Motion + MIDI

Adding a new level of control to crafting motion graphics.

An intriguing feature introduced in version 2 of Apple’s Motion Apple’s Motion is the ability to control it via MIDI: the Musical Instrument Digital Interface. This allows users to choose among a wide variety of third-party input devices to edit parameters in Motion – such as scale, opacity, rotation, or most effect parameters – either while parked on a still frame, or while previewing in real time. The user’s gestures can also be recorded in real time, allowing you to “perform” parameter edits, reacting to the video or soundtrack. This capability has also caught the attention of the VJ (video jockey) market, giving them another tool to perform video transformations in real time.

As MIDI is a specification that grew out of the music rather than video industry, the idea of controlling Motion with MIDI may not be entirely intuitive. We’ll demystify the subject here, giving specific steps and advice on how to get the most out of the marriage between the two. We’ll also review a variety of MIDI control surfaces which are well-suited to this task. Although the most common image of a MIDI controller is that of a small piano-style keyboard, there is quite a variety of control surfaces consisting of knobs or sliders, which make them ideal controls surfaces to interactively enter parameters for a software program.

(If you are new to the subjects of either MIDI or Motion, go to the last page of this article, which contains companion sidebars on these subjects.)

Speaking MIDI to a Mac

To control Motion via MIDI, first you have to figure out how to get MIDI messages into your Mac. Some MIDI control surfaces now have USB interfaces, which make the task easy: Merely connect the MIDI controller to a USB port, and install any drivers that may be required. If your controller only has MIDI physical connections, you will need to connect some device that includes a MIDI interface to your computer, install its drivers, and connect everyone together. Although the Mac has an Audio MIDI Setup utility, you do not need to use this; Motion will automatically detect incoming MIDI messages.

MIDI control surfaces (reviewed on page 4) often have a variety of ways they can be configured, which determines precisely which MIDI messages are sent when you move a slider, knob, switch, or key. The best option is to send MIDI Continuous Controllers (although Motion will also respond to Note On/Off messages – see the section at the bottom of page 4 titled Trigger Finger). These controllers also offer the option of what MIDI Channel to send messages over; this is akin to a device ID. Motion 2 ignores the MIDI Channel, treating all equally. Therefore, don’t rely on MIDI Channels to differentiate one knob from another – instead, choose or program a configuration where different controller numbers are sent for each knob or slider.

Getting Motion to hear MIDI

MIDI control is consider a behavior that you add to a parameter inside Motion. However, MIDI does not appear under the Behaviors icon above Motion’s canvas – this is because it must be applied to a specific parameter of an object, Filter, Emitter, or Replicator rather than to an entire object.

Once you have your MIDI control surface hooked up, select an object in Motion, click on the Inspector tab, and then click on the Properties tab (the shortcut is F1). If you want to control a Filter or other modifier, open its respective Inspector. Then either Control+click or right-click on the name for a parameter -say, Shear. In the popup menu which appears, select the second item: MIDI (see the figure at right) The Behaviors pane will open with a behavior named MIDI selected; if you have Dashboards enabled (F7), it will switch to MIDI as well.

Make sure the Control Type in either the Behaviors panel or Dashboard is set to Learning, and then move the knob or slider on your control surface that you wish to use to edit this parameter. If your controller is properly connected, the Control Type popup will change to Controller (or Note, if you hit a key or strike pad on your device), ID will change to match the number of the controller you are moving, and Value will update as you move the control. You should also see the selected object change in your work area. You can set these values manually – as well as the Apply To target for the control – but it is far easier to use Motion’s automatic Learning mode.

You can assign additional MIDI controllers to additional parameters. All will be named MIDI with a number appended to their end; to reduce confusion, double-click on the name MIDI in the Layers panel (opened using F5 or Command+4), and rename each control behavior to something more descriptive such as the name of the parameter being controlled.

Matching MIDI Movement to Motion

Motion scales the typical 0-127 range of a MIDI Continuous Controller to an internal value range of 0-1. However, not all parameters have the same range of values – for example, opacity goes from 0 to 100, while there are 360 degrees to a single rotation, and 1920 pixels to go across the width of a hi-def frame. Therefore, Motion allows you to set a Scale for each MIDI Behavior which is then multiplied by its value.

Edit the Scale values of MIDI Behaviors to optimize how the parameter responds to your MIDI controller. Set angles to a negative Scale so Motion rotates in the same direction as most MIDI controllers.

Say you assigned a MIDI controller to an object’s X Scale parameter. A MIDI value of 1 (rotating its knob fully clockwise, or pushing a slider all the way up) results in adding 100% to X Scale’s initial value. To get MIDI and the parameter to interact in the desired way, first set the physical control to its minimum, and set the Motion property to its desired minimum or “at rest” value (such as 0% for Scale). Then increase the physical control to its maximum (yielding a Value of 1 inside Motion), and edit the MIDI Behavior’s Scale (not to be confused with an object’s Scale) to get the desired maximum parameter value.

Something that may drive you crazy is Rotation in Motion. Increasing the Motion property results in an object rotating counterclockwise. However, you usually need to rotate a MIDI controller clockwise to increase its value, which means MIDI and Motion appear to work in opposite directions. To cure this, enter a negative value for the MIDI Behavior’s Scale.

Remembering Configurations

After you get comfortable controlling Motion with MIDI, you may find yourself regularly setting up particular configurations. I personally like using MIDI to control sections of Motion that have multiple parameters which can otherwise be tedious to tweak in the Inspector, such as Particle Emitters and the new Replicator. Others may like using physical MIDI controllers to more interactively adjust color correction Filters, such as Color Balance.

To avoid assigning a bunch of MIDI controllers every time you use one of these modules, set it up once – with clearly renamed MIDI Behaviors – and save it as a Favorite. To do this, open both the Layers tab in the Project pane (F5 or Command+4) and the Library tab in the Utility window (Command+2). In the Layers tab, select the Filter, Emitter, Replicator, et cetera as well as its associated MIDI Behaviors, and drag them over the Favorites Menu folder icon. If you have more than one type of item selected, hover there until the choices Multiple Files and All in one File Appear; the latter will group them together. To rename your new Favorite, select it in the Name panel of the Library tab, wait until it highlights, type in your new name, and hit Return. To later apply this Favorite to a new object, select the object in the Layers tab, and use the Favorites menu along the top.

When saving a Favorite, make sure you grab all of the elements you need – such as a Replicator, its cell (the source object), and the MIDI Behaviors applied to the Replicator and cell – and drag them to the Favorites Menu icon. If you have more than one item, you will have the option to save them All in one File.

You can also save just the MIDI Behaviors so that you can apply them to an already-applied Filter, Emitter, and so forth. However, make sure you select the correct item in the Layers window before doing so, or else all of the MIDI “Apply To” wirings will be cleared out.

Be careful when saving Favorites for Emitters and the Replicator. Some parameters belong to the Emitter or Replicator itself, while others belong to the Emitter or Replicator’s “cell” (the object being emitted or replicated). It is probably safest to save a Favorite using an Emitter or Replicator with a dummy cell (which can be any simple object), apply this Favorite, and then replace the cell by dragging your desired object over the dummy cell.

Realtime Control

Motion has the ability to respond to – and even record – parameter adjustments on the fly while previewing. Add in a MIDI control surface, and great fun ensues.

VJs have already started to use Motion as a live performance tool. Build an interesting looping project, assign MIDI controllers to parameters such as Opacity or radical Filter adjustments, start playback, and have at it! For us stay-at-home motion graphics designers who nevertheless wish to inject a more human, live feel into our animations, set up your project, enable the Record button (A is the shortcut), hit the spacebar to begin previewing, and start performing

It is possible to generate an insane number of keyframes with real time recording. To cut down on this, first open Mark > Recording Options, and set Keyframe Thinning to Reduced. Also be aware that if you record some keyframes, playback loops back to the start, and then you start moving the same control again, the two sets of keyframes will be overlaid, potentially yielding erratic results. It may be better to create a set of keyframes, watch the playback to see if it’s what you wanted, and if you’re not happy, Undo and try again.

For all this to work smoothly, Motion must be able to play back your project in real time. If you have a complex project, you may need to temporarily disable unused objects. If you are using an Emitter or the Replicator, considering setting the Show Particles As or Show Objects As popup to something other than its default, Image. Other more drastic options include upgrading your video card (visit the Apple web site for a list of recommended cards), or adding more RAM.

If you are having trouble previewing in real time while recording MIDI data, temporarily simplify the project, such as changing Show Objects or Show Particles to Wireframe, Lines, or Points.

The Future?

I am a refugee from the music industry, having grown up in the age of twisting knobs on analog modular synthesizers and using a razor blade to edit tape. Although I love the precision that a computer gives me and have no plans to go back, I do sometimes miss the immediacy of using physical controllers other than a mouse to manipulate my media. This marriage of realtime software and inexpensive hardware controllers is exciting to me; I hope it is a trend that continues.

And There’s More…

The next page contains reviews of a number of MIDI controllers. The last page contains an overview of both Motion and MIDI for the newcomer.

MIDI Controller Mini Reviews

There are a wide variety of MIDI control surfaces available, created by manufacturers around the world. Here are several which are particularly well-suited for using with Motion that were available at the time this article was originally written, with their then-current prices (for a snapshot of what is available now, visit an online music specialist such as audioMIDI. We’ve divided them into two groups: those which require traditional MIDI 5-pin DIN connections, and those with USB interfaces. All are programmable to a degree; we’re assuming you’ve got your hands full programming Motion, so we’re going to focus on how to get them up and running with a minimum of fuss.


Most MIDI control surfaces will require the use of a MIDI interface for your computer, and MIDI cables with 5-pin DIN connectors to run between your interface and the controller. A simple “1×1” interface (with one MIDI In and one MIDI Out) will do; indeed, Motion 2 can only receive – not send – MIDI messages, so you will just need a single cable from your controller’s MIDI Out jack to your interface’s MIDI In. MIDI does not supply power to devices, so you will also need to run a separate power cable to the controller. Consider lashing together the power and MIDI cables so you just have one cord running to your controller.

Doepfer Pocket Control and Pocket Dial

At 6 3/4″ W x 2 7/8″ D and listing for $175, the Pocket Control is the smallest and one of the least expensive surfaces reviewed here. It comes with 16 dials arranged as two rows of eight. The small size means the dials are a bit close together, but are otherwise smooth and comfortable. The factory default is perfectly suited for Motion, sending MIDI continuous controllers 1 through 16.

The larger Pocket Dial (9 7/8″ W x 4″ D, $299) differs from most dial-based surfaces in that it uses continuous rotary controls, rather than the typical knob which only rotates between 7:00 and 5:00. A full rotation of one of Pocket Dial’s 16 encoders offers 32 physical clicks, which maps onto just a quarter of a full-range adjustment in Motion. Some may prefer this for tweaky adjustments. The knobs are also velocity sensitive, meaning quick movements result in larger changes in value.

Doepfer is a German company, distributed in the US by Analogue Haven.

Kenton Spin Doctor and Control Freak

UK-based Kenton Electronics makes a range of MIDI control surfaces. Their purple-and-white Spin Doctor ($169, 9 1/2″ W x 4 3/4″ D) is the most colorful surface reviewed here. It features 16 control dials; a 17th dial – Data Entry – is used to select between programs which determine which controller messages Spin Doctor sends. For Motion, use programs 2 through 5, which each send 16 different controllers apiece; you can switch between these programs to send 48 unique control messages to Motion.

On the other end of the Kenton spectrum is the Control Freak Studio Edition, which includes 16 60mm-long sliders in a 17″ W x 8 1/2″ deep case for $359. Like the Control Freak, a Data Entry knob switches between programs; use 2 through 5 for Motion. In between these two extremes, Kenton offers the Control Freak Original (8 sliders) and Control Freak Live (17 dials).

Kenton products are available directly from their web site or through select US distributors, such as audioMIDI.

USB Controllers

Some MIDI control surfaces now offer USB interfaces. This often allows a one-cable connection the computer, as USB carries MIDI In, MIDI Out, and power. As with a MIDI interface, however, you usually need to install drivers for it to work. Always check the manufacturer’s web site for updated drivers to keep up with operating system changes.

JL Cooper CS-32 MiniDESK

The most expensive of the control surfaces reviewed here at $399.95, this device also offers the largest number of controls per square inch: Its 9″ W x 8 3/8″ D profile features 32 20mm-long sliders, 6 knobs, a set of transport controls with a jog/shuttle knob, cursor keys, and function keys. Make sure you check out their web site, which includes updated drivers and software, as well as a Motion template. When this template is installed in their software, the sliders and knobs are pre-mapped to a whopping 38 independent continuous controllers. The cursor controls and function keys work, while the transport controls and jog/shuttle provide limited but useful control over Motion.

This American company has been around since the earliest days of MIDI, and offers a wide variety of user interfaces for controlling music and color correction software – check out JL Cooper online.

Behringer B-Control

This unit is the most professional-looking and -feeling of the group. It is also one of the largest, at 12 3/4″ W x 11 1/2″ D, but reasonably priced at $249.99 for the 8 slider/8 dial BCF2000 (view on Amazon), and $159.99 for the 32 dial BCR2000 (also available through Amazon). Unlike many USB devices, it also requires a power cord (normal AC – no external transformer), but it does not require a separate software drive to be installed first, making it a plug-and-go experience. Its long-throw 100mm faders and continuous rotary controls allows the most precision over adjustments; if you have other music applications, you will find that the faders are motorized, responding to MIDI In messages (which Motion does not send).

Behringer is a German company, but their products are available through a wide range of music stores and web sites in the US. They make a huge line of musical products; check out their web site and follow the link for Computer Gear.

Trigger Finger

Although I have focused on slider- and knob-style control surfaces here, another option is to use a piano-style MIDI keyboard. Rather than providing continuous control, striking a key results in a value proportional to how hard you struck it; releasing the key returns the value to zero. This is useful for VJs who want to trigger transformations in time with the music, and for creating nervous-style animations where parameters (such as Scale, or a Filter’s effect) suddenly jumps and resets back to normal.

There are number of MIDI keyboards available. Look for one that is smaller in size (so it doesn’t dominate your desk), which also has knobs and sliders, and that can communicate and be powered by a USB interface. A good example is the Edirol PCR series (an example is shown below).

Edirol’s PCR-500 (view on Amazon) is an example of a portable MIDI keyboard which also contains sliders and knobs.

sidebar: What is Motion?

At the 2004 NAB show, Apple introduced a new 2D motion graphics and compositing application called Motion. It took advantage of the high-powered OpenGL cards and chips in modern computers to allow users to edit parameters while the video previewed in real time (or as fast as the computer could process it). Another important feature was enabling the user to control video by applying and tweaking a number of “behaviors” without having to explicitly keyframe every action. Underneath this shiny exterior, Motion also features very powerful text animation and particle engines, including a large variety of factory presets to use as starting points or for instant gratification.

Motion integrates very tightly with Apple’s editing package Final Cut Pro, and also renders QuickTime movies for use in other editing and compositing systems. Indeed, although many devout users of alternate motion graphics packages such as Adobe’s After Effects are reluctant to switch their religions, Motion has proven useful for quickly creating complex elements which can then be imported into the environment they are more comfortable with. Motion 2 has extended this by allowing a Motion project to be treated as a “live” movie which Motion renders on demand in the background, allowing the user to then tweak the Motion project without having to re-render the element.

Motion is a Mac-only application. However, just as many Mac-based studios have at least one Windows workstation sitting in a corner to take advantage of non-Mac software, a Windows shop might consider setting up a Mac workstation to run Final Cut Studio just to get access to Motion and its nifty audio counterpart, Soundrack Pro))).

What is MIDI?

The Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI for short) was created in the early 80s to allow electronic instruments such as synthesizers and drum machines to talk to each other, making it easier to layer and coordinate multi-part musical performances. MIDI also opened the way for computers to control musical instruments through software-based “sequencers,” meaning an entire studio of instruments could be controlled from one place.

The MIDI language supports a wide variety of messages to be sent between instruments. The most common messages are for notes (what note or key has been depressed or released), continuous controllers (conveying slider or knob adjustments for specific parameters), and timing.

By today’s standards, the physical MIDI interface looks a bit old-fashioned. MIDI requires one cable to send commands to another instrument, and a second cable to receive commands back. The MIDI cable itself uses 5-pin DIN connectors, is generally limited to 50′ runs, and does not supply power to attached devices. Computers rarely have MIDI interfaces built in, requiring some form of external MIDI interface. There is a wide variety of USB or FireWire to MIDI adaptors available for as little as $50; they are also often built into external audio interfaces.

As MIDI has been around for well over 20 years now, a wide variety of “MIDI control surfaces” – user interfaces to send MIDI messages – have been created (some examples are shown on the previous page). Many have piano-like keyboards or percussive strike pads, but others (such as the Behringer BCR2000 pictured left – view on Amazon) come festooned with knobs and sliders which can send MIDI Continuous Controller messages. These are the ones that interest us the most, as Motion allows you to connect these MIDI messages to numeric parameters inside the program.

The content contained in our books, videos, blogs, and articles for other sites are all copyright Crish Design, except where otherwise attributed.


Chris and Trish Meyer

Chris & Trish Meyer founded Crish Design (formerly known as CyberMotion) in the very earliest days of the desktop motion graphics industry. Their design and animation work has appeared on shows and promos for CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, HBO, PBS, and TLC; in opening titles for several movies including Cold Mountain and The Talented Mr. Ripley; at trade shows and press events for corporate clients ranging from Apple to Xerox; and in special venues encompassing IMAX, CircleVision, the NBC AstroVision sign in Times Square, and the four-block-long Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas. They were among the original users of CoSA (now Adobe) After Effects, and have written the numerous books including “Creating Motion Graphics with After Effects” and “After Effects Apprentice” both published by Focal Press. Both Chris and Trish have backgrounds as musicians, and are currently fascinated with exploring fine art and mixed media in addition to their normal commercial design work. They have recently relocated from Los Angeles to the mountains near Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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