What is MIDI?

Midi Ports You've more than likely ran into several of these MIDI inputs features on the vast majority of pro audio gear.

One of the biggest leaps in digital music technology came in the form of the MID format. Although professional players know the ins and outs of the MIDI like the back of their hand, mostly because they have to, most new players know almost nothing about it. Sure, they’ve heard the term and have most likely unknowingly dabbled in a bit of it when playing keyboards or messing around with a computer music program – it’s actually pretty hard nowadays NOT to come across it as a musician – but when asked something as simple as what it actually stands for or what it actually does, you’d sooner get a blank stare than a succinct response. For something as integral and important to modern music, the general concepts of the MIDI should definitely be known by musicians of all levels. With that said, read on and get to know the MIDI a little better. Find out where it came from, what’s it for, and what it means!


What is a MIDI?

First off, MIDI is short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface and essentially, it is a uniform specification that lets digital instruments, computers and other related devices to communicate with each other. You can think of it as a music file-type that has become the industry standard for digital instruments, much like Mp3 is for songs. Some might wonder why not just use Mp3 instead, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. Without getting into the fact that Mp3 is low quality by studio standards and a one trick pony in terms of what it can actually accomplish, the MIDI is able to understand much more than just sound. It can communicate messages about pretty much every aspect of music from notation, pitch, velocity, tempo, volume, vibrato, audio panning, cues, clock signals– see where I’m getting at?


What are the Advantages of MIDI?

The most important advantage and the main reason the MIDI came into acceptance was the ability for the entire industry to have a common language and syntax. Imagine a world where your Yamaha keyboard will only work with other Yamaha products and programs, and the same with every other company. Well, this was the world before the MIDI. More of that explained later in the history of the MIDI down below.

Another huge plus that came as a result of the MIDI was a simplified form of connectivity. Before, multiple cables were needed for certain aspects of the music. With the MIDI, it is all essentially done digitally via a microprocessor and transferred to another device with a MIDI cable and also nowadays, a USB. Along with the simplified ease of use, the MIDI allowed essentially any musician of any level to create and edit high quality recordings with much less expensive equipment than what was needed before. No longer bound to recording studios, anyone can now accomplish similar quality recordings using relatively inexpensive home studio setups – something that was unheard of before the MIDI.

As with most other industries that went digital, their products began to get smaller and more portable, having less components needed to operate, and the same goes with MIDI instruments. When coupled with the simplified connectivity of the standard, it made the size and amount of equipment needed for a musician much less than it used to be. Also, it made things much easier to pack and unpack during shows – another huge plus that I’m sure touring musicians are grateful for. Another advantage was the ability to let a single musician play multiple instruments at once. Before, each note or instrument had to be played manually just like they would with acoustic instruments. With the MIDI, multiple digital instruments can be played at will and do not need consistent control. Think of a DJ playing a drum machine, adding loops and sustained notes while directly controlling other aspects, such as his voice or another keyboard for example.


The History of the MIDI

midi cable

By the end of the ‘70s, digital music devices had finally become affordable to the point where they were comparatively within the reach of the average person when considering the staggering costs of standard recording studio equipment. Companies had begun making strides with interconnectivity between products although they were limited between devices of the same manufacturer. 

Soon after, synthesizer designer and audio engineer Dave Smith, who at the time worked for Sequential Circuits, Inc., began pursuing the idea of an industry standard in terms of audio interface while working on a new keyboard synthesizer. Up to that point, analog synthesizers were only capable of producing one note at a time while aspects such as timbre had to be controlled manually via knobs, switches and other controls. This was due to the analog systems inability to give commands to more than a single note at any given time. Smith’s idea for creating an analog keyboard that would be able to produce multiple notes at a time came though his innovation of digitally control.

He created an interface (that would later be known as MIDI) which gave the synthesizer the ability to play multiple identical voice engines – one for each note – with all the parameters of each voice now digitally controllable. The knobs still had to be directly manipulated but now instead of the knobs affecting only a single not, the manual manipulation would be converted into a digital signal that was reproduced and could be used simultaneously with every note played.

This new type of digital aspect of the control gave these instruments two important innovations – the ability to remember previous settings and the ability to install patches that could be stored and recalled instantly. While working out the problem of communication between the different digital aspects of the controls inside the synthesizer, as well as being able to transfer information to and from the device, he theorized of a common interface protocol that would be able to be used between a variety of digital devices. Soon after, the MIDI as we know it was developed, but there was still the problem of industry wide acceptance.

In November of 1981 while at the Audio Engineering Society show in New York, Smith proposed the idea of creating a uniform means of digital instrument control that would be capable of cross platform use. Two years later, Smith was able to demonstrate a MIDI connection between two comparatively different synthesizers, his Prophet 600 and a Roland JP-6. Soon after, the MIDI Specification 1.0 was published, garnering a healthy acceptance to the point where it one day became the standard as we know it today.


What kinds of Devices use MIDI?

Chances are, even if you had no idea what MIDI was, you have come across plenty of devices that use it. Expectedly, keyboard synthesizers almost always include MIDI in their specifications (those that don’t are usually the beginner keyboards that are meant to be standalone with no interconnectivity whatsoever). Computers with MIDI capable sound cards make clear use of the interface via music editing programs such as Pro Tools. Digital drum machines use MIDI for their sound output as well as for their ability to loop, save and recall patterns, as well as sending that information to other devices. Most mixboards now come standard with MIDI control. Essentially, if its digital and it can create or manipulate music, chances are it uses MIDI since not using it would pretty much orphan it from consumers wanting the ability to use said product with all of their other MIDI capable devices. All in all, MIDI is the way to go when it comes to digital audio interfaces.

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