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Guide To MIDI (pt I)
A brief history and explanation of the mystery of MIDI...
Here in the real world, there are only so many ways you can make a musical instrument. You can twang things that vibrate, you can hit things that don't, you can blow through things to make them resonate, you can add boxes and round bits that make twangy things louder. And, um, well, that's about it, to be honest. With those limitations in mind, it's amazing that, before synthesizers arrived on the scene, we had symphony orchestras, grand pianos, massive pipe organs and enough music for all of the above to completely fill a sizable building if you printed it all out and collected it in one place. That's a lot of impressive creativity and organisation, given the very limited range of things that instruments could do. But what was lacking was any kind of brains or smarts. Before MIDI, if you wanted to make music you either had to play it live, yourself, or pay someone else to play it. Playing things yourself is tricky; it takes most people at least five years to get their heads and hands around most instruments. And the sounds most instruments make are fixed. Play a piano, you get a piano sound. Play a guitar, you always get a guitar. It makes life easy for the people who write music, but if you want wild and outrageous effects you need to use different instruments together. And you need a whole lot of skill and talent and imagination to create new sounds and new effects. A brave new sound world Then synthesizers appeared, and music was never the same again. The thing about a synth is that it can sound like all kinds of things. There's at least as much to learn about putting sounds together as there is about making sure your fingers hit the right bits at the right time. And even the simplest synths have elements that are automatic. With a violin, your fingers are always in full control of the sound. (Which is why beginners make such a godawful noise when they're starting out.) With a synth, it's more like building a sound using a recipe. A bit of this to start with, a bit of something else a little later, and when you finally hit the key, the synth starts its sequence of audioshaping processes, and you get an evolving sound out of the back. The earliest synths were collections of individual boxes: an oscillator in one, a filter in another, 200 capacitors and a dead moth in a third. And so on. If you wanted more polyphony, you bought more boxes. Which at perhaps five grand for a set of boxes needed to make a single synth patch, was something that only the insanely rich could afford to do. And that wasn't counting all the carpentry and woodwork required to expand the huge box your synthesizer lived in. All the boxes were controlled by voltages. The keyboard - assuming you had one - produced a single voltage that changed depending on which key you pressed. Plugged into an oscillator, that voltage made the pitch go up and down. Plugged into a filter, it made the filter open and close. Plugged into an amplifier, it made the volume of the sound louder or softer. Not all that useful as an option, but these old synths were nothing if not totally flexible. Repeat and repeat If you wanted to record a sequence of voltages, such as a keyboard riff, you couldn't. You might, if you were rich and famous, have an analogue sequencer somewhere among all the filters and oscillators. This chucked out a simple repeating riff, usually eight or 16 notes long. With some careful programming you could transpose the riff to different pitches. But eight or 16 notes was as complex as it got. And you had to program the riff by turning eight or 16 knobs till each note was tuned to where you wanted it to be.
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In spite of the odds, people made some good music using these old sequencers. Proto-ambient sequence meisters like Tangerine Dream and Jean Michel Jarre used these repeating riffs as a trademarked part of their sound. Mini micro machines But people were finding it wasn't really enough. Roland started the next wave with some microprocessor-based boxes they called Microcomposers, which appeared in the late 70s. For the first time, these could record a collection of voltage changes. It also meant that, again, for the first time you could play a riff on a keyboard, and then play it back, edit it and do other useful things to it. Which was cooler than a pair of Dayglo flares in a UV bulb factory. Except for one problem: you needed a nest of leads to connect one of these up to your synth. The MC-8 Microcomposer, for example, was eight-voice polyphonic. Each voice needed two leads: one for the voltage, to control pitch, filter cutoff or whatever; and another to tell the synth when to trigger the start of each note. Big isn't beautiful Synths were starting to get ungainly at this point. A full MC-8 system would have upwards of a hundred wires and leads connecting all the sound-making boxes together. You could easily spend a day just programming the sounds. And there were no patch memories, so if you wanted to reproduce a studio recording live, you either needed to take Polaroids of all the patch settings and spend two hours setting up on the night, or you could forget the whole thing and go get a proper job instead. Round about the same time the MC-8 appeared, synths started to be able to play more than one note at once. And patch memories finally appeared. Synths like the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 started the trend. Some of the earlier models worked well enough to get through an entire gig without melting down or exploding. And then in the early 80s, the development blokes at Roland worked out that they could save themselves a load of money by producing a synth with digital instead of analogue oscillators, all controlled by a microprocessor. Remote controllers Everyone was happy. Kind of... because there was still no way to control these synths remotely. Both live and in the studio, you either played everything by hand (and maybe did some tape and razor blade editing afterwards) or, er, you didn't. Behind the scenes, people were beginning to realise that some kind of remote control system would be a really useful thing to have. Oberheim, the inventors of the first true monster polyphonic analogue synths, had something called 'The System' which offered a crude kind of digital remote control. Some Sequential Circuits synths had a digital socket on the back, but it didn't seem to do much. And then Roland got in on the act with something called DCB, which again allowed you to link different DCB-equipped synths together. Dave Smith and Chet Wood of Sequential Circuits are usually credited with rounding up all the interested parties and getting them talking to each other. The first attempt called UMI (Universal Musical Interface) and it was announced in 1982. UMI was very crude - it was more or less limited to notes - and it never appeared as anything more than a presentation in front of some engineering boffins. But it made the Japanese sit up and take notice, and after plenty of discussions and to-ing and fro-ing across the Pacific, MIDI (known officially as the Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and pronounced 'mid-ee', and not 'mydye', as some authorities of the day were known to do) finally arrived in 1983, announced to the public by Bob Moog himself in the pages of Keyboard magazine in the US. This will not do There were dissenting voices from high-end synth makers like Synclavier - makers of computer music systems that cost more than a large mansion - and Kurzweil, who thought MIDI was too crude and simple (not true), and slow (kind of true-ish) to be much use. But they didn't stop MIDIfied instruments appearing not long after the 1.0 spec was finalised. Initial attempts to make the most of MIDI were a little primitive and confused, to say the least, as no one was quite sure how this new MIDI thing was supposed to work, or what use it was going to be. Early versions of Yamaha's groundbreaking DX7 synth for instance had a minimal MIDI spec that caused almost as many problems as it solved. However, once both the public and the manufacturers got their heads around what MIDI could do, there was no stopping it.
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MIDI takes off It would be hard to go overboard about how important MIDI has turned out to be. Although it's really just a remote control system for synths, it's a very simple but powerful one, and gives people massive power for not much money or complication. Without MIDI, home studios would cost ten times as much, soundcards might never have appeared the way they do today, and something equivalent to standard MIDI files would have been much harder to come by. In the MIDI-less studio (almost as horrific to imagine as a Cilla Black-less Saturday night), you'd most likely need to buy racks of converter boxes just to get synths and computers talking to each other. Patch editing, sampling, and even sequencing would all have been a whole lot harder. It's not an exaggeration to say that a lot of music would simply never have happened. Since then, MIDI has had a few bits added, but hasn't changed in essence. The MIDI file standard made it possible to exchange music between different brands of sequencer (as well as giving talentless Web designers the ability to spice up their pages with Abba covers and the theme music from Star Trek.) MIDI Time Code added some high-end frills for people who needed to lock up tape machines to sequencers. And General MIDI defined a standard set of sounds for soundcards and budget synths. (Another factor in the Abba/Star Trek Web revolution.) Modern history But other than that, MIDI is now as it was then, almost 20 years ago. It's a testament to how well it works that people don't get excited about it; they just take it for granted while it gets on with the job and they get on with their job. MIDI admittedly may not be flash or have millions of gadgets and gizmos to offer, but even with the analogue retro revival of the 90s, it's still the business for anything that links synths and computers together, even here in the 21st century. And who knows, in a few hundred years, it may even turn out to have been as important as the invention of written music was back when people were still gutting cats and blowing into tubes with holes in them to try and get people to dance. By today's standards, MIDI is an antique technology with its roots in the early 80s. In fact it was invented before the Atari ST. Back then a computer with an 8MHz processor was a wondrous thing. Now, nearly 20 years on, 800MHz would be more like it. But MIDI hasn't changed at all. The limitations - things like the fact that you can only get 16 channels down a single MIDI lead - have been solved by producing systems with lots of MIDI ins and outs. But otherwise it works just fine, and, as usual, if something ain't broke, there's no need to fix it. At least there wasn't, until now. The big thing that's happened over the last few years is digital audio. Now that you can pump eight (or more) tracks worth of live audio down a cable, there's a need for a new system that will handle audio in a standard way. What the world needs is a kind of MIDI-for-audio, where you can plug things together with just a few cables, and know that everything will talk to everything else with no problems. Audio carries something like a thousand times more information than a single MIDI link, so piggy-backing MIDI on the back of this kind of digital hook-up would be simple. It would also be an incredibly cool thing for all the synth manufacturers to do, because you'd be able to send audio from your PC to an external effects unit and back again, controlling the unit with MIDI, all with no loss of quality. Unfortunately, it's not happening yet. The closest anyone has come to it is to adapt the Firewire standard, which is more often seen connecting bits of video kit together. Yamaha is rumoured to be working on Firewire-ready items there's a Firewire expansion promised for the CS6X, for instance. But no one else seems to be taking up the challenge; a shame, that. Time will tell whether the industry as a whole gets its act together, or misses the boat with this one.
Richard Wentk Future Music 04/00
Copyright Future Publishing 2001. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission from Future Publishing is prohibited Priva
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