Using MIDI Live

   By Lisa F   Categories: Audio EquipmentGeneralLive Audio Show

MIDI has become a staple in live performance. The technology has not only made it easier on artists, allowing them to have the sounds of 100 instruments while only bringing 1, but has also changed the way performers play live. The advent of MIDI on stage has also transformed the concert- going experience and has allowed for extreme creativity along the way.

On Stage

Traditional Setups

In the early days of MIDI, artists were skeptical of performing with the new technology. With its inconsistencies and frequent fail rates, artists were unwilling to trust the success or failure of a show on MIDI. The benefits of the technology, however, soon overcame the artist’s original skepticism.

Keyboardists were among the first to begin adopting the technology into their live setups. Using MIDI on stage allowed keyboardists to play pianos, electric keyboards, organs, marimbas, synthesizers, and a wealth of other instruments without actually having to bring each of these instruments to every show. These performers would simply have a flight case with a variety of MIDI sound modules and a keyboard controller on stage, which allowed for extreme portability. This was a giant leap forward for performers because, for the fi rst time, musicians did not have to choose between portability and the sounds they wanted. This allowed the musicians to no longer be limited to the sounds of the instruments they brought to a show. This type of sound module/keyboard controller setup is still extremely prevalent in modern live performances and remains one of the most common MIDI setups for live applications. However, on the modern stage, the sound modules will oftentimes be replaced by a laptop.

Traditional MIDI Setup

Besides having access to a variety of different instruments, MIDI allows keyboardists to map different sounds to different ranges on their controllers, which allows the keyboardist to execute performances that would be near impossible if he were physically switching to different keyboards for each part.

The keyboardist can also map out effects like filter sweeps and modulation amounts to different knobs on his MIDI controller for easy access. Mapping out of effects and sounds is done inside the included MIDI controller software along with the software the performer is running for his sounds.

Example of Different Instrument Keyboard Mappings

Due to the overwhelming variety of MIDI controllers on the market, practically any musician can benefit from using MIDI on stage. Like with keyboardists, drummers are able to use MIDI drum sets, which not only allow for extreme portability, but also allow for a wide variety of sounds other than traditional drum set sounds. Although complete stand-alone MIDI drum sets are not as common as they once were on stage, a combination of an acoustic drum set and MIDI pads is becoming extremely common among drummers. These MIDI pads are either connected to a stand-alone sound module in order for set sounds to be triggered when hit, or they are connected to a laptop where loops and sound effects can be triggered. The same functionality is available for wind/brass players and guitarists as there are controllers modeled after these instruments.

MIDI Drum Pads


MIDI Control

Many guitarists have realized the benefit of using MIDI onstage. Aside from turning their guitars into virtually any instrument, MIDI allows for extreme control over effects and patches in a live guitar setup. By using a MIDI foot controller and interconnecting it via MIDI with each effect and amp-modeling unit, the guitarist can easily make drastic, preprogrammed changes to his guitar tone that would not otherwise be possible through traditional stomp boxes and channel selector foot switches.

When using MIDI to control a guitar setup, the guitarist is dealing with two types of MIDI instructions: “Program Change Instructions” and “Continuous Controller Messages.” Program Change Instructions tell the individual units when to change patches. When used in conjunction with multiple effects units and amp-modeling units, the guitarist can create extremely complex patch changes by only stepping on one pedal. Therefore, the guitarist could switch between a distorted, high-gain, lead channel with delay to an ultra-clean channel with chorus, reverb, and compression with just one preprogrammed foot stomp. Continuous Controller Messages send a continuous value between 0 and 127 to the effects and amp-modeling units so the guitarist can control various parameters in real time. Therefore, the guitarist can do simple maneuvers like volume and wah wah swells or can even program in advanced control like changing the channel’s gain setting while increasing the mix control on a delay unit with one movement of the foot controller.

MIDI Foot Controller

In a traditional guitar setup like the one listed above, the guitarist is limited to digital amp simulation units that would accept MIDI messages for their guitar tones. Although amp simulation has come a long way, many guitarists still prefer analog amp tones to their digital counterparts. This desire to use actual amps led many amp manufacturers to create digital controls for analog amps that include MIDI connections so the guitarist has the best of both worlds.

Example of MIDI Guitar Rack Control

Any musician can use this type of MIDI control on stage. Keyboardists can change sounds and have real-time control over parameters along with bassists who can change amp tones and manipulate effects as well as vocalists who can have real-time manipulation over different vocal effects. The possibilities are endless for using MIDI control in a live setting.

Excerpt from Modern MIDI by Sam McGuire © 2013 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.


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