No doubt, if you’re asking yourself ‘what is a MIDI interface?’, then you’re probably not sure what MIDI is either. MIDI is, in my opinion, the most powerful and versatile tool that we have for making music. Using MIDI in your DAW opens up a whole new realm of endless possibilities. If you already have a DAW installed on your computer, then you’ll have access to MIDI, but you may not know how to use. Don’t worry, I didn’t at first either. Not sure what a DAW is? Check out my complete guide to DAWs. In this article I’m going to give you’re a thorough breakdown of MIDI and MIDI interfaces. First, we need to look at what MIDI is. Sit back and relax, by the end of this article you’ll be fully informed about all things MIDI.
What is MIDI?
MIDI is an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. That term alone is pretty confusing, what does it even mean? Think of MIDI as data that enables computers, musical instruments, and audio hardware to communicate with each other. Its development came to fruition in the 1980s to help sync digital music hardware that was going through a sort of revolution at the time. Think of any music from the 80s, no doubt synthesisers, sequencers, electronic drums, and over processed snare drums with too much reverb come to mind. At least that’s what does for me. Yes, the 1980s were a time of digital revolution for music creation and it’s never stopped evolving since.
Thanks to MIDI, different manufactures’ products can be compatible with each other. It was the founder of Roland, Ikutaro Kakehashi who came up with unique idea to create a standardises instrument language. After he proposed the idea to multiple manufactures, it was clear it was a very complex and ambitious project. Nonetheless the developers of MIDI perused, having to find a way to make 1980s technology synchronise and communicate with each other flawlessly. Despite the challenges, in 1982 they finished the project, changing the face of music technology forever. MIDI is now even more popular, accessible and easier to use than ever before.
How does MIDI work?
In simple terms, MIDI sends information. It doesn’t send any music or audio, just data in the form 1s and 0s (binary digitals). The data that’s sent contains important information like what note(s) are being played, their duration, velocity, vibrato, pitch bend use, and after-touch (when the notes pressure changes).
What does MIDI look like?
MIDI looks like basic coloured blocks and it’s really effortless to use. You can either program the notes, which may sound complicated, but it’s actually just a case of using a ‘daw tool’ in your DAW, or you can play them on a MIDI instrument like a keyboard. Take a look at the image above, this is what a piano roll looks like in a DAW. You can see the notes as coloured rectangles, beside them you can see the time/beats, note duration, and velocity. Even after you’ve recorded MIDI notes, you can trim, move, or adjust the parameters in any way afterwards with your mouse. This is what makes MIDI so great, nothing is permanent, and it’s easy to use, even for a beginner.
Where do the instruments and sounds come from?
So, if MIDI is just data, where does the audio come from? Great questions. The answer is VST plugins, such as virtual instruments. VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology, and VST instrument plugins basically replicate real instruments by using recorded samples. You get VST instrument plugins for virtually any instrument you can think of. The technology for VST plugins has come a long, long way since their early development. So much so, that you’ll probably find it hard to distinguish the difference between virtual instruments and their real-life equivalents.
A lot of DAWs come with their own VST plugins but these tend to be a bit limited in quality. However, there are also hundreds of companies that make them, so you’ll never be short of choice. They’re also very simple to use. You simply insert a VSTi plugin (such as a violin) on an instrument track and once you start playing your MIDI keyboard, it will sound the notes of the selected instrument. If you want read in more depth about VST plugins, check out my article ‘What is a VST Plugin?’.
Now you know about the history of MIDI, what it looks like, and how we generate music with it. Let’s move on to MIDI interfaces and keyboards.
What is a MIDI Interface?
Simply put, a MIDI interface is a piece of hardware that allows you to plug a MIDI device (such as a MIDI keyboard) into your computer, as your computer will not have any MIDI inputs or outputs built into it. Standalone MIDI interfaces are usually connected via USB and come in a range of sizes, shapes, and prices.
The most common option is to buy an audio interface. Why? Because an audio interface is the heart of a recording studio. Not only does it have MIDI inputs and outputs, but it has an array of audio I/O options for connecting microphones, instruments, studio monitors, and many other external gear options. The first thing you should ask yourself then is, do you just only need to connect MIDI, or both MIDI and audio? If it’s the latter, then an audio interface is perfect for you. To read about audio interfaces in full detail be sure to read my article ‘What is an Audio Interface?’. Only need to use MIDI? Then there are a lot of basic USB to MIDI adapters available on a budget.
MIDI Inputs and Outputs
MIDI cables have 5 pins and are responsible for transmitting MIDI data between MIDI devices, controllers, and instruments, to computers and tablets. A MIDI interface, such as an audio interface, typically have at least one MIDI input and one MIDI output. You would use the MIDI input to send MIDI data into your audio interface and computer from a MIDI keyboard for example. Using your MIDI output you could send MIDI data from your computer, to your audio interface, and then to a MIDI instrument such as a MIDI synthesiser.
What is a MIDI Keyboard?
Ok, so you know now about MIDI interfaces, great! What about MIDI keyboards? I’ve already written a full guide about MIDI keyboards, so I’m going to cover it briefly. A MIDI keyboard looks like any other musical kneeboard except it doesn’t make any sounds. Instead it sends MIDI data, in the form of those MIDI notes that we looked at earlier. As soon as you play a MIDI keyboard those notes are sent to your DAW in your computer. To sound the notes, you use VST plug-ins such as virtual instruments.
MIDI keyboards come in a range of different sizes, models, and can also come with extra features, such as knobs, sliders, buttons, pitch bends, wheels, and drum pads to make your workflow smoother. MIDI keyboards are exceptionally popular these days due to their versatility. It’s worth mentioning that most MIDI keyboards use USB cables now, which is actually more convenient, as you can plug them directly into your computer.
MIDI Has Changed Music Production Forever
MIDI and VST plugins have really opened up a new world for musicians, composers, and producers. Thanks to the development of technology, you can literally have thousands of real sounding instruments at your fingertips, or you can use MIDI controllers to trigger samples, and improve your studio workflow. MIDI interfaces are the just first step enabling you to use MIDI effectively. They come in a range of budgets, so even if you can’t spare much, you’ll easily find something worth purchasing. I hope that helps you to answer the question ‘what is a MIDI interface?’. Now you know all about MIDI and what you need to get it working. Do you have any other questions? Please let me know in the comments.