In praise of MIDI, technology’s hidden gift to mankind • The Register

opinion Unless you’re a musician, you might never think of MIDI, the musical instrument digital interface standard that connects keyboards and other electronic noise boxes. Firefox added the super niche Web MIDI API in its latest version. It’s one of those “uh, ok” decisions that gets weirder the longer you look at it – but then again, MIDI is very different from other technology standards.

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

Since the mid-1980s, when you press a key, turn a knob, or strum a chord on any synthesizer, MIDI sends the facts down a wire for everything else to hear and respond to. It’s electrically isolated so noise isn’t coupled across the line, and it understands daisy-chaining. There is a file format for data extracts and a standard electrical connection.

Even in the early 80’s you could build an interface from a handful of cheap off-the-shelf parts – as your correspondent did with his ZX Spectrum in 1984 and both a Appeared on the BBC in an orange boiler suit.

The first thing to note is that this has been the case since the first version was released in 1982. There is no MIDI 1.1, although it has been encapsulated on USB and different manufacturers have played around with different connectors, the original is still very common. The standard is 40 years old and good for another 40, so it’s perfect for the job. And if that were the whole story, it would be remarkable enough.

MIDI was developed by a small group of American and Japanese synthesizer manufacturers. Before that, you could link synthesizers, drum machines, and sequences together, but only through analog voltages and impulses. Making, recording and most importantly touring electronic music was messy, driving and time consuming. MIDI made all of this plug-and-play and, in particular, allowed $500 PCs to fill many of the roles of $500-a-day recording studios. You could feed each line of a score into a sequencing program, edit it, copy it, loop it, and send it out with other lines.

Home taping never killed music, but home MIDI democratized it. Big beat, rave, house, IDM, jungle, if you’ve been shaking your booty to a big, shiny beat for the last forty years, MIDI has brought the funk.

It had a similar impact on all genres of music, including film and gaming music and contemporary classical. Composers of all of the above rely on digital audio workstations that assemble multiple tracks of synthesized and sampled music, virtual orchestras, all defined by MIDI sequences. If you want people to sing it or play it on instruments made of wood, brass, strings and skins, send the MIDI file to a scoring program and print it out for the Wetware API. Or send it to E Ink displays, MIDI doesn’t care.

Now it doesn’t matter what genre it is, MIDI is the Ethernet of music culture, its bridge to the digital.

p>Nothing that works so well stays locked in. MIDI was never just about transmitting musical events, but its role as a general-purpose control system has expanded since its inception. At the same time that the microprocessor made digital synthesizers possible, it brought automation to studio mixers and multitrack tape decks. They needed remote control for their sliders, switches, and transport mechanisms, and MIDI fitted that perfectly.

On stage, too, lighting, effects, and props had to be synchronized with commands and events. MIDIs become part of it with the MIDI Show Control standard alongside the Midi Machine Control standard for more general use.

The result is that when you want to add some form of control to a digital system, MIDI may be your best bet. You can buy MIDI DJ controller decks for under a hundred dollars, ostensibly to replicate vinyl scratching, crossfades, and effects control live.

To other eyes they look like a lot of knobs, sliders and switches with a standard interface at a very low cost. For those building robots, control systems, software-defined radios, and the like, these can be the fastest, cheapest, most flexible, and most reliable way to add full optimizations. MIDI doesn’t encode musical events, it encodes human events.

From Christian H. Ellmaier via SXC and Specify AND notify author for publication. Obtained via SXC:

Happy Birthday MIDI 1.0: Rhythm slave


Musical instruments have evolved to be perfectly suited as control surfaces for our physical selves, with the precision and range of expression we can make with our bodies perfectly matched to how the instruments reflect our intention. By its very nature, MIDI captures and digitizes exactly that, making it one of the simplest yet most humane protocols we’ve ever invented. It extends our body without fuss, almost invisibly, deep into the digital.

That’s why Firefox decided to bring a 1982 standard into a 2022 browser, recognizing that MIDI has every right to bring its unique and still growing magic to the cloud for the next stage in its life story. Design, control, performance, automation – there is now a clear path for web services to become much more human-friendly.

Or you just use it to make music. ® In praise of MIDI, technology’s hidden gift to mankind • The Register

Rick Schindler

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