What Is MIDI? Here's a basic primer.

by Chris Heille August 10, 2015

MIDI Controller

If you've seen or heard the statement "the jamstik is a MIDI controller" and thought "I have no clue what MIDI is," you're not alone. From its introduction in the 1980's through to today, MIDI has left a lot of people scratching their heads. I'm going to do my best here to help bring some clarity to what MIDI is and how it functions, especially in connection to the jamstik and puc.

First off, the word "MIDI" is an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. There, that explains everything, right? You’ve got it down! No? Not a chance? Ok, let's go a little further.

In it's simplest sense, MIDI is a protocol (or "language") that allows MIDI-enabled devices (synthesizers, drum machines, controllers, DAW's, mixers, etc.) to communicate with each other using simple commands. To demonstrate the simplest concept of MIDI control, I like to use the analogy of a QWERTY keyboard connected to a computer. You type the keys on the QWERTY keyboard to enter text. The QWERTY keyboard is your input device and your text appears on the screen. You press the "M" key to make the M appear on screen, then U, then S, then I, then C. In a similar fashion you can think of a MIDI keyboard controller as a fancy QWERTY keyboard that uses a piano style interface (white and black keys) to enter or play note information in real time to hardware or a software synth. You press and hold a "C" and the controller sends data that when decoded into English might look like this: "Play Middle C with a velocity of 100 and hold that note until I send the message to tell you to stop playing that note." When you release the "C" the data sends another message that says "Stop sounding Middle C." If you start thinking about MIDI conceptually along this idea of "MIDI controllers are like QWERTY keyboards," it helps as we move toward more complex ideas.

Of course, there's a lot more going on with MIDI than "musical typing," but when you apply it to the jamstik the concept can be thought of like this - the jamstik is like a fancy QWERTY keyboard that connects to your iPhone, iPad, or Mac. It "controls" apps on your device using MIDI. Like our Middle C analogy above, when you press the G string down in the 5th fret and strum it, the decoded MIDI would say "Play Middle C with a velocity of 100 and hold that note until I send the message that indicates to stop playing that note." That jamstik doesn't magically move the sounds of your iPad or Mac into it's tiny body and start making noise, it's simply telling your software how and when to make sounds.

As you can imagine, there's a lot more to explaining MIDI than using a controller to tell software or a hardware synth "play a Middle C," and in our next entry we'll go into some of the basics of MIDI messages, MIDI Continuous Controller commands, and talk about the difference between sending and receiving MIDI.

The next entry in our "What Is MIDI" series takes our basic QWERTY idea and starts to layer in the details.

Christopher Heille, Music Product Specialist, Zivix LLC

Chris Heille
Chris Heille


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