Even if you’re new to the world of modern musical devices, you’ve probably noticed the word MIDI. It might not be everywhere, but by the end of the year, it will be on at least two and a half billion devices, thanks to the addition of MIDI to Android devices and web browsers like Chrome. But what exactly is MIDI, and why should you care? Where did MIDI come from and what does it have to offer you? Let’s find out in this first of a series of articles covering MIDI basics.
To really understand the origins of MIDI, you need to go all the way back to before there were digitally controlled synthesizers and computers, In fact, you need to go back before there was even electricity to the very first mechanical music machines.
The very first mechanical musical instruments were documented in the Book of Ingenious Devices published in 850 AD by three Iranian brothers known collectively as Banu Musa. They describe 100 mechanical devices including two automated musical instruments- a hydro-powered organ that plays music based on interchangeable cylinders that had music patterns on them.
The golden age of mechanical music machines really came in the late 19th century and early 20th century with player pianos and orchestrions. A player piano is defined as an actual acoustic piano that is played by a pneumatic or electro-mechanical mechanism that operates the piano action via pre-programmed music. Between 1910 and 1930 player pianos were the largest segment of the music industry in the United States. These instruments were mostly used for playing back preprogrammed music via piano rolls. Remember back then there was no radio, TV or movies. If you wanted to hear music you either had to play it yourself or have it played for you by an automated music machine.MIDI accommodates controller data, not just notes – for example, if you move the modulation or pitch wheels on a keyboard to further shape the sound, that information becomes part of the MIDI data stream. It can then control other connected devices, or even be recorded for later playback. In that sense, MIDI acts like a high-tech player piano – but instead of playing piano keys based on holes in a piece of paper, it plays notes based on data embedded in a data stream.m
MIDI can also send and receive tempo and synchronization information and includes MIDI Program Change commands that can change an instrument’s basic sound (for example, from piano to rock guitar). There’s even a part of the MIDI spec called General MIDI, which specifies a general sound set of 128 sounds assigned to specific “program numbers.” Sending the appropriate program number to a device will call up a specific sound.
MIDI is also great for composers and arrangers because you connect your keyboard (or other MIDI controller, like a MIDI-compatible guitar or drum set) to your computer and record complex arrangements for later playback or for printing out lead sheets and notation. Furthermore, MIDI isn’t limited to controllers – devices such as effects units can respond to MIDI as well. And, not all MIDI is hardware-based – software-based virtual MIDI instruments that run on your computer, tablet or even your smartphone have become very popular.
How the device responds to the incoming MIDI data depends on its features and capabilities, and how it’s designed – not all devices transmit or respond to all MIDI messages, and it’s often possible to tell a device to ignore particular types of messages. In addition, there are 16 MIDI channels so you can send unique data to 16 different MIDI receivers at once. Just as your cable TV coax cable carries multiple channels and allows you to watch one program in one room while other people are watching different things on TVs in other parts of the house, MIDI lets you send a different information to different devices that are set to “listen to” different channels. You might have a MIDI piano part on Channel 1, a funky bass part on Channel 2, and a cool beat on Channel 10, with all that data traveling down a single MIDI cable. So, do you need separate devices for all those different parts? Not necessarily – some devices are multitimbral and can respond to multiple MIDI channels at once, with each part set to create a different sound.
Besides layering keyboards for a fatter sound, creating virtual MIDI tracks for bigger, more complex arrangements and productions that put less stress on your computer than audio tracks, and making it possible to control complex systems consisting of multiple effects and synthesizers on stage and in the studio, MIDI can do much more.