MIDI: 1980s Computer Music Language Lives On

For those new to creating music on a computer, MIDI can be a bit tricky to understand but is an essential tool for interfacing electronic musical instruments such as synthesizers, drum machines and samplers with hardware or software sequencers.

Traditional MIDI Implementation

MIDI is an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It has been the industry standard communications protocol for electronic musical instruments and devices since its introduction in 1982. Essentially, MIDI allows different pieces of electronic musical equipment and/or software to synchronize and “talk” to each other in order for the user to compose, record and play back music in real-time.

A traditional MIDI setup in the 1980s consisted of a piano-style MIDI controller keyboard, a programmable sequencer (usually incorporated into a synthesizer) and several electronic musical instruments (such as synthesizers and samplers) all connected by standard 5-pin DIN connectors.

This setup would allow the user to record individual performances of the different instruments into the sequencer via the MIDI controller keyboard. Once in the sequencer, it is possible to assemble the various layers into a coherent piece of music – treating the sequencer much like an eight or sixteen track tape recorder.

The big difference in this analogy is that only musically important performance information, not the actually audio from the performance, is captured by a sequencer. This information is stored as a MIDI file and because there is no actual sound recorded, MIDI files are tiny in comparison to a .wav file or even a compressed .mp3.

Evolution of MIDI

Modern technology has progressed to the point where most people use their personal computers and digital audio workstation software (such as Cubase or Pro Tools) to sequence music. Furthermore, it is increasingly more common to use software samplers and synthesizers know as “softsynths” instead of their hardware counterparts.

But MIDI is still at the heart of these new DAWs – communicating with and synchronizing both the real and virtual instruments as well as the various other innovative MIDI devices that have been introduced over the last 25 years.

The MIDI Revival

Surprisingly, MIDI has experienced a resurgence in recent years. Memory-starved devices such as video games and cell phones are embracing the simplicity of MIDI once again. For example, some modern day video game manufacturers are re-incorporating MIDI into their consoles to streamline memory usage. This is accomplished by using MIDI to trigger many different sequences of lush audio samples thus eschewing the need to store the much larger, full-length possibilities in memory.

This rebirth reinforces the fact that, unlike many types of older software, MIDI has dodged obsolescence. It has gone through some minor revisions but has remained relatively unchanged since its inception. All the while remaining the industry standard protocol for interfacing electronic musical instruments.

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