Soundware Guide to Basic MIDI

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Soundware Beginners Guide to...

...Basic MIDI

Types of MIDI Device:

  • MIDI Interfaces
  • MIDI Keyboards
  • MIDI Controllers

About MIDI:

  • What is MIDI?
  • MIDI Connections
  • MIDI File Structure
  • General MIDI (GM) Format
  • Uses of MIDI

If you have any questions about which MIDI devices are best for your computer, please contact us and we’ll be happy to help.

MIDI Interfaces

Yamaha UX16

A USB MIDI interface allows connection of a MIDI device to a computer via a USB port. There are a number of MIDI interfaces available for PC and Mac. The number of inputs and outputs varies – if you want to connect more than one MIDI device to your computer at a time you will need more connections. Many sound cards and audio interfaces have built in MIDI I/O’s, so you may not need a separate MIDI interface.

Examples of MIDI Interfaces:

Yamaha UX-16 - 1-in, 1-out USB MIDI interface. MIDI cables are incorporated into the design so no extra leads are necessary.

Edirol UM-3EX - 3-in, 3-out bus-powered USB MIDI interface.

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MIDI Keyboards

M-Audio Oxygen 8 V2

MIDI keyboards vary considerably, from 8-octave, weighted hammer-action models that are designed to feel like an acoustic piano to 25-key mini-keyboards designed to fit inside a laptop bag.

Many keyboards also come with built-in control knobs, sliders or drum pads. These can be very useful and can be used to control software in a more hands-on manner, rather than using the mouse or computer keyboard.

Examples of MIDI Keyboards:

M-Audio Oxygen 8 V2 - New version of the award winning 25-Key Mobile USB MIDI Controller.

Novation Remote 49 LE - 49-key semi-weighted USB MIDI keyboard.

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MIDI Control Surfaces

Behringer B-Control Fader

These controllers are designed to look and work like analogue mixers, allowing a more hands-on approach to operating software like Cubase and Reason. Often they include “templates” which will automatically configure the controller to work with certain software applications. The controls can also be customized by the user.

Examples of MIDI Control Surfaces:

M-Audio ProjectMix I/O - Control surface with motorised faders and 18x14 audio interface.

Behringer B-Control Fader BCF2000 - USB MIDI controller desk with 8 motorised controllers.

Evolution X-Session - USB MIDI control surface with crossfader.

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About MIDI:

What is MIDI?

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. MIDI provides a standardized method of communicating musical performance information between computers and electronic musical instruments. Effectively, a MIDI file consists of a list of instructions stating which notes are to be played at what time, how loud, how long for and using which “patch” or synthesized instrument sound.

MIDI Connections

A MIDI data stream starts at a MIDI controller (a device played as an instrument, such as a MIDI keyboard) or a MIDI sequencer. The MIDI information is transmitted through the “MIDI out” connector on the device. A MIDI sound module or synthesizer will then receive the MIDI data through its “MIDI in” connector and will translate the data back into sound (all modern computer sound cards have basic MIDI synthesizers incorporated into them). Some MIDI devices also have a “MIDI THRU” connector. This transmits any information it receives back out of the device, so that several MIDI devices can be daisy-chained together by connecting the MIDI THRU on one device to the MIDI IN of the next one.

MIDI File Structure

Every stream (or “channel”) of MIDI data is divided into 16 subchannels. MIDI devices can be set up to only transmit or receive on one of these channels. This allows different parts of a MIDI file to be played back as different instruments. For example, a MIDI file can have a “piano” sound playing chords and a “violin” sound playing a melody. The different parts are transmitted on different channels, and the MIDI file contains instructions that tell the synthesizer to play all the musical instructions transmitted on Channel 1 in a piano sound and all the instructions transmitted on Channel 2 in a violin sound.

Drum parts are always transmitted on channel 10 of a MIDI file, even if there are no other parts on the previous channels. This is because they are programmed differently to other instruments because instead of having the same sound played at different pitches they have different sounds (snare, kick drum, cymbals etc.) assigned to each note.

General MIDI (GM) Format

When a MIDI sound is transmitted to a sound module or synthesizer, the first message that is sent tells the module which instrument sound to play each channel part with. Each instrument sound within the sound module has a “patch number”, but to begin with these were different for every make of sound module. This made it impossible to program a MIDI file using one sound module and then play it through another, because the patch numbers would not necessarily correspond to the same instruments. So, the General MIDI or GM system was devised to standardize the patch number arrangement. A GM format was also applied to drum kit sounds, such that which notes corresponded to which drum sounds was also standardized.

MIDI files can also carry information on the way the sounds are played - for example volume, vibrato or pan. These are known as "controllers", and again they're referred to by number. Not all numbers have a specific controller assigned to them - sometimes these are still determined by the specific synthesizer being used.

Uses of MIDI

It’s a common misconception that MIDI is only capable of producing poor quality sounds. This is mostly because the MIDI synthesizers included on most computer sound cards are in themselves not very good quality, and so do not create very realistic instrument sounds. In fact, MIDI is extremely flexible and can be used through high-end sound modules to create high-quality synthesized sounds or even used to control the playback of samples of real instruments in applications such as BFD or Miroslav Philharmonik.
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