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For many home studio owners, a MIDI keyboard is an integral part of the studio setup. MIDI keyboards are multi-faceted. They can be used for recording and live performance equally, and depending on the model, can be very good at creating and modelling sounds.
In the studio, the MIDI keyboard is principally used to quickly record virtual instruments. Nearly every piece of recording software comes with dozens of virtual sounds that you can trigger with your MIDI keyboard.
Everything from drums to synth to a regular piano sound can be triggered with a MIDI keyboard.
It’s also a great way to notate your music. MIDI signals can be easily turned into proper sheet music.
This is the beginner's guide to setting up and using your MIDI keyboard.
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What Is MIDI?
It’s worth taking a moment to understand what “MIDI” is. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It was developed in the 1980s to allow digital instruments to communicate.
MIDI does not produce sound on its own. Rather, it’s a series of electronic messages like, “note on, note off, pitch bend, modulation increase,” and so on. These messages are interpreted by a MIDI “instrument” to create sound.
When we talk about instruments, we’re not always talking about hardware. A MIDI keyboard is often a MIDI controller. This means it controls the MIDI instrument, which in this case is a piece of software. The software is housed in a program like GarageBand, Ableton, Xpand, etc.
MIDI id popular because it’s extremely malleable. You can change the sound of the instrument with ease. Editing is easy (you can literally drag notes around). The file size of a MIDI track is also much, much smaller than real audio files.
If you're worried about hard drive space, that's nice to know. Of course, if you're planning to do a lot of recording from home, you should probably upgrade your hard drive and even have an external drive or two on hand.
Connecting Your Keyboard
To use the MIDI capabilities of your keyboard, you’ll need to connect it to a computer.
There are two ways a MIDI keyboard/controller can be connected to your computer. Most keyboards and digital pianos have a standard five-pin connection. While these are less common in home studios, they are common on keyboards. You may have a MIDI keyboard in your house and not even know it!
You can connect your MIDI keyboard with the five-pin MIDI outlets in a couple of ways. But even if you don't have a MIDI out, some keyboards can be connected via USB. We'll get to that in a moment.
MIDI To USB Interfaces
If your computer has an available USB port, you can use a MIDI to USB Interface. This is the simplest, fastest way to get your MIDI keyboard working for you, especially if you’re using a laptop.
Most USB interfaces are Plug & Play. This means you don't have to download software to use it. That said, it’s worth going with a reputable name brand, as many of these name brands have drivers you can download on the internet.
Drivers are usually needed for advanced usage with certain DAWs. Pro Tools often requires drivers to work with MIDI.
MIDI To MIDI
Some interfaces (for example the Roland Studio Capture) take five-pin MIDI in. If this is the case, all you’ll need is a five-pin to five-pin MIDI cable. These are usually three meters long and can be found at any music store.
When you are connecting MIDI this way, note that MIDI IN connects to MIDI OUT. Initially, it would seem logical to connect the MIIDI IN to MIDI IN, because there is both MIDI IN and MIDI OUT on the keyboard and the interface.
MIDI works the same way as audio. The data flows in and out, and it must be connected in the proper manner to allow that flow to happen.
USB To USB
Most new digital pianos and MIDI controllers are USB MIDI controllers or at the very least have that option.
Connecting a keyboard with USB is the easiest way to get set up. All you need is a standard USB cable. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, check your printer. Often, they use the same cord.
You may still have to install a driver – that just depends on the keyboard. Sometimes though, you can just connect the keyboard and play away.
I would strongly recommend that you investigate this option first. It is easy, cheap and reliable.
On some keyboards with both USB and five-pin connections, you may have to switch the MIDI out settings depending on how you are recording it.
Recording With MIDI
There’s a reason why MIDI is so popular: it’s easy to use. Recording with MIDI is dead simple. Let me run you through the basics.
For the sake of this example, let’s say you’ve already hooked up your MIDI controller via USB to USB and are using GarageBand to lay down some demos.
What you need to do is create a Software Instrument track. That means you’ll be using your MIDI keyboard to trigger sounds on a virtual instrument housed in the GarageBand software.
You can choose from dozens if not hundreds of sounds. Then, click record and lay down the track. It’s that simple. You don’t need to adjust gain or place a microphone, just click and record.
Then, if you want to edit the track, double click it. You should now have a visual representation of all the notes. You can literally click and drag them to wherever you want them to go. You can also adjust the velocity (loudness) and even duration of the note.
If you’re recording with a five-pin connection, you can do the exact same thing. If you’re using a five-pin to USB connection, the process is just as simple.
Finally, if you’re recording MIDI to MIDI, the process is the same, with the added benefit of being able to record from the audio outs on your keyboard at the same time. Studio engineers will often do this if they are recording the sounds from a keyboard and want to be able to edit them precisely.
Recording audio and MIDI at the same time from the proper keyboard (for example a Nord) will give you audio files that can be edited by manipulating the MIDI file. This makes audio editing much more precise and efficient.