How MIDI Can Help Or Hurt Your Music

Technology is a double-edged sword when it comes to music creation. On one hand, technology gives us the tools to write, record, and produce in ways we couldn’t have done otherwise. Yet, leaning too heavily into the convenience technology offers can be bad for our music. This especially goes for writing and performing with MIDI instruments. 

What is MIDI?

For the uninitiated, MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Writing with MIDI gives musicians the power to access a virtual endless amount of instruments, sound effects, and textures. It also provides an easy way to edit musical information after it’s been performed. This means that a sloppy performance filled with wrong notes can quickly be edited to sound the way you want it to. MIDI gives musicians the chance to edit performances note-by-note or entire sections of music through features like quantizing. 

MIDI can be used as a versatile tool for writing, recording, and performing. It gives musicians instant access to a universe of sounds they wouldn’t have had access to before. Plus, they have the chance to deliver musically solid performances no matter their skill level. It’s particularly helpful for allowing performers to access specific instruments on stage that can’t easily be replicated by synths. Unfortunately, working with MIDI can come with some negatives that you should consider. 

The downsides of relying on MIDI

Features like quantization allow musicians to transform flawed performances into musically perfect ones. However, that doesn’t mean the resulting music will sound good. In fact, one of the biggest problems with MIDI and electronic music happens when convenient tools make music sound unhuman, cold, and distant. Believe it or not, the inevitable imperfections in what you record are what will help your music listenable and interesting. MIDI is like sanitizer in the ways that it will get rid of the perceived mistakes in your music. Yet, it can also wipe clean the things that make it unique and compelling. 

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Turning to MIDI’s editing features every time you make a mistake in your performance can hurt your musicianship. Mastering tricky passages of music on your instrument is a major part of developing skills as a musician, and that won’t happen if you let MIDI clean up ideas for you. There’s also the issue of letting quantization tools sum up and dumb down your ideas in ways that compromise the creative integrity of your music.

And then there’s the issue of endless choices when it comes to MIDI. On its face, having access to every digital instrument imaginable sounds like a good thing. But when you consider the fact that music-makers often thrive by being forced to embrace limitations, this asset can actually be a creative detriment. More instruments means that more choices have to be made during the writing process. This heavy dose of decision-making could distract from the creative urgency that musicians thrive on. When it comes to translating spur-of-the-moment ideas into music, it can be much easier to grab a guitar or sit down at a piano than scrolling through vast sound libraries to find the perfect virtual instrument. 

How to work better with MIDI

MIDI isn’t the problem. We are. As human beings, we’re wired to take the easy way out when it’s available. MIDI offers a massive range of convenient methods to create and edit music. The problem happens when convenience translates to uncompelling features in our music. 

Approached the right way, MIDI can be used as a phenomenal tool for creation and performances, but it can take a little bit of work to get there. When it comes to editing, most musicians will benefit from practicing restraint. Doing so will help sharpen their skills and make the music they create sound more realistic. When it comes to deciding which instruments to write with through MIDI, giving yourself boundaries and limitations will help provide structure and direction for your music. And instead of relying on MIDI exclusively to create and perform with, consider adding variety into your process with organic instruments as well. That way you’ll get a healthy mix of sounds and music-making methods in your routine. When it’s used thoughtfully, MIDI can be used as a phenomenal tool for your music. 

Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.

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Join the conversation
  • Sky - September 3, 2020 reply

    I like what you’re conveying here. As A longtime computer-based artist I’ve learned some lessons of restraint. MIDI is a nice archive format in that solo piano tracks I composed in the 1990s can be re-rendered using modern instruments. I tend to use MIDI like a tape recorder and not quantize nor overly cleanup performances. My method is to manually edit individual notes and chords that must fall on down beats, while leaving other notes to float as they will. Sometimes I’ll shift a measure such that important notes land correctly while timing between notes is untouched.

  • Den Miller - September 3, 2020 reply

    This should be compulsory reading.
    Sums up the good and the bad in MIDI perfectly.

  • VivaTVApk - September 9, 2020 reply

    The content of your article page is very good, I find the content quite good and helpful to me, thank you for

  • Jimmy - September 28, 2020 reply

    Thanks, I agree with you, for me midi is just for some songs ed no more, important needed live music with another peaply playing together live music like this year’s 60s,70s,80s,90 really perfect in the front face to face e people, just live ,e no midi or karaoke, or dejay, I respect everything from music, but when playing live music is another thing , needed to play with heart, with emotional e singing together with the people live, for to be the dream for every one. thank you I appreciate it…

    bablu - November 12, 2021 reply

    Thnaks for answering man really appreciate your work

  • viva tv - February 14, 2021 reply

    I generally use MIDI as a recorder and don’t over-measure or clean the function. My approach is to adjust the individual notes and the codes have to fall into the deep beats, leaving certain notes as they wish. Sometimes I change the scale so that the important notes fall correctly while the time between notes remains unchanged.

  • thaumcraft - November 12, 2021 reply

    I usually use MIDI as a tape recorder and do not quantize or exaggerate. My method is to manually edit each sound and chords dropped, leaving the other sounds in place. You may want to move the scales so that important sounds fall correctly and the time between notes does not touch each other.

  • decocraft - November 12, 2021 reply

    This is a must read.
    It perfectly summarizes the pros and cons of MIDI.

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