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MIDI & Drum Machines: Creating, Connecting, Troubleshooting

Part 2 will run you through the general steps to connect and sync your MIDI or hardware drum machine, some troubleshooting, and a simple beat making exercise.


October 21, 2020
Written by
Charlotte Friesen

In my previous article, we learned the difference between MIDI controlled drum pads and classic hardware drum machines. You were given the tools to choose a piece of gear that fits your style and workflow. Now it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of connecting and beginning to create! I’ll run you through the general steps to connect and sync your MIDI or hardware drum machine, some troubleshooting, and a simple beat making exercise.

Table of Contents

Connecting MIDI & Beat Machines to Your Rig

Once you’ve got your MIDI controller or your drum machine, it’s time to get connected. Many drum machines have built-in speakers or headphone outputs, but if you want to set yourself up with your recording rig, sync your machine with a DAW or have it running alongside your other musical hardware—there’s just a few extra steps to take. As someone who despises troubleshooting, I know that setting up any new or unfamiliar gear can be daunting, but I promise that it won’t be too painful. You’ve got this!

Connecting a MIDI controller 

Step 1: Connecting to your computer

Before you even open your DAW, make sure that your MIDI device is recognized by your computer. Most new controllers are “class compliant,” meaning they don’t require you to download any additional software in order to function; however, some require you to download a driver. Have your manual on hand to see if this is the case.

  1. Download the driver, if necessary. An easy way to find your driver is to simply Google “[insert name of your device] driver.” Make sure you’re downloading the latest version from the manufacturer’s official website. 
  2. Launch the installer and follow the onscreen instructions specific to your PC or Mac.
  3. Connect your MIDI controller:  
    1. If your controller has USB connectivity, connect the cable provided from your controller into your computer. (If you’re running out of USB ports or are using a new Macbook, I would recommend buying a USB hub.)
    2. Alternatively, if you wish to connect via MIDI cable, connect the cable from the MIDI out of your controller to the MIDI in of your audio/MIDI interface. If you reverse this, your computer will not be receiving any signal from your controller, so take note. 

Step 2: Connecting to your DAW

This step will be slightly different depending on your DAW, but the general principle is the same.

  1. Open your preferred DAW and find the MIDI preferences/settings window. If your computer has properly recognized your device it should appear in this window. If you do not see your device, refer back to step one.
  2. Find your device and enable its MIDI input and output tabs. If you are connected via MIDI cable through your interface, enable your interface’s MIDI input and outputs as well (should be found in the same window). 
  3. Set up a MIDI track and hit a pad on your controller to see if there’s a signal. 

Troubleshooting

Possible reasons your device is not connecting or sending a MIDI signal:

  • Cables 
    • Make sure all of your cables are properly inserted into your computer or device. 
    • A faulty cable could also be the culprit; if you have extra cables, test out a different one.
    •  If you’re connected via MIDI cable make sure you’re plugged into the correct MIDI inputs and outputs on each end (as described in previous steps). 
  • Drivers and Firmware
    • Double check that you have installed the proper driver for your device and that it’s up to date. 
    • If you’re using an older computer, confirm that the drivers and MIDI controller are compatible with your operating system.
    • Firmware is a type of software installed directly onto your MIDI controller as opposed to onto your computer. Check the manufacturers website to see if an update is necessary and follow the instructions provided. 
  • MIDI Channels
    • There are 16 MIDI channels per MIDI port. Your MIDI controller by default should be set to send signals through channel 1. Check to see if the MIDI track in your DAW is set to receive signals through the correct channel—you can also set it to receive signals from all channels. If necessary, within your MIDI controller’s settings you should be able to set which MIDI channel is in use. 

Setting Up Drum Machine Hardware

Since hardware drum machines can be used as standalone instruments, I’m going to run you through a couple ways they can be set up, with or without a computer. Keep in mind, there’s lots of different approaches to syncing and setting up drum machines, so by no means are these your only options. Keep your manuals handy while troubleshooting this process; different machines have different quirks. By spending time learning about your gear, you’ll find the best way to suit your own preferences and your own specific workflow. If it works for you, it’s the right way!

Syncing a Drum Machine with a DAW’s MIDI clock

If your drum machine has MIDI ports, it should be able to sync with your DAW’s MIDI clock. This means that if you choose to record your drum machine, it will stay in time with your song’s tempo. 

  1. Power up your drum machine and open your preferred DAW.
  2. Send a cable from the main output of your drum machine into your audio interface and set up an audio track in your DAW so that you can hear the audio from your drum machine. 
  3. You will need a MIDI interface of some kind in order to send clock information into your drum machine.
    1. If your audio interface has MIDI ports, take a MIDI cable and plug one end into the MIDI out of your interface and the other end into the MIDI in of your drum machine. 
    2. If your audio interface does not have MIDI ports, you’ll need an external MIDI interface. If you’re on a budget, you can find cheap USB-connected MIDI interfaces like the Roland UM-ONE mk2 USB MIDI interface. While somewhat less reliable, these will still do the job. Connect the MIDI output from the interface into the MIDI in on your drum machine.
  4. In your DAW’s MIDI preferences window, find your MIDI interface and enable its MIDI outputs as well as the sync function, if available. 
  5. Set the MIDI clock type to pattern mode.
  6. Set your drum machine to sync mode (check in your user manual for instructions). 
  7. If you have set this up properly, your drum machine should start its sequencer when you hit play on your DAW
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“Be sure to read the manual on your drum machine to figure out how to sync with a synth, with your DAW, etc.,” says Justin DeLay at Reverb. “Look for the MIDI clock in/out ports to tell you what sync options are available. For example, Digitakt can be the clock source OR sync to a clock BUT the setting has to be changed in the menu. Also check that your MIDI in/out is either on a dedicated jack or a USB plug. Some drum machines, like Volca Beats, have MIDI in on a dedicated jack, but not a MIDI out, so plan ahead.”

DAWless Syncing and Other Options

While syncing a drum machine to your DAW requires little hardware, many consider computer MIDI clocks to be unreliable and prefer to use external clocks and sequencers in their setups. This also removes the need for a computer entirely. External clocks can be helpful when connecting and syncing many different drum machines and synth modules at once as this process can overload a computer’s CPU and result in poor syncing. If you’re looking to go this route or just want to send your drum machine straight into a PA or speakers, I would recommend picking up a little mixer. 

Troubleshooting

There are a few problems you can run into when using a drum machine:

  • Latency 
    • Latency is a delay in the transfer of data between one piece of equipment to the next. In most contexts, that just means that your audio will sound late in your DAW
    • This can be an issue if your computer’s CPU is overloaded. Try exiting unnecessary apps to start. 
    • Go into your DAW’s MIDI preferences window and find the MIDI clock sync delay option and change the value until you hear the audio lining up. A negative value means that the MIDI clock signal is transmitted earlier. A positive value means that the MIDI clock signal is transmitted later.
  • Cables
    • Make sure all your cables are hooked up properly. Check for faulty cables. 
    • Double check that your MIDI cables are hooked up to the proper inputs and outputs.
  • No Audio or Poor Audio
    • Is the master volume knob turned up? Are any of the drum tracks set to mute?
    • If the output is distorted, try turning down the kick drum track—oftentimes this can overpower the rest of the mix. 

Making A Beat

When making beats to accompany my guitar playing, I like to let the two influence each other freely. Sometimes I write a riff to accompany a specific beat, and other times I prefer to add drums later. I challenge you to try both methods, or write a beat and then adjust it to suit your guitar line. 

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“At the most basic level, drum machines are simple: hit a button and make beats,” says Justin DeLay of Reverb. “That said, most folks end up getting stuck and needing to change and evolve their beat. When you first start playing around with your machine, take a look at all of the built-in patterns and samples. When it comes to programming your own beats into the machine, the devil is in the details—and by that I mean the manual! Keep that thing handy and easily accessible.”

Here is a very basic exercise to get you started: 

  1. Start simple: Lay down a kick track. You can record a MIDI loop if you’re using a controller, or just write out the kick pattern in your drum machine’s sequencer. 
  2. Next add a snare. Now you have a very basic beat. 
  3. Try adjusting the tempo to see how it sits at different speeds. 
  4. If you feel like it, go ahead and lay some guitar down over your groove.
  5. Next add a hi-hat pattern. Mix it up with open and closed hats. 
  6. Get frisky and lay down some toms or auxiliary percussion.
  7. Congratulations! You’re now a beatmaker, baby! 

About the Author

Charlotte Friesen is a guitarist hailing from sunny and snowy Winnipeg, Canada. After touring nationally and recording with artists of a wide range of genres from goth to indie pop, she has turned her talents to music production and theatre sound design. You can follow her beatmaking endeavours on instagram @charlottejfriesen

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