MIDI in a nutshell: 5 first steps

When I was learning how to play guitar by my self I remember spending hours learning how to play songs with Guitar Pro. At the same time I discovered a wonderful tool named Reason. At some point of my curiosity phase of both tools I saw a lot of MIDI options in their menus. I exported a song to MIDI format from Guitar Pro and then imported it in Reason. That was absolutely insane! I remember hearing a lot of strange noises, but all the notes were right… Right?!

Well, that was my first experience interacting with MIDI and I am sure that a lot of people started with it this way: experimenting. But let’s dive into it and point some key and practical concepts to understand the basics of this wonderful technology.

1. ¿What is the sound of MIDI?

Well, MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Now that we know that is important to say that MIDI itself sounds like absolutely nothing. MIDI is not an abstract or virtual instrument that magically will produce heavenly sounds, it is just a digital communication protocol. David Miles Huber defines it formally as:

MIDI is a digital communications language and compatible specification that allows multiple hardware and software electronic instruments, performance controllers, computers and other related devices to communicate with each other over a connected network.

There you go… a theoretical definition 😀

2. MIDI is not an instrument

If you go to GuitarCenter or any other popular instruments store in your city and you ask the following: “Can you show me a MIDI? What is the best MIDI out there?” probably it would be some awkward moment going on there. MIDI is not a particular instrument that you can buy.

As we mentioned, MIDI is just a digital communications protocol that was established in the 80’s (that’s right!) to create a standard language which allows audio hardware to inter communicate regardless of the brand. Though, you will find MIDI enabled musical instruments such as keyboards, guitars and drum pads.

3. What can you do with MIDI?

Our friend Huber establishes that MIDI

… instructs a device or program to create, playback, or alter sounds.

Sounds nice right? But in practice I’ve seen that music producers, audio engineers and anyone curious about making music at all levels use more complex MIDI setups for creating wonderful sounds and musical landscapes. Since I am a guitarist I love guitar gear: amps, effect pedals, you name it. I’ve discovered that a lot of quality brands out there are incorporating MIDI capabilities to their pedals in order to store, load and call particular presets that the user defines and also to synchronize and pair with other effects.

4. Should you learn MIDI?

If you are starting into music production or audio engineering then I would say that you should. I can’t go unbiased with this one. MIDI is everywhere these days. From gnarly live performances to live-light show control. You don’t need to understand the technical stuff that makes MIDI a great protocol, you just need to start experimenting with a MIDI controller and some software(DAW) that responds to MIDI also.

5. How can you experiment with MIDI?

Get a MIDI controller. The most popular is a controller that mimics a keyboard. The only difference from an actual one is that a keyboard MIDI controller is dummy, it does not produce any sound. It will only trigger a MIDI message to any software or hardware connected to it.

Don’t worry! It is more simple that it sounds. Most recent MIDI controllers and DAW’s are plug and play. If you have a macbook, get a small controller, and start a very fun and creative journey of making music.