How does MIDI work with E-Drums?

One of the most popular questions on my channel and website is: “How does MIDI work?”. There seems to be a lot of confusion on how it works and how to use it. Understanding MIDI is necessary to be able to work with sample software like EZdrummer, Superior Drummer or Addictive Drums, for recording or just to enjoy the high-quality drum sounds while playing e-drums. I try to explain it in a very simple way and I hope this text will help you to understand it once and for all.

When you hit your e-drum snare pad, the piezo picks up the “shock” and generates an electric signal. The module interprets that “hit-signal” and samples the snare sound, that you can hear in your headphones. The interpreted signal, also called “MIDI note”, is identified by a number. This could be 38 for your snare pad, 36 for the bass drum or 22 for the snare rim. The second information that a MIDI Signal contains, is the velocity, the strength with which you hit the pad. This number goes from 0-127. If you hit your pad hard, it will generate a velocity value of 127, if you hit it very lightly, it might only generate a MIDI note with the velocity of 50.

The module does not only assign a sound to the MIDI note (e.g. your favourite snare sound), it does also send the MIDI information to the MIDI/USB output.

But how does the MIDI note travel to your PC?

You will have to connect your e-drum module to your PC and there are only 3 different ways to do this.

1. MIDI-to-USB cable

A “MIDI-to-USB” cable is basically an adapter from MIDI plug to USB plug. It has 1 or 2 MIDI cables on one side and a USB cable on the other side. The most famous one is probably the Roland MK-122.

2. MIDI Interface

A MIDI interface is usually also known as an external sound card. It is connected to your PC via USB cable. The interface needs a MIDI input which will be connected to your e-drum module via MIDI cable. These interfaces do often have Audio inputs for microphones and guitars too. I am using this setup simply because I had the interface already laying around.

I recommend using the Steinberg UR22 MK2. A friend of mine has a great experience using this interface for triggering a sample software via e-drum set and even for recording guitars.

3. USB Cable

Newer Modules like the Roland TD-11 or TD-25 do have a MIDI output and a direct USB port. This way the module can be connected to your PC directly via USB cable. The module itself becomes the MIDI interface. This is the best solution since it only requires a USB cable and nothing else.

A MIDI note can be generated by your e-drum module or even a piano. Make sure you install the particular driver for the interface (external or module) you are using. Most MIDI-interfaces will not be recognized without the interface driver installed.

What happens with the MIDI note inside your PC?

However, the PC needs to be able to do something with this MIDI note. And here comes EZdrummer2 or Superior Drummer.

Both EZdrummer and Superior Drummer can be used as standalone software, without any other application or loaded within a DAW (recording software e.g. Logic X, Cubase or Reaper).

The next step is basically selecting the input device(the interface) which is either your Roland module or the MIDI interface you are using.

Your MIDI note gets interpreted by EZdrummer2. The Software does the same job as your drum module. It interprets the MIDI note (note number & velocity value) and assigns a sound of the particular EZD instrument to it. This happens so fast, you won’t even notice a significant delay.

Again: Snare hit on your e-pad > module generates a MIDI note with velocity information > module sends the MIDI note via USB cable or interface to your PC – Ezdrummer2 catches the MIDI note >EZD generates a matching sound according to the MIDI note value and velocity level > sends it out via speakers or headphone jack or writes it into the recording software.

Your DAW is recording the MIDI note. You don’t need to trigger EZdrummer. You can also trigger the digital piano of your DAW or even a trumpet. Whatever digital instrument you can find.

That is all. It is really not complicated.

Superior Drummer in action on a metal drum kit:

But what is that mysterious MIDI Input that some E-drum Modules have?

The TD-9, 12, 20 and 30 do not only have a MIDI output to send MIDI notes, they do also have an additional MIDI Input to receive MIDI notes. But how is that working you ask?

Assuming you have a TD-30 and want to connect more pads to it, but all trigger inputs are taken. Just get a second module like a TD-12, an Alesis Trigger I/O or even a Samplepad and use it as a “slave module”. All of them do have a MIDI output that can be connected to your module’s MIDI input.

That means your “slave-TD-12” is sending MIDI notes to your TD-30. The TD-30 contains a percussion set, an integrated extra set of digital instruments. The same story as above: You hit a cymbal pad that is connected to your TD-12, which generates a MIDI note and sends it to the TD-30. The TD-30 samples a percussion sound, that could be whatever TD-30 instrument you have assigned to it.

And this is how you extend your TD-30.

Let’s go totally crazy now: The MIDI note sent from the slave module and received by the TD-30 can even be sent further to the PC that is connected to the TD-30 USB/MIDI output. So the TD-30 only leads it through. This way your 2 modules become 1 unit. Both can trigger the same sample software.

I hope this has helped you to understand what possibilities you have with your E-drum kit by using its MIDI features.

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