Since the early eighties, MIDI has dominated the music industry. This standardized control method is now running on over a billion musical devices, in studios and bedrooms throughout the world. The reason for this is that MIDI hit so many sweet spots and works so well it feels like magic to the people who use it.
Prior to its inception in 1982, there was no standard method of communicating between synthesizer, drum machine, sequencer and sampler – so it revolutionized the way music was made, and continues unsurpassed to this day. What gives it such a dominant position is that it goes far beyond mere synchronization, to both control and extend the usefulness of each instrument and piece of equipment being used.
Developed in collaboration between Roland and Dave Smith Instruments, it’s now difficult to imagine making music without it, so let’s look why it’s been at the forefront of music making for so long.
Small Is Beautiful
MIDI songs are tiny and this was a huge factor in their adoption. Thirty years ago the 720 KB floppy disk was commonplace. It wouldn’t store a single iTunes file today, but it was possible to save hundreds of MIDI songs with thousands of notes on a single floppy disk! Every piece of MIDI information is transmitted and stored in hexadecimal code, making it incredibly efficient and compact — so much so, early mobile phones used MIDI for their ringtones.
Compare MIDI to a player piano roll. Those rolls encoded note and tempo information but rarely went beyond that. MIDI does far more than simply encoding note on / note off data — it allows for multiple notes to be played and recorded at once, each with its own particular velocity, enabling an astonishing 128 levels of depth per note. It has a vast octave range from the lowest bass to shrill highs, with pitch bends to smoothly transpose your sounds a specified number of semitones and mysterious polyphonic aftertouch to give even more sonic expansion.
MIDI clock delivers synchronized playback between any number of devices, keeping the time (or tempo) of a song very accurately – some still swear by using an Atari ST which was legendary for its tightness. This MIDI clock works in minute detail, allowing for subtle swing and tempo changes, as well as divisions and multiplications for more expressive poly rhythms.
MIDI messages are each sent with a channel assignment. Each of the 16 MIDI channels gives you control over all your devices through just one cable! When setting up your instruments, each device is assigned its own unique channel number. This lets you create a track with bass, lead, melody and drums separately, yet synchronized – providing control of each element in a track without interference.
The MIDI standard includes Control Change Messages. They enable detailed tweaks and alterations to the sound of a device and are fully automated and recorded within a track. Program changes deliver quick reconfiguration of a device, for instance switching from strings to bass to bassoon within milliseconds. This means you may dedicate one of your channels to one synth, but all voices and settings on that synth are available when needed, greatly extending the use of a single channel. This is ideal for both track sections and live performance.
When I sat down to think of the best things about MIDI, these are the five reasons that immediately came to mind. Yes they make MIDI magical, but there are so many more perfect little touches to explore! MIDI remains the flagship communications standard for our wonderful musical devices, and as the 40 year anniversary draws near nothing yet has ever rivaled its dominance. At this rate, perhaps it will take an intervention from a new multidimensional force to knock MIDI off the throne.