MIDI cables are used to connect electronic music devices such as keyboards, controllers, and drum machines with computers and other hardware gear. They allow the sending and receiving of musical information in MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) format to allow digital devices to communicate with each other.
In this article I'll be discussing the basics of what MIDI is, the different types of MIDI cable available, and what to look out for when buying one.
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What is MIDI?
MIDI is a universal standard allowing digital electronic instruments and equipment to 'talk' to each other. MIDI cables do not transmit an audio signal. Instead, the receiving instrument or hardware device reproduces the sound based upon musical information being sent to it, such as tempo, pitch, and volume.
For example, if you setup a MIDI controller as an input into your computer's Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), you can play notes and chords on the controller which then feeds real-time performance information to virtual instruments within your DAW.
Alternatively, if your hardware gear has a MIDI-in port you can send MIDI information you have programmed within your DAW out to be played by this instrument.
Digital musical instruments or controllers may have a MIDI-in port to receive information, a MIDI-out port to send information to another instrument or computer, or both MIDI-in and MIDI-out ports.
In addition, some devices may have a MIDI-Thru port. The MIDI Through allows a copy of the MIDI-In data to be passed on unchanged to another device in the instrument chain.
The instrument or device that creates and sends the MIDI data is known as the master. The device that receives MIDI information is known as a slave.
What are the different types of MIDI Cables and Connectors?
MIDI cables consist of a length of shielded wire attached to a 5-pin round connector head. The most common type is the 5 Pin MIDI cable DIN connector. Here, the pins are arranged in a semicircle where pins 4 & 5 transmit the MIDI signal, pin 2 is the earth connection, and pins 1 &3 are not used.
Occasionally you may also come across a 7-Pin MIDI connection. In this case the additional 2 pins are used to supply power through the cable alongside the MIDI data. Note however that both 5-pin and 7-pin connectors are compatible. i.e you can plug a 5-pin cable into a 7-pin input.
How do you connect MIDI Devices to your PC or Mac?
Most computers do not contain MIDI connections. Instead, an adapter cable is used that has a USB or Thunderbolt connection at one end to connect to your PC or Mac, and a 5-Pin MIDI DIN connector at the other end to connect to your instrument or controller. Generally, no additional software is required to get your computer to accept MIDI information from your device.
An alternative approach is to purchase an Audio Interface. This will give you lots more connectivity options and is especially a good idea if you see yourself wanting to record audio in real-time at any point in the future.
It's worth noting here that where MIDI ports on a device are labelled 'MIDI in' and 'MIDI out' they won't work if they are connected to the ports with the same name on another device. The labels instead specify the direction of MIDI data flow. i.e connect your 'MIDI out' from one device to your 'MIDI in' on the other, and vice versa.
How do you connect MIDI Devices to your iPad?
To connect an Apple iPad to a MIDI device you have a couple of decent options:
You could use a USB to MIDI cable to connect your MIDI device to a Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter, or alternatively you could invest in an iRig MIDI 2, which handily comes with a lightning cable for connecting directly to IOS devices.
Does MIDI Cable Length Matter?
The length of a MIDI cable does not affect latency since the data being transmitted is a digital signal being sent at close to the speed of light. However, a MIDI cable longer than 20 feet may prove unreliable due to environmental factors affecting the integrity of the signal. This could cause musical information to be dropped or changed, leading to communication issues.
In summary, just get the right length of cable that will work within your production space.
Does MIDI Cable Quality Matter?
All MIDI cables are standardised to work in the same way and at the same speed; the only difference being the quality of the materials used in thier assembly.
An expensive high quality MIDI cable is only required if you are transmitting MIDI information over large distances. In a bedroom or small studio setup, cheaper cables should work fine, however, you are probably better going with a mid-range durable cable from a reputable company to ensure it holds up well to constant use.
I don't recommend any particular brand; however, I've used Roland, Monoprice, and Hosa cables without any issues. You can check them out on Amazon here.
I hope this article has given you some basic knowledge on what MIDI is, and how to choose the right MIDI cable to connect-up your music production gear.
If you are in the market for a decent MIDI keyboard or controller then make sure you check out the posts below where I've reviewed the very best available.
Have a great day, and Happy Producing!