Guide to MIDI (part II)
In part II we explain how to use MIDI in practice
In the first instalment of our Guide To MIDI , we saw how MIDI can be basically considered as just a remotecontrol system for keyboards. The simplest way to understand it is that it lets you do everything you can do to asynth or module from the panel, only at a distance. You can press keys on the keyboard remotely, waggle wagglythings, slide sliders, push buttons, change sounds and even reprogram all the patches, if you have a computer or other data storage system.Whenever you do any of these things on a MIDI-equipped synth MIDI messages are sent out of the MIDI Outsocket on the back. If you connect this to a MIDI In socket on another synth, the second synth will respond to themessages just as if you were fiddling, keying, button-pushing and waggling it directly.There are two levels at which MIDI works. The first, called System Common, is designed to be compatible withany synth. Sys Common messages include things like key presses on the keyboard, modulation and pitchbendcontrols. Hit a note on a Roland synth, and the Sys Common standard means that any other synth will respond toit, whether it's made by Yamaha, Korg, Access, or that kid from school you used to know who now builds basssynths in his spare time.Sys Common is the part of the MIDI standard that gets used the most. To make a sequencer, all you need to do isrecord Sys Common messages in a computer, with a tag that tells you at what point in time they happened. If thecomputer spits out the same messages in the same sequence (hence the name) you'll get the originalperformance back. Only this time it's the computer playing the synth, rather than you. In fact Sys Common is so,er, common, that the name is taken for granted and hardly ever used in manuals.
MIDI of the road
The second level, called System Exclusive, is specific to certain synths. Or sometimes synth families. SysEx - asit's known - deals with the numbers that define the sounds a synth can make. Because all synths are slightlydifferent, these numbers are arranged in different formats, and there's no easy way to convert them from onesynth to another.So SysEx is mostly used for saving and loading all the memories in a synth in one go; a process known, rather graphically, as a SysEx dump. SysEx is sometimes used to reprogram sounds on the fly, but that's a slightly fiddlyand risky pastime and generally gets filed under the 'expert MIDI user' heading.SysEx is also related to the MIDI Sample Dump standard; a tedious and insane way to send samples from acomputer to a sampler. Sample Dump is so incredibly slow as to be almost useless. And I'm only mentioning ithere for completeness, and because if I don't mention I know Mr Angry from Middle Wallop will write in telling me Idon't have a clue what I'm on about. Actually, there's a third sort of MIDI message called System Real Time. This keeps things that need a timereference - sequencers, and systems that work with digital audio or tape - locked in sync.Sys Real Time comes in two flavours. There's MIDI Clock, which includes Start, Stop and Pause messages andsends a regular metronome-like tick down a MIDI cable. When MIDI first arrived, MIDI Clock was all that wasneeded. But the problem with it is that it doesn't let you start a sequence in the middle. There's no informationabout bars and beats; simply start, stop and tempo.So MIDI Time Code (MTC) is sometimes used as an alternative. This includes full position information and it'scompatible with tape and with hard-disk recorders. You can start a song anywhere, and anything that can makesense of MTC will lock to it within a second or two. Very useful.
Sys Real Time also includes an obscure MIDI feature called Active Sensing, which is worth knowing about. WhenMIDI first arrived, you could do totally pointless things with it like link two synths together, play a chord, unplug the
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