What is MIDI?
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. MIDI’s digital signal carries information on pitch, velocity, vibrato, panning and much more – and because it’s universal, it’s compatible with pretty much any brand or platform. MIDI was pioneered by synth legend Dave Smith and Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi in the early ‘80s, alongside representatives from Yamaha, Korg and Kawai. The aim was to provide a universal language that would allow instruments to communicate with each other.
It’s most commonly used to control synthesizers and DAW instruments via a controller. This could be anything from a MIDI keyboard to an electronic drum kit. MIDI is usually connected via a round 5-pin connector, often with both in & out functionality. You also see 2.5mm jack connections from time to time. Many modern controllers and instruments have a built-in MIDI interface, meaning you can plug them to your laptop via USB. Other devices and hardware, such as legacy instruments, require an interface to allow you to use them in your DAW.
If you’re looking to get MIDI-connected on a budget, you can easily pick up a simple interface for less than £100. Brands like M-Audio and Roland make great little units that’ll convert your 5-pin MIDI connector to USB or similar. This takes care of all the hard work, turning your digital MIDI signal into something that any DAW can understand. This is perfect for connecting electronic drum kits, digital pianos, synthesizers and any other device that has direct MIDI output.
MIDI interfaces are generally available across all price points. Upping your budget to within the £300 mark will offer a number of additional features that may well come in handy.
Many of the interfaces featured in the list above double up as both audio and MIDI interfaces. This makes them brilliant tools for any musician. Whether you’re a singer-songwriter doing some home recording, or a performing DJ looking for easy connectivity, having both audio and MIDI in the same place can be extremely useful.
By spending a little more, there’s also a chance that you’ll get more than one input/output. This is great for using multiple synthesizers, keyboards or electronic drum kits in a performing or recording setting. It’ll allow you synchronise all instruments with each other, as well as with your DAW – brilliant for electronic music.
If you’ve got a MIDI instrument or device without USB connection, it can be difficult to record or experiment with your ideas on the fly. A portable MIDI interface might just do the trick, allowing you to get connected with minimal hassle.
You can get great portable MIDI interfaces from brands like IK Multimedia (the iRig), Roland, Zoom and more. They essentially work the same as any MIDI interface, but are more compact and lightweight – perfect for slipping into a gig bag, keyboard case or laptop sleeve.
As mentioned earlier, some of the more portable interfaces come with 2.5mm MIDI jacks instead of the 5-pin standard, which helps to keep them compact without sacrificing functionality. Some of our portable interface selection is also compatible with devices like iPads and smartphones, great for creativity on-the-go.
If you’ve got a dedicated creative space and need MIDI connectivity, you may have a bit more leeway. You don’t need to worry about portability, first of all – larger interfaces tend to have a few more features to work with, naturally!
Our choices (Steinberg, M-Audio, Presonus) offer everything from increased connectivity to better recording latency. Having more MIDI connections offers greater synchronicity, especially if recording multiple MIDI instruments at once. Modern thunderbolt and USB-C connections offer improved latency for seamless tracking and real-time mixing. As mentioned earlier, some of these options double up as audio interfaces, making them ultra-practical for studio use.
These options are similar to the portable ones we mentioned above, but narrowed down specifically for use with iPads and iPhones. This means they have Apple lightning connectivity, and are super compact for portable recording and experimentation. Some of them even have audio capability, including jack inputs and phantom power for microphones. Connect to Garageband or your music app of choice and get creative - winner!
MIDI interfaces – Windows or Mac?
Because MIDI is a universal language, you’ll often find that interfaces work perfectly with any DAW, regardless of the operating system you’re using – Logic on Mac, Pro Tools on PC, whatever you like. Connectivity is the main consideration here: lightning connections are exclusive to Apple mobile devices, while thunderbolt is more commonly found on Apple computers. Always check with the manufacturer if you’re unsure!