MIDI: The Mystery Behind the Music

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

Although I’ve used digital instruments for more than half of the twenty-nine years that I’ve played church music, most who hear what I play have no idea what takes place “behind-the-scenes” to bring the digital creations to life. In my home studio, MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) is like electricity – necessary – but I never stop to think it’s even there.

Let me give you some examples. My Yamaha S90, an 88-key, weighted action synthesizer, is connected to my computer via USB. They communicate thanks to MIDI. Using MIDI and the sound librarian software that shipped with the synthesizer, I can re-sort the “user” sounds on the keyboard, tweak and replace them with other sounds from the sound library stored on my computer.

Further, I can load “pre-sequenced” orchestration (MIDI data from motifator.com) that contains pre-recorded drumbeats, riffs and runs, onto a memory card. I insert the memory card into the back of the S90, and then play-along live with the accompaniment. In addition, I can use the keyboard as a master to control other keyboards simultaneously and I can play sounds from other tone modules by chaining the MIDI instruments together. MIDI captures every nuance of what’s placed, in command data form, not digital audio.

For years, I’ve enjoyed watching choir members nudge their neighbors and ask, “What’s that thing he’s playing?” They’re talking about my Yamaha WX-5 MIDI Wind Controller, a clarinet-looking contraption (with flute or sax fingering) that makes no sound on its own but sends MIDI commands to my keyboard or to a tone module. I believe the Wind Controller is the most mind-boggling piece of MIDI equipment I own because it perfectly assists in replicating acoustic horn sounds. It takes into account the exact way I blow, maintain my embouchure (mouth and lips) and articulate with my tongue and converts the physical information and sensitivity into MIDI. A Yamaha headset device that plugs into the back of many of its keyboards does a similar thing, except the notes are played on the keyboard, not a separate controller.

Most synthesizers are MIDI capable, but they vary in what level a user is able take advantage of the technology. For example, with Yamaha’s Motif workstation, sampled (digital audio) sounds can be linked to a note /key on the keyboard and triggered by pressing that note at a particular time to perform a seemingly impossible riff or run.

I can open a MIDI file in Sibelius, my notation software, and correct wrong notes, cut and paste verses and choruses and print sheet music. So there you have it: a sneak peak into my MIDI studio and what I do often. So how do you get MIDI going at your place?

For the record, although MIDI is powerful, it needn’t be scary. It’s simply a way that digital instruments communicate. It doesn’t demand very much of your computer. Ever older machines, like 486s, can process MIDI just fine, although they will not be able to handle some of the newer MIDI and audio software. Hard drive space is not an issue. When MIDI files are recorded – sequenced – all that is being recorded are digital commands: “play this note, this loud, and hold it for this long”. Even the longest songs consume very little hard drive space. MIDI also works well with a minimum amount of RAM.

You’ve probably unknowingly used MIDI on your computer. All computers today can play MIDI files using either an on-board tone module that’s part of the soundcard or with “virtual synth” software, such as the case with Macs. As for equipment, if you have a computer and soundcard, you already have two thirds of what it takes to begin a nice MIDI music factory in your home or office.

The tie that binds
Yamaha has been a leader in the MIDI field. They were the first to introduce mLan, the ability to transmit both MIDI and digital audio between a computer and synthesizer workstation or keyboard using Firewire (IEEE). That power can be tapped with an optional keyboard plug-in card. If your computer does not have USB, you can make the MIDI connection through your joystick port using a square-ended cable (on the computer side) that “Y’s” out to MIDI “IN” and “OUT” connections on the synthesizer.

Listen, this is key! MIDI via USB is as easy as connecting any other USB component, but with MIDI cables, you have to make sure the cables are connected with the cable end marked “OUT” going into the “IN” port and the cable end marked “IN” going in the “OUT” port. The signals go “OUT” of your computer “IN” to your keyboard and “OUT” of your keyboard “IN” to your computer. If you match the cable end marked “OUT” to the “OUT” port on the synthesizer, MIDI will not work.

Driving Miss MIDI
When your computer soundcard was installed, most likely MIDI drivers for that sound card were installed too. Other MIDI interfaces, such as those made by Midiman, require their own drivers that are usually shipped with the equipment or can be downloaded. Once they’re installed, you’ll need to select “IN” and “OUT” drivers in the setup window in each MIDI software application that you use. In the MIDI driver setup window, you’ll usually see two panes listing drivers: “IN” to receive incoming signals and “OUT” to ship signals to your keyboard. Click on the driver in the list for the interface you plan to use, press “OK” or “Save”.

Keys to your keyboard
Just remember, once your software is installed and the drivers are selected, you’ll need to put your synthesizer in the mode that allows it to receive MIDI signals for multiple sounds, often called the sequencer or “SEQ” mode. If the MIDI file you’re playing is General MIDI (GM) and your synthesizer is a GM keyboard, the intended instruments will be played. (General MIDI means that all the GM sounds are in the same positions on all synthesizers or tone modules marked “GM”.) If something sound awry, it probably means you’re not in the sequencer mode and the MIDI signal for a particular instrument is hitting the wrong sound on your keyboard. If that happens, you can make the “patch” change in your music software. What’s a patch?

You can call me
Be warned that different keyboard makers and software manufacturers use different titles for the sounds they produce: patches, sounds, sound patches, programs, timbres, voices and instruments can all mean the same thing. A “bank” is two or more patches or sounds on your synthesizer. Multi-timbral synthesizers can play up to 16 parts simultaneously (strings, guitar, piano, bass and so on) because MIDI has 16 channels that it can use to send and receive commands.

A sequence is nothing more than recorded MIDI commands. Synthesizer workstations have on-board sequencers and you can record sequences onto multiple tracks. Once your MIDI tracks are done the way you want them, you can play and capture the sound they produce as digital audio to create your own CDs.

One of the most popular features of the Motif workstation is re-sampling, or the ability to turn MIDI into digital audio tracks simultaneously, without having to play it on the synthesizer and record it on the computer or external recording device. The playing and digital audio recording is done completely within the synthesizer workstation.

There you have it: computer, soundcard, cable, driver, synthesizer and you – the links in the MIDI chain and practical ways mentioned throughout to muster MIDI power in your studio. Think it through and you’ll be mastering MIDI in no time!