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Beginner's Guide To MIDI

Beginner's Guide to MIDI
by W. Brian Dill
Revised: 9/27/2008

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. 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?

To get started recording MIDI you will need 3 things:
  1. Sequencer - the hardware device or software the records and replays MIDI data.
  2. Input Device - typically a MIDI-enabled keyboard.
  3. Sound Generator - either a hardware-based or software-based synthesiser.
In the "old" days (80's and 90's) that meant a MIDI-enabled keyboard, an expensive hardware-based sequencer, and an expensive hardware-based synthesizer. But luckily for you it is now much less expensive to get started with MIDI. The reason? Cheap computing power.

Specialized hardware devices are expensive because of their relatively low economies of scale, but incredible ubiquitous general-purpose computing power (AKA your PC) can now be had for next to nothing. Your CPU allows software to replace the sequencing and even the sound generator, thus greatly reducing the cost. Plus, when you are done, you can check your email, edit a spreadsheet and play a few games of solitaire.

If you are reading this from your own PC, then you already own the most expensive part of your studio. For about $300 you can have a complete MIDI studio!

Enough Already! What Tools Do I Need?

Input Device (Keyboard) Sequencer and Sound Generator

M-Audio Axiom 49
M-Audio Axiom 49 MIDI keyboard

Sonar X1 Essentials
Sonar X1 Essentials

These are two great compact MIDI keyboard controllers that are both a good bang for the buck. Both have 49 keys (4 octaves) and have faders, knobs and pads for when you get more advanced.

One USB Cable is all you need to connect to your computer and power the keyboard. No separate MIDI interface is required.
Sonar X1 is a popular and mature Audio/MIDI sequencing software program. The Essentials version gives you a great price/performance bang for the buck. When your experience level increases, you may want to check out the Studio Version or even the flagship Producer version.

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.

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:

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