Trying to find the best midi interface to your music recording arsenal but not sure where to start?
MIDI interfaces are a great tool for creative musicians who want to experiment with different instruments on their compositions. With tons of features packed into products in the market, MIDI interfaces vary in pricing and product density.
It can be tricky picking out the right MIDI interface for you and your home recording studio. You might not know which MIDI interfaces are compatible with your computer, how many ports you might need, and whether any of these new ‘state-of-the-art features’ even matter.
Don’t sweat it.
We’ll run you through all the MIDI basics, why you might need one (or not need one) and all the things you need to know before you get your own MIDI interface.
Before we get into the guide, here's a list of our recommend products. Please note, we will be discussing more about these products later in the article...
- 1 What is a MIDI Interface?
- 2 How do MIDI Interfaces Work?
- 3 Difference Between a MIDI Interface and an Audio Interface
- 4 Why do I need a MIDI Interface?
- 5 What to Consider before Buying a Midi Interface
- 6 A List of the Best Midi Interfaces we Recommend
- 7 The Verdict…
What is a MIDI Interface?
Imagine all your music-making devices could communicate perfectly with each other?
Yes, we said communicate - and thanks to MIDI, that's a reality.
MIDI interfaces have a rich and exuberant history. Over 30 years after its creation, it is still widely used in live performances and studio recordings.
But what is MIDI?
MIDI (Music Instrument Digital Interface) sends signals to other controllers such as synths and keyboard controllers to operate digitally on computers. Unlike audio transmissions, it does not carry sound. Instead, it transmits data that is formed into binary codes (1's and zeros).
Think of these interfaces as a TV remote control. Your TV has a bunch of different controls built into it like turning on/off, raising the volume, or switching channels. When you use your remote control, you are sending signals to the TV to perform these tasks.
MIDI interfaces do the same thing. They act as a remote control to playing music inside of a device or computer.
So what exactly are they sending?
What's most interesting about MIDI, are the messages themselves. These messages record specific actions. MIDI has a lot of signals including the velocity of a note turning on/off, modulation wheels, pitch wheels, and many more.
MIDI messages can be sent over 16 different channels. Within each channel, there is an assigned patch. These patches are basically instruments, and there are 1 to 128 to choose from.
Some of the most common messages include:
- What was played/pressed in the instrument? (This tells the computer what note to play)
- The velocity of the press? (This tells the computer the speed of the note)
- The tension of the press? (This tells the computer the loudness of the note)
How do MIDI Interfaces Work?
So you got the idea of what MIDI interfaces are; now how do they work exactly?
Let’s say for example you have a keyboard synth, and you want to send the information to your computer. You’re going to need to link everything up with the correct MIDI cables via MIDI ports.
MIDI ports have a MIDI out, a MIDI in, and MIDI thru. These ports are typically found at the back of MIDI devices like keyboard synths or sound modules.
- MIDI out sends data to other MIDI devices and should be linked to a MIDI in.
- MIDI in receives data from an external source and should always be connected to a MIDI out.
- MIDI thru receives the same exact data as the MIDI in. However, it doesn’t generate messages from its own module.
Many MIDI interfaces have not just one, but several ports to connect to. We’ll go into more detail later, on the different sets of ports available and why you might need more than just one.
Difference Between a MIDI Interface and an Audio Interface
While most beginners believe that audio interfaces are the go-to road to seamless music, many disregard MIDI interfaces. It's also a common mistake for people to confuse them as being the same thing. To understand the difference between the two we need to go back to the basics of both.
What is being recorded?
As we know by now, MIDI interfaces record the performance progress visually, like what notes you're playing, when you play them, and how loud. On the other hand, audio interfaces record the sound of the instrument itself.
How does it look on your computer?
So now we know that MIDI carries codes, and audio carries sound. How do they look when transferred to your computer?
MIDI doesn’t come up in audio waveform instead it comes up as chunks of data per note. These chunks of data are compiled up of bytes. Audio interfaces, however, come up on your screen in the traditional soundwave format.
How do they behave differently?
MIDI is more versatile than audio. Since MIDI comes up as information on how it was played, there is a lot more to play around with. For example, you can manipulate virtual instruments into playing the exact notes with the correct tension. Audio, however, limits a lot of these options and actions.
When you hit a wrong note, or it was held too long, the audio interface typically records it. Once it's been transmitted into sound waves, it can be hard to change it, and you usually have to go back and record it again. One of the great things about MIDI is you don't have to repeat the process. Instead, once it's recorded on your device or computer, you can edit the performance.
Why do I need a MIDI Interface?
As we mentioned previously, MIDI interfaces are a versatile piece of recording gear. There are a ton of different uses for these devices. Let’s take a look at a few.
To connect a Keyboard or module to the computer
This is probably one of the most common reasons people invest in a MIDI interface. Maybe you have a sound module like a keyboard and you want to connect it to your DAW (digital audio workstation) like Ableton or Cubase. Only it doesn’t have a USB outlet.
Say you have a sampler with some sounds you like that you want to use in a current composition you have already made. A MIDI interface will help send the note information and controls telling your sampler to play the sound you selected based on the notation the MIDI has sent. So you could play a piano keyboard composition but transfer it to the sampler and make it sound like an organ.
Syncing gear to a computer
MIDI is excellent in the sense that it organizes everything in your DAW software. If you have a specific composition, sequence, or previously recorded track, you can synchronize them on your computer using a MIDI interface.
Connecting to alternative devices
Supposing you've got yourself a keyboard and you want to link it up to your new IPad or iPhone, and use synth or sampling apps from it. You don't have to go out and buy a new controller keyboard to get the job done. USB MIDI interfaces do all that for you.
Backing up data
This is a less common use of MIDI interfaces but doesn't fall short on this list. MIDI interfaces can, in fact, back up data. Most MIDI equipment and synths can backup data through a bulk dump called System Exclusive (SysEx). This means that the information that is sent through a MIDI output can be recorded by the device. So if your equipment crashes, it can be restored.
One example is that iPhones and iPads can be used as a MIDI backup device; recording all data via a MIDI interface application to back up. You can then easily use your iPhone or iPad to backup any lost data if your gear crashes.
Connecting multiple MIDI devices
If you already have an audio interface with MIDI connections and it's working great with all your gear, over time, you might want to think about expanding your studio and getting more gear. More equipment means you might run out of ports or channels. This means you will need to buy more MIDI interfaces to supply enough ports for all your gear.
What to Consider before Buying a Midi Interface
With new technological advancements, MIDI interfaces aren’t what they used to be. In the past decade, MIDI interfaces have upgraded their features and compatibility options to suit the modern-day musician.
There are a few things we believe you should be looking out for when picking one.
There are basic interfaces that have an input and output; these are relatively easy to use and are not expensive. Other more advanced interfaces are a little higher up in the price range, but with more features including more MIDI ports.
It all comes down to your specific needs.
We've listed a few features you might want to look into to narrow down the options.
Number of MIDI Ports (Input/Output/Thru)
This all comes down to how many MIDI modules you have. If you have one keyboard that you want to hook up to your computer, a simple 1x1 port is what you’re looking for.
However, if you’re looking to hook up multiple modules, it’s a good idea to look for a MIDI interface that has as many ports as your gear needs. The available ports are:
- 2x2 → 32 MIDI channels
- 4x4 →64 MIDI channels
- 8x8 → 128 MIDI channels
There are other ports such as 1x1, 3x3 or 10x10. However, these are less common in the market.
HINT: You can link up one MIDI interface to another, expanding the number of ports and channels. So for example, you have two 8x8 devices with the ports hooked up, you get a whopping 1,024 MIDI channels
Connectivity – (Computer, Wireless)
While some MIDI interfaces are linked through a traditional 5-pin MIDI cable, technological advancements have deemed these insufficient.
USB MIDI interfaces have been flocking the market in recent years due to the ability to link it up to your laptop/desktop. Some MIDI interfaces come with a Y cable (one output, one input and USB connector). We’ll introduce class-compliant USB MIDI interfaces later on in this section.
With the emergence of the age of wireless, newer MIDI interfaces don’t need cables to connect to devices at all. This not only saves you a lot of setup time but also space; avoiding a mesh of MIDI cables in your studio.
MIDI interfaces can be powered in different ways. One is the traditional AC power cable that limits mobility. However, if you have a stable and settled workstation, then this is great for you.
Another option is USB interfaces, which are powered directly from the device. This an excellent choice for mobile setups. We’ll list a few different USB and AC powered MIDI interfaces later on.
Mac/PC Compatibility – (OS)
It is essential to know whether your interface is compatible with the operating system of your device/computer. Many MIDI interfaces that are sold on the market are designed with compatibility in mind, whether it’s a Mac, IOS, or Windows.
Keep in mind that while some work perfectly for these operating systems, others are specialized for Apple based devices like an iPad or Mac or vice versa for Windows.
Class Compliant USB MIDI
Class-compliant MIDI interfaces have a ‘plug-in-play- style` approach, meaning they don’t require additional drivers to operate. While most class-compliant USB interfaces can run on any IOS device, some devices don’t work with older operating systems.
This falls hand in hand with the IOS compatibility factor that was previously discussed. Do your research before purchasing a MIDI device, and make sure your IOS is up to date on the device to avoid any disappointment.
MIDI interfaces can span a whole slew of price ranges. You can find simple 1x1 interfaces that sit comfortably in the $40 range while others can fall in the 100’s and even thousands.
Budget is an important factor you might want to consider as you may find yourself spending more than you thought for features you may not need. It ultimately comes down to how many ports and features you’re looking for.
Additional Features to Consider
When choosing your ideal interface, it's a good idea to consider all the features that come with (or don't come with) the device. If you’re only looking to perform or sequence, then a basic model will suit your needs just fine.
Expandability is a common factor when it comes to choosing the right device. You should always take into consideration the long run of your purchase, and any extra gear you may be adding to your home studio in the near future. MIDI interfaces that are expandable can easily accommodate to these future buying decisions.
Another important factor is the mobility of the device.
Is it going to be sitting in a home studio undisturbed? Or do you want to use it on your iPad or Laptop?
The mobility depends on the power and connectivity features of the MIDI interface.
Those looking to synchronize MIDI compositions into video, like ‘film scoring’, will require an interface with far more features than an audio-only MIDI device. Some of these features include video sync features/options and Alesis Digital Audio Tape (ADAT) synchronization. There are many features to choose from, so looking into these options is essential if video is your end game.
A List of the Best Midi Interfaces we Recommend
So now we’ve given you a little brief on MIDI interfaces, how they work and what to expect and look for when choosing one; maybe you want a few options to get you started.
We’re starting with the humble Roland UM-ONE MK2. This is an excellent choice for MIDI beginners and those looking for a basic interface to sequence and perform with. With its simple design and straightforward ease of usage, it comes at an affordable price.
The Roland is the essence of Y cables coming with two traditional MIDI connectors (x1 IN, x1 OUT) and a USB connector.
With multiway compatibility, Roland has a small switch that gives you the option to choose between computer devices (COMP) and class-compliant options (TAB).
For such a small device, the processing speed on this interface is surprisingly high. With an FPT processing, you’ll have near to zero latency especially when playing at specific tempos.
Bottom line: Regarding compatibility, we thought the Roland was top notch as it works with new and even older operating systems (even Windows XP), as well as a less common Linux OS. The memo allows the user to back up settings compatible with Apple iOS devices. On the downsides, we thought the 1x1 port limits the amount of MIDI gear you can link up. Also, we found the switch COMP/TAB a little confusing at first.
The MOTU Microlite USB is a little higher up in the price range when it comes to the budget. This interface brings out the best in class compliant connectivity with a ‘plug-in-play’ approach for both Mac and Windows.
The microlite includes a set of 5x5 MIDI ports which offer you more than enough space for your MIDI gear and up to 80 MIDI channels.
Powered through the USB port, this interface is great if you’re looking for one with a lot of mobility. MOTU also gives you the option of charging your MIDI interface via a traditional AC power charging. Its lightweight metal casing makes it easy and durable to move around with.
With an LED screen at the front, you can easily track all your MIDI activity. MOTU Microlite promises seamless synchronization.
Bottom line: We love the LED that displays all MIDI activity. The robust, durable yet lightweight shell is a plus as well as the seamless sync with almost no latency. But unlike the Roland, it doesn’t perform on any other operating systems other than Windows and Mac.
iConnectMIDI4+ sets a new level in MIDI connectivity and operating system integration. With multi-host connectivity, you can connect up to 3 computer devices directly or via Ethernet hub/ wireless router (mac and windows).
Not only does it connect up to 3 computer devices but its innovative audio passThru technology directs audio between each of them digitally with a flawless signal.
IConnect has a generous set of 4x4 MIDI ports providing you with up to 64 MIDI channels. With all these options for connectivity, come endless possibilities with integrated iConfig software that allows complete control for MIDI thru, MIDI merge, filtering, and advanced routing to and from devices.
With a class compliant USB plug-in-play setup for both Mac OSX to Mavericks and Windows XP to Windows 8, the iConnect doesn’t require any extra drivers to operate.
Bottom Line: The iConnect is a very good midi interface that comes packed with a lot of great features! The multi-host connectivity tops the list for our connectivity scoreboard with not only 4x4 MIDI ports but also USB, Ethernet, and wireless router connection options. The audio passThru technology linked with up to 3 computer devices gives music makers more room for creativity. While it all sounds great on paper, we weren’t too sure how user-friendly it was for beginners as the documentation can get a little confusing.
With all this talk of advanced technology reshaping MIDI interfaces, we couldn’t resist slipping in the Yamaha MD-BT01. Yamaha allows you to enjoy the freedom of wireless technology when you are linking up and using music apps.
With the choice of traditional MIDI 5-pin adapter or USB to host, you can connect your IOS device (iPad,iPod Touch, iPhone) wirelessly while simultaneously charging your device.
The Yamaha MD-BT01 is easy to set up, is even easier to use and at a not so steep price for IOS users. With a 1x1 MIDI port, it's great for using a single keyboard without the hassle of cables getting jumbled up.
Bottom line: We thought the freedom in the wireless feature was a great option. The interface works seamlessly with all IOS products, including iPhone and iPad. But our concern was with regards to its compatibility to PC. Unfortunately, it only runs on Windows 10, so any operating system below won’t get the benefit of Bluetooth MIDI. We also noticed while wireless is great, there are some visible latency issues which can cause problems if you have complex multichannel pieces.
When it comes to MIDI connectivity, the MOTU MIDI Express 128 is a monster. With 8 independent MIDI ports and 128 MIDI channels, you can link up all your MIDI gear at ease with plenty of room.
If that isn’t enough room, MOTU will enable you to link up another MOTU MIDI interface for more expandability. That’s right you can get up to 16x16 MIDI ports and 1,024 channels. MOTU allows you to expand their MIDI Express 128 system by allowing an additional USB port to add more than 1,000 channels.
Compatibility is not an issue with MOTU, as it works with all the popular operating systems including Mac, OSX, and Windows. With USB connectivity to your computer, the MOTU doesn’t need an external AC charging cable; it charges right from your computer.
Bottom Line: It’s hard for us not to love the MOTU MIDI Express 128 with its generous MIDI ports and options for increased expandability. Not only that but also it works on all our favorite operating systems. On the downside though, the MOTU is quite expensive for the average person. We also found slight issues with the software stability on specific operating systems.
MIDI interfaces can be tricky when starting out, but we believe they are one of the essential companions in both a professional or home recording studio. MIDI adds so much versatility and creativity in your music making.
While audio interfaces are great, MIDI interfaces remain prosperous in our books.
The products we have reviewed all had their trademark when it came to features and styles. This was a difficult choice for us, especially when it came down to individual features and connectivity. We almost couldn’t decide between the MOTU MIDI Express 128 and the iConnectivityMIDI+4. However, we found that the iConnectivityMIDI+4 was our ideal choice for an affordable, professional MIDI interface.
We were blown away by the enormous range of connectivity options, from connecting and operating through several computer devices, to the innovative passThru technology that provided a seamless signal between them all.
The additional features that gave control made us feel that every move would be natural and right at your fingertips. For the jam-packed features that come with this interface, we think it’s worth every penny!
An honorable mention would be the Roland UM-ONE for beginners who aren’t MIDI fanatics just yet and aren’t looking to invest a chunk of change to get the advanced features. Roland will be an excellent MIDI pal to guide you on the road to music-making success.