In praise of MIDI, tech's hidden gift to humanity
One version to bind them all, and in the darkness rock them
Opinion If you're not a musician, you may never think of MIDI, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface standard that links up keyboards and other electronic noise boxes. Firefox has, adding the super-niche Web MIDI API in its latest version. That's one of those "uh, OK" decisions which gets weirder the longer you look at it – but then, MIDI is utterly unlike other tech standards.
At first glance, it doesn't look much – basically a fixed-format serial link at 31,250 bits per second which encodes musical events. Middle C key down. Volume 43. Pitch change.
Basically, if you press a button, twiddle a knob or strike a chord on any synthesizer since the mid 1980s, MIDI will send the facts down a cable for anything else to hear and act on. It's electrically isolated, so you don't get noise coupled down the line, and it understands daisy-chaining. There's a file format for data dumps, and a standard electrical connector.
Even in the early '80s, you could build an interface out of a handful of standard, cheap parts – as your correspondent did in 1984 with his ZX Spectrum, earning both of them an appearance on the BBC in an orange boiler suit.
#OnThisDay 1984: Tomorrow's World had instruments that sounded exactly like different instruments, thanks to the magic of microprocessors. pic.twitter.com/wbhm14WakD— BBC Archive (@BBCArchive) January 26, 2020
The first remarkable thing is that this has been true since 1982 saw the first version released. There’s no MIDI 1.1, although it’s been encapsulated on USB and various manufacturers have messed around with different connectors, the original is still very common. The standard is 40 years old and good for another 40, it’s so perfectly suited to the task. And if that was the whole story, it’d be remarkable enough.
MIDI was created by a small group of American and Japanese synthesiser makers. Before it, you could hook synths, drum machines and sequences together, but only through analogue voltages and pulses. Making, recording and especially touring electronic music was messy, drifty and time-consuming. MIDI made all that plug-and-play, and in particular let $500 personal computers take on many of the roles of $500/day recording studios; you could play each line of a score into a sequencer program, edit it, copy it, loop it, and send it back out with other lines.
Home taping never killed music, but home MIDI democratised it. Big beat, rave, house, IDM, jungle, if you’ve shaken your booty to a big shiny beat any time in the last forty years, MIDI brought the funk.
It’s had a similar impact in every musical genre, including film and gaming music, and contemporary classical. Composers of all of the above depend on digital audio workstations, which marshall multiple tracks of synthesised and sampled music, virtual orchestras all defined by MIDI sequences. If you want humans to sing it or play it on instruments made of wood, brass, string and skins, send the MIDI file to a scoring program and print it out for the wetware API. Or send it out to e-ink displays, MIDI doesn't care.
By now, it doesn’t much matter what genre you consider, MIDI is the ethernet of musical culture, its bridge into the digital.
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Nothing that works this well stays cooped up. MIDI never did just carry musical events, but its role as a general purpose control system has expanded since its inception. At the same time as the microprocessor was making digital synthesisers possible, it was bringing automation to studio mixing desks and multitrack tape decks. They needed remote control for their sliders, switches, and transport mechanisms, and MIDI fitted the bill perfectly.
Likewise on stage, lighting, effects and props needed to be synched to commands and events. MIDI’s become part of that with the MIDI Show Control Standard, alongside the Midi Machine Control standard for more general use.
The upshot is that if you want to add any form of control to a digital system, MIDI may be the best choice. You can pick up MIDI DJ controller decks for under a hundred dollars, ostensibly to replicate vinyl scratching, cross-fading 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, so 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 tweakage. MIDI doesn't encode music events, it encodes human events.
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Musical instruments evolved to be perfectly suited as control surfaces for our physical selves, the precision and range of expression we can make with our bodies perfectly matched to the way the instruments reflect our intent. By design, MIDI captures and digitises precisely that, making it one of the simplest yet most human protocols we’ve ever invented. It extends our bodies deep into the digital without fuss, almost invisibly.
That’s why Firefox has chosen to incorporate a standard from 1982 into a 2022 browser, recognising that MIDI has every right to bring its unique and still-expanding enabling magic into the cloud for the next stage of its life story. Design, control, performance, automation - there’s now a clear path for web services to become much more human-compatible.
Or you just use it to make music. ®