What is MIDI and why is it so useful?
Literally, it means Musical Instrument Digital Interface, but what on earth does that mean?
We know it can be confusing, but don't worry, that's why we are here. It doesn't have to be so intimidating.
MIDI was first developed in the early 80s to be a standardised communication between different music hardware. MIDI was so popular that all major audio manufacturers quickly started using it and it's been around ever since! Being tweaked and tinkered with.
Let's go into more detail about what MIDI is and how we use it.
MIDI is a Universal language. It can interact with any kind of digital music machine you have, allowing computers, musical instruments and other hardware to communicate with each other!
Now, one of the biggest misconceptions I come across is that people think MIDI is the sound they are hearing. This isn't quite true. MIDI itself does not make sound, it is just a series of messages or a digital signal in a series of binary digits (0s and 1s).
Think of it as a digital control.
dI which note is pressed
the moment a note is pressed and released (Note On / Note Off)
the velocity (how hard it is pressed)
after-touch (when key pressure changes)
Vibrato (depending on your MIDI controller)
pitch bend (depending on your MIDI controller)
These messages are then interpreted by a MIDI Instrument - either hardware like your Electronic Keyboard and Synthesiser, or a part of a software like Logic Pro or alternative DAW.
It’s the MIDI Instruments interpretation of these messages that produces the sound. So when you are pressing your MIDI Keyboard, you are sending lots of messages of data to create your music!
When we look deeper into what MIDI is, we can see how fantastic and useful this development was for the musical world.
Advantages of MIDI
When you compare the size of audio files in your computer MIDI files are minuscule compared to MP3 or WAV, allowing your system and your audio projects to run a lot smoother and not overloading your computer making it sound like it's about to take off like a rocket!
Sharing with your friends
MIDI allows us to share our melodies, chord progressions and score with our fellow musicians easily, without things having to be written down, rather than having to painstakingly bounce and send over all your audio tracks or post sheets of music.
Allows ANYONE to create music
Gone are the days where you HAVE to hire a musician to play and record into your track (or having to learn the instrument yourself). It opens the world of music to anyone anywhere in the world and, most importantly, anyone on a budget. To record it live, we would need a treated room, a microphone, cables, the instrument and someone to play. It’s a lot! We can't all afford a studio setup!
Easily editable and changeable - It's flexible
Once this data is in your DAW, you're free to edit as much as your ears can handle! Accidents happen and creativity can change and be spur of the moment. Did you play a sharp note by mistake? Edit the MIDI. Want the velocity to change? Edit the MIDI. Don't like the piano and want to change it to a synthesised EDM classic? Edit the MIDI. Want to completely change the melody and add in a wicked harmony or chord progression? Just simply edit the MIDI.
You can edit your music on a train, on a plane, here or there or anywhere! (And have some green eggs and ham while you're at it).
Everything has its flaws, even MIDI. Despite how useful it is, it isn't all sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes we do have to compromise.
Disadvantages of Midi
Samples you use with MIDI can be unrealistic
You will always hear people ranting and raving about how unrealistic samples can be, and that can be true. Unless you pay top dollar, you will not get the same sound quality as a real instrument. However, we all have a budget to keep to and, most of the time, a bedroom studio to use. We can’t all set up a string quartet, mic each one in a treated room, and record our track.
MIDI still makes the most sense for a lot of creatives today.
It doesn't really work with vocals
You may have already guessed that MIDI doesn't quite gel with vocal lines or lyrical based melodies. You can find some pretty great samples of some Oohs and Aahs... and Errs...but if you want to add your heart to it, you might need to find the money to hire a vocalist and record as audio files.
It can lack emotion-It may not sound human
Despite how much you can change with MIDI, you simply won't get the same emotion as when a musician is playing the instrument they are an expert in. There is nothing like a musician playing their heart out and adding that layer of emotion to your melody.
There are ways around this if you can only play grade 1 in an instrument and can't afford a musician. One of my favourite things to do is use MIDI and a basic sample pack and then add in very simple sections of the melody of myself playing the instrument. With a bit of editing, it can add a great feeling of realism to your sound without having to go overboard with recording.
There's nothing like the feeling of bundling up the project and sending it off to another musician to receive a message back, “the samples aren't working”.
Remember, MIDI is just information.
MIDI requires everyone in the project to have the correct plugins and instruments in their DAW for the MIDI data to play the same way. Otherwise, the DAW either won’t load anything into the track and no sound will play OR it will automatically assign an instrument to the MIDI data and your specific lovely selected plugin sound will be assigned the preset piano. Not ideal.
Now you know what MIDI is, it’s time to integrate this powerful tool into your creative process.
Still confused about what MIDI is and how to use it? Check out this super useful explanation!
Want to find out more? Here is a fantastic source of information - everything MIDI!