Beginner's Guide to MIDI
by W. Brian Dill

For the newcomer to the wonderful world of MIDI - a primer in the subject of what you need and how to get started recording music using MIDI technology.  I hope you find this page informative.  I always welcome feedback, so let me know what you think.

What is MIDI?

MIDI is an acronym that stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface.  It is a set of standards designed in the mid 1980's to allow different musical instruments (usually keyboards) communicate with one another using digital messages. This communication consists of many things, but the primary communication is musical notes; i.e. which note is played, how hard it was hit, how long it was held, etc.

How does MIDI Work?

The wonder of MIDI is that it doesn't actually record sound like a tape recorder would, but rather it uses a tool called a sequencer that records only data that was used to create the sound.  For example, when you play your keyboard the sequencer records that you played middle "C" for 1 beat and you hit the key with a certain velocity and then you played a "D" for 3 beats and you hit the key softly. This is a simplification of what actually happens, but you get the point.  When you are done, you have a series or "sequence" of musical notes recorded.  No sound is recorded, but rather just which notes you played - very much like the roll of paper in a player piano.

A sequencer can be a stand-alone piece of hardware, it can be built into a keyboard (ex:
Roland XP-80 or Korg M1), or it can be software-based (ex: CakeWalk or CuBase).

To record MIDI data, you will need some sort of input device.  This is generally a MIDI capable keyboard connected to the sequencer via standard MIDI cables.  You tell the sequencer to start recording, and then you play they keyboard to record the MIDI data.   The great thing about MIDI is that if you mess up, you can fix your mistake electronically with the sequencer without having to replay the part.  Also, since you don't record sound, you can change the instrument sound (referred to as "patch") after you have recorded it.  You may have played with a piano sound when you recorded, but you can easily change that you an organ patch after the you have recorded it.

How Can I Get Started Recording MIDI?

You will need 3 things: Sequencer, Input Device, and a Sound Generator (and speakers of course).


If you already have a computer, the easiest (and cheapest) way to get started is to take advantage of your computer's power by using a software based sequencer such as CakeWalk or CuBase.  The absolute cheapest sequencer that I know of is CakeWalk Express.  It is only $19.  Of course it has major limitations, but if you just want to play around with MIDI to see if you like it, it is a really good tool at a price that can't be beat.  Plus if you decide to upgrade later, you haven't lost too much investment in your "training wheels".  If you have more money, or if you know that you want to start out with a more powerful tool, then look into CakeWalk HomeStudio, CakeWalk Professional, or CakeWalk Pro Audio.  You can see a list of prices as well as features of each at their website  CuBase is another popular software sequencer, but I use CakeWalk, so I am unable to give a recommendation/review of their products.

If you don't already have a computer and you are not planning on getting one anytime soon, then you will want to look at either a stand-alone sequencer (such as the Roland MC-50MKII) or one that is built into a keyboard (referred to as a "workstation").  Examples of these types of keyboards are: Roland XP-60,  Roland XP-80, Korg M1.  Of course there are many brands and models of stand-alone sequencers and workstations.  Roland and Korg are two brands that you will usually hear alot.  I, obviously, have a personal bias towards Roland, but they both make high quality products.

If you are just starting out, it would probably be better and cheaper to get a workstation instead of a stand-alone sequencer.  Learn more about Roland and Korg at their websites.  They both provide detailed information about their products.  Roland also provides white papers about most of their products.

If you have a workstation, then you have all 3 things need to record MIDI: the sequencer, the input device and the sound generator.  If you are going the computer route, then you still need a sound generator and an input device.

Input Device

Although you can technically input MIDI data with your computer keyboard (the QWERTY keyboard), you really need a standard "piano-style" keyboard for this task.  I have seen the Kay Sound MK-4902 keyboard for around $140.  You can basically use any MIDI-compatible keyboard which is just about every keyboard made today with the exception of some of the "toy" keyboards like Casio, however I have discovered that many of these keyboards now have MIDI output.  Watch out, though.  You will want to get a keyboard that is velocity sensitive, and some of the "toy" keyboards are not, so read the box before you buy. 

To find out if a keyboard is MIDI-compatible, just look to see if it has MIDI inputs.  MIDI inputs are round connectors about 1/2 inch in diameter with 5 prongs.  The keyboard will always be female and the connecting cables will always be male.  There will usually be three connectors: a MIDI In/Out/Thru, although some keyboards only have a MIDI out.

Sound Generator

As mentioned earlier if you have a keyboard workstation, then you have the sound generator built in.  If you are using a computer, the sound generator will be your sound card or an external device.  You have to be careful with this piece of the pie because if you have a low quality sound card, then your music will sound terrible!   There are several popular high quality cards made by manufacturers such as Yamaha and Turtle Beach, but by far the most popluar sound card manufacturer is Creative Labs - makers of the SoundBlaster.  They have many different models, but I recommend as a minumum level of quality the SoundBlaster AWE 64 Value or the SoundBlaster Live Value.   They are priced between $80 - $100.  Those cards will give you a decent level of sound quality for the money, provided that you have a decent set of speakers hooked up to it.

If you want to go higher quality, you can get the SoundBlaster Live (not 'Value') for around $200.  If you want to go all out to get the best possible sound, you will have to get an external sound generator such as a Roland Sound Canvas.  Prices range from around $300 for the SC-55ST to around $800 for the SC-88Pro with all the bells and whistles.  The only place I have found the Roland Sound Canvas for sale is at Edirol's website.   If you find another source, please e-mail me (link at the top/bottom of the page).

Where Can I Learn More About MIDI?

The information above should be enough to get you started in the right direction, but if you want to learn more about MIDI, there are numerous resources for you to learn more about MIDI.

  • The Official MIDI FAQ: - (Frequently Asked Questions)  Detailed answers to many MIDI questions.
  • - Usenet newsgroup that discusses all aspects of MIDI.
  • alt.binaries.sounds.midi: - Usenet newsgroup that posts MIDI files that you can download.
  • Search Engines: - go to your favorite search engine and search on "MIDI" and see what you find.  Of course you will probably have 1,000's of hits, so you will likely want to narrow your search to a specific topic of interest.

There are also many great books on the subject of MIDI.  Just about any book will teach you more than you know now if you are just starting out.  A few books that I would recommend are: