MIDI vs Digital Audio Recording – Which Is Right For You?

Understanding the differences between recording with Digital Audio and MIDI

midi vs audio

Making sure you understand the difference between MIDI and digital audio when it comes to recording or creating music at home or in the studio is very important if you want to get the best out of your music. However, beginners to the likes of MIDI vs Audio often don’t realise the best way to utilise both aspects or understand the benefits of both. In this blog we’re going to quickly explain the differences between the two and highlight what aspects might be better for you.

So let’s highlight the differences between MIDI and Digital Audio…


MIDI recordings can be thought of as a set of instructions. We actually explained MIDI in detail in a previous blog which you can read here, but for now we’ll just keep it simple.

MIDI sends electronic messages between different devices, from a keyboard to your DAW, for example. Things like drum machines, synths and other keyboards can all “speak” to each other via MIDI connection.

Think of MIDI as a director in a play. The director gives the script to the actor and tells them how to deliver their lines. A MIDI file (the director) takes the recording (the script) and tells the synthesizer, piano, sampler or whatever you might be using exactly how to play it. There is no sound saved in a MIDI file, just the timing, the velocity at which you play and the instructions on how the piece of music should be played.

The interesting thing about MIDI is, you could play and record a piece of music with a keyboard, and whilst it might sound like a piano through your headphones at first, you can then change that sound into a set of strings, a guitar sound or even a dog barking depending on your settings within your DAW.

This MIDI file is then transferable to any MIDI instrument, which then means you can take a recording that you like and transfer it to another program or piece of hardware that you like the sound of and play your sequence through that.

Digital Audio

audio vs midi

Digital audio should be thought of as an actual recording of a sound, like you would get on a tape recorder or dictaphone. You record your guitar, vocals or drums and the recording software you use takes a faithful record of that performance. You can then transfer these files to a CD or turn them into MP3’s and even upload them to the likes of Soundcloud. You can edit these sounds depending on the software you use, but you’ll mainly make changes like volume, length and add effects later on.

The key difference here, is that you can’t take a recording of a guitar and simply make it sound like a dog barking (as is MIDI)– unless you have a MIDI guitar – but we won’t confuse things just yet! You’re not recording instructions, you’re making a record of what you played and how in real time, warts and all.

So which one should I use?

If you’re recording music at home or starting to put together a home studio, you’ll need to think about what type of music you’ll be creating. If you want to create music that is predominantly acoustically biased, and by that I mean acoustic instruments such as guitars – both electric and acoustic, drums and vocals and record faithful representations of those things, then you won’t really need many MIDI instruments as you’ll be mic’ing these things up or simply recording them through an interface. If you want to use keyboards synths or controllers then you will most certainly be using MIDI instruments and MIDI capable software.

Let’s look at a few options at what you might need to create a studio based on the music you’re making. We’ll start with the digital audio purist, then those who might need both, to those who only want a MIDI based studio.

The acoustic singer songwriter

For those of you who want to record acoustic guitars, electric guitars via mic’ing up an amp and vocals, you’ll need 3 main things – the software, the interface and the microphone, but chances are you won’t ever need a MIDI compatible piece of hardware as you’re not making electronic music or using a keyboard.

The Software

Steinberg Cubase Elements 8 Digital Audio Workstation

When it comes to recording acoustic instruments at home, or in the studio, Cubase is a great place to start. In fact it’s up there with the likes of Pro Tools – the industry standard program used for recording pretty much any music you hear nowadays. Cubase Elements provides the user with the tools they need to record, edit and mix their music on their computer. It’s very easy to use and user friendly – once you get used to it, you’ll be creating professional grade recordings and the next Number 1 record in no time.

The Microphone

Shure SM57 Microphone

A good all-rounder comes in the form of the Shure SM57. Another industry standard microphone – it’s completely affordable and built like a tank. It’s also ideal for placing in front of a guitar amplifier for recording guitars, vocals and even drums. You won’t find a (decent) studio without one of these.

The Interface

Focusrite iTrack Solo Audio Interface With Lightning Compatibility

When you want to record vocals or guitar, you’ll need the interface to act as the middle man to transfer your recordings across to your DAW. The Focusrite iTrack Solo Audio Interface with Lightning Compatibility is a perfect option for beginners and even those who want to be able to facilitate professional level recording at home or on the go. There’s an XLR connection and a direct line in to hook your guitar up to and record directly into the software. In fact, you can actually hook up your iPad or iPhone to it thanks to the Lightning compatibility making it even easier to get your recordings down quickly.

The Multi-Instrumentalist

For those who record a complete set of sounds at home, including vocals, maybe a guitar and a piano, you’ll need a mixture of things including a MIDI keyboard, decent condenser mic and the right software should you want to create a complete home studio set up.

The MIDI Keyboard

Roland A-49 USB MIDI Keyboard Controller

As far as MIDI keyboards, or pianos in general go, you can’t really go wrong with Roland. The Roland A-49 USB MIDI Keyboard Controller is an affordable option for those who want a full sized, premium keyboard with MIDI connectivity. You have 49 keys to play with, it’s lightweight at just 2.5kg and it can be connected via USB, so you can plug straight in to your Mac/PC or through your interface. A great option. We would also recommend the Toontrack EZkeys Grand Piano for those who want a full suite of professional grade piano sounds or feel like playing an impeccably sampled Steinway and Sons model D grand piano.

The Microphone

Sontronics STC-20 Microphone Pack

If you’re serious about your vocals sounding decent in the mix, you need a serious piece of kit to get the job done. The Sontronics STC-20 Microphone Pack is a perfect solution for the singer songwriter of all levels. You not only get a fantastic condenser mic which is perfect for capturing your vocal performance professionally and accurately, but a 5 metre XLR cable, pouch for storage, all important pop shield and mount. A very good microphone that will last a million years and provide you with the ability to record high quality recordings.

The Software

Ableton Live 9 Intro Software

When you want software that just works, Ableton Live is another great choice. For those who want to create demos or professional sounding tracks with only the basic functionality Ableton Live Intro is an affordable option and a great place to kick off your home recording journey. You can record audio and MIDI and use the built in drum sampler, trigger drums and enjoy classic synth sounds – if you’re a beginner this is your best bet, but when you want to upgrade Ableton Live 9 is the perfect next step offering increased functionality, extra tracks and features. If you’re not sure where to start Ableton have created a comparison blog here.

The Electronic Music Producer

If guitars aren’t your thing and you’d rather sample next door’s alarm going off than sing in front of a microphone, you’re probably going to want a complete studio of MIDI keyboards, controllers and the very best in recording software to get your EDM pumping. In this instance, we’ll recommend a controller, some high quality software and a synth with MIDI capabilities to go with it.

The Synth

Korg Minilogue Polyphonic Synthesizer

The Korg Minilogue has taken the music production world by storm thanks to its all-analogue circuitry, and seamless connectivity with any modern or vintage workflow. You are only limited by your imagination with this synthesiser thanks to a 37 slim-key velocity sensitive keyboard and 41 real-time dedicated controllers, 200 preset locations, 16 step sequencer and uninhibited compatibility with your own creative equipment whether modern or vintage. Seriously, this is the Synth you’ve been looking for.

The Software


If you want a professional grade production suite, Native Instruments’ Komplete 10 is a great option. You have over 12,000 sounds and an entire 130GB of amazing instruments and effects to choose from. Although it’s designed with the Kontrol S-Series in mind, you can use it with pretty much any controller or synth you have. Best of all it’s compatible with the likes of Pro Tools, Cubase and Ableton Live so transferring data with your band mates or collaborators won’t be a problem. Program synths, use and edit MIDI samples and enjoy having an entire studio’s worth of programs and sounds at your fingertips.

The Controller

Novation Circuit Groove Box

Novation just get it right when it comes to crafting easy to use controllers, and the Novation Circuit Groove Box is no exception. It’s a fantastic standalone groovebox that you can use for creating beats, bass lines and so much more. It’s MIDI and USB compatible, has a built in speaker and can be battery operated making it the ultimate portable controller. Better yet, with the introduction of the circuit components update you can actually drag and drop samples onto circuit allowing you to sculpt your sound, sequence and create your own brand of electronic dance music better than ever before.

View a full range of instruments, MIDI keyboards and home recording software at the Dawsons website.

Lee Glynn is a guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who lives in Liverpool, England. After moving to the UK from Perth, Australia, Lee enjoyed a successful career as guitarist in Liverpool based rock band Sound of Guns. After releasing two albums, a myriad of EPs / singles and touring extensively around the world for 6 years including stops at Glastonbury, Latitude Festival, as well as the coveted Reading & Leeds Festivals, Lee decided it was a time for a change of scenery. Utilising his experience in music journalism, Lee now works within the web team at Dawsons Music, where he can still relay his passion for music by producing great content for the Dawsons blog and social media. Lee is still an avid guitar player and writer.