Breaking out of the MIDI trap
For those of us who aren’t classically trained musicians, MIDI offers us a ticket to the party. For whatever reason, there are plenty of musicians out there who go cold at the thought of scales, and modes, and time signatures. These are people who just want to create, and MIDI – particularly the easy-to-use click and drag style MIDI seen in major DAWs – lets them do just that. It’s as simple as clicking patterns into a grid.
In the right hands, MIDI is a hugely powerful and versatile tool. It is the common language used by different types of hardware and software, which enables it to communicate.
However, it can also be a huge cop-out, which is why you should stop relying on it. Here’s why.
What we mean by the ‘MIDI trap’
Load up any DAW or music-creation application on your tablet, and you’ll likely be greeted by some form of MIDI. Usually that means a grid-based system where you write in notes according to the accompanying piano roll. You choose your sound, work out a pattern, input it into the grid and the computer/soft-synth works out the rest.
This is extremely liberating. It takes away the need to understand theory, and has undoubtedly democratised the music creation process. Any fool can now, by trial and error, compose unique music. For that, it should be celebrated. However, there is a downside.
You see, it’s all too easy to rely on MIDI – specifically the hit-everything-and-see-what-works type. We know we can load up a plug-in, bash away at the piano roll grid and often come up with something cool. We can add effects or automate parameters and we begin to feel like real musicians. Only it’s not. Solely using MIDI to compose makes you no more of a musician than putting petrol in your car makes you a racing driver.
Music is a language and MIDI – when used by a musician – is just an input tool to translate the compositions in their heads onto tape. Used by a non-musician, it’s more of a code we try to break. We stumble across happy coincidences by accident, rather than by design. And at some point, that well will run dry.
So what’s the alternative?
Let’s be clear here; we’re not saying MIDI is bad. Quite the opposite. MIDI is fantastic and it’s not an understatement to say it has changed the music creation process. But it is just a tool, in the same way as a fader on a mixing board, or the tone control on your guitar. It’s not something to base your entire workflow on.
The alternative? Simple: audio. It sounds stupid, but clean, crisp audio is the nectar of the gods in our world. How do we get that audio? By actually playing an instrument.
Yep, it’s a long game, but knowing how to actually string a few chords together, or improvise a progression, will have a huge impact on your ability. Audio itself is also a lot more malleable than MIDI notation, which is essentially ones and zeroes going into a computer (or external device).
One and the same
Here’s the good part. Basically, you can disregard everything we’ve said up to now about abandoning MIDI. With one caveat. You use MIDI to make audio. Essentially stop thinking about MIDI as your sole gateway to music creation, and learn to use it as a tool like any other.
Consider the option of performing a piece of music on a MIDI controller, but then rather than leaving the MIDI pattern to play out, record it into a separate audio track. It’s pretty simple. In Ableton Live, for example, create one audio track for every MIDI track and place them next to each other. When the MIDI clip is created, arm your audio track to record and pipe the finished MIDI into there.
From there you will have a piece of audio which you can slice, dice and mangle into any shape you want. Your computer will be using less resource to ‘compute’ the information, and you will find mixing much easier. It’s also easier to visualise the track when you’re looking at actual waveforms, as opposed notes on a MIDI sheet.
Tools of the trade
The first thing you’ll need is a decent DAW. We can highly recommend Ableton Live 10 – the newest iteration – which has superb audio/MIDI routing options.
For performance, we would suggest using the right tools for the job. Drum machines, for example, use pads rather than keys. If that’s the case, Native Instruments Maschine is the daddy here, although Live users may also want to check out Ableton Push 2, which is also superb.
Keyboard and piano MIDI users are spoilt for choice, although for starting out we’d suggest something like the Novation Launchkey series, which has everything you need to get started and works well with most DAWs.
MIDI is a superb tool, which unlocks the potential of software (and hardware) instruments. It is, however, all too easy to fall into the trap of relying too much on it. Make use of the versatility of it, by all means, but sometimes breaking away from it and focusing on the audio element of creation can be quite liberating. Your computer’s processing section will thank you for it, too.
Journalist, PR and multimedia specialist. Write professionally on subjects ranging from musical instruments to industrial technology.