Midi Basics, Capabilities and Misconceptions

Last Update: 07/23/2011

The purpose of this essay is to illuminate the capabilities and limitations inherent in MIDI or the Musical Instrument Digital Interface The first step is to quantify what MIDI  is.  MIDI is a universal control and communication system shared by two or more musical devices that can interact with each other. The fact that it is a universal system means that in theory all MIDI devices by the multitude of musical instrument manufacutrers can all communicate with each other by virtue of the fact that they speak the same language. The reality is that MIDI can be implemented in a variety of ways and degrees .Different manufacutrers’ MIDI gear frequently has far from universal compatibility.  In the back of device manuals is a section called the MIDI Implementation Chart which describes the MIDI capabilities of the particular device.

What MIDI can do is primarily is in the realm of electronic music tone generation and music composition.  MIDI recorders may be PC or hardware based music recorders or sequencers. This process includes synchronization of device performance and storage of compositions by a variety of file types. MIDI can also provide a control system by which mechanical devices can control software applications that require incremental adjustments such as fader control.

The one big thing that MIDI cannot do, however, is transmit digital or analog audio signals. The misconception here is due to the fact that in response to MIDI commands, hardware or software tone generators do generate audio through their audio outputs not through MIDI. These sounds give the illusion that the audio appears to have its genesis in a MIDI based PC program or MIDI keyboard. In reality the Tone Generator is just responding to commands that control its activity, and is playing out a preset sound through its audio output.

A list of what is possible through MIDI:

1) Software can be manipulated by mechanical devices and other software that transmits midi commands. The software will often have a MIDI map, configuration table or instrument definition file to index a specific incoming MIDI command to a specific response by the software.

2) Hardware can be manipulated by software and other hardware that transmits MIDI The hardware will often have a MIDI map, configuration table or instrument definition file to index a specific incoming MIDI command to a specific response by the hardware. In the hardware's utility menus there will often be MIDI setup menu's that must be configured for correct MIDI comunication.

3) What is necessary for successful communication, is the ability for both receiving and transmitting devices to use the same specific commands or MIDI protocol  for the same job.

4) Large amounts of MIDI data can be communicated or stored via bulk dumps in a device specific format. Compositions can be stored in real time and played back via transmission from a MIDI controller, sending specific commands. or a recorded MIDI track playing back the note and control commands.

5) In addition to the standard MIDI hardwired 5 pin DIN cable, MIDI can be transmitted via USB or Firewire.

6) MIDI can provide device synchronization through several clock types including MIDI Clock and MIDI TimeCode. These formats can be tied to BPM tempo and SMPTE frame rate. Transport control is achieved through MMC or MIDI Machine Control .

What MIDI cannot do:

1) MIDI cannot transmit audio of any kind.This includes  samples ,.wav, ,.aiff , mp3 or any other audio file types.  Midi cannot bulk dump audio.

2) MIDI will not force any device to perform  operations  correctly that the receiving device  is not designed or pre configured to perform.The incoming midi may elict a random response that is incorrect if the recieving device is not compatible or setup.

3) MIDI cannot transmit VGA, video  or computer monitor data.

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