MIDI for Beginners

You’ve probably seen some weird plug-ins in the back of your keyboard that you’ve avoided like the black plague.  They don’t take a normal quarter inch TRS male plug that you may be already familiar with.  They look like this:



TRS plug. Tip Ring Sleeve!




No, the weird one with all the holes looks more like this:




What is this?  It’s a MIDI plug!




What is it?



It’s MIDI, of course!  (We’re not talking about crappy soccer or lacrosse positions!)



MIDI is short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface.  Huh?  Yep, more tech jargon.  As a naive musician, think of it as a way that instruments talk to each other.  They speak MIDI.  You can yell all you want, but that drum machine won’t do what you say until you say it in something it can understand!  (Kind of like my last trip to Mexico…)



How can you speak MIDI besides taking a foreign language course?  Why, you’ll need a midi controller, you stupid tourist!





Think of a MIDI controller in this simple analogy:


Mouse is to computer,


MIDI controller is to MIDI device


MIDI controllers come in all shapes and sizes besides a mouse or a keyboard for your computer.  The one you’re probably most familiar with is the aforementioned keyboard controller.  Each of the keys corresponds to a MIDI number, which triggers a note that’s been assigned to the key.  However, it gets more interesting.  If you’re keyboard controller is equipped with certain types of sensors, you can control note velocity, timbre, sustain, and much more!


If a keyboard controller is hooked up to a drum machine, a sequencer, or a sampler, the specific sample (like, James Brown yelling or Michael Jackson singing) can be triggered.


Other types of MIDI controllers are as broad as you can imagine:  Some are made to resemble guitars (think of Pat Matheny or Allen Holdsworth), violins (Laurie Anderson, anyone?), drums (Phil Collins and all those 80s bands).  Or, some don’t have any analog to what is traditionally thought of as an instrument.  Take, for instance, the Korg KAOSS Pad:



The Kaoss pad! Behold the pretty lights…


Weird, right?  All those buttons and knobs are controllers within the controller, too!  WONDERFUL!


The possibilities are only limited to your imagination.  Imagine a drum machine controlling your sampler, telling the sampler to play a dog barking instead of a bass drum, a cat meowing for the snare, and a snake hissing for the high hat.  Why, you could have a whole zoo for your drummer!






The topic of MIDI is broad enough to fill volumes and volumes of texts that would make you go blind reading them.  Again, you don’t have to understand something completely to begin to use it like a fancy car (well, it helps a bit if you break down).  Just know that their are capabilities of certain instruments you may have lying around that you’ve never thought of.  Its like an orgy for instruments:  “I wonder what it would be like to put that drum machine and sequencer together, especially if I slave them to that sexy keyboard and…”  Well, you get the idea beyond the s and m fantasies..



Or, do we?  Slave and master play a big role in the MIDI world.  Imagine that you take the OUT of a device and plug it into the IN of another.  Beyond sexual fantasies, the master device controls the slave device.  A drum machine set at 120 BPM (beats per minute) can trigger an arpeggiator set at rapid 16th notes (sixteenth notes) to play along “in time” (or out of time, if you want to avant garde).


But, we can make it a menage a trois!  By simply daisy chaining a the IN’s and OUT’s of device, we can have multiple devices linked up and synced up!




No, its not like when hippies talk about coincidences in a quasi spiritual way!  MIDI devices need to by synced/sync’d up to talk to one another.  Think of it as a conductor for an orchestra or a referee in a soccer game.  MIDI is syncronized by a MIDI Beat Clock.


Problems with MIDI:  One immediate problem to anyone who has used MIDI is that it sounds robotic!  Duh, I say, but to humanize an  it takes so effort and ingenuity.  Some recording engineers use various methods, including purposefully putting mistakes and varying similar musical samples in a random or asymmetrical pattern to simulate reality.  Sampled sounds like a dixieland clarinet or alto saxophone playing the hits of John Coltrane are not so easy to replicate if you have only one sample per note.  Then again, if you’re striving for a robotic sound, look no further!


Another problem is that MIDI has SYNC problems.  We’re not talking about the kitchen sync; we’re talking about synchronization.  If you’re using multiple devices that are slaved and mastered, eventually one of them will have a delay associated with it.  This is a pain, especially when you’re playing live and want a MIDI event (ex. a key pressed on a keyboard MIDI controller) to instantly trigger something.  What you’ll get is a slight delay!  And that’s not music, that’s terrible!


To counteract MIDI sync problems, make sure to have no more than 50 ft of cable between devices.  In fact, rule of thumb:  put the devices as close to one another as possible.  Also, try to daisy-chain as few devices as you can.  This will help to ensure that the MIDI clock signal doesn’t reach devices at different times (and even tiny delays, measured in milliseconds, WILL make a difference).


MIDI is also useful when you’re working with Logic, Ableton, or any other DAW (digital audio workspace). But, that again, is more of a topic for another fine day.