Using MIDI Cables: Connecting a MIDI Controller to a PC

By John Wallace
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Many amateur musicians shy away from using MIDI technology to record and play their songs because it seems complicated and difficult to learn. Even though MIDI is capable of managing complex control sequences and connecting incredibly intricate audio equipment arrays, it is not conceptually obscure or complicated to use. In fact, the opposite is true. All you need is the correct MIDI cable and a MIDI controller, usually a keyboard with MIDI input or output ports, or both.

Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) is simply a language that allows audio devices and musical instruments to communicate and function in sync with each other. Once you have a basic understanding of what MIDI is and how it works, you can easily learn to use it to simplify your songwriting and recording process. This interface is capable of handling many tasks that require a lot of time and effort to accomplish manually. Learning to use MIDI interface cables and controllers makes the whole process of recording music simpler and less time-consuming.

Connecting a Device to a MIDI Controller

Almost all electronic audio devices are equipped with MIDI ports, and all you need is the right MIDI cable to connect your devices to a MIDI keyboard or PC soundcard. To connect to a controller, you need a standard 5 pin MIDI cable to connect the output port to the input port on your device, such as a drum machine or keyboard. You can then use the keyboard controller to play a sequence of notes – called MIDI events – that will trigger the notes on your output device when you play back the sequence.

Connecting a MIDI Controller to a PC

There are a number of different MIDI cables that you can use to connect a MIDI controller to your computer in order to record MIDI events in an audio-editing software application. These include a MIDI to MIDI lead cable that connects the controller using either: a D-socket MIDI cable with a 9- or 15-pin male D connector on one end and dual MIDI cables with in and out connectors on the other end, or a MIDI to USB cable, which has a USB 2.0 connector on one end and dual 5-pin MIDI cable connectors on the other. The first MIDI cable connects directly to the computer's soundcard, and the other MIDI cable connects to the computer's USB port.

Recording MIDI Information

Once you've connected your controller to your computer and opened your audio editing software, you need to change the software settings to tell it where to look for the input signal and where to send the output audio signal so that you can hear what you're playing and recording. The location of the input and output settings vary between software applications, so read the user manual for your software to learn how to adjust these settings. Then set the input to either the soundcard or the USB port to input MIDI information into the software and choose an output. You can either keep the output as the speakers or headphones connected to your computer, or change it to send the output signal through a MIDI cable to a keyboard, which will play back the notes through whichever sound bank you choose.

Now you're ready to record with MIDI! Arm the track you wish to record to and begin recording when you're ready. As you play the chords or notes, you will see them appear in the track editor window of your recording software as colored bars representing the placement, duration and sequence of the notes. The difference between recording an instrument and recording MIDI events is that you have complete control over the way it sounds on playback, since you're only telling the software which notes to play when, and at what velocity, pitch and duration.

Once you've recorded a passage, you can choose from an almost infinite number of synthesized instruments or sounds, either on the keyboard you route the signal to or through the sound banks included with your software, and apply any number of effects after the fact. You can also edit the length, position, sequence, velocity and pitch of each note using your audio editing software, and even draw in notes that will be played back with whatever sound – or combination of sounds – that you choose.

As you can see, the possibilities are virtually endless. The way your recordings sound is not limited by the quality of your performance, since you can alter each note and the synthesized instrument you use to play it to an almost infinite extent. This will save you countless hours of recording take after take until you can capture the perfect performance. Instead, you can easily correct any mistakes and move on to the next track or song. So don't be afraid of MIDI, and get involved!

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