It’s most interesting how Midi has taken the world by storm, yet very little is known about this humble but intelligent servant.
Born in 1981 to audio/design engineers Dave Smith and Chet Wood, Midi brought the world together by becoming THE universal language for synthesizers and computers to exchange information about a musical performance (the tune “It’s a small world” plays in the background.)
Within the shell of the interface that gave inter-connectability to electronic musical instruments was the common language that later took on a role that extended far beyond its beginnings as a musical slave. This protocol consists of the parameters of a musical performance and the operations of the synthesizer, and could include note on and off messages, velocity, pressure, continuous controller expressions, use of the pitch bend wheel, footswitch etc, Represented by bits, bytes, words and nibbles these messages are now being used to gain control of other ‘intelligent performance machines’ such as lighting boards, theatrical equipment and computer graphic generation in real-time interactive shows!
When this tired but hardworking servant first turned the analog world from a stack of synths, into a stack of modules with one keyboard controller, many a chiropractor lost their favorite musician client! Midi also made sure that we did not get sound degradation from generation lost because it did not carry a sound recording on tape. Files sizes were miniscule so that entire projects would fit on a floppy disk! And there is more, we could network instruments fitted with Midi to a portable computer, begging that passerby to express their doubts as to whether that small laptop could really record an entire album.
But today is it sorely misunderstood. People ask about its expressibility and dependability when all Midi wants to do is to work hard for your money. A whole generation of musicians have relied on this protocol and now we question its validity in the world of ‘real’ music. We even talk about it as though it were a mechanical robot (making music without feeling) or wrongly accuse it of being a synthesizer, in hush tones in case Midi were within ear shot. It is time to show the world that Midi is what makes the world go round. Those of you who are in favour, say ‘Aye’!
Some interesting and sometimes puzzling facts about our boy M.i.d.i. (musical instrument digital interface)
1) It is serial in nature, which means the information about the performance or operation of the synthesizer is sent in a queue, one bit at a time. An example of the anatomy of a Midi message could be; note on (channel specific), followed by key number, attack velocity, note off.
Midi has 16 channels per bus.
Midi data is transferred at a baud rate of 31.250 bits per second. In most instances, this is sufficient for a complex performance even when tracks are quantized.
It can get bewildering when both Midi and hard disk recording coexist within a DAW, and even more so when Midi is used to sequence software instruments/samples/loops. Neither one can be substituted for the other for they are not the same thing.
A 1 minute stereo file (Redbook standard sampling rate of 16bit 44.1Khz) is 10MB in size. The 4 minute Midi file “Been There Too” from our latest CD “Xing Paths” weighs only 48 KB.
Finally, whether Midi enables expressive performance or not, returns us to the oft discussed point, that it is the man and not his tool that makes the music. Many musicians have shown this to be the truth. If you still need convincing, please refer to the music released by the group I am a member of!
A little trivia worth celebrating. The 21st of May marks the birthday of American synth pioneer Robert Moog. On the other side of the Atlantic and one of Moog’s contemporaries, is Tristram Cary whom I’ve had the distinct pleasure of studying under.
[Thanks Chris Lim and Boon Kiat of Sonicfreakz for allowing me to contribute! Chris Lim and Boon Kiat write for Singapore Business Times and Straits Times respectively.]