If you’ve been into making your own music, you may have come across something called MIDI. This game-changer has been around since the 80s (it was invented in 1983). Trust me, if you’re someone manually making electronic music by drawing in triggers, MIDI is going to make you a happy person.
I studied music production back in the late 2000s. The college I was at had us work on Cubase, a German digital audio workstation (DAW). We were taught to draw in triggers, but the room also had keyboards that had MIDI ports.
Despite having had piano lessons and being able to play okay, I didn’t bother to link up one of the keyboards. I think I was just being a pansy. I figured out quickly when things became more practical that working with electronic things isn’t my forte. Sad fact, I still freak out a little when I see a patch bay.
We were taught about MIDI and how it worked, so it’s not like I was clueless. Sigh. Regrets. When I think of how much better my compositions could have turned out, because honestly, I found the old CDs that I put my projects on, and I didn’t get how I even passed. Truly terrible.
MIDI isn’t just going to give you piano music. With VST plugins (virtual studio technology), the sky is the limit. More on that later.
What is MIDI and how do you use it?
What is MIDI and How Does it Work?
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Essentially, it allows MIDI synthesizers (keyboards that support MIDI) and MIDI controllers to communicate with music software via binary code. If you’re into computers, you’re likely familiar with binary code. Again, not my forte. It blows my mind that amazing music can be simply by 1s and 0s. That’s what binary code is.
1 is on, 0 is off. The MIDI controller or synthesizer sends data to the program which then reads the binary code and from that, it knows how long the notes are, what notes are being played, how loudly, and how softly. It even can tell whether there’s vibrato or pitch shifts, like when you bend a guitar string.
Midi supports 128 notes. To give you an idea, a piano has 88 keys which are individual notes. This means you can get even higher or lower pitches. Plus, fretless instruments like violins, cellos, double bass produce frequencies in between those available on fretted instruments and pianos. Although, bending a note on a guitar will give you some of that.
I’m sure you’re beginning to see how MIDI is an amazing tool for musicians.
How to Use MIDI
You’re going to need a DAW and MIDI controller or a keyboard that supports MIDI. Sometimes, you may need an adapter to use your controller with the software.
MIDI cables have a very particular set of pins. MIDI ports are also clearly marked on the keyboards, so there’s no mistaking it. Some controllers work via USB.
You will need to read the instructions on your controller and your DAW since not all of them work the same way. But it’s usually that you will connect the cables to the sound card or pop in the USB and then selecting the MIDI controller from your DAW and starting a track. Some DAWs like Pro Tools automatically will scan for any linked MIDI controllers.
Choosing a MIDI Controller
Here you can decide whether you want a keyboard-style MIDI controller or a pad-style controller. The keyboards will be intuitive if you already play the keyboard or piano. The pads may be more intuitive for drummers. But overall, it’s just a matter of getting used to your chosen controller.
Some keyboards aren’t the size of a full piano, so just a heads-up if this is how you’re used to playing. You can find 88-key controllers if you prefer. Some people like having a keyboard and a pad to create melodies and drum beats more intuitively, but there are keyboards that also include pad sections for drums, best of both worlds.
If you want a controller that works with most systems, a USB one might be best. Some computers and DAWs require adapters to be able to use the 5-pin Midi cables.
Here are a few options to consider:
Arturia Keystep Pro
The Arturia Keystep Pro is a keyboard with a drum sequencer that’s highly portable too. You can integrate it with a variety of drum machines thanks to the drum gate outputs. The functionality is as such that you can control everything from the controller itself. Very handy. If you’re used to full-size piano or keyboard keys, these keys can feel a little dinky, but it makes up for that with a lot of functionality.
ROLI Seaboard Block
The ROLI Seaboard Block looks very interesting, that’s for sure. If you like to experimenting with controlling instruments in different ways, this controller is good one. The keys are sensitive, responding to different ways of pressing the keys to alter the sound. You can even use it with Apple devices since it has IOS support. Sorry, Android users, this one isn’t for you unless you have a Mac or PC.
M-Audio Keystation 88 MK3
If you prefer a full complement of keys, check out the 88-key model of the M-Audio Keystation. It comes with velocity sensitive keys, modulators, octave switch, and a host of other nifty functions. Again, Android users are out of luck, but it hooks up to your computer (PC and Mac) via USB. IOS users, rejoice. This controller connects via the Apple-to-USB camera adapter.
PreSonus ATOM 16-pad Performance Controller
If you don’t have a DAW, the PreSonus ATOM 16-pad Performance Controller comes with Studio One and Ableton Live Lite. There are eight assignable pad banks which should make your life easier. You can also enjoy software plug-ins, so you can just get on with the business of creating music. The pads are velocity sensitive too.
CME XKey (25-key)
The CME XKey is compatible with Windows, Mac, Linux, Android and IOS. It’s also highly portable with a rugged design. The layout is simple and sure, it doesn’t have as many features as some other of the other controllers, but it has polyphonic after touch and velocity sensitive keys along with a few other basics. You’ll rely heavily on your DAW with this one, but if you’re on a budget, this controller is pretty good.
M-Audio Oxygen Pro (49-key)
If you like faders, knobs, buttons, pads, and keys, the M-Audio Oxygen Pro combines all those into one controller. This is definitely a versatile option. You can assign the knobs and buttons for your convenience and compose with ease.
Choosing a DAW if You Don’t Already Have One
As mentioned before, MIDI works by sending data. If you have a MIDI controller, chances are that it doesn’t make any sound. The exception is a keyboard that is an actual keyboard but has a MIDI out port. But either way, you need a DAW.
Just be sure to check out the system requirements, especially the DAWs you need to pay for. An entry-level computer won’t cut it for those music software offerings. You may be able to get by with a less powerful computer with the free DAWs.
The drawback with more modest computers is that if you like to add a lot of tracks and use a larger complement of instruments and effects, you really need a computer that can handle it. But to get started and see if you actually enjoy creating music with MIDI, you don’t need top-of-the-range products or hardware. You can always upgrade at a later stage.
Those DAWs that work on entry-level computers are usually designed to be easier for computers to handle, so see how it goes.
Here are some of the DAWs that you can use MIDI on:
Garageband- Mac (Free)
If you’re looking for a free option to keep costs low, you can use Garageband. You can connect your MIDI controller via USB-to-Firewire cable in the USB port. Some older keyboards and MIDI controllers will need an adapter. You can also import MIDI files into Garageband to edit as you please.
Logic Pro- Mac (Paid)
Also from Apple, Logic Pro is software that you pay for to download. You can connect your MIDI keyboard using MIDI cables. One from the keyboard to the sound card or audio input interface, and another that runs back to your keyboard. If your keyboard supports MIDI, you should have a MIDI in port and a MIDI out port. You can then install it and set it up as a controller and get cracking with your compositions.
Pro Tools- PC and Mac (Paid and Free)
In college, I was taught that Pro Tools is the industry standard, and while we didn’t work on it, presumably because the college preferred to use Windows machines, I think that little fact is a pretty good indication of its quality.
I see that it works on both PC and Mac now, just bear in mind you need at least Windows 10. Your machine also needs to be powerful enough to run the software. You can check out the system requirements for both Mac and PC here.
Although you need to pay for the full versions, you can get a lite version, Pro Tools | First, which has a few effects and VST instruments and supports MIDI files and controllers.
Cubase- PC and Mac (Paid)
It may not be the industry standard, but you’ll do just fine with Cubase. It has really great functionality and it supports MIDI and it supports many VST plugins so you can create awesome music to your heart’s content. Cubase Elements is the cheapest and you get two other versions with even better functionality. Check out the system requirements here.
Cakewalk- PC (Free)
Cakewalk is a good alternative to Garageband for Windows. This DAW is pretty versatile and supports MIDI without breaking the bank or needing an expensive computer. Windows 10 and 4GB will get you what you need here. It includes a range of virtual instruments and effects so you can let your creativity flow.
Reason- PC and Mac (Paid)
Another popular choice, Reason is well equipped to handle MIDI. You also don’t need the latest computer to run this software. It comes with instruments and effects built-in. If you want to get Reason +, a rack option, you can do a free trial.
Presonus Studio One- PC and Mac (Paid)
If you want a simple user interface, Presonus Studio One is a good option. While you do have to pay for this software, you can also do a free trial just to see if you like it. In addition to all the basics, you can also produce your own score so if you want to share your compositions, you can just export them. You can check out the system requirements here.
Reaper- PC, Mac, Linux (Paid)
Reaper has good functionality, although if you want instruments, you will have to purchase third-party ones. You’ll definitely need to do this if you want to use MIDI as opposed to directly recording real-world instruments into the software. The system requirements are low which is a plus if you don’t have a powerful computer.
You can download and use Reaper for free for 60 days. After that, you can choose between a discounted license for private use or a commercial license if you intend to put your music out there and make money off it.
Using MIDI To Write Scores
I will be the first to tell you that manually writing or placing notes onto a staff with all the dynamic markings and effects too, is a schlep. So you’ve seen DAWs that can capture the score as you play. But there is also another option if all you’re trying to do is write sheet music.
Musescore is an open source program that’s free and is for writing sheet music and tabs with or without guitar chord charts and the like. I’ve often used this program to show chords and scales in articles. Using a MIDI controller to write out your tabs and notes, life-changing.
The only issue is that if you’re making guitar tabs, because you can play the same note in a number of places on the guitar, you may need to manually edit those to use the frets and strings you prefer. But for writing out sheet music, there are no problems there.
So far, it only works on Windows 64-bit. Still, if that’s what you’ve got, simply plug in your MIDI device, switch it on, go into Musescore, and start writing.
MIDI opens up a whole new world. It’s easier than ever to create amazing music. The limits are your imagination. There are affordable options for both DAWs and MIDI controllers that allow all musicians to explore their creativity.
If going new is problematic, look out for good second-hand controllers, just be sure that they work. With a pre-loved controller and free DAW, you’re all set. As you saw, you don’t always need a fancy computer, or even a computer at all. Some controllers work with cellphones too.
A word of caution, if you’re going to put your music out into the world and especially if you’re going to make money from it, make sure that you have a correctly licensed version of your chosen DAW.