The acronym, MIDI, can be a daunting one to wrap your head around and diving into the world of MIDI can be overwhelming. Fortunately you don’t have to be an audio engineer or rocket scientist to control your software with a MIDI controller these days. This article is intended to give you the bare bones information you need to get up and running with your ideal MIDI controller and take your performance to the next level.
what is midi?
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface and, without getting too technical, is a protocol that allows a hardware controller to communicate with other hardware controllers or with your computer. MIDI transfers event messages that tell the program or hardware device you are using specific information such as volume, pitch, velocity, etc. When using Scratch Live these messages can tell the program when to trigger a cue point, loop, or sample, for example. MIDI is also used to coincide LED lights on a controller with what is going on in software.
do I need a midi controller?
You definitely don’t need one to control the main parameters of your software, but using one can make life a little easier depending on how you perform. Most MIDI mappable software parameters can still be controlled via keyboard commands, but using the keyboard isn’t always the fastest and/or most convenient method. This is when a MIDI controller comes in handy. Depending on the footprint of the controller it can sit close to your existing gear and give you quick access to all the functions you use without the need to touch or even look at your computer. It can also give you a much better tactile experience than pressing a button on your keyboard or moving your finger across a track pad. There are some features in Scratch Live that don’t have keyboard commands, such as controlling the internal software effects. Using a MIDI controller to control these effects, in my opinion, is much more efficient.
what midi controller should I use?
If you’ve already done some research you would know there are a ton of different MIDI controllers on the market and they all basically do the same thing: Control your software. When purchasing a MIDI controller, I think it’s best to figure out what you want to control in the program you are using first. For example, if you want to control the internal software effects in Scratch Live it would be a good idea to get a controller with at least six knobs to control the amount of the effect and six buttons to trigger the on/off parameter of each effect. Similarly, if you need to control the SP-6 you may opt for a controller with at least six knobs that will control the volume of the samples and six buttons that will trigger them.
Know that whatever you want to control within your software there is going to be a controller on the market with all the knobs, buttons, and sliders you’ll need. I would also recommend getting one that is tactically appealing to you. Some people prefer stiffer sliders or knobs while others prefer next to no resistance. Choose the MIDI controller that provides the controls you need and that feels good to you.
native midi controllers
In today’s world there are many MIDI controllers that are pre-mapped to popular software. These are typically referred to as “native” devices. The main advantage of such controllers is that you don’t have to MIDI map anything yourself. That is done for you by the software company or manufacturer of the MIDI device. All you need to do is plug the device in and open the software. There are also features on some native controllers that you won't get when using a regular MIDI controller, such as the ability to see the waveforms and album artwork of your files. Although a native MIDI controller is pre-mapped to the software you can still manually MIDI map any MIDI mappable software parameters to the device as you like.
You can also kill two birds with one stone and purchase a DJ mixer with MIDI controls directly on it. There are many on the market with both a native control option—such as the Rane Sixty-Two for Scratch Live—and without. The obvious advantages of such a tool are that you have many of your software parameters directly on the face of the mixer and have less gear to carry around and connect. Some mixers, like Rane’s Sixty-Two and Sixty-Eight, have MIDI layers or groups that you can map additional controls to that may not be pre-mapped on the face of the mixer. This adds a powerful punch to a small setup.
I prefer a combination of both a hybrid MIDI mixer and an external MIDI controller. This allows me to control all the functions I want, to dedicated controls on either the mixer or on the external MIDI controller without the need to jump to a different MIDI layer or group. I like to use the controls on the mixer to scroll through and load my music, trigger loops, and trigger samples and use an external MIDI controller to control the internal software effects and cue points.
One thing to be aware of when looking to purchase a MIDI/mixer hybrid is that some won’t allow you to MIDI map the hardware controls and allow those controls to still control their main functions. This is not ideal when, for example, you want to MIDI map the crossfader to the video fader in Serato Video as you won’t be able to crossfade the audio once the fader is MIDI mapped.
Hopefully this quick article has helped demystify what MIDI is and has given you some tools to make an informed purchase when and if you are ready to jump into the powerful world of MIDI.
If you are having issues with your MIDI controller read this MIDI Troubleshooting Guide.
*All images in this article were taken from the manufacturer website who made the products shown.