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My first taste of MIDI: A revolution in the winds

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

My first taste of MIDI: A revolution in the winds 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1988, The Syracuse Newspapers

Sound lovers of today are hardly different from those of 50 years ago. The discs are different, with 12-inch LPs more likely to be the mainstay of a collection than 10-inch 78s. Of course, many audiophiles are building up libraries of compact discs as well.

But we're still saving and cataloging and listening to objects that play music when they spin. It will not remain that way for long. For many of us, the last decade of the 20th Century will mark the beginning of a transition from physical music storage to data storage; by the thousands at first and then, later, by the tens of thousands, we will abandon our shelves and attics of records and switch to our music databases.

Our vinyl will be codified and served up in byte-sized pieces by the miniature computers in all our music machines, with each recording on the old physical format transferred by laser phonograph into computer data much more forgiving than today's digital audio system. Every selection on every recording in our collections will be instantly selectable from a keyboard.

But that is only the simplest thing such a computerized music database can be made to do. Sounds will be malleable. Software will be able to reshape timbres, turn nylon into catgut.

If you find this impossible to believe, you are right: it is impossible to believe. But it is not impossible to predict, particularly if you are able to preview the coming generation of computerized music storage and retrieval devices through the use of a current system known as MIDI. This Musical Instrument Digital Interface system allows a composer, performer or listener to control all aspects of electronic music-making from a personal computer.

MIDI devices and the computer programs that work with them have become popular in the world of electronic music, but not many others know about them. This could change in the next few months if a book by Steven Bigelow reaches a sufficient number of computer outsiders. It's called "Making Music with Personal Computers" (Park Row Press, La Jolla, California, ISBN number 0-935749-21-7).

Bigelow, who writes in a simple and clear, yet literate style, makes no assumptions about the reader's familiarity with computers; he begins at the beginning and holds his subject firmly until he reaches the end. You could not find a better guided tour of MIDI-land.

"MIDI," Bigelow explains, "lets you play two or more instruments from a single keyboard. When you press middle C on the master keyboard, the same note is played on the other instruments; MIDI provides a standard musical code that all devices can understand. . . . In its more sophisticated usage, MIDI allows a personal computer to control (i.e., play, sequence) an unlimited number of instruments as well as multi-track and video recorders, audio mixers and lighting. This is possible because MIDI sequences can be stored on disc and understood by the microprocessors found in all MIDI-equipped instruments and devices. MIDI essentially allows music to be translated into computer programs and vice-versa."

Because MIDI is a link between computer software and music, it is a bridge to the future of music listening in the home. Already, libraries of MIDI music are being stored in computer databases.

I have heard a about a dozen MIDI "recordings" through an associate whose computer is equipped with MIDI connections and who keeps it permanently attached to a keyboard synthesizer.

Although two of my computers have MIDI interfaces, I do not have regular access to a synthesizer or any other device to make use of the MIDI connections, so I have had to rely on my associate's willingness to transfer MIDI-based music onto audio cassettes that I could then play on my sound system. Many of them have been impressive; like any other medium, MIDI can produce good or bad results, depending on the talent of the composer and the quality of the electronic equipment used.

Some of the MIDI recordings I have heard have been amazing, and I play them now and then as a reminder of the direction music music will take in the next decades.

A visit to a computer store that specializes in MIDI could be an education for anyone who is still uncertain about the direction of recorded music. And a Saturday afternoon spent with Steven Bigelow's book could help fill the information gap that all of us are facing in the rapidly growing world of electronic music storage.

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