MIDI Basics - Common Terms Explained

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other midi terms explained 1

MIDI can be a very powerful tool when making music in the digital world.  Although MIDI can get very complex, the basics are easy to understand.  In this article we will cover some of the terms you may come across when reading about MIDI.  These are also the same MIDI terms you may see referenced in your product's user manual. 

 

    1. Channels vs Ports
    2. USB-MIDI vs 5-pin DIN
    3. Whats a "Virtual Instrument" and Why Do I Need One?
    4. Some Advantages of Using MIDI
    5. MIDI Notes - letters vs numbers
    6. ON/OFF Messages - momentary vs toggle
    7. Continue Controller/Control Change/(CC)
    8. Program Change

 

Intro 

An acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, MIDI was created in the early 80s as a communication standard for musical hardware.  The standard allows two products, from two different manufactures, to send performance data back and forth using a common language.  These days, MIDI is used to control music equipment, lighting equipment, and even video games.  It's a fast transferring digital signal that allows performance data to be layered using multiple channels or separated using multiple ports. 

 

Channels vs Ports

MIDI messages can be defined by a MIDI port and/or a MIDI channel.  Each port has 16 different channels that can be used to pass data.  MIDI ports are often unique hardware paths, typically indicated by a 5-pin DIN connectors (shown below).  MIDI ports can have their own hardware input and output or all ports can be handled by a single USB connection.

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Tip: You can send the same performance data down all MIDI channels when an OMNI mode is used from the transmitting hardware or software. 

 

USB-MIDI vs 5-pin DIN 

MIDI is transferred using two common cables/connectors.  Most hardware and external sound modules will use MIDI 5-pin DIN inputs and outputs to transfer MIDI. More recently, due to the music software explosion, MIDI is being sent over a USB cable.  Since computers come standard with USB ports, a USB connection is now the more desirable choice.other midi terms explained 11

MIDI controllers may have USB-MIDI as well as 5-pin DIN in and outs.  This accommodates computer and external hardware connection.

other midi terms explained 8.1  

Whats a "Virtual Instrument" and Why Do I Need One? 

MIDI does not pass audio signal, so if you are using a MIDI controller connected to the computer, you will most likely need some sort of software that will interpret the MIDI and produce sound.  This is referred to as a Virtual Instrument, VI, or plug-in.  If you are using recording/sequencing software, you may already have some virtual instruments included.  Virtual instruments can consist of a variety of sounds or can specialize in a particular timbre or category.  Whether you're looking for great piano sounds, epic drum kits, or the sounds of crashing dish wear, there is a virtual instrument out there for everyone.

    

Some Advantages of Using MIDI

  • A standard language between musical hardware and software
  • Sound assignments can always be changed in the future
  • Quick digital to digital data transferring 
  • Easy editing once recorded
  • Simple time and quantize adjustments
  • Small file sizes

 

 

Types of Messages

MIDI Notes - letters vs numbers

The most commonly used MIDI message is a note-on or note-off message. A note-on message is created when pressing a key (or pad), and a note-off message is created upon release. This MIDI note message tells you what note was played, how hard the note was hit, and what MIDI channel the note was played on.  Using note-on and note-off messages will determine how long the note took place.  All this performance data gets translated to digital information, which can then be read by any other device supporting MIDI.

Every note on a full scale (88-key) piano is affiliated with a note and octave, as well as a MIDI note number.  The following chart will show you this relation:

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 The same notes and octaves displayed on a full range piano:

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Looking at the charts above you can see that middle C, known as C4, is represented by MIDI note number 48.   

TIP:  Changing the MIDI note a controller sends can be helpful when a drum pad is not triggering the desired sound from your software or hardware.  If you wanted to send C4 when pressing a pad, MIDI note 48 would need to be assigned to the pad. 

 

ON/OFF Messages - momentary vs toggle

There are two ways a MIDI note can be sent.  When using a keyboard, you will most likely be using momentary messaging.  This mean an ON message is created when pressing a key, and an OFF message is created when releasing the key.  Sometimes, when using drum pads or buttons, a toggle style functionality may be desirable.  When using a toggle setting the OFF messages are not being sent when the pad is released. Instead, the pad will alternate between sending ON and OFF messages when struck.  

TIP:  Using a button or pad with a toggle function will help control a parameter that needs to stay on after releasing the button/pad.  This can be beneficial if you are controlling something like a solo, mute, or an effects ON/OFF switch.  

 

Continue Controller/Control Change/(CC) 

Most commonly referred to as a (CC), this message consist of a controller number and a value ranging from 0-127.  Most hardware encoders, such as knobs and faders, will send these types of messages.  Often encoders will have the ability to change the control change number they are sending.  This flexibility allows a single encoder to have the ability to control multiple parameters such as volume, filter cutoff, effect mix, etc. 

The following list shows the standard use for these controller numbers when controlling MIDI hardware. The controller assignments in bold are the most commonly used.

NOTE:  When using software that supports MIDI mapping, you can assign any control change number to any parameter available via mapping. 

    • Bank Select (MSB)
    • Modulation Wheel
    • 2 Breath controller
    • 3 Undefined
    • Foot Pedal (MSB)
    • 5 Portamento Time (MSB)
    • Data Entry (MSB) - cc100=0 & cc101=0 is pitch bend range
    • Volume (MSB)
    • 8 Balance (MSB)
    • 9 Undefined
    • 10 Pan position (MSB)
    • 11 Expression (MSB)
    • 12 Effect Control 1 (MSB)
    • 13 Effect Control 2 (MSB)
    • 14 Undefined
    • 15 Undefined
    • 16 Ribbon Controller or General Purpose Slider 1
    • 17 Knob 1 or General Purpose Slider 2
    • 18 General Purpose Slider 3
    • 19 Knob 2 General Purpose Slider 4
    • 20 Knob 3 or Undefined
    • 21 Knob 4 or Undefined
    • 22-31 undefined
    • 32 Bank Select (LSB) 
    • 33 Modulation Wheel (LSB)
    • 34 Breath controller (LSB)
    • 35 Undefined
    • 36 Foot Pedal (LSB)
    • 37 Portamento Time (LSB)
    • 38 Data Entry (LSB)
    • 39 Volume (LSB)
    • 40 Balance (LSB)
    • 41 Undefined
    • 42 Pan position (LSB)
    • 43 Expression (LSB)
    • 44 Effect Control 1 (LSB) 
    • 45 Effect Control 2 (LSB)
    • 46-63 Undefined.
    • 64 Hold/Sustain Pedal (on/off) 
    • 65 Portamento (on/off)
    • 66 Sustenuto Pedal (on/off)
    • 67 Soft Pedal (on/off)
    • 68 Legato Pedal (on/off)
    • 69 Hold 2 Pedal (on/off)
    • 70 Sound Variation
    • 71 Resonance (Timbre)
    • 72 Sound Release Time
    • 73 Sound Attack Time
    • 74 Frequency Cutoff 
    • 75 Sound Control 6
    • 76 Sound Control 7
    • 77 Sound Control 8
    • 78 Sound Control 9
    • 79 Sound Control 10
    • 80 Decay or General Purpose Button 1 (on/off) 
    • 81 Hi Pass Filter Frequency or General Purpose Button 2 (on/off) 
    • 82 General Purpose Button 3 (on/off) 
    • 83 General Purpose Button 4 (on/off)
    • 84-90 Undefined
    • 91 Reverb Level
    • 92 Tremolo Level
    • 93 Chorus Level
    • 94 Celeste Level or Detune
    • 95 Phaser Level
    • 96 Data Button increment
    • 97 Data Button decrement
    • 98 Non-registered Parameter (LSB)
    • 99 Non-registered Parameter (MSB)
    • 100 Registered Parameter (LSB)
    • 101 Registered Parameter (MSB)
    • 102-119 Undefined
    • 120 All Sound Off
    • 121 All Controllers Off
    • 122 Local Keyboard (on/off)
    • 123 All Notes Off
    • 124 Omni Mode Off
    • 125 Omni Mode On
    • 126 Mono Operation
    • 127 Poly Operation

 

Program Change

Also known as a "patch change", these messages are commonly used to tell hardware or software to change a patch preset.  When using General MIDI, the program change number will be affiliated with a particular type of patch.  When General MIDI is not being used, manufactures will list patches in the order they wish.  Most virtual instrument companies will not follow this standard since their sound sets are unique.  Here is the list of program changes and what patch they refererence when using the General MIDI standard:

Piano

    • 0 Acoustic Grand Piano
    • 1 Bright Acoustic Piano
    • 2 Electric Grand Piano
    • 3 Honky-tonk Piano
    • 4 Electric Piano 1
    • 5 Electric Piano 2
    • 6 Harpsichord
    • 7 Clavinet

Chromatic Percussion 

    • 8 Celesta
    • 9 Glockenspiel
    • 10 Music Box
    • 11 Vibraphone
    • 12 Marimba
    • 13 Xylophone
    • 14 Tubular Bells
    • 15 Dulcimer

Organ

    • 16 Drawbar Organ
    • 17 Percussive Organ
    • 18 Rock Organ
    • 19 Church Organ
    • 20 Reed Organ
    • 21 Accordion
    • 22 Harmonica
    • 24 Acoustic Guitar (nylon)
    • 25 Acoustic Guitar (steel)
    • 26 Electric Guitar (jazz)
    • 27 Electric Guitar (clean)
    • 28 Electric Guitar (muted)
    • 29 Overdriven Guitar
    • 30 Distortion Guitar
    • 31 Guitar Harmonics
    • 32 Acoustic Bass
    • 33 Electric Bass (finger)
    • 34 Electric Bass (pick)
    • 35 Fretless Bass
    • 36 Slap Bass 1
    • 37 Slap Bass 2
    • 38 Synth Bass 1
    • 39 Synth Bass 2
    • 40 Violin
    • 41 Viola
    • 42 Cello
    • 43 Contrabass
    • 44 Tremolo Strings
    • 45 Pizzicato Strings
    • 46 Orchestral Harp
    • 47 Timpani
    • 48 String Ensemble 1
    • 49 String Ensemble 2
    • 50 Synth Strings 1
    • 51 Synth Strings 2
    • 52 Choir Aahs
    • 53 Voice Oohs
    • 54 Synth Choir
    • 55 Orchestra Hit
    • 56 Trumpet
    • 57 Trombone
    • 58 Tuba
    • 59 Muted Trumpet
    • 60 French Horn
    • 61 Brass Section
    • 62 Synth Brass 1
    • 63 Synth Brass 2
    • 64 Soprano Sax
    • 65 Alto Sax
    • 66 Tenor Sax
    • 67 Baritone Sax
    • 68 Oboe
    • 69 English Horn
    • 70 Bassoon
    • 71 Clarinet

Pipe

    • 72 Piccolo
    • 73 Flute
    • 74 Recorder
    • 75 Pan Flute
    • 76 Blown bottle
    • 77 Shakuhachi
    • 78 Whistle
    • 79 Ocarina

Synth Lead 

    • 80 Lead 1 (square)
    • 81 Lead 2 (sawtooth)
    • 82 Lead 3 (calliope)
    • 83 Lead 4 (chiff)
    • 84 Lead 5 (charang)
    • 85 Lead 6 (voice)
    • 86 Lead 7 (fifths)
    • 87 Lead 8 (bass + lead)

Synth Pad 

    • 88 Pad 1 (new age)
    • 89 Pad 2 (warm)
    • 90 Pad 3 (polysynth)
    • 91 Pad 4 (choir)
    • 92 Pad 5 (bowed)
    • 93 Pad 6 (metallic)
    • 94 Pad 7 (halo)
    • 95 Pad 8 (sweep)

Synth Effects 

    • 96 FX 1 (rain)
    • 97 FX 2 (soundtrack)
    • 98 FX 3 (crystal)
    • 99 FX 4 (atmosphere)
    • 100 FX 5 (brightness)
    • 101 FX 6 (goblins)
    • 102 FX 7 (echoes)
    • 103 FX 8 (sci-fi)

Ethnic 

    • 104 Sitar
    • 105 Banjo
    • 106 Shamisen
    • 107 Koto
    • 108 Kalimba
    • 109 Bagpipe
    • 110 Fiddle
    • 111 Shanai

Percussive

    • 112 Tinkle Bell
    • 113 Agogo
    • 114 Steel Drums
    • 115 Woodblock
    • 116 Taiko Drum
    • 117 Melodic Tom
    • 118 Synth Drum
    • 119 Reverse Cymbal

Sound effects

    • 120 Guitar Fret Noise
    • 121 Breath Noise
    • 122 Seashore
    • 123 Bird Tweet
    • 124 Telephone Ring
    • 125 Helicopter
    • 126 Applause
    • 127 Gunshot  

TIP:  Program change messages are specific to a MIDI channel as well.  This allows you to change the patch of multiple virtual instruments or hardware modules, all from the same MIDI controller using channel assignments. 

 

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