Tag Archives: what is midi

What is MIDI? A Noob’s Overview

Sometimes there’s something that seems like everyone already knows except you. This can be the case today with the sheer amount of info online about MIDI EXCEPT the very basics of what it is!

You’ll see all kinds of info about sequenicing, usb midi, and all kinds of stuff, but this post is for the noob who isn’t afraid to ask the basic question of ‘What is MIDI?’.

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface and can be thought of as a computer language for musical instruments. The term “interface” can be misleading by today’s common usage of the word, since now an interface is mostly thought of as physical devices such as usb audio interfaces which often have both audio and MIDI ports on them. Sometimes the port itself is referred to an interface, so this contributes to the confusion of newcomers.

So in a sense MIDI encompasses both hardware and data because it is a specification, not just a physical or digital thing. When somebody says or writes MIDI, they could be talking about a port, a file, a cable, a sequence, or all of the above! MIDI data can be note information like velocity, pitch, channel, duration and other parameters.

In the early days MIDI it was largely used for connecting various hardware together like synths, drum machines, stand-alone midi sequencers, and even…. lights??!! Yep lights. This is still actually done since midi is a great way to synchronize music to lighting for stage productions. The early 1980s saw a huge influx of new electronic instruments, but digital recording still had not been perfected, so all of this equipment was largely still being recorded to tape. MIDI enabled musicians to connect all this new gear together and synchronize it musically.

In addition to all of this, there’s also something called ‘sysex’ data. Sysex stands for System Exclusive and it still uses the MIDI protocol for information transfer, however it is not musical information, but instead is information about the particular piece of gear like a synth or drum machine. This is useful because you can store information from a synth to an external device using sysex data. In the early days you could use a sysex data recorder to store the information about that piece of hardware such as a patch or settings. Some hardware even featured a ‘tape out’ which allowed you to connect a standard cassette tape recorder to capture data from the synth.

Once personal computers became more available to the public, MIDI started to evolve even more. Way before we were recording audio on computers, we were already sequencing MIDI. In fact, digital audio workstations such as Cubase and MOTU Performer started out as pure MIDI sequencers until computer power caught up to feature audio recording as well. The Atari ST computer came with a standard MIDI port buit-in to the computer and was heavily used by producers such as Trent Reznor in the early days of computer sequenced music.

Other computers like the PC, Mac and Amiga relied on serial ports and special MIDI to serial adapters and cables to make connections to midi hardware. This eventually evolved into USB MIDI and software synths. Today it is possible to work with MIDI 100% in a computer with no external hardware need. However, since the core protocol of MIDI has never changed, even the oldest MIDI devices can still function with modern computer hardware.

This extremely flexible system has remained the standard for musical data and because of it’s longevity, electronic music equipment made as far back as the early 1980s is still widely used today! MIDI is cool.

Thank you for reading and I hope this article helped you understand exactly what MIDI is.

How To Select a MIDI Controller – Buying Guide

Akai MPK Mini

There are so many MIDI controllers out there today and if you are on the market to buy one, all of the options and choices can be a bit overwhelming. So how do you select one? Do you just pick the one with the most stars on Amazon? Or do you pick the most expensive one?

The truth is neither of those are the wisest way to purchase. What you should first do before buying, or even considering which ones to buy, is ask yourself a few questions.

  1. Will you be using the controller for home studio use, or live use, or both?
  2. what type of playing style do you have?
  3. How much space do you have?
  4. Will you be using the controller for computer use only, or will you be controlling hardware as well?

1.  Home or live use will help determine what types of features you will want on the controller. For example, if you are using a controller live for mostly keyboard playing in a traditional sense as if it were a replacement for your stage piano or synthesizer, then you may want to look for something with at least 61 full sized keys.

Novation Impulse 61

The Novation Impulse 61 is an excellent choice for such a controller. It gives you 61 full sized semi-weighted keys, 9 faders, 8 knobs, 8 pads, as well as pitch and modulation controls. It’s a bit on the pricey side at $369, but you get a whole lot of controls at your fingertips, plus it comes with Ableton Live Lite, which is a great lightweight version of the famous Ableton Live Software.

Midiplus i61

If the Novation is too complicated and you just need something simple for playing piano or synth parts, the MIDIPLUS i61 is a cool and affordable option at only $83! MIDIPLUS is a company from Taiwan that I like quite a bit. I have one of their Classic 49 controllers that I love and it fits my needs. The i61 is a simple 61 key keyboard with full sized keys, volume fader and pitch/mod wheels.

2. What playing style do you have? This is related to question one, but if you are planning on using your controller more for controlling fx, DAW faders, filters, and drums, then one with 61 keys really isn’t going to be what you want. You might not even want one with ANY keys!

Novation Launch Control XL

The Novation Launch Control XL is just such a controller. It is mostly geared towards Ableton, but you could use it to control just about anything you could imagine. It has 24 knobs, 8 faders, and 16 buttons, plus transport controls. This would be perfect for live performance with Ableton in a compact size. Plus it’s only about $150!

Akai MPD218

The Akai MPD218 is another keyless controller that falls into the category of a ‘pad controller’. This type of controller is perfect if you wish to trigger rhythmic samples or for finger-drumming with soundfonts, Ableton or Reason.

 3. How much space do you have? This is one I have to think about all the time. I live in Brooklyn and in a tiny apartment. Things that take up tons of room are really not even options for me. This is also why I don’t really do hardware synths anymore.


Korg NanoKey2


Korg NanoKontrol2

Korg’s Nano Series Is in my opinion the best series for those with limited space. They take up virtually no space at all, have great feeling controls, and have a lot of configuration via software that comes bundled with the controllers. They make a lot of different controllers to meet your needs, like keyboards, control surfaces, and pad controllers. All of which are very affordable.

4. Do you need to control hardware? This is an important question. A lot of MIDI controllers out there today do not feature actual MIDI ports on them anymore! This is because the majority of people are using them plugged into computer via USB. However if you want to control a hardware MIDI sampler or synth module, a controller with external power supply and actual MIDI ports!

MidiPlus Classic 49

Midiplus Classic 49

The Midiplus Classic 49 is a great example of an all around workhorse controller. It has 49 full sized keys, 9 faders, 8 knobs, pitch and mod wheels, USB and hardware MIDI Ports and the ability to use external power, plus a sustain pedal input. I have one of these myself and I love it. I use it for home and live use. It has just enough keys and controls to make some interesting programming, but not so much that it’s overwhelming.

Wait! What about Linux???

Well I use Linux as my main system and have used all kinds of MIDI controllers from many different manufactures, and I have yet to plug in one that Linux does’t recognize.

Brands I have personally used in Linux are:

  • M-Audio
  • Akai Professional
  • KORG
  • Edirol
  • Generic midi cable from China

Every single one has worked plug and play! But if you are unsure, google it and find your answer!

Anyway, hopefully this was helpful and whatever controller you end up buying, have fun!