Archive for the ‘Midi Series’ Category

20150215_173005Not only do we have 16 channels of MIDI available (per cable…. Other cables can carry 16 more channels as you expand) but we also have 128 steps or individual notes that can be assigned to each channel or voice.  (again, if your device counts zero as a number, you will have 0 – 127)  This is particularly important for triggers and non-sound system controllers.  For example, if you are playing a MIDI keyboard, sax or reed controller as Master, you are not normally trying to redirect a C# to an F, though there are reasons for doing this in some special circumstances.  You just want to perform your song on the Master Controller and have your performance represented as you played it – for better or worse!

However, for drum kits and other triggers it is crucial to set up in advance the sounds that will be played when a specific trigger is hit.  Usually you can change this in the Master Controller itself.  Pick the channel and the specific pad/key you are editing and go to the Menu Options page.   Select MIDI Note Number options.  There are too many ways today’s gear will get you there or what they call it so it is hard to make this specific to all, but that is what the owner manuals are for!  As your Master Controller is connected properly to the receiving tone generator or receiving device, hit the pad or key or button you are trying to edit.  You should be able to see the note number the current pad is assigned to.  Continue to raise or lower this number one digit at a time or enter the KNOWN MIDI Note Number and then Enter.  Once you are triggering the correct sound, sampler or other gear, go to the next pad in a similar mode until all assigned pads correctly trigger the intended receiver.  Save everything and pat yourself on the back!  Keep in mind you can do this over and over depending on project, recording or performance needs.  Most devices will allow you to store and recall a large number of performance templates or basic ‘kits’.  Take advantage of this tool!   Once you set them up, you can use them forever and make your set up time amazingly quick. 

As a keyboard player in a progressive rock band, I used specific keys or notes on my keyboard(s) that were outside the range of the cover or original tune we were playing and assigned them to trigger internal drum sounds like claps or cowbells, effects like record scratching and anything from applause to choir back-up notes.  I never used a sampler that would ‘play’ parts, I just added to the layers by using on-board sounds as a split keyboard arrangement or as real-time triggers to other devices. 

I used to play in the days when you had to have a different keyboard for each sound group you wanted.  If you wanted an electric piano, you played the Rhodes piano.


 20150215_172119 If you wanted an organ sound you carried around a Hammond or other organ.  If you wanted to use synthesizer sounds, you brought in a Moog or Arp and played two sounds at a time ……. and it felt glorious! 

Now you should have a comfortable of understanding – MIDI is a communication system between equipped devices.  This information allows us real-time control of receiving devices.  While there are a lot of basic on-off commends (actions) like note, sustain, start, stop, there are other commands that offer a range of control, typically 1 – 128 (or zero – 127).  Basic computer stuff, so we are stuck with a lot of groups dealing with 8, 16, 128.  You get used to it.  These continuous controller commands can be used to change how the receiving device or sound responds to the movement of the continuous controller. 

Here, I am not talking about the keyboard or sample trigger.  These are basically in-put hardware.  A few examples commonly found are modulation wheels, pitch bend wheels, joysticks, ribbons, foot controllers, and faders.  As mentioned earlier, you can send channel information to a number of receiving devices.  You can use the keyboard as you Master controller and assign one continuous controller to signal the light board to fade in or out and anywhere in-between.  In some set-ups you can use a sustain pedal connected to the Master Controller and when depressed, the light board receives the command (MIDI message) and the fog machine will be triggered.  Key pad triggers can be set up to do the same thing, but as you know, not every device is compatible with every other device, and sometimes features are left out from model to model.  But with most available manufacturer’s, you can easily accomplish versions of the above.

Performing in a duo band, my partner and I played guitars, I played keys, we both sang, he controlled a drum machine with bass pedals and I controlled a programmable drum machine.  As we did more popular dance style music, I would use the drum machine (sometimes when it was idle during a song and sometimes as another layer…) to sequence the synth-bass line of a cover tune.  Then I could play more keyboard parts live for a fuller sound.  As a songwriter, I have used this a bunch to create new audio landscapes and textures I probably would not have found on my own.  So try this if you have the necessary toys;

Take a drum machine or a MIDI drum pattern and play it over and over.  Now, change the sound of the MIDI receiving device or direct to another tone generator (yes!, for visual effects you can also do this to run lights if the sequence is done with the light board in mind).  But don’t just change to another drum or percussion patch.  Change it to a synth bass sound or orchestral strings – and keep changing.  Some sound settings you will not hear anything at all (probably because the drum notes are typically short in duration (and should be as we will get to later) and the sound has a slow attack and is not responding quickly enough to make the programmed tones audible.  (for this you can try holding down a sustain pedal if available and see how the sound responds to longer duration) I plan to go into the properties of ADSR in future series, so we will cover that in detail later.  Some sounds you will not hear every note from the drum pattern but as you listen to a wide variety of sounds, you will find this is OK. 

If needed, change the MIDI Note Number (oh, man, another topic!) from a crash or cowbell in the drum pattern and you can make it trigger another note that might be closer to the key or scale you are working in.  As you know, MIDI also provides real time control, so you can trigger other devices using this function during live performances and still keep it live.

Now that we have our Master MIDI controller (‘Controller,’ ‘Keyboard’, ‘Triggers’, ‘Percussion Pads’, ‘Lighting Boards’ , etc.) connected to the receiving devices (‘drum module‘, ‘tone generator’, ‘lighting system’, ‘keyboard’, ‘sampler’, etc.) we should be able to trigger each receiving device from the Master.  Most receiving devices will have some sort of LED or other indicator to let you know the external device is receiving data.  If we set up as described earlier, changing the MIDI out channel on the Master will send the performance using that new channel.  Each receiving device stays on its designated channel. 

If you are recording, this will allow you to set up each MIDI channel to a MIDI track in your recorder, ‘DAW’ or PC – using internal sounds and ‘plug-ins’.  Track 1 to channel 1, track 2 to channel 2.  If you want to record more than a few times and over periods of time, work out and write down the channel assignment. That way your tracks will follow and will be easier to record and mix in days to come.  

Because drums are on channel 10 by default, that takes care of one!  As a suggestion, for one type of band configuration, set up 1 as the main MIDI chordal instrument sound.  Think main piano or organs.  Channel 2 can be strings or pads, 3 can be brass, 4 can be choir.  You pick what types of sounds your projects normally use and this will help get a recording and playback work flow. 

Most MIDI tone generators can play more than one sound and more than one type of sound at a time.  You may only have one tone generator or a PC that has all your sounds.  You may have many modules for specific instruments like piano or violins or drums.  There are a lot of cool toys for more complex MIDI rigs, and each has a unique ability to process or route data between devices.  Set up the recording templates as desired for the projects you take on.  Use the template to help you get started sooner. 

Once you have recorded each MIDI performance – assigned to individual track/channel – SAVE it!  LOL.  Each track should have its own MIDI channel and when you hit Play, those tracks will recreate the performance and send to all 16 tracks at a time.  As you Mute a track, you stop the playback of that channel. 

Once I ran sound and lights for a hi-energy keyboard heavy band.  I took a portable MIDI recorder and recorded the keyboard players performance.  Then I played each song over and over while I used the performance to sequence the MIDI lighting board we used.  That way when the band played through their set, I would start that song’s sequence and let it do the lights as often as possible, because it reflected what the band was playing better than random or volume based light patterns. (and because it was easy) If they changed the set I would pull up the sequence list and hit play when they started.  

Because there needs to be a direct wire connection between MIDI devices, it actually makes this much easier, but you just need to plan ahead a little.  For simple systems, setting up will be a quick foundation for more complex and growing systems.  In the most basic systems, you will have a controller or device that will transmit MIDI to another receiving device that will be able to respond to the MIDI data.  If you only have one controller, trigger or MIDI device, there is nothing to set up.

So we have examples of MIDI-equipped devices that will be the Master in our set up.  Words like ‘Controller,’ ‘Keyboard’, ‘Triggers’, ‘Percussion Pads’, ‘Lighting Boards’ can be translated into the devices we will play or perform on.  Keyboards can be used to trigger drum or trumpet sounds or even light boards……..  Drum Triggers can be used to play loops or sampled sounds.  Keep in mind MIDI will transmit (and/or record) the physical performance to other devices.

To make sure each device ignores the data going to other devices – yes, remember the 16 channels traveling through each MIDI cable?  Here they come in handy.

If we go back to the basic setup, the Master can be set to transmit MIDI to those possible channels in a number of ways including;

  1. Send No Signal at all (OFF)
  2. Send to any one of the 16 channels
  3. Send to more than one channel

So first, we want the Master to talk to one external MIDI device.  As long as the Master and the receiving device are set to the same channel, the device will respond to information from the selected channel(s).  It is easy to start with channel 1, and many manufacturers will set their default to transmit on channel 1.

There are always exceptions and some become standard features by popularity.  Drum machines were commonly used on channel 10.  So connecting a drum machine or percussion triggers to a ‘drum module‘, use channel 10.

Most MIDI receiver devices will be able to respond to signals in a number of ways including;

  1. No channels (OFF)
  2. Listen to any one channel at a time
  3. Omni – listen to all 16 channels at once

If you have problems getting receiving device to respond, try #3 above.

As we add devices we can +1 on the Master out channel to send to other devices now in the chain of MIDI cables connecting each device as described briefly earlier.  Set each new receiving device to listen to that channel only (in common and standard systems).

Next series let’s go over recording and playing MIDI performances.


I have seen a lot of confusion over the discussion of MIDI.  Many of us know what it is and how to use it, but we keep on learning new ways to take advantage of this amazing communication protocol.  New MIDI equipped products are hitting the market every year, but if you are starting out or curious you probably just want to know what is MIDI really?

The definition is rather simple; Musical Instrument Digital Interface.

It is a way for devices that have the MIDI feature to communicate to other devices that have the same feature.  Typically you will see the following ports on the devices:



THRU (also an out, put this is a pass-through from an external MIDI device)


These simply let you know where the flow of communication is headed.  These ports and the cables connecting them communicate one-way.  If you want the 1st device to send MIDI data to the 2nd device, connect the OUT from device 1 and connect it to the IN of device 2.  To have the same data from 1st device also sent to a 3rd device, connect the THRU (out) from the 2nd device to the 3rd device’s IN port.


MIDI has set up 16 channels for separate communications within each device.   Now, here is the kicker.  What does it do?


The confusion comes from the idea that MIDI allows you to record or transmit and layer sounds.  Try to think of it this way – MIDI transmits physical activity applied to the device.

It has no sounds.  It makes no noise. 

But if the player or performer plays a keyboard as the 1st device, MIDI will transmit the physical movement of the keyboard …. This can include what key(s) on the keyboard, how fast or hard they were hit, how much pressure was applied to the key(s) while they are held down, how long it was held, if the sustain pedal is pressed, if the modulation wheel is moving and a lot of other information.  When you capture or record the MIDI data of the performance, it will play back those movements.  If the 2nd device is a tone generator or sound module whatever sound is selected will respond to the MIDI ‘performance’.   If you change sounds, the performance will be in the new sound.

If the 1st device is a drum pad or trigger, the same thing applies.  The trigger will send MIDI data detailing which trigger is used, how hard it is hit and in some pad designs it will detect the area of impact and will trigger multiple sounds depending in zone and velocity of the strike.

I will continue the over view later on in this series.