MIDI controllers have been getting more and more popular since most big-name brands started releasing budget versions of their products to dive into the new emerging market of wanna-be artists and musicians all over the world – mostly due to the internet and social media development.
While these MIDI keyboards and controllers looked reasonably simple, they were a little more complicated than a simple digital piano due to the fact that most of them didn’t produce any sound – they were simply sending a signal to an application of your choice – usually a digital audio workstation. How do they work? What’s the best way to utilize them?
Unfortunately, most people use them without any imagination – it may look like a keyboard with drum pads and a few knobs, but there is so much more to it! In this article, I’ll try to help you to release the full potential of your device – by learning more about it.
1) What Is a MIDI Controller?
MIDI controller is a piece of either hardware or software (more often a physical piece of equipment) that sends MIDI data to a device that supports musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) format. It usually triggers a sound or an action in the digital audio workstation that you are using.
To put it simply, a MIDI controller generates data that your software application interprets.
2) How Does a MIDI Controller Work?
There is nothing complicated here. The device is a set of keys and buttons that send signals to the computer to produce music, usually with a DAW. MIDI keyboards often don’t have speakers and come without pre-recorded notes. Think of it as a puppet master. It pulls strings (sends signals to the computer) and the puppet moves (your software application receives the signal and plays the right note).
MIDIs are incredibly popular because they can be used with a lot of different DAWs and various plugins inside of the application. Top digital pianos may have thousands of recorded notes in the data bank, but controllers can have millions – you just need to connect them to the thousands of sound banks that come in forms of plugins and samples. Sky's the limit!
3) How To Use a MIDI Controller?
A MIDI controller doesn’t generate any sound. The only way it’s to be used is by plugging it into your computer or laptop and using a software application that can interpret the signal. That said, you can’t just run your DAW and expect your device to generate sounds. First, you have to find the MIDI devices’ setup in your app and connect the controller to the same MIDI protocol. Second, you have to assign the keys, knobs, buttons, and pads to certain functions of a plugin of your choice, sometimes even multiple plugins.
4) What is a MIDI keyboard?
MIDI keyboard is also a controller that’s shaped in the form of a digital piano. It usually comes with a few extra features such as knobs, faders, buttons, pads, and more – everything you need to increase your productivity and your tracks’ quality. It sends MIDI signals over to the computer that is on the same MIDI protocol – keyboard must be connected to the DAW in order to do that.
5) How Do Velocity Sensitive
MIDI Keyboards Work?
Some MIDI keyboards have a sensor/valve that senses the pressure applied over a period of time and transfers the data recorded to an application, such as DAW. The software or a plugin within the software interprets the data and assigns the key pressed the calculated velocity, which usually ranges from 1 to 100.
Aftertouch is a similar function. The longer the key is pressed – the longer the data will generate. After the application interprets it, the length of the played note can be calculated.
6) What Are MIDI Instruments?
Are They Different From a MIDI Controller?
The principle is identical – the instruments simply send signals to your digital audio workstation and the software generates the sounds depending on the plugin you are using. The only difference is the types of MIDI devices – instruments themselves. A lot of producers think of a MIDI keyboard when someone mentions a controller, even use them interchangeably.
While keyboards are indeed the most popular instrument, there are other MIDI instruments that can be referred to as “controllers” – drums, wind instruments, guitars, and more. While all of them are made to produce music, a lot of them specialize in a specific part of the track. If someone wants a professional bassline on a rock track – they’re likely to hire a guitarist than an average beatmaker.
For instance, when recording a drum roll, most producers will use drum pads on their keyboard – it’s easy and straightforward. If you are a drummer, however, you may prefer to use a MIDI drum set – it will be more costly and take up more space, but if you know that you can make better drum lines with it – then it’s a worthy investment. Quality over quantity principle applies here as well!
7) Can You Make Music
Without a MIDI Controller?
Definitely, MIDI keyboards, drums, or any other instruments are by no means necessary – you can do everything with your mouse – even create piano notes and assign velocity to every single one of them. MIDI controllers make your life easier and automate the process further, but they aren’t necessary by any means.
Common Questions About MIDI Technology
Where did MIDI originate? How does the connection process work? Learn the fun facts in the “Common Questions” section!
1) What is General MIDI?
General MIDI is a set of specs for electronic instruments used to make music, to put it simply – musical instruments that have to be connected to an app through a medium (usually a PC). It was developed in 1991 by the Japanese and American institutions
In its essence, it’s a communication protocol. Its fundamentals are standardized for all instruments out there and make them interoperate on a very basic level. An excellent example of the protocol is notes and scales, which are standardized. No matter which instrument you pick to play, they carry the same definition.
2) What Are MIDI Channels?
MIDI Channels Explained
Everyone knows what radio and TV channels are – ever since they were kids. They are simply digital communication channels, aren’t they? MIDI channels aren’t quite the same, but they are very similar!
MIDI signals are designed to be received by one device at a time – and this can be achieved only by matching the MIDI channel number. In music production and beatmaking, you want your controller to only work with the current plugin you have open, not another one you have in the background. That’s when you need a MIDI channel authentication – once you open a new plugin and it becomes active, new MIDI channel number is generated.
3) How many MIDI channels are there?
There are 16 possible MIDI channels and 128 program numbers. Most digital audio workstations display them in a sequence from 1 to 128 – each number corresponding to a specific instrument or sound within the application.
4) What Are MIDI Files?
Think of them as a set of instructions that were incredibly popular back in the days. They don’t contain any audio data but come in the form of symbols, which reduces the file size. The quality will vary depending on your audio card, processor, and software you are running them with.
5) What is MIDI Input?
MIDI input is the signal from the instrument of your choice that will be transmitted in the MIDI format to another device that supports the MIDI extension files. MIDI controllers have this as a default settings due to the fact they can’t generate sounds.
Some devices can switch in between modes, one of which is a MIDI input mode. Let’s look at an example. Some digital pianos that have speakers and a processing unit built-in can also be used as MIDI keyboards.
The only difference is that you can either use it as a sound bank and a keyboard or use it as a MIDI controller. Considering the fact that it wasn’t explicitly designed for MIDI input, you’ll have to specify settings in the software that you are using and set it up to transfer MIDI signals to your computer.
6) What Are MIDI Modes?
A mode is the setting of a MIDI controller that controls the response of the device to the MIDI message. There are 4 modes that were included in MIDI specifications originally. Later on, Multi and Mono modes were added for a MIDI guitar.
There 4 modes are:
- Omni On/Poly – responds to MIDI data on all channels, polyphonic.
- Omni On/Mono – responds to MIDI data on all channels, monophonic.
- Omni Off/Poly – responds to MIDI data on a particular channel, polyphonic.
- Omni Off/Poly – responds to MIDI data on a particular channels, monophonic.
7) What’s The Difference
Between MIDI and Digital Audio?
Digital audio files are an acoustic or electronic waveform captured directly from the source. These files are ready to be used with any audio player out there. They tend to be a lot bigger in size than MIDI, and their quality varies depending on the quality of the recording, how mixing and mastering were done, file format, and more, so they aren’t as popular among music producers.
MIDI audio is generated from the MIDI files that were interpreted by your software – it doesn’t sound like anything. They are a lot smaller in size because they are nothing more than a code of the sequence in which the keys were pressed on the controller, their tempo and velocity.