The Midi Port Blues

MIDI is the abbreviation for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It is a standard set of protocols developed in the early 80s for interfacing electronic musical devices. It is seldom an industry does something right as is with the case of MIDI. That is there is one standard and not a this brand does it this way and this brand does it that-a-way as found in so many products. The standard helped the rapid development of MIDI hardware and software and I believe it is responsible for the popularity of electronic keyboards today.

The cool thing about MIDI these days is that musical devices may also be virtual in nature residing inside a computer. There are musicians that create great music using only a computer. The fact is when you play a song on your keyboard you are creating MIDI messages that can fly out your board’s MIDI port and be read and stored by a program on your computer. Then you can have that MIDI version of the song read by a program that plays those same notes on any one of thousands of different virtual instruments.  And wah-la …….. magically your el-cheapo keyboard can sound like a million bucks!

As a keyboardist I found I often use MIDI to record notes into DAW(Digital Audio Workstation) tracks.  I programmed MIDI commands into a MIDI footswitch to start and stop drum beats and control a vocal harmony effects box in live playing.  The details of how I use MIDI will be elaborated in many future posts. The remainder of this post is about how to connect yourself and devices using MIDI ports.

If you want to start seeing MIDI then install on your computer the free  program MIDI-OX. MIDI-OX is pretty much the Swiss Army knife of MIDI control and routing programs.  It is a great debugging tool and can help you solve MIDI problems.  Before using MIDI-OX note that you may need to install MIDI software drivers for your devices and for that visit your electronic device’s home Web support site to get current up to date drivers.

MIDI over MIDI cable and USB cable
These days most keyboards have the standard MIDI IN,OUT and sometimes THROUGH port types as well a computer USB port which can send and received MIDI data also.

Having multiple port type choices does complicate things and is further complicated in that often  only one or the other can be used at one time on a device.    Connecting from one device’s MIDI out port to another MIDI device’s IN  port and vice-versa via a six pin MIDI cable is still very common.   Also know you can’t as far as I know directly connect MIDI  devices using just a cable between USB ports.    Computers do not come with  MIDI ports,  there are add on cards of course but these days most people use MIDI to USB converter hubs.    Thus you can run MIDI cables from several devices to a central MIDI hub and  then have just one USB connection to your computer.    On the computer a supplied hub control program will let you route MIDI messages between devices as needed.

When I first started my DAW rig I got away with using one USB  connection to get MIDI data to my computer from the keyboard.  Then I added another keyboard and a drum machine.    So then I added a  3 IN/OUT port Roland  MIDI hub that  connected to my computer via USB.


No control software came with the Roland hub and I used MIDI-OX to make the appropriate connections routing MIDI data between devices and my DAW as needed.   Thus my computer and MIDI-OX had to always be running.     Then things got complicated as I added a MIDI foot pedal controller,  an effects harmony box,  an IPAD and more.    I found myself unplugging and plugging in devices as I used them  and living in a MIDI cable MIDI-OX nightmare.  Below the MIDI-OX mapper utility can be intimidating to the novice user.




The MOTU MIDI hub is a 1 rack space high unit with 8 in and 8 out MIDI ports.   It has several advanced features along with nice flashing lights in front to let you know MIDI data is flowing.   You use their MIDI Express XT computer program which allows you to easily map the IN ports to the OUT ports connecting your gear as needed.   The great thing is the MOTU hardware remembers your mappings so there is no need to have a computer going once your setup.


Check the back of your electronic keyboard manual and chances are  the last section is the MIDI interface tables.   These tables show how MIDI commands are used to do everything from changing voices to starting a drum arpeggio.  If you have an IPAD there is a nice little app called MIDI-Designer that lets you create buttons to send commands.