Once in a while I’ll be talking to someone and they mention, “do you know I needed a MIDI cable the other day; do you remember those?” As a recovering MIDI fiend, it is nice not fighting with some MIDI setting each time I turn on the computer to work on music. I can’t blame it all on MIDI, but countless times I would beg my wife’s pardon for the night as I needed to work on something musically. Three hours later I would emerge frustrated and looking for the nearest dog to kick.
Some of that frustration at not getting anything done could be laid at the feet of SCSI, parallel ports, IRQ conflicts or something gone wrong in OMF. If you went “verily, my good man” to any of these items you are either from Victorian England or you identify with those past frustrations – or both. Still, MIDI was the bane of many a musician’s life for a solid two decades or better.
I should state, though, MIDI is not dead – it’s just become more invisible. With the advent of MIDI interfaces and keyboards that connect to the computer via USB, coupled with Virtual Instruments (VIs), much of the MIDI world has been simplified. Gone are the days of scrolling through your drum machine’s menus for terms like “Local On/ Local Off” or “TX Channel” and “RX Channel.” Most of the frustration from before was just getting all of these devices to talk nicely to one another.
What it (is) was
MIDI simply means “Musical Instrument Digital Interface.” It is a really simplistic language shared by many digital instruments, devices and software. Contrary to popular belief, MIDI doesn’t have a “sound.” Even when someone would follow up with, “I know, I know, it’s just a way these things talk” that was usually preceded with the phrase “I just hate the sound of that MIDI stuff.” In the 80’s and 90’s (I speak of the twentieth century now) MIDI was the realm of musician geeks. Even a cool keyboardist wouldn’t admit to knowing MIDI very well. Then again, I wouldn’t call Herbie Hancock a geek and that man was using Apple & Atari computers for his rig back in the early 80s. But, on the whole, MIDI was a dirty word to rock gods and wannabe rock gods. There was an “us and them” mentality of rock bands against synth bands. Truth be told, though, I made good money in retail selling MIDI gear to bands like Bob Seegar’s and it doesn’t get more crusty rock and roll than that.
For die-hard synth and hardware gear enthusiasts, there is still a need of a good MIDI cable. Bless them, for they are the keepers of the flame. The cable is a “5-pin din” cable. If you want to impress all of your friends with arcane gear knowledge, tell them that only three of the pins transmit information. The outer two pins serve no purpose. However, some crafty engineers made use for these pins from time to time. There were some devices (like a floorboard to a rack mount guitar processor) that were powered by those two pins from a phantom power coming from the main device. Nifty, eh? We take stuff like that for granted now, too, because USB and Firewire will power much of our outboard gear and send/receive information.
“0 to 127” sums up what MIDI says to and fro devices. If I hit a note on a keyboard, that note sends a fixed value between 0 and 127. When you hit the note, it sends a number between 0 and 127 to tell the receiver (software or hardware getting the MIDI message) just how quickly you pressed the key – the “note velocity.” If I want to record some automation later for my superb notes I just played (and to be honest, I usually play superbly), I will be sending volume information between 0 and 127. And, it will be sent on controller #7. The first bit of information coming down the pike will be, “hey jerky, here comes volume information”, because it was told CC7 = 53. “No, wait, 54. Shoot, now he wants 55.” And so on. Guess how many controllers there are that you can send volume, pan, frequency cut-off (etc) on? Seriously, you don’t know? 128, dummy. There are controller numbers 0 to 127 to send different information on. Guess how many channels MIDI talks on? Wrong – it’s 16. Believe me, at the time MIDI was first sussed out as a protocol back 1982, it probably seemed ample. Besides, your poor synths had as much dsp power as your coffee maker does today. The only thing I feel lacking from MIDI (as much as some would complain about how rudimentary it is) is (as we already learned) that it can send 128 notes numbers. Sadly, the MI industry has yet to deliver on the 128-note keyboard.
What it is now
Now MIDI is very invisible to most users. We see the term in our DAW when it is time to move notes around (especially when you can’t really play superbly – like me) – we open the “MIDI Editor.” We see the term when we go to buy a “MIDI Controller” to replace the 25-key one we’ve had since 1999. More times than not, however, we use virtual instruments. We sort through menus in the recording software to dial up “Upright Piano” or “Fluffy Bunny Dreamy Pad” and bang out some notes – done. Next!
Hidden in the background of much of what we do, is still using MIDI. The controllers aimed at launching samples and loops in Ableton’s Live, for instance, are sending out MIDI info to do so. When you are working with Serato’s scratch with your latest “DJ controller” – you are sending out MIDI data. Finally, more and more, keyboard controllers are coming out with presets for controlling a DAW. We get presets for Cubase, Nuendo, Logic (etc…) that will control the transport, pan information, the volume faders and can even control sends. All of this magic is happening through the 28 year-old protocol brought to you by a wonderful genius named Dave Smith.
And they say technology changes too fast.
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~The Unique Geek