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Music - an introduction to MIDI

Composing and Recording has become a big part of the Standard Grade and Higher Music courses. This feature is, in the first instance, a KA Music Department resource aimed at providing pupils with a basic understanding of some of the processes and techniques involved in recording music.

The other reason for this feature is to encourage any of you out there with an interest in music to discover and explore your musically creative side and let you see that recording your own music is not only satisfying but a lot simpler than you might think. I have had many years of enjoyment out of making music, some of the time in bands but a lot of the time on my own.

The first topic covered is recording with MIDI. Another feature on recording AUDIO (eg voice, acoustic guitar, harmonica, etc.) will follow soon.

The topic of recording is well covered on the internet, but nearly all of the explanations are too technical for the average novice to follow. My aim is to simplify things so that anyone can understand how it all works and how to get started.

The idea in providing some examples of what you can do with a very basic recording set-up is mainly to let you see the capabilities of such basic equipment. It should also help to provide my 'credentials' - just in case you are wondering what an English teacher is doing providing instruction and enlightenment on the topic of home recording music. Click on the titles to hear the tracks in mp3 format (apart from the last track Mex Hop which is a Windows Media Audio file).

(all music recordings on this page Copyrite Neil McIlvanney)
 When I first bought my new Korg sound module, I wanted to try it out to  see how convincing the sounds were so I decided to create a track using  only the orchestral instrument sounds in the module - my own orchestra in  a box. Apart from the excitement of having my new toy, my inspiration  came from composing and programming the piece in a freezing cold room  at a place called Shabby Road in the middle of the winter of '94, with only  a single-bar electric fire to fight off the all-enveloping chill. I called the  track "The Big Freeze". Everything you hear is coming out of the Korg and  I didn't study music so don't laugh too loudly - you might miss the Korg  'Bassoon'.
 MIDI can sometimes sound a bit rigid so it can be a good idea to overlay a  real instrument such as acoustic guitar. On this track everything was  programmed or played in, including the lead instrument, saxophone. I got  a friend of a friend to learn the main saxophone part and told him to 'do  his own thing' (man). I'm glad I did as he improvised on the main part with  magnificent colour and fluency. I ditched the programmed sax. Drums,  bass, piano, organ and accordion were all played in by me and then edited  (they had to be as I am actually a guitarist!). I got a real  piano player to  add some MIDI 'frilly bits' which, along with the real  saxophone, made the  track sound a lot more 'live' and real. All sounds (except sax) Korg 05r/w.



MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a way of recording and playing back music on keyboards or sound modules or computer sound cards.

If you record your performance on a MIDI keyboard then information about your performance is transmitted from the keyboard, along a MIDI cable, usually to a computer with a recording software programme (such as Cubase or Logic). The computer records the information so that you can play it back and listen to it. If you are using the same keyboard for playback then the same information is sent OUT of the computer, along another MIDI cable, and IN to the keyboard. If you want, you can send the information to play other keyboards or sound modules.

The four main types of information recorded are:

Actual note played - the pitch and position on the keyboard eg C3, E3, G3

When note is played - the exact time when you strike the note

Note Length - the duration or length of note (till you lift your fingers off the keys)

Velocity - How hard or soft, loud or quiet you hit a note.

These are the main areas of a performance


I started working with MIDI around 1993 using the equipment pictured above.

I used a MIDI keyboard (the Kawai K1) to 'play in' instrument parts. The MIDI information went from MIDI OUT on the keyboard to MIDI IN on the computer.

These parts were recorded on a computer running an early version of Cubase recording software. This enabled me to edit and fix what I had played in. It also allowed me to 'multi-track' or play many other parts alongside my original performance. (eg I could add MIDI bass and MIDI drums). MIDI information takes up very little computer space which meant that even with the Atari 1040 - a one megabyte computer - I could run many tracks and instruments at the same time.

I then sent MIDI information from the computer MIDI OUT to my sound module MIDI IN, so that the MIDI information would play the sounds in my sound module.

A sound module is basically the brain of a keyboard but without the actual keys. It has a range of sounds or instruments and these are played via MIDI. When it came on the market, my sound module (the Korg 05r/w) was pretty cool because it offered good sound quality, 230 sounds or instruments and it could play up to 32 notes at one time.

To listen to or MONITOR the sounds coming out of the sound module, I connected the AUDIO OUT (LEFT & RIGHT) of the sound module to the LEFT & RIGHT INPUTS on a normal hi-fi amplifier.

Two speakers were connected to the output of the hi-fi amplifier.

Think of it as an information chain between:
your fingers playing the keys ...............................................and the sound entering your ears.

See the diagram below.


Editing/Fixing a Performance – if you record piano, for example, and the performance is a good one but has some wrong notes and some notes which are out of time, midi allows you to move those notes and fix/keep the good performance.

Editing/Compiling a Performance - You can have several attempts at recording a part, pick out the best bits and edit them into one really good performance.

Allows you to ‘play’ instruments you can’t actually play (eg piano can be played in and recorded one bar at a time and then joined).

You can change the sounds after you have recorded.

As it is multi-track, it allows you to record several instruments and be a really effective ‘one-man’ band.


This command will take your performance and put it 'in time'. It takes notes that you have played slightly early or late and puts them in perfect time.
a) 'Select all' and 'quantize' will bring all of your performance into perfect time (although you may have played some notes so late that they may need to be moved manually with the mouse).
b) You can select to what extent you want to correct it (this may be a percentage).  The advantage of this exercise is that it makes it ‘tighter’ (more in time) but retains some of the dynamics and movement of the original performance.
c) Fix certain areas of the performance, leaving other areas untouched.

When to quantize
If you are using several tracks playing several different instruments and they are all slightly out of time, then instead of creating a joint impact by having the various instruments striking together they will ‘flam’ (hit at slightly different times) and the music will sound messy and less dynamic.

When not to quantize
If you only have a single midi instrument, for example a piano, in your piece of music then quantizing may take away some of the human feel or performance making the part sound a bit mechanical or regimented. As it is a solo/single instrument, you don't have to worry about it being 'tight' and 'in time' with other instruments.

This means how many notes (or voices) can be played at the same time.

In the early days of midi (when we had 8 note and then 16 note polyphony) this was a real limitation on how much you could record. If you are using a modern keyboard or sound module, these days it is not such an issue - unless you want to programme a full orchestral piece. If you are using soft-synths then the capabilities of your computer and its sound card may limit the number of notes and voices you can play at one time.

This is how hard or softly you play the note. If you are using a ‘touch sensitive’ mother keyboard to play in parts then when you play softly and loudly that information will be recorded as a Velocity value and it will play back exactly as you played it.

In modern keyboards and sound modules, this not only affects the volume/loudness but the actual sound (or sample) which changes as you increase the velocity.

This refers to the tempo (or speed) of your recording in beats per minute.

Click Track
This is a metronome/timing guide for you to play along with when you are recording. It will play at whatever tempo you have chosen for your recording.

Most of the time the default sound for a click track is an annoying 'beep'. It is worth spending five minutes at the beginning of your recording getting a better sound (eg hi-hat) and a click pattern or beat that suits the 'feel' and rhythm of the music you are about to record.

MIDI channel
There are 16 MIDI channels. Each channel can control a different sound or instrument - in the same module/keyboard or in different sound sources.

Each part you play in can be stored on a different/separate line/track.

Instrument or Voice
The sound triggered by the MIDI information.


The introduction of the sampler revolutionised Hip-Hop and Dance music as it meant that MIDI could be used to play or 'trigger' short pieces of audio (eg acoustic guitar, voice, drum beats recorded in AUDIO using a microphone). This removed the limitation of only being able to play the sounds in your sound module. Inventive use of the sampler led to many of the biggest hit records of the 90's. One of the most famous was Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise, which sampled the chorus and music of the song "Pastime Paradise" by Stevie Wonder (1976). Some people used drum loops and sounds from old records in their collection to give their music a retro or old-fashioned flavour.


 Around 2000 I did some work with Scott Gibson who had done a lot of  work as a DJ - not the sort of DJ who plays at the amateur football club  dance or kiddies' birthday parties but the cool and credible type that  played big clubs and raves. As Scott's background was in Dance music he  brought a lot of good ideas for beats and samples. I provided musical and  lyrical ideas as well as the technical know-how for everything else, except  the sampler - Scott was the master of the sampler. This is one mix we did  of our track 'Reach' which was a sort of latin homage to the Ibiza dance  scene. We sampled Martin Waugh (currently with Mika) who played funk  guitar on a nylon-strung acoustic for us and that just made the track.
 This is an acoustic mix of the same track with full vocal by Louise and  Percussion by Ian Murray. Their performances were chopped, edited and  played on two Akai samplers.
 As well as playing a huge part in the development of Dance music in the  90's, the sampler had a huge influence on Hip Hop and Rap music. Around  2000, I worked on a project with Scott Gibson where we provided the  beats and the music and an American rapper from Los Angeles (for real,  man!) but based in Glasgow rapped over the beats and music we created.

 On this track all the beat and sounds were played by an Akai sampler. All  of the sounds were 'current' because we sampled them from hip hop  records that were in the charts at the time. This is an early version of the  track with no vocals - just the beats, bass and (messy) guide guitar.

In all of the above I have tried to keep things as simple as possible so that you could understand the basic process of what happens in MIDI recording. If you want to find out a lot more of the detail about the home recording of both MIDI and AUDIO, then the magazine Sound on Sound provides a very helpful and detailed glossary of terms and concepts covering all the technical and practical aspects of home recording. Click here to view it.