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Why Do MIDI Files Sound Bad? (And How To Fix It)

MIDI is a widespread file format used extensively by musicians around the world today. It stands for “Musical Instruments Digital Interface” and enables you to play, edit and record audio in the digital domain. But why do they sound so bad? Here’s a short and concise answer:

If you’re opening a MIDI file by itself, e.g. example.mid, it will sound bad because there is no audio information in it, and your operating system gives it a simple beep sound to play. MIDI files actually do not contain any audio information. They only have instructions for what to play. Hence, you need realistic virtual instruments and sound sources to have good sounds.

No, let’s take a deeper look at the problem and ways we can fix them!

How to make MIDI file sound better?

Give it something to play

To make MIDI Files sound better, you have to give the file something to play, either a virtual instrument or audio samples. You will need a digital audio workstation (DAW), and audio plugins that suit your needs. I recommend using a free digital audio workstation (DAW) if you’re just starting out. Some free DAWs include:

  • Cakewalk by Bandlab
  • Pro Tools First
  • GarageBand
  • LMMS

Import your MIDI file into your software, add a virtual instrument of choice, and then press play. You should have your MIDI file playing an instrument, and it should sound much better than the default beep from your operating system. After that, export your file into an audio file, like WAV or MP3. Then you can open it like any other file on your system, and it won’t sound bad anymore.

Check your MIDI file and sound sources

If you’re still getting bad sounds after giving the MIDI file something to play, maybe your files are corrupted. Try to open your MIDI file in the digital audio workstation (DAW) you have, and look at the piano roll. Do the notes look reasonably spaced? Are the notes all cramped up together? Or even worse, do you have trouble importing your MIDI file into your software? If that’s the case, your MIDI file may be corrupted and you will have to get a new file.

If the MIDI file looks fine, check your sound source. Usually the stock instruments that come with your digital audio workstation (DAW) should have no problem at all, so start with that. If it works fine, but when you switch to a third party virtual instrument it sounds bad again, there is something wrong with the third party plugin you’re using.

Lastly, check the bit depth and sample rate of your computer and digital audio workstation and make sure they are the same. I recommend using 16bit/44.1kHz when starting out. That is the CD quality. If your computer is fast enough and you want more detail in your audio, feel free to choose 24bit/48kHz (studio quality) or higher.

If after you’ve done all the above steps, and still the MIDI file sounds bad, check your hardware. You can follow these steps to check:

  • Turn off and unplug the power of your computer.
  • Unplug all your USB hardware and other connected hardware, including your mouse and keyboard.
  • Wait for at least 10 seconds.
  • Connect everything back, and make sure all the connections are connected properly.
  • Boot up your computer.
  • Play a regular audio file or from a streaming platform, and check if the audio sounds like it should. If not, either your sound card, headphones/speakers, or something else in your system may be damaged.
  • Play the MIDI file in your digital audio workstation (DAW) with a virtual instrument. It should sound good. If not, there is something wrong with the MIDI file or your audio source.

MIDI file vs audio file

Although both are used in the music industry, MIDI files and audio files are completely different. Let’s take a look at the table below for a clear summary:

MIDI FileAudio File
StructureA MIDI file comprises instructions on what sounds or prompts that the musical instruments are to play. Contains no audio information.An audio file contains actual audio data. In an uncompressed format, e.g. WAV, the file contains the pulse code modulation (PCM) that emulates the analog sound.
PurposeBeing mainly a transfer protocol, used to instruct instruments to play sounds in a certain manner. Can be edited and re-recorded without altering the audio.Used to preserve that actual audio recorded. Editing the file means editing the sound directly.
File sizeMIDI files are extremely small, due to the fact that they only contain instructions. For example, “Turn note on” and “Turn note off”.An uncompressed audio file is relatively large because it contains the actual audio data in it. However, an audio file can be compressed to a file format like MP3, although lots of actual audio information will be lost.

Why use a MIDI file?

Any instrument or sound you like

In a nutshell, a MIDI file can be used on different sounds and virtual instruments without the need to re-record the actual instruments. Thus saving time in the process.

If you want to play an instrument or a sound, but you don’t know how to play it, using MIDI can solve the problem. Instead of learning or hiring a session musician to play for example, you can simple download the virtual instrument. The virtual instrument can now be played using MIDI right in your software! EDM music producers also love to work in MIDI format, as most software synthesizers can be controlled by it.

Small file size

Another benefit is that a typical MIDI file is smaller than that of an audio file. As such, it takes up limited space and does not demand too much from you in matters of storage.

Simple editing process

Compared to editing audio, MIDI file is simpler to edit and offers much more flexibility. For example, if you want to change 1 note in a MIDI file, all you have to do is drag the note to the note you desire. This one simple move will automatically tell your virtual instrument that the note to be played is the new note. On the other hand if you want to change the note of an audio file, either you have to re-record, or you have to change the waveform by using a pitch-shifting tool.

Avoid background noises and distortions

Unlike the recorded audio output, the MIDI file lacks any background noises or distortions that characterize these formats. Instead, it only plays the instruments and does not incorporate any other unwanted sounds. For this reason, the audio output tends to be purer and clearer. Of course, this depends on the sound source you choose to use.

Easy to share

If you’re collaborating with other musicians or music producers, by sharing the MIDI file, they can just drag the file into their software and viola! They now also have the performance you have. Next, they can use the same virtual instrument as you, or choose their own sounds.

How to create a MIDI file?

If you would like to create a brand new MIDI file from scratch, here’s how you can do it.

Digital audio workstation (DAW)

First, on your computer, download a digital audio workstation (DAW). Most DAWs nowadays support MIDI file format.

MIDI keyboard

If you want to create complex MIDI files, like piano or guitar sounds, I personally would recommend getting a MIDI keyboard. By using a MIDI keyboard, instead of manually creating each note, you can just record the MIDI into your software. By doing that you’re not only saving time, but the performance outcome can be much more natural and realistic! However, if you’re just starting out, or you’re primarily working on simple MIDI commands, you don’t need a MIDI keyboard per se.

Create track

Next, open up your DAW, and create a MIDI track. Note that some pieces of software like Pro Tools have more than 1 type of track that can work in MIDI. To play a virtual instrument in Pro Tools you need to have an instrument track.

Record MIDI

After you have your track ready, record-enable your track. This makes it ready for recording. If you do not do this step, your software won’t know which track you want to record on, as you may have multiple tracks in a project.

Once you’ve done that, press record! You should see a colored box appear on the track, and it will keep expanding to your right as time goes on. When you think it’s enough, press stop, and you have yourself a clip on your MIDI track.


A clip is basically a part of the track that contains information, instead of just being blank. Depending on the software you’re using, you may be able to edit the MIDI file by simply double-clicking the clip. Once you do that, a piano roll may appear for you to insert, delete or edit the MIDI notes.

Export MIDI

Once you’ve added MIDI notes to the clip, you can export the MIDI clip to an actual MIDI file on your system. The file extension should be .mid, e.g. example.mid.

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