In praise of MIDI, technology’s hidden gift to humanity

Opinion If you’re not a musician, you might never have considered MIDI, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface standard that connects keyboards and other electronic noise boxes. Firefox has added a super specialized Web MIDI API in its latest version. This is one of those “uh, okay” decisions that gets weirder the longer you look at it – but then MIDI is very different from other technical standards.

At first glance, it doesn’t look like much – basically a fixed-format serial link at 31,250 bits per second that encodes musical events. Middle C key down. Volume 43. Change the pitch.

Basically, if you hit a button, wiggle a knob or hit a chord on any synthesizer since the mid-1980s, MIDI would send facts over a cable so you would hear and act upon everything else. It’s electrically insulated, so you don’t get coupled noise down the line, and it understands cascading. There is a data dump file format and a standard electrical connector.

Even in the early 1980s, you could build a front out of a few cheap standard parts—as your reporter did in 1984 with the ZX Spectrum, earning both Appearing on the BBC in the orange boiler suit.

The first thing that is remarkable is that this has been true since 1982 saw the release of the first version. No MIDI 1.1, although it was packaged on USB and many manufacturers tinkered with different connectors, the original is still very popular. The standard is 40 and good for another 40, just right for the job. And if that was the whole story, it would be cool enough.

MIDI was created by a small group of American and Japanese synthesizer makers. Before then, you could string synthesizers, drum machines, and sequencers together, but only with analog voltages and pulses. Making, recording, and touring electronic music in particular was messy, cumbersome, and time-consuming. MIDI made it all plug and play, and in particular allowed $500 personal computers to take over many of the roles of today’s $500 recording studios; You can run each line of the score in the sequencer, edit it, copy it, wrap it, and send it back with other lines.

Home recording didn’t kill the music, but MIDI democratized it. Big Beat Rave House IDM Jungle If you rocked your booty with a shiny big beat at any time in the past 40 years, MIDI brought the funk.

It has had a similar influence in every musical genre, including film and game music, and contemporary classical music. Composers of all of the above rely on digital audio workstations, which orchestrate multiple tracks of synthesized and mixed music, and a virtual orchestra all defined by MIDI sequences. If you want it to be sung by humans or played on instruments made of wood, brass, strings, and leather, send the MIDI file to a recording program and print it for the API. Or send it to e-ink screens, MIDI doesn’t care.

Right now it doesn’t matter much what genre you’re thinking of, MIDI is the ethernet of musical culture, and its bridge to digital.

Nothing that works well stays stuck. MIDI has not only carried musical events, but its role as a general-purpose control system has expanded since its inception. At the same time that the microprocessor was making digital synthesizers possible, it was bringing automation to studio mixing desks and multitrack tape decks. They needed a remote control for their sliders, keys, and transmission mechanisms, and MIDI fitted the bill perfectly.

Likewise, on stage, lighting, effects, and props must be in sync with commands and events. MIDI became part of that with the MIDI Display Control standard, along with the general-use Midi Instrument Control standard.

The bottom line is that if you want to add any form of control to a digital system, MIDI may be the best option. You can pick up MIDI DJ controller kits for under a hundred dollars, ostensibly for vinyl scratch replication, cross-fading, and direct effects control.

To other eyes, it looks like a lot of knobs, sliders, and switches with a standard interface at a very low cost, so for those who make robots, control systems, software-defined radios, and the like, this can be a faster, cheaper, more flexible, and more reliable way to add full customization. MIDI does not encode musical events, it encodes human events.

By Christian H. Ellmaier via SXC and Author must be credited and notified for publication.  Obtained via SXC:

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Musical instruments have evolved to perfectly fit the control surfaces of our physical selves, and the precision and range of expression we can create with our bodies is perfectly matched by the way instruments reflect our intent. By design, MIDI captures it and digitizes it precisely, making it one of the simplest human protocols we’ve ever invented. It extends our bodies deep into the digital world without fanfare, almost invisibly.

That’s why Firefox has chosen to incorporate a standard from 1982 into its 2022 browser, recognizing that MIDI has every right to inject its unique, still-expanding magic into the cloud for the next phase of its life story. Design, Control, Performance and Automation – There is now a clear path for web services to become more human.

Or you just use it to compose music. ®

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