Electronic Music FAQ: Does MIDI = low quality sound?

A newcomer to electronic music asked a very good question in our Facebook group, about music software, MIDI, and instrument sounds
For most commonly used music software, eg logic, studio 1, bitwig etc, are the music instrument sample sounds in MP3 , WAVE FORMAT, OR midi format?
Cos i understand that cakewalk sonar, their instrument sounds are midi ya? Hence producing rather low quality sound that isnt inspiring at all especially when you wanna do arrangement.
I will attempt to answer the questions and also clear up some common misconceptions. The first misconception is that MIDI = low quality sound.

Common music software or DAWs

DAW = Digital Audio Workstation e.g. Logic, Bitwig, Cakewalk SONAR, Ableton Live, FL Studio
You can use DAWs to input and edit music, much like you use a word processor (Microsoft Word, Mac Pages) to input and edit words.
If you use a modern DAWs, you have access to the built-in synthesizers/instruments that are sold with the DAW (e.g. Cakewalk SONAR has Rapture, Ableton Live has Operator), as well thousands of other synthesizers (in the VST format) that you can buy or download for free, with millions of amazing, high quality sounds. 
How does the software connect your keyboard (or pads, or knobs) to all of these synthesizers? It uses MIDI technology.

MIDI - the technical explanation - can play high quality sounds

The real meaning of MIDI is Music Instrument Digital Interface, a digital language developed in 1983 that allows instruments and computers to talk to each other by transmitting the notes you play (A, B, C, C#, D# etc), how you play them (hard, soft, 0.5 seconds, 2 seconds), whether you move any sort of knob or controller, and so on. Your MIDI song file does not contain any sound, it only contains the notes (Ab, A, F, G, G#). See the video below.

Since MIDI technology transmits only the notes, you can play back the notes on any modern synthesizer, including those with very high quality sounds. So how did MIDI get its bad reputation?

'General MIDI' - where the reputation for low quality sounds came from

In 1996, the music products industry agreed on a set of standardized sounds called General MIDI (GM) so that MIDI song files could be shared between devices and always play back sounding more or less the same. 128 standard instruments were chosen - see this list
BUT General MIDI got a bad reputation because computer sound cards in the 1990s had poor-quality GM sounds; if the game you were playing had a 'MIDI' soundtrack, it would play the soundtrack using the poor-quality GM sounds of your PC sound card.
More info at 

General MIDI today - improvements in quality

However, many hardware synths on sale today have good-quality GM sounds. Watch this demo of the General MIDI sounds on this Roland synthesizer.

Modern DAWs have access to high quality sounds

In addition to that, modern DAWs have built in synthesizers with high quality sounds. You don't have to use the General MIDI sounds from your PC's sound card. These synthesizers are controlled using MIDI technology (storing the notes) but do not use the General MIDI standard sounds. For example, Cakewalk SONAR has Rapture built in. 

Modern DAWs have access to VST synthesizers

The same MIDI technology (not General MIDI) also allows modern DAWs like Ableton Live, FL Studio, Cubase, Cakewalk SONAR, to use VST synthesizers, which can be downloaded. Some (hundreds) are for sale, many (thousands) are free. Here is a demo of 5 good quality VST synths.

Hopefully this explains how the term 'MIDI' should be understood, and how you can access high quality synthesizer sounds in your DAW. Please join our Facebook group if you want to learn more about electronic music, and to find out about the next Electronic Music workshop.