By Dan Kopf, Quartz Daily Brief | A lot of big things happened in music in 1983. It was the year Michael Jackson’s album Thriller hit number one across the world, compact discs were first released in the US, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers formed. Yet there was one obscure event that was more influential than all of them: MIDI 1.0 was released. MIDI stands for “Musical Instrument Digital Interface” and, after 37 years, it has finally received a major update. MIDI 2.0 is live, and it could mean the end of the keyboard’s dominance over popular music.
Whether you know it or not, MIDI has changed your music listening life. MIDI is the protocol by which digitized information is converted into audio. When a musician plays into a MIDI-enabled device, like a synthesizer or drum machine, MIDI is used to digitize the different elements of the music, like the note and the power with which it was played (a softly plucked C, for example, or a full-on fortissimo F-sharp). This allows music producers and technicians to adjust aspects of the music later on. For example, they might choose to change the pitch of certain notes or even switch the sound from a keyboard to a trumpet or guitar. Basically, it is what musicians use to program music. Ikutaro Kakehashi and Dave Smith, the leaders in creating MIDI in the early 1980s, rightfully won a Technical Grammy for their work in 2013.
The digitalization of music existed before MIDI, but creating a universal standard was a hugely important step, according to the composer Adam Neely. Instruments and computers made by different companies could easily communicate with each other using this agreed to protocol, simplifying the creative process and giving musicians choice of what instruments to use. If you want to use a Roland or Yamaha keyboard, or an Apple or Microsoft computer, MIDI can work with all of them.
“[MIDI] is now at the core of music making in the entire music industry, with the possible exception of classical music and acoustic based music which doesn’t interface with computers,” says Neely. Most people don’t directly use MIDI though, Neely explains, but work with it through a digital audio workstation like Ableton Live or Pro Tools.
Though MIDI has done an exceptional job of digitizing music for the last 37 years, it hasn’t been perfect. MIDI quantizes music, meaning it forces music components into a particular value. In MIDI 1.0, all data was in 7-bit values. That means musical qualities were quantized on a scale of 0 to 127. Features like volume, pitch, and how much of the sound should come out of the right or left speaker are all measured on this scale, with 128 possible points. This is not a lot of resolution. For some really sophisticated listeners, they can clearly hear the steps between points.
A world of possibilities
In his influential 2012 book How Music Works, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne notes that keyboards have become the central instrument in music composition because they translate well to MIDI. MIDI’s low level of resolution made it better suited to modeling Western music and music played instruments with discrete tones, like keyboards. Music which relies on notes outside of standard Western music, and music played on string instruments are not as well represented. Neely says that is particularly difficult to capture the sounds of Indian and Turkish music. For sophisticated MIDI users, these issues could be addressed, but they were challenging, and not all artists have the time or desire to get into the technical minutiae of programming MIDI.
These may now be issues of the past. In early January 2020, the MIDI Manufacturers Association, the nonprofit organization that manages MIDI, announced the release of MIDI 2.0. The new protocol involved years of work from the organization’s volunteers, and getting companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and all of the major music manufacturers on board.
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Thanks to http://getPocket.com for sending this article on…