In today’s computer-ruled age, music production and basic tech knowledge are basically interwoven. Every passing year brings more computers into the music creation process. All of this digital equipment works together through the orchestration of complex messaging.
MIDI and USB are two standards that enable communication across devices made by different manufacturers. There are key differences between the two that can be somewhat confusing. Most modern audio equipment generally uses either MIDI or USB so it’s useful to learn more about both of them.
MIDI is a standardized system of computer protocols and electrical connectors primarily used for musical equipment, whereas USB is a universal connector for all kinds of equipment. Both are systems of interconnectivity between protocols, digital information, and hardware but USB is more versatile.
It certainly won’t hurt you to learn more about MIDI and USB because of how much they’re used. By examining the differences and functionality of the two, you’ll have a better understanding of computers and music production gear. Moreover, after reading this article, you should understand why and when you might want to use one and/or the other.
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The Main Differences Between MIDI and USB
1) MIDI Was Designed For Music – USB Was Designed To Fix A Much Bigger Problem
According to the Landr blog, MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and it’s a set of communications rules, procedures, and electrical connections that are used for creating and writing music. Both USB and MIDI were designed with improvement in mind, but USB solved a much bigger problem.
I read an interesting article from Fast Company which stated that USB was made to solve much larger problems than the ones musicians face. Its major purpose was to provide a universal standard for connecting all sorts of devices to computers – not just for music.
While MIDI was equally as innovative and meant to standardize the connection between musical instruments, the scope of problems it solved was primarily for musicians, audio engineers, and producers. For musicians, one of the things we connect to computers is MIDI keyboards and controllers.
What’s interesting about it now though is that most modern MIDI-enabled equipment uses USB to transmit MIDI data to and from computers. So much to the point that MIDI has been removed from some devices like the latest generation of the Scarlett 2i2 (on Amazon) – the most popular audio interface on the market.
I’m not in a position to say whether MIDI is going away anytime soon, but what I can say from experience is that a lot of new devices don’t use that type of connector anymore. My old Yamaha PSR-640X – released in 1999 – is the only thing in my arsenal that uses a MIDI connection. I connect it to my computer with a PreSonus AudioBox 96 (also on Amazon).
2) USB Is Used To Power Devices – MIDI Is Not
Like I said earlier, USB is capable of a lot. It’s a widely used technology with many applications including powering all kinds of equipment. USB can be used to charge and power phones, tablets, MIDI keyboards, and many other devices. In addition to carrying power, USB can also transfer data.
When MIDI was designed – you can read the history of it here – there was no intention of solving larger issues like connecting and powering external hard drives or printers. The goals of MIDI are oriented around solving problems specific to musicians.
The Landr article I mentioned earlier said it best when they wrote that it was made with compatibility between different products in mind. Both MIDI and USB address common problems – such as universal connection types and data transfer – but MIDI solves these problems for music only. USB solves the problem almost everywhere.
3) USB Is Bi-Directional – MIDI Is Uni-Directional
The flow of data for USB is a two-way street. A good example of this is an external hard drive like the Seagate Backup Plus which is the one I got from Amazon. When files are copied or saved to the hard drive, it’s generally done through a USB connection.
When it reads the files on the hard drive, it pulls them from the disk. In other words, USB can send data to a device, but it can also retrieve data from a device. This isn’t like MIDI, which only transfers data through cables in one direction and one only.
To send a MIDI message from a synth to a computer the connection goes from MIDI OUT on the keyboard to MIDI IN on the computer. To send MIDI messages to the synth from the computer another cable is used to route from the computers MIDI OUT to the synths MIDI IN.
4) MIDI Has A File Format – USB Does Not
Most DAWs and workstations use MIDI for arranging notes into songs. The .MID file format – which you can read more about here – was created to save and exchange arrangements for playback on MIDI-enabled equipment. There are other uses for the MIDI file format, such as DJing, but the main use of it is for music sequencing and composition.
USB does define a protocol but there is no need for a file format. USB does transfer files, MIDI, or any other, but there is no need for it to have its own file type. Rather, USB is intended to work with files, not be a type of file.
5) MIDI Is For Music Keyboards – USB Is For QWERTY
MIDI keyboards like the Arturia KeyLab 61 MKII (on Amazon) are very popular in the music production marketplace. Many of them use a USB connection to send MIDI messages to a computer. A MIDI keyboard is however pretty useless for writing a whitepaper. MIDI keyboards do sometimes use USB but they are 100% for making music.
Standard computers use a QWERTY keyboard that enables the user to type messages in their language of choice – you can read more about that here. Many of these keyboards use USB for power and to send the messages the user types into the computer.
It is possible to use a QWERTY keyboard to play notes in a DAW, but it’s pretty limited. Not all MIDI or QWERTY keyboards use USB but they both can, for the same core reason, transfer data. MIDI is also a type of data that can be sent across a USB cable through a USB connection.
6) MIDI Cables Reach 50FT – USB Cables Reach 15FT
Something to take into consideration for live performances is the distance data can travel through a cable. MIDI cables were designed with performance in mind and have a much longer distance than USB.
The designers of USB were solving different problems therefore a much shorter distance was needed. If you think about it, there isn’t much of a need to connect a QWERTY keyboard to a computer that’s fifty feet away.
You can buy things like USB repeaters to extend by how long USB or MIDI data can be sent. But there are trade-offs with each such as delays and latency (more on latency in my guide).
7) Synths Use MIDI For Sequencing – USB Doesn’t Sequence Music
DAWs, workstations, and sequencers use MIDI to compose music. They use a grid or series of steps to play notes in a pre-defined sequence. Composition and sequencing are core to why MIDI was created and is still used to this day.
Other than storing and transferring .MID files, USB has no comprehension of what a musical sequence is because there isn’t a need for it. As I briefly explained earlier, USB was created as a means to make file storage and transfer more universal.
USB wasn’t created with music and musician’s needs in mind, as it was made for a much larger audience and for more applications.
8) MIDI Is An 80s Baby, USB Is a 90s Child
MIDI is a long-standing technology that came to be in the early 1980s. It was developed to solve a myriad of problems digital music equipment manufacturers were facing at the time. Despite some of the limitations and problems it’s pretty impressive that a technology that old is used so widely and often.
Starting in the 1990s, USB is a newer technology created with the issues of computer manufacturers in mind. USB was created to address problems related to an ever-growing peripheral market. Printers, mice, keyboards, scanners, and many other types of devices needed a universal way to connect to computers. USB was the solution.
Both technologies have grown and evolved over the decades. At the time of this article, 3.0 is the most modern version of USB and MIDI is still in rev 1.0. According to the MIDI website, MIDI 2.0 has been in development for many years and is close to completion.
9) MIDI Can Be Used to Write Music – USB Writes MIDI files to A Disk
We’ve already brushed on this multiple times in the article, but it’s worth stating again on its own. MIDI essentially commands a DAW to trigger sound libraries and samples. In the case of the DAW, the software organizes the sounds and samples into a musical arrangement (check out my list of great plugins here).
There is no means of creating music with USB and it was not designed for this either. We use USB for many, many, many things as most people know by now. We even use it in music production, but it wasn’t created with just music production in mind.
10) USB Can Present Ground Issues With Audio – MIDI Doesn’t
It’s not uncommon for the transfer of data and audio information to lead to grounding and interference issues. Anyone who has ever used a microphone or an electric guitar is probably more than aware of this. For one, grounding problems cause unwanted buzzing and all kinds of audio artifacts.
Simply put, USB wasn’t designed with real-time audio playback as a primary consideration. As a result, audio clarity issues can occur because of USB’s ability to carry a low voltage power signal. Compare this to MIDI, which was designed with audio clarity in mind.
MIDI doesn’t carry enough power to create interference and grounding issues. This is also one of the reasons why MIDI devices often require an external power source. I know my old school digital piano does, whereas my MIDI keyboard and my drum pad are both USB powered.
What’s Better? MIDI or USB?
Really, the only way we can compare MIDI and USB is in the context of data transfer. This could be in relation to the cables, connection types, data speeds, and formats. One place this might be is when considering what type of controller, synth, or audio interface you’ll be using.
For instance, when I wanted to connect my old electric piano to FL Studio (which I got on Plugin Fox), I needed an audio interface with MIDI IN/OUT on the back of it. I couldn’t get another Scarlett 2i2 unless I purchased one of the older ones.
Another situation where you might need to decide between MIDI and USB is in regard to live performances. How far do you need to send data? If you need to go beyond 15 feet, you’re probably going to need a MIDI connection and not a USB connection.
The main takeaway of what I’m saying is essentially the following: Neither USB nor MIDI is better than each other because it’s like comparing apples to oranges. Explained simply, musicians use MIDI to facilitate the music creation process and USB is a means to transfer data from one device to another.
Can USB Be Used as MIDI?
USB connections can be used to send MIDI data, as we concluded earlier. For instance, all of my newest gear is connected via USB. But some devices are still set up so MIDI cables are the main way you would connect it to a computer.
If you’re in the position – like I was – where you have a device that has MIDI IN/OUT on the back, but no USB port, there are a few things you can do. There are three devices that tie USB and MIDI together.
1) A USB Audio Interface With MIDI IN and MIDI OUT
Audio Interfaces can deliver robust functionality and vary in price by a lot. Some of them have ports for MIDI IN and OUT. As I explained in my article on why beginners should get a MIDI keyboard, you may need both depending on your needs.
MIDI devices that contain sounds can be played by MIDI events. MIDI OUT permits MIDI messages to be sent from a computer to a MIDI device.
Some producers utilize rack-mount or standalone synths via MIDI in this fashion. If you have a MIDI device that has sounds you want to access from a computer then you’ll need MIDI OUT.
2) A USB to MIDI Interface
Connecting a MIDI keyboard/controller to a computer can be accomplished using an interface that’s designed specifically for it.
This can be cheaper than getting an audio interface with MIDI IN and OUT, but I’d say an audio interface is the better move. That said, if you don’t need to route any MIDI data from the computer to the MIDI device, then this could be a great option.
3) A USB to MIDI Cable
Perhaps the most simplistic option is to use a cable and let it handle the conversion from MIDI to USB. Using a cable can be quick and easy however it also has limitations. Compared to an interface there usually won’t be any types of controls or meters and no MIDI OUT capabilities. I think it’s better to just get an audio interface.
The reason why I say it’s not worth it is that I had a bad experience when I bought the Roland USB to MIDI 1×1 cable (on Amazon). It didn’t work, and frankly, I’m surprised the product is still on the market because it hasn’t been updated in years.
As a matter of fact, I was annoyed when I discovered that I already had all of the equipment I needed to connect my old keyboard to my computer. The USB to MIDI cable wasn’t even necessary. Thankfully they returned it though without an issue at all.
Important Things to Note About MIDI and USB
1) There Are Probably Other Things I Failed To Mention
There are probably some other differences that I forgot to mention or I didn’t know when discussing MIDI and USB. I know I still wonder why MIDI is even used at all. It seems like most devices nowadays are connected via USB-C. Feel free to send me an email if you know more.