MIDI: The What & How Of Modern Music Production 🎹

You might not know what it stands for, but you’ve definitely used MIDI before. Everybody has!

Because MIDI is one of the most important tools in music production. Without it, writing and editing music in digital format would be near impossible.

Maybe you’re just starting out with MIDI. Or maybe you’re looking to bring your skills to the next level.

Wherever you’re at, this guide will walk you through the A-to-Z of MIDI, including:

  • The key differences between audio and MIDI (and why they’re both good in different ways)
  • A variety of different workflows for recording and programming MIDI notes
  • Creative ways to humanize your MIDI notes (and avoid sounding like a robot)
  • How to practically use MIDI (in software like FL Studio & Ableton Live)
  • + much more

Let’s dive in! πŸ‘‡

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What is MIDI? πŸ€”

To explain what MIDI is, the easiest is to compare it to its opposite: an audio recording.

With an audio recording, you capture a source instrument through a microphone. The result is a WAV or MP3 audio file, where the performance is more or less set in stone:

audio sample
How do I change an E to an F# here…?

Sure, you can slice, stretch and re-arrange your sample. You can even process it further with reverb or delay.

But changing individual notes, their timing, or their expression? That’s a nope.

This is where MIDI comes in. It allows you to endlessly tweak every single aspect of your performance:

MIDI vs. audio
The same performance, in MIDI vs. audio

A key thing to remember here is that MIDI is information, not sound. You can think of it as a music sheet: without somebody behind the piano, it’s just information on paper.

A Bit of History

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface.

In a nutshell, MIDI is how musical instruments and computers communicate, and it was invented in the early 80s.

The original MIDI logo

Back then, each manufacturer had its own communication standards for instruments. This made it hard to communicate between different instruments.

Then things changed:

Throughout 1981 and 1982, representatives from significant synthesizer companies such as Roland, Yamaha, Korg, and Moog met and discussed the idea of a universal standard. This resulted in the announcement of the MIDI standard in October 1982.

In 1983, the first instruments equipped with MIDI were released: the Roland Jupiter-6 (a classic) and the Prophet 600:

a synthesizer - Roland Jupiter-6 - MIDI input and output
The Roland Jupiter-6 with MIDI input and output

This now meant that instruments could easily communicate with computers (with the PC era just kicking off…).

Instruments could also communicate with each other, allowing one to control the other. This reduced the amount of external hardware needed.

MIDI Today

In 99% of cases, you will use a MIDI controller to trigger a plugin instrument within your DAW. This could be a synth producing a sound, a sampler triggering an existing recording, or it could be an effect plugin (more on that later).

Most of the time, these will just connect via USB (instead of a traditional MIDI cable).

Controllers come with a wide array of controls: piano keys, sensitive pads, slider, knobs, and more.

a midi controller - Novation Impulse 29
So many buttons!

However, a MIDI controller is not always necessary to work with MIDI.

MIDI is simply a way to store information. Although the easiest way to write that information is with a controller, you can also use your mouse and keyboard.

Now let’s see how MIDI works in action.

Incorporating MIDI in Your Music 🎢

Most, if not all DAWs, are designed to integrate MIDI seamlessly. This is why you’ve probably been using MIDI without even knowing it!

So let’s go over the most common ways to use MIDI in electronic music production.

Writing with MIDI

In most DAWs, MIDI information will be displayed in a piano roll format:

a piano roll with MIDI notes
The piano roll in FL Studio

Notes can be either recorded live or “drawn in”manually. This means that with no music theory knowledge, you can look up chords online and write them in!

As mentioned previously, MIDI is just information – not sound. So you need to load up a virtual instrument that the MIDI information will trigger.

The beauty of MIDI is that you can then switch out instruments and see which one sounds the best!

Editing with MIDI

There are many different types of MIDI messages, some of which you might not even be aware of! Let’s go over the most common ones:

  • Pitch: which note is actually being played?
  • Placement: when does the note start and finish?
  • Velocity: is the note played hard or softly? With many synths, this actually affects the characteristics of the sound.
  • Panning: where in the stereo field is the note played?
a piano roll - note velocity
Accessing MIDI information in FL Studio

Each of these parameters can be fine-tuned endlessly, and in most cases, you want your MIDI information to be as realistic (i.e. human-sounding) as possible. You don’t want your beautiful piano chords to sound like a robot is playing them!

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Change the Velocity of each note to add accents or emphasize a melody
  • Change the placement/timing of each note so that they are slightly off-tempo. This is what creates the “human touch”
  • With piano, you might want to pan lower notes slightly to the left, and higher notes slightly to the right (if your instrument doesn’t already do this).

Here’s what a little bit of MIDI editing can do:

Chord progression with no editing – every note has the same placement and velocity
The same chord progression with some basic note editing

Recording Automations with MIDI

However, MIDI goes well beyond recording notes…

Almost any parameter within your DAW can be controlled by your controller! You are only limited by the knobs available to you and your creativity.

For example, let’s look at the AKAI MPK Mini, a popular MIDI controller choice for beginners:

a midi controller - AKAI MPK Mini
The AKAI MPK Mini

There are 8 knobs on the right-hand side of the controller which can be assigned to parameters in your DAW.

What’s really cool is that you’re not limited to your synth here: MIDI information can be assigned to any plugin.

For example:

You could assign one knob to control the amount of reverb on your piano. Another knob could control the delay feedback. And so on.

Why would you want to do this?

You guessed it: to add a human touch. Instead of drawing a perfect curve, try to record it through your MIDI controller. This will add a subtle human element to your mix.

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One Step Further: Quantize, Arpeggiate, and More πŸŽ›

Because MIDI has become an integral part of modern DAWs, new creative ways of working with it are constantly popping up.

I will be using FL Studio in the following examples, but these features are available in most DAWs:

Quantizing

Quantizing is the process of moving notes so that they snap perfectly to the grid. This is useful when you have recorded a live performance, but your notes are off-tempo.

In FL Studio, press CTRL + Q to quantize both the start and end of notes. Or press SHIFT + Q to quantize just the start of the notes.

piano roll in FL Studio - quantized MIDI vs unquantized
Unquantized vs. quantized notes

Arpeggiating

An arpeggio is when the notes of a chord are played separately in an ascending or descending sequence.

Think of the main motif of ‘Clocks’ by Coldplay:

A beautiful series of descending arpeggios…

With MIDI you can speed up the process of writing arpeggios by quickly transforming chords into arpeggios. To do this in FL Studio, select the chords you want to arpeggiate, click the Tools icon in the piano roll, and select Arpeggiate:

piano roll in FL Studio - arpeggiating
Arpeggiating MIDI in FL Studio

You can then choose how many notes you want in your arpeggio with the Time Multiplier knob, as well as the octave range and the specific pattern:

chord MIDI in piano roll in FL Studio
From this…
arp MIDI piano roll in FL Studio
… to this, in 2 clicks

If you want to check out more on arpeggiators, check out this video from Luca on our YouTube channel!

Strumming

Although the name is a direct reference to guitar, this is my favorite technique for realistic pianos.

With strumming, the start time of each note is staggered, creating a cascading effect. This works especially well with piano chords, as it replicates the way an actual pianist would play:

Static chords
“Strummed” chords

To do this in FL Studio, click on Strum in the Tools section of the piano roll. You can then control the spacing and velocity of the notes in each strum:

piano roll in FL Studio
FL Studio’s “strumizer”

A Note for Ableton Live Users

Ableton Live has a different way of integrating MIDI processing into its workflow. Instead of directly changing the layout of notes, you drag MIDI Effects next to your synth:

Ableton Live
Arpeggiating chords in Ableton Live

This means your Piano Roll will still display a chord, even though what you hear might be an arpeggio.

And that’s some great use cases for MIDI. But let’s take a look at the other side…

The Downsides of MIDI πŸ‘Ž

As you’ve hopefully understood, the possibilities when working with MIDI are endless.

However, there is a major drawback which I’ve already alluded to…

You don’t want to sound like a robot.

Working with MIDI is inherently a manual and digital process. This is why the human element can be lost if you’re not careful. Although quantizing is helpful, make sure to edit further the placement and velocity of your notes.

Also, it’s important to know how real instruments are supposed to be played. For example, if your synth is replicating a saxophone, it might not be a great idea to draw in chords…

Because a real sax can only play one note at a time!

New to music production?

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That’s A Wrap βœ…

That’s it for this guide! I hope you now have a better understanding of MIDI and were inspired to create some amazing sounds!

Did I miss out on anything? What are some of your favorite tricks? Let me know at [email protected].

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