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MIDI Interfaces Buying Guide - What is a MIDI Interface

MIDI Interface Topics


What is a MIDI interface?

A MIDI interface is a device that can accept MIDI plugs (the old fashioned hardware type) and send and receive MIDI signal. MIDI stands for ‘Musical Instrument Digital Interface’ and is a protocol, or an agreed standard adopted to ensure certain ground rules are met when software and hardware are designed. This ensures compatibility with other electronic instruments and devices.

For as long as computers have been working with MIDI, musicians have needed a way to get MIDI signal from an input device – typically a keyboard – to the software that is generating the sound.

In the early days, MIDI sequencing software like Cubase and Notator, which would later become Logic, were simply MIDI programmers and transmitters. They were connected to external hardware like keyboards, samplers and drum machines that would generate sound. This was then routed into a mixing desks and the results recorded. Nowadays a great deal of MIDI transmission happens from MIDI controllers to computers, much of it over USB connections, but there’s still a need for more traditional MIDI-capable devices. The MIDI interface is the device that bridges electronic instruments and increasingly, computers and DAWs. There’s also a new generation of portable devices like iPads and iPhones that can deal with MIDI, and they also need some sort of interface in order to be able to talk to external hardware.


Who might need a MIDI interface?

Although USB has become increasingly popular for transmitting MIDI between devices, a lot of music hardware still has traditional MIDI ports fitted, often in addition to USB. Anything older than a few years may rely only on old style MIDI ports for communication. It’s far from a dead technology, and shows no signs of fading away any time soon. If you have MIDI-equipped hardware you will need a way to trigger it from your DAW if you want to use any MIDI tracks to generate sound. Playing a drum machine or a synth from its own controls is great but sometimes you might want to take advantage of the MIDI programming tools in your DAW. Tools like quantized parts, arpeggiators or chord plug-ins to generate parts that are more complex than those achieved simply playing by hand.

A MIDI interface lets you send MIDI signal out from your computer sequencer to your music hardware, or indeed in from a controller like a keyboard or drum pad to a virtual software instrument. If you have any hardware instruments in your setup, a MIDI interface is a must. Some devices have both USB MIDI and conventional MIDI ports, which represents the ultimate in flexibility. Devices like this can bridge the gap between your software and hardware while at the same time providing control over both kinds of devices. Since MIDI interfacing is quite straightforward in technical terms, interfaces can be quite inexpensive.


Small MIDI interfaces

Small, portable MIDI interface are readily available and provide 1x1 or 2x2 MIDI capability. When you only want to connect a single instrument to your computer, they are the way to go. In fact some MIDI instruments not only have MIDI in and out ports but also MIDI thru, which enables you to daisy chain more devices. There are 16 MIDI channels on every port, so even on a single MIDI port you can configure up to 16 devices by daisy chaining them where possible, and assigning each one a unique channel number.

Small MIDI interfaces are great because they are extremely portable and draw only a small amount of power. The vast majority power off the same USB connection that they use to interface with your Mac or PC, and the protocol is so well established that they rarely require drivers. Most MIDI communication in Mac OS X and Windows is handled at a low level by the operating system itself.


Bigger MIDI interfaces

Where you have more than a couple of hardware MIDI instruments in your setup, or where the ones you have do not feature MIDI thru for daisy chaining, you might need more than one port on your interface. This is simply to be able to connect, say, a keyboard workstation, a drum machine and a sampler at the same time. Each will have its audio outputs routed to your audio mixer or audio interface for recording the sound back into your DAW. The only major difference between a small and a large MIDI interface is in the number of simultaneous connections available to you.


Mobile MIDI interfaces

With devices like the iPad and iPhone, the market is seeing an increasing number of apps that are able to send and receive MIDI signal, as well as sequencing natively. In order to get MIDI into your mobile device to trigger instruments from outside, you need a mobile MIDI interface. You’ll also need one to connect the device to your hardware or virtual instruments for triggering them from your phone, These connect either directly to the Dock connector on your device, or via USB through Apple’s Camera Connection Kit. They use Core MIDI, so no setup is generally needed. Once connected, the device should appear as a MIDI source and destination option on your computer or in your DAW.
built-in audio and MIDI effects.


Things to remember

MIDI interfacing is usually hassle-free, with many devices not needing drivers thanks to advanced support at system level in Mac OS X and Windows. The only niggle can be assigning channels, so you have to keep an eye on which devices are set to use which channels. Most DAW software makes MIDI setup pretty painless, and features ‘panic’ modes to reset external MIDI devices if any notes get stuck.


MIDI interfaces - example setups

1. A basic system where you want to connect your DAW to a vintage drum machine or keyboard with MIDI capability.

Any 1x1 or 2x2 interface will do the job here, such as the Prodipe MIDI-1, ESI Midimate II or CME U2MIDI, all available for under £20. They connect straight to your USB port and most models provide a cable with USB at one end and a MIDI connection at the other, removing the need even for a box in the middle.


2. A more complex setup where your computer needs to connect to several MIDI hardware devices.

Prodipe 4i4o MIDI interface has four ins and outs with a total of 64 MIDI channels available. It also has a Merge function for more flexible MIDI routing and is bus powered. M-Audio Midisport 4x4 is very similar, providing a multitude of channels for connecting lots of gear at the same time. This is great when you want to leave kit connected permanently and don’t want to keep unplugging things. For the truly adventurous, MOTU MIDI Express 128 is an eight-in/nine-out interface that allows up to 128 MIDI channels with excellent timing.


3. Someone using an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad for MIDI sequencing.

The Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer plugs straight into your device and as well as interfacing, allows you to record and back-up MIDI information on the move. The iConnect MIDI is a desktop unit that also interfaces with your device but provides a more conventional experience, with 12 MIDI ports plus advanced merge functions.