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MIDI in a Nutshell: Basic Concept & Workflow, MIDI Files and Liquid Notes

In response to several emails we’ve received recently from community members inquiring about the nature of MIDI files, MIDI in general and how this relates to Liquid Notes, we came up with a brief overview of the most important aspects of MIDI.

Many of you are perhaps already well versed in all things MIDI, but if you are new to the world of digital music production and to Liquid Notes, read on.


What is MIDI after all?

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a technical standard standardised in 1983 and maintained since by the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA).

MIDI describes a particular protocol, a serial digital interface and connectors for the exchange of information between electronic musical instruments and computers. MIDI does not carry any audio, instead it carries information about what is happening and messages that specify pitch, notation and velocity and control signals for parameters such as volume, vibrato, panning, etc.

These messages are being sent as series of binary numbers to other devices where they control the generation of sound and all sorts of other things. This type of data can also be received, handled by and recorded into a dedicated hardware sequencer or an equivalent software application, most commonly as part of a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).


What’s a MIDI controller?

Most of us who create music digitally commonly generate this data via the means of tactile performance controllers such as keyboards, drum and percussion pads, wind and breath controllers, stringed instrument controllers or specialized controllers such as DJ controllers.


Why a sequencer and not a coffee machine, or at least a toaster?

Our sequencer of choice, be it within a DAW such as Ableton Live, Reason, Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic, Reaper, you name it, receives this data, stores it and as a result, makes it audible in real-time through the virtual instruments available within the given environment and the sound cards attached to the system.


The Workflow

So, for us mere mortals in reality this means that we fire up our computer and ancillary system, load the DAW, set up one (or more) track(s) of the corresponding type, instantiate a cool sounding plug-in, configure the I/O settings, reach over to the keyboard (or other) controller and doodle away until sparks fly, the muses kiss us and our ideas mutate from thin trickles into cascades of sound, lines, textures and juicy grooves.

At some point, hopefully sooner than later, we have hit the Record Button to capture our ideas to subsequently edit the results with the means of the editing tools commonly available within DAWs.

To make the editing process easier, the recorded MIDI-data not only becomes audible, but sequencers within DAWs usually generate a graphical representation of the events as well. Either in the form of grid-based piano rolls, where notes are shown as bars of varying lengths, or in the form of musical notation, or a list of editable parameters.

The above mentioned process may be repeated numerously until we have come up with a musical arrangement containing multiple tracks with chords, beats, lines and so on.


MIDI Control Change Messages

You may also have noticed in your sequencer some lanes cryptically labeled with e.g. CC 1, CC 7, or CC 10.

These CC lanes represent the Control Change Messages possibly received for each of the 16 channels. The Control Number (CC) indicates which type of event the message is about and a number between 0 and 127 assigns a value to this event, with 127 always being the maximum in the world of MIDI. For example, let’s say you move to the maximum a fader on your hardware controller that is assigned to the channel volume, than the message sent will be CC 7 - telling the receiving unit that you want to adjust its loudness, and the value will be 127 - telling the unit to go for the maximum blast.


The Export Business

In order to further explore the harmonic and melodic potential and possibilities of our musical arrangement within Liquid Notes, we now have to somehow get it out of our DAW and into Liquid Notes - and that’s where the Standard MIDI File (SMF) comes into play: We have to export our already pretty cool tracks as an SMF from the DAW and drop the resulting file onto Liquid Notes’ interface for it to do what needs to be done and what it’s designed for.

As if there isn’t enough smoke coming out of our ears already - what are SMF’s? How can I export such things? Are there applicable export taxes and other nasty things?

No need for sorrow and despair - the answer is short and sweet (well sort of…):

A Standard MIDI File (SMF or .mid) is a popular file format that provides a standardized way for sequences to be saved, transported, and opened in other systems. They are intended for universal use, and include such information as note values, timing and many other parameters. SMF’s are created as an export format of software sequencers or hardware workstations. They organize MIDI messages into one or more parallel tracks, and a header contains the arrangement's setup data, which may include such things as tempo and instrumentation, and a host of other information. The header also specifies which of three SMF formats the file is in - a Type 0 file contains the entire performance, merged into a single track, while Type 1 files may contain any number of tracks. Type 2 files are rarely used and can safely be ignored for our purposes.

All DAW’s provide under the export functions an option for the export as MIDI file. All we have to do is select the desired tracks in our arrangement (if not all of them), find the corresponding 'Export as MIDI File' command and make our choices as to whether we want the resulting file to be Type 0 or Type 1. And rest assured, there are no export taxes (...just kiddin’).

Hint: Unless an arrangement consists of a single track only, it’s commonly preferable to choose Type 1.

The resulting file will be placed on your computer’s desktop or any other chosen storage location. From there it can comfortably be imported in Liquid Notes via simple Drag & Drop for analysis and the following hard-core manipulation of chords, harmonic progressions and all sorts of musical twists that may result in a true masterpiece. It’s all easy as a pie!


Sources for further information on MIDI:

David Miles Huber's book "The MIDI Manual: A Practical Guide to MIDI in the Project Studio" (2007, Burlington, MA: Focal Press) and the website of the MIDI Manufacturers Association provide for good reading on the topic.

We hope that this brief article will be of use to some of our community members, clarifying the basics of MIDI, MIDI files and what all of it has to do with Liquid Notes. If you have any questions, suggestion or concerns, please do get in touch with us and let us know what you think- we are friendly chaps and always appreciate your input and opinions.

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