“Is MIDI dead?” The question seems to be echoed from forum to forum. MIDI was invented in the early 80s just after I got into music. Back then keyboards were primitive, the personal computer had just been invented, and 640K was enough RAM for anyone. MIDI was a solution that fit like a glove in that world. You might be surprised people are still using it today.
And yet it seems that MIDI is everywhere you look in music recording. We use it in ways that the original engineers never dreamed of or intended, and it looks like MIDI is here to stay. Even if you’re part of the “I don’t do MIDI sequencing – I’m a real musician” club, MIDI may still form a key part of your setup.
What makes MIDI so unique and useful?
1. MIDI lets different pieces of hardware and software work together
MIDI is the “musical instrument digital interface”. It was primarily designed to connect different pieces of hardware together. Back then you would use it to interconnect two or three keyboards and a drum machine with your Roland MC500 sequencer. It was a standard, so worked with all brand names, and seemed like magic.
MIDI is still used to connect hardware today, though you’re more likely to use a USB lead to connect your keyboard to your computer for reasons of speed and reduced latency. I still use MIDI leads to connect various digital instruments and sound modules to my controller keyboard.
And these days MIDI timing codes also allow different software programs to communicate together and work as one, allowing your recording software to start external hardware playing, as well as other software programs, for example a drum machine application. This is just one example of how the use of MIDI has been extended.
2. MIDI lets you play and record music using a wide variety of controllers
MIDI separates the sound from the instrument you are playing, allowing you to use a variety of controllers to make music. Weighted keyboards, unweighted keyboards, electronic percussion instruments, MIDI wind instruments and guitar controllers are all available. In addition, MIDI allows you to use external control surfaces with knobs and sliders to do your mixing with. The variety of controllers allow you many options for playing with different feeling and expression.
3. MIDI files are small
There was a shortage of memory and disk space when MIDI was created. The first IBM hard drives were only 5 MB, and space was at a premium. Recording audio wasn’t yet an option, either in terms of storage or processing power. In comparison, MIDI files were fast, tiny, and appropriate.
During the 90s I used MIDI extensively. My small 95 MHz Toshiba Libretto with only 16 MB of RAM was a perfect and portable MIDI sequencer. I took it with me everywhere, and sat it on top of the weighted MIDI keyboards I was playing. Despite the low specs of the computer, it never skipped a beat.
In these days of terabyte drives, the small size of a MIDI file seems like overkill, and it is certainly not as important as it once was. For many years MIDI music has been used on websites (unfortunately), game cartridges, and mobile phones, but even in these areas larger WAV and MP3 files are now acceptable. The small file size is refreshing rather than essential. While recording, source audio files can become huge, and anything that can keep the size down is welcome.
4. MIDI has been extended
One thing that has kept MIDI alive and relevant is that it keeps getting extended. In the early days of electronic keyboards, there was no standard patch mapping of instrument sounds. Sound 25 may have been piano on one keyboard, and pads on another. That made things difficult when you swapped things around – whether you sent your latest MIDI file to a friend with a different keyboard, or just replaced a keyboard or module in your rack with another. The lack of standardization often brought unexpected results.
In 1991, the MIDI standard was extended to become the General MIDI standard. The main change was to standardize 128 patches, so that the instruments on one keyboard would match those on another exactly. This made MIDI more useful – standard MIDI files could be swapped between users, and now many thousands (millions?) are available online.
In time General MIDI was extended to the GS and XG “standards” by Roland and Yamaha respectively, both of whom added additional instruments and effects to the standard.
5. MIDI sequencing
MIDI sequencing is not the same as recording sounds. A sequencer records which notes were played, how hard or fast they were hit, and how long they were held. It’s the modern equivalent of a pianola roll. To hear the music played, you need an instrument to play back what was recorded.
But even though it’s not really recording, it achieves essentially the same thing when it comes to electronic instruments, making it a good starting point for those getting into recording – especially those with old or low-spec computers. And MIDI’s extra flexibility makes it worth considering for many professional applications as well.
6. MIDI is flexible
MIDI sequencing is more flexible than recording in many ways. Here are three of them:
- With MIDI sequencing, you don’t have to decide on the sounds before you record. After you have recorded your piece, it is very simple to change the sound to something completely different.
- If the timing of your playing is a little sloppy, you can quantize a track or region so that it plays perfectly in time.
- If there are minor errors in your playing, or you change your mind about the timing or pitch of one note, you can make adjustments with your mouse without having to record the track again.
7. MIDI plays soundfonts
In the old days, to play back a MIDI sequence you had to connect your computer to a multi-timbral keyboard or sound module. These days all of that can be done using software. There are thousands of soundfonts containing rich instrumental or artificial sounds, some free, and others costing many thousands of dollars. There is a universe of virtual sounds waiting for you to explore.
8. MIDI makes notation easy
Finally, because a standard MIDI file contains the pitch and duration of each note, it is relatively easy for a software program to display this as standard music notation. Many sequencing and digital recording programs are capable of displaying music in this way, or you can use a dedicated notation application if you are serious about printing sheet music professionally.
Now it’s over to you. Is MIDI dead or alive in your studio? How do you use MIDI, and are you a fan?