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Guide to Midi Part 2

Guide to Midi Part 2

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Published by Ragaga

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Published by: Ragaga on Nov 06, 2012
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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.
MIDI sensitivity 
 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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MIDI line, and then have the chord sustain forever.One of MIDI's problems is that it's prone to stuck notes. If a note on message doesn't get a corresponding note off message, it will play for ever. This is bad enough in a studio, but live - if, say, someone trips over a lead and pullsit out mid sequence (as if that's ever going to happen to you... famous last words) -it can be a seriously bad thing. Active Sensing checks for this by sending a digital blip to a receiving synth a few times a second. If the blipdoesn't arrive, the synth assumes the MIDI line has been unplugged and kills any hanging notes. (Usually with arather pathetic 'Nnnnng' sort of sound.)So that's an outline of the theory. How does it all hang together in practice?
Plugged in and ready to rock 
 On the back of every modern synth you'll see two or sometimes three sockets. The sockets themselves are knownas five-pin DIN. The 'five-pin' bit is easy and refers to the fact that they, er, have five pins. The 'DIN' bit, well that'sbecause these sockets are made to a German standard known as the Deutsche something complicated or other (two words obviously starting with 'I' and 'N'), which you don't need to remember. Hey, I certainly can't, so whyshould you?MIDI leads have plugs that fit into these sockets. Some hi-fi systems also use the same kinds of five-pin DINleads. It's worth knowing that you shouldn't use these for a MIDI system, even though they're cheaper and easier to get hold of.The problem is that in a proper MIDI cable - the kind a music shop will sell you - only three of the pins areconnected to anything. In a hi-fi cable all five pins are connected. When you use a hi-fi lead in a MIDI set-up, youcan sometimes get clicking or rasping noises breaking through to the audio. This is bad. Proper MIDI cables canhelp avoid this.With that out of the way, let's look at the world's simplest MIDI connection. You have a synth (let's say it's an Aardvark Gigaplex 2000) and a synth module (a SuperBarg DJX Pro) and you want to connect them together. Tomake this happen, plug a lead into the MIDI Out on the Aardvark, plug it into the MIDI In on the SuperBarg, andRobert is your father's very close biological relative.So, what about that other socket marked MIDI Thru? Well, that's just a straight copy of what comes in through theIn socket and is used to daisychain synths together in a long line. We'll come to that in a minute.If you're lucky, when you play notes on the Aardvark's keyboard, the SuperBarg will respond with some noise.Only sometimes it won't. You're sending Sys Common messages from one to the other, so why not? Well, there'sanother complication. Sys Common messages are always sent on one of 16 channels which work very much likeradio or TV stations. The sender always sends on one channel, and the receiver has to be 'tuned' into thatchannel or it won't be able to see or hear anything.Let's say the Aardvark is sending on - now, let's see - Channel 1. If the SuperBarg has been set up to receive onChannel 2, it will ignore the Aardvark completely. Set it up to receive on 1 though, and it will spring into life,serenading you with sound as you plink the keys on the Aardvark. Just like magic. (Where's Paul Daniels whenyou need him?)Most synths have a button marked 'MIDI' somewhere on the panel where you can set up things like send andreceive channels. Sometimes you'll see a receive channel setting called Omni. This means that channels areignored, and the synth will make a noise, no matter what channel the notes have been sent on.When MIDI was first invented, synths were crude unwieldy things that could only make one kind of sound at once.If you wanted a massed synth orchestra, you'd buy 16 synths, connect them all together In -> Thru -> In -> Thru(etc), set them up to receive on separate channels, and then you'd be able to control them all with a single MIDIOUT from a computer or other sequencer.This kind of multitimbral operation (as it's known) seemed cool at the time, but as synths improved it becamepossible to fit all of those synths inside a single box. So one single keyboard or module could eat up enoughinformation for all 16 MIDI channels. Suddenly a single MIDI Out wasn't enough.So before long, computers started sprouting multiple MIDI Out sockets. Each one gives you up to 16 channels toplay with. And some computers also give you multiple MIDI In sockets. These are useful if you have two differentkeyboards as the computer can merge information from each one. It's also useful if you use SysEx messages tostore bulk dumps of patch information. You can record a bulk dump directly without needing to swap cables.
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