MIDI turns 30


Many technologies give way to newer, more efficient ones in a (relatively) short amount of time. For example, gaming consoles have gone from 8-bit to 64-bit in less a decade. One has stayed largely untouched—the Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI. MIDI has turned 30 years old today, and remains the standard for communication for electronic instruments. MIDI went public in 1983, the year Windows 1.0 also came out, and is still used by every electronic musician today. MIDI has also directly influenced several music genres. One of the most prolific users of MIDI is Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James.

In the early days of the analog synthesizer, it was difficult for two electronic instruments to communicate with one another—you had to listen carefully for the beats to match up. One of the early solutions was the Control Voltage/Gate (CV/Gate) method, but one could only change two parameters of the sound: the pitch and duration. One MIDI link, by comparison, allowed communication with as many as 16 different devices. CV/Gate could only tell an instrument when to play which note for how long, whereas a MIDI event message can do much more: it could also specify the individual velocities, amplitudes, channel dominance, and much more for at least 24 notes at the same time.

The idea of MIDI first surfaced in 1975, when Jim Scott and Bob Moog created a universal synthesizer control system, the Micromoog. To keep their goal reasonable, the duo focused their energies on making sure the Micromoog could interface with only the products in their manufacturing line before they branched out. This Moog Instrument Digital Interface was dubbed the “open system” almost a decade before the term “open source” came into use. “An ‘open system’ can communicate between the Micromoog and external devices such as other synthesizers and accessories. An electronic musical instrument doesn’t make sounds: it makes electrical signals. We can’t hear electrical signals so we connect the instrument to an amplifier and speaker to translate signals into sounds. When you connect your Micromoog to an amp, you are ‘interfacing systems.’ With [most] instruments, after the audio connection is made, further possibilities of interfacing are very limited: dealing with only the audio signal,” Moog said.

However, the work didn’t just stop with Scott and Moog—it took the efforts of two engineers at Sequential Circuits, Dave Smith and Chet Wood, for instruments from different manufacturers to finally be able communicate with one another. They created the Universal Synthesizer Interface (USI), and nearly every major manufacturer jumped on the bandwagon to help create MIDI in 1983.

MIDI first appeared on the Sequential Circuits Prophet-600, and MIDI to become standard on practically every electronic instrument, from keyboards to guitars to drum kits and more. MIDI was also royalty-free, which was unprecedented in both the musical instrument industry and music as a whole. No other musical tool has been so widely implemented among instruments and across so many genres.

MIDI was also ideal for novice and beginner musicians: those with little to no knowledge musical notation can construct and play back elaborate arrangements that one would think would come from a more experienced one. In addition, experienced musicians who want to make complex orchestrations could also use MIDI to streamline the process.

Source: The Verge