NOVEMBER 5, 2023

Ultimate Guide to Using MIDI in Music Production

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If you're using a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) to create music, you've probably heard of MIDI or maybe you're already using it. MIDI might seem complicated at first, but don't worry – it's a powerful tool that's worth learning. In this guide, we'll explain MIDI in simple terms. We'll start with the basics, talk about MIDI controllers, and how you can make the most of MIDI in your music production workflow to create expressive music.

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What is MIDI?

MIDI, short for "Musical Instrument Digital Interface," is a protocol that allows electronic musical instruments, computers, and other devices to communicate with one another. MIDI is integral to music production, as it allows for precise control, sequencing, and synchronization of instruments and software. Musicians use MIDI controllers like keyboards, drum pads, and fader banks to interact with virtual instruments and DAWs, enhancing their creative capabilities.

How does MIDI work?

MIDI doesn’t generate any sound on its own; instead, it works by sending information, known as MIDI messages, that instruct a receiving device on how to use its own internal mechanisms to create and manipulate sound. Upon receiving MIDI messages, the receiving device interprets MIDI messages and takes corresponding actions. For instance, when a "Note-On" message is received, indicating that a note should begin, the receiving device produces the specified musical sound at the designated pitch and velocity (indicating how forcefully the key was pressed). Similarly, "Control Change" messages adjust parameters like volume, modulation, or filter settings in real-time to shape the sound.

Types of MIDI Messages

MIDI messages are the core of MIDI communication. These messages serve as the language through which your musical intentions are translated into action by MIDI-capable devices. Let's delve into a few examples:

  • Note-On and Note-Off Messages: These messages inform MIDI devices when a musical note should start (Note-On) and stop (Note-Off). When you press a key on a MIDI keyboard, it generates a "Note-On" message. This message includes information about which note to play and with what force (velocity). The receiving device, such as a synthesizer, responds by producing the specified musical sound at the designated pitch and velocity. This is how MIDI allows you to play melodies and chords.
  • Control Change Messages: Control change messages provide a way to adjust parameters like volume, modulation, and filter cutoff. Musicians use these messages to shape the sound of their instruments.
  • Program Change Messages: MIDI allows you to switch between different instrument sounds (known as "patches" or "presets") seamlessly. A "Program Change" message tells the receiving device to switch to a specific instrument or sound preset, making it possible to explore a wide range of sonic possibilities within a single instrument.
  • Pitch Bend Messages: Pitch bend messages control the pitch deviation of a note, mimicking techniques like vibrato on instruments such as synthesizers and keyboards.
  • Aftertouch Messages: Aftertouch messages convey the pressure applied to a key after it's initially pressed, enabling expressive control over various aspects of a sound, like vibrato or filter modulation.

Now that we've explored the fundamental language of MIDI, let's delve into the practical tools used for sending these commands.

What is a MIDI controller?

In the world of music production, MIDI devices play a pivotal role in sending MIDI messages to control musical elements. A MIDI controller is a device designed to send MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) data to other MIDI-compatible equipment, such as synthesizers, virtual instruments, drum machines, and digital audio workstations (DAWs). Think of a MIDI controller as a remote control that allows you to send instructions to other devices on what actions they should perform.

Common types of MIDI controllers

MIDI controllers come in various forms, each tailored to specific musical applications. Some are useful for controlling instruments, others for controlling your DAW’s mixing console, and others for programming drums. Here are some common types of MIDI controllers, each offering unique features and functionalities:

MIDI Keyboards

MIDI keyboards resemble traditional pianos or keyboards and are essential tools for musicians and composers. They feature a set of keys that allow users to play melodies, harmonies, and chords with ease. MIDI keyboards can trigger virtual instrument sounds, making them versatile for various music genres, from classical to electronic.

Pad Controllers

Designed with sensitive pads, pad controllers are popular among electronic music producers and beatmakers. These pads are ideal for triggering drum sounds, samples, or loops, enabling users to create rhythmic patterns and dynamic percussion sequences. Pad controllers often offer velocity sensitivity, allowing for expressive drum programming.

MIDI control surfaces

MIDI control surfaces mainly provide knob and slider controllers for real-time manipulation of sound parameters. They feature rotary knobs and sliders that can adjust elements like volume, filter settings, resonance, and effects parameters. Musicians and producers use these controllers for fine-tuning and sculpting the sonic characteristics of their music, as well as for seamless control over their DAW software.

Wind Controllers

Wind controllers are tailored for wind instrumentalists, providing a unique way to interact with virtual wind instruments. These controllers respond to breath and finger movements, allowing for expressive control over pitch, dynamics, vibrato, and other elements. Wind controllers are particularly useful for emulating the nuances of wind instruments like saxophones and flutes.

DJ Controllers

DJ controllers combine MIDI functionality with DJ-specific features. They typically include jog wheels, crossfaders, cue buttons, and performance pads. DJs use these controllers to manipulate and mix tracks seamlessly within DJ software, adding effects, transitions, and creative elements to their sets.

Connecting MIDI controllers

While it's possible to produce music using only a mouse to program MIDI data in your DAW's built-in MIDI editor, incorporating MIDI controllers can significantly enhance your workflow by providing hands-on control. To use a MIDI controller effectively you need to connect it to a computer and configure it with your DAW:

  1. Connection: Connect your MIDI controller to your computer using either a USB cable or MIDI cables, depending on your controller's connectivity options.
  2. DAW Configuration: Navigate to the MIDI setup or preferences section of your DAW. Here, you can configure your MIDI controller to communicate with the DAW. Select your MIDI controller from the list of available MIDI devices.
  3. Input and Output Routing: Specify the MIDI input and output ports for your MIDI controller in the DAW settings. This ensures bidirectional communication between your MIDI controller and the DAW.

Once connected, you MIDI controller can communicate with your DAW, giving you control over:

  • Transport Controls: MIDI enables you to start, stop, rewind, and fast-forward your DAW's playback with the touch of a button on your MIDI controller. This hands-on control simplifies the recording and editing process, allowing you to focus on your music rather than constantly reaching for your computer's mouse or keyboard.
  • Program changes: MIDI allows you to easily switch between tracks, instruments, and presets.
  • Mixing and Mixing Controls: Adjusting track levels, panning, and automation becomes effortless with MIDI controllers equipped with faders, knobs, and encoders.

For a more custom approach to MIDI controllers, most DAWs allow you to map MIDI controller parameters to various software functions. This means you can customize your MIDI controller to interact with specific DAW features, plugins, and instruments. For example, you can map a rotary knob to control a plugin's filter cutoff frequency or an effect's wet/dry mix.

How to Use MIDI

 By understanding and utilizing MIDI's capabilities you'll unlock endless creative possibilities. In this section, we’ll cover how MIDI is used and provide steps on a workflow you can follow to produce start producing music with MIDI.

1. Launch your DAW

Start by opening your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). DAWs come with built-in MIDI recording and editing capabilities. If you need access to a DAW, follow along with a free download of Pro Tools Intro to get started.

2. Create a MIDI track and add a virtual instrument

Inside your DAW, you'll find the option to create various types of tracks, including audio and MIDI tracks. While audio tracks are designed for capturing live instruments and microphones, MIDI tracks are used to record virtual instruments. To initiate MIDI-based recording, create a new MIDI track within your project. Then, insert a virtual instrument or software synthesizer to the MIDI track. This instrument will receive the MIDI input and produce sound based on the MIDI data you create.

3. Record your MIDI sequence

With your virtual instrument loaded on a MIDI track, you’re ready to record. Follow these steps to initiate recording:

  1. Arming the Track: Before recording, you need to arm the MIDI track for recording. Locate the track you want to record on within your DAW and click on the "Track Record Enable" button. This action prepares the track to receive MIDI input from your controller.
  2. Record Button: After arming the track, click the record button in your DAW's transport controls to enter recording mode. If you’re MIDI controller has a “record” button, you can press that instead to trigger recording.
  3. Play Your MIDI Controller: With the track armed and recording engaged, play your MIDI controller to perform the desired musical passage. The MIDI data, including note pitches, durations, and other performance details, will be captured as you play. If you’re not using a MIDI controller, you’ll have to draw in your notes on the MIDI clip with your computer’s mouse or track pad.

4. Edit MIDI data for musical precision


After recording MIDI data, you may need to refine and edit it. Whether it's adjusting note durations, timing, velocities, or pitches, MIDI editing provides granular control over musical elements. For example, with MIDI you can easily hear how your track sounds in a different key by easily transposing the MIDI notes of your instruments. You can also adjust the velocity and timing of individual notes to recreate shape dynamics.

Here's how:

  • Access MIDI Editor: Open the MIDI editor within your DAW for the recorded MIDI clip or track.
  • Quantization: Use quantization tools to align notes to a grid, ensuring precise timing. Adjust the quantization settings as needed.
  • Note Adjustments: Modify note lengths, velocities (how hard a note is played), and other attributes to fine-tune your MIDI performance.

5. Tweak virtual instrument parameters

Now that your MIDI data is recorded and edited, it's time to shape your sounds using your virtual instrument’s parameters:

  • Instrument Selection: Experiment with different instrument presets within your virtual instrument. Virtual instruments typically come with a library of presets you can audition and browse through to find what you’re looking for. By cycling through your library of presets, you can get better at selecting the right sounds for your project.
  • Parameter Tweaking: Adjust parameters like filter cutoff, resonance, envelope settings, and effects to shape the character and expression of your virtual instrument. If you have a MIDI controller, you can control your virtual instrument parameters via the knobs and faders on it rather than using a mouse.

6. Create dynamics and expression with MIDI automation


You can further shape your sound with MIDI automation. MIDI automation refers to the process of changing various parameters of musical instruments, synthesizers, effects, and other MIDI-compatible devices over time. It’s a valuable tool in music production as it allows you to add a sense of movement and expression to your music. For example, you can use MIDI automation to change volume, panning, filter cutoff frequency, pitch bend, modulation, and other parameters across a specific time frame. To automate sliders, knobs, buttons, and other controls, follow these steps:

  • Select Your Parameter: Choose the specific parameter you want to control, such as filter frequency, volume, or pitch bend wheel.
  • Create an Automation Lane: In your DAW, create an automation lane dedicated to the chosen parameter. This lane serves as a visual representation of how the parameter will change over time.
  • Draw Your Automation: Use the DAW's automation tools to draw in the desired changes for the parameter. You have the creative freedom to shape how the parameter evolves throughout your composition.

By leveraging MIDI automation, you can infuse your music with expressive and dynamic qualities, enhancing your compositions and allowing your sounds to come to life.

7. Experiment with MIDI Effects to create new ideas

MIDI effects are a category of tools used in music production to manipulate and enhance MIDI data, adding creativity and complexity to compositions. Unlike audio effects that alter audio signals, MIDI effects operate on the instructions (MIDI messages) that control virtual instruments and synthesizers. Try experimenting with these effects to create unique musical ideas:

  • Arpeggiators: Arpeggiators automatically play a series of individual notes from a chord in a defined pattern (up, down, random, etc.). They can transform basic chords into intricate arpeggios, creating rhythmic and melodic interest.
  • Chord Generators: Chord generators allow you to trigger complex chords with a single key press or MIDI input. They're handy for musicians who may not have extensive music theory knowledge, enabling the creation of lush harmonies effortlessly.
  • MIDI Quantizers: Quantizers snap incoming MIDI notes to a predefined scale or key, ensuring that your melodies and harmonies stay in tune and within the desired musical framework. They're particularly useful for achieving clean and coherent compositions.
  • Note Repeaters: Note repeaters rapidly trigger a note at a user-defined rate, introducing rhythmic patterns and variations. They're commonly used for creating stuttering and rhythmic effects in electronic music.
  • MIDI Transposers: Your DAW's MIDI editor typically comes with a MIDI transposer that allows you to shift notes up or down by a specified number of semitones. They're useful for creating musical variations or shifting the pitch of MIDI compositions with ease.

8. Convert MIDI to audio

As your music production progresses, you'll inevitably find the need to convert your MIDI compositions into audio. While this conversion can occur at the final stage when you're ready to bounce your mix for mastering, there are reasons to consider converting MIDI to audio at various points while recording music. Here are some to consider:

  • Freeing Up Resources: MIDI tracks can be resource-intensive, especially when using complex virtual instruments. Converting MIDI to audio allows you to "freeze" or render MIDI tracks, freeing up CPU and RAM resources for smoother project playback and improved system stability.
  • Collaboration: When collaborating with other musicians or producers, sharing audio tracks is often more practical than sharing MIDI data. Converting MIDI to audio simplifies collaboration and ensures that everyone can work with the same audio files.
  • Sound Design and Manipulation: Once in audio format, you can manipulate and edit your sounds further in novel ways. This includes time-stretching, pitch-shifting, and applying creative audio processing to achieve unique sonic textures.

Getting started with MIDI

With the right knowledge and practice, you’ll be ready to explore the world of MIDI in music production. From composing and arranging to precise editing, creative effects, automation, and dynamic drum programming, MIDI is one of the most powerful tools modern music production.

One of the best ways to harness the power of MIDI is to use a feature-rich DAW like Pro Tools. With it’s built in MIDI editors, effects, and virtual instruments, you’ll have the creative freedom to transform your ideas into reality. Download Pro Tools Intro today to see what you can do with MIDI!


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