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.
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.