 note polyphony has just been reduced by a quarter, to 4! So always go for the highest polyphony you can afford.

Rick Wakeman In The Early Days – Surrounded By Keyboards.

Multitimbrality: most conventional instruments e.g. violin, piano, classical guitar only produce one timbre, one specific sound. Although, they are certainly capable of producing variations in tone. When synths first came out, they were able to produce very different timbres by twiddling or tweaking various knobs or sliders. But they could still only produce one timbre at any one time.

Rick In 2010. A Powerful, Modern Multitimbral Synth/Keyboard (Or Two) Can Effectively Replace A Whole Stack of Keyboards Or Other Instruments.

Today, some keyboards/synths can produce multiple timbres simultaneously. Either layering different timbres on top of each other or by splitting the keyboard up into distinct sections. So that the left hand can play a bass line whilst the right hand plays electric piano, for instance.Think of a multitimbral synth as one instrument containing several specific instruments, with the ability to play multiple instruments simultaneously.

Of course the concept of multitimbrality ties in directly with polyphony. The more timbres you use at any one time the quicker you use up your polyphonic voices.

But it has become almost standard in many quality synths today. So again, when testing out synths/keyboards consider multimbrality and polyphony together. One affects the other.

When looking at how this all fits in with MIDI, most modern instruments will accept data on all 16 MIDI channels simultaneously. Some synths allow you to dynamically allocate voices which means providing you don’t want to use all your voices all the time, the synth’s resources will go much further.

The Classic Korg Triton Synth – 62 Voices & Built-In Sequencer.

Sequencing: some synths come with built-in sequencers. These instruments allow you to record and play back (or programme) multiple tracks of a performance. Essentially, they’re complete mini studios.

Manufacturers’ designs can be quite different. So take a close look at the various options on the market to see which instrument/sequencer combination works for you. Some are more user friendly than others.

Roland SP-555 Sampler & Pattern Sequencer.

Instead of generating sounds like a synth, Samplers are sound modules containing short audio ‘samples’ of real instruments e.g. violin, sax, drums or sound effects e.g. explosions, dog barks or gunshots. These samples are then played back on a keyboard or triggered by a sequencer.

You could for example, sample (record) percussive sounds like a car door closing, a pane of glass smashing or someone coughing and use them to enhance a drum track. These sounds and many more (you wouldn’t normally associate with music) have been used for just that purpose.

Logic EXS24 Sampler.

There are hundreds of Soft Synth plug-ins available for use with your music software or DAW. Although not all plug-ins work with every music/recording programme. These software equivalents of stand alone synths and sound modules are usually cheaper because there’s no hardware cost involved.

The Boss DR-880 Dr Rhythm Drum Machine.

Drum Machines

Many drum machines contain several different drum sounds and have a sequencer which allows you to programme those sounds into song patterns. Sounds are usually produced by hitting pads designated for kick, snare etc.

A Small Part Of A Drum Patch On Keyboard, With Instruments Assigned To Specific Keys – Showing Hi-Hat, Kicks, Snares, Crash, Ride & Tom.

Most good synths or sampler keyboards contain a few drum ‘patches’ that can be spread across the entire width of the keyboard. A drum patch could start with various kicks assigned to the low keys, snare hits and rolls next, then toms, cymbals and hi-hat towards the upper keys. Maybe a few percussion instruments at the top end of the keyboard e.g. tambourine, cow bell etc.

Sound Modules

Think of a synth without a keyboard. Or a drum machine without pads to strike. Sound modules provide the sounds but are triggered by a sequencer, master synth or other type of MIDI controller. They tend to be very compact and cheaper than their keyboard equivalents. So if you have a good quality master keyboard controller, you can set up a few sound modules in a daisy chain to work with it.


MIDI Interface

As we saw last week, MIDI Interfaces can be quite basic In/Out boxes or provide numerous Ins and Outs for more complex setups, like M Audio’s box above. The connections are usually either 5 Pin-DIN or USB. Connections for modern Mac computers tend to favour USB. PCs use USB or sometimes parallel ports. Whatever your setup there’s a connector and interface out there that can hook you up.

Yamaha WX5 Wind MIDI Controller.

MIDI Controller

The most popular MIDI controller is still probably the keyboard. But guitarists, drummers and wind players can also be part of the wonderful world of MIDI. The MIDI controller can be regarded as the ‘master’ that controls the ‘slaves’, which can be other synths, sound modules or a drum machine. The controller can also be a sequencer or computer.

MIDI Sequencer

Logic, Cubase, Pro Tools and other good programmes include a sequencer. There is no unanimous agreement as to which one is best, so you should check out as many programmes as possible to see which one suits your style of working.

You can buy stand alone sequencers and some synths/keyboards also include on board sequencing.

Pro Tools MIDI & Audio Tracks Alongside Each Other.

The software programme choice usually provides the most comprehensive facilities. Being able to view your MIDI tracks alongside any audio tracks your session may have on a good sized screen is invaluable. Editing and other options are typically more extensive too.

MIDI Messages

We looked at Performance data last week. This information pertains to note-on/off, velocity, after touch, pitch bend and vibrato messages.

As well as the performance data, there are other messages that MIDI can communicate. Control Change messages deal with expression data. For example, volume, pan and modulation.

System Common messages provide information on which MIDI channel the performance data should be sent to and which sound or ‘patch’ should be played as well as data on timing, master volume and effects settings.

System Exclusive messages deal with data about a specific device.

In a live performance or a studio setting where you may have only one sound generator, MIDI can select different sounds at different points in a song e.g. ‘Super Electric Piano’ for the verse and ‘Rock Piano’ for the chorus.

MIDI Modes

There are four operating modes which can affect the way a device (synth, sound module or drum machine) responds to MIDI messages.

Mode 1: Omni On/Poly – your synth will play polyphonically but ignores MIDI data. In other words it will try to play whatever you send it on whatever channel.

Mode 2: Omni On/Mono – this is the mono equivalent of Mode 1. This Mode is not commonly used, but is sometimes useful if you want a polyphonic synth to emulate an old mono synth. Messages from any of the 16 MIDI channels are all sent to the same voice.

Mode 3: Omni Off/Poly – in this mode the synth plays polyphonically but only responds to messages on its own MIDI channel. This is the most commonly used mode, especially if a sequencer is involved.

The Mode 3 diagram above, shows the recipient device is assigned to MIDI channel six. MIDI channel messages received can then be rendered polyphonically.

Mode 4: Omni Off/Mono – this is the mono equivalent of Mode 3. This Mode was more useful before multitimbral synths came along, allowing some early MIDI synths to play 4 different sounds over 4 separate MIDI channels. Although it is still commonly used by guitar synth players who assign each string to a separate MIDI channel.

MIDI can be a really ‘deep’ subject. But you don’t have to know it inside out to be able to make good use of it. Start out with a simple setup and add to it as your knowledge and experience grows.

Next week we’ll look at General MIDI, sequencing, recording and editing MIDI data.

TCM Music Group and TCM Mastering provide full recording, mixing, mastering and production services from their facilities in the UK and Nashville, USA

Producing music takes time and effort. Give your music that final shine by using our online mastering service. TCM take pride in providing a professional, fast and affordable service to the music community.

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