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Richard Caceres (M)
Los Angeles, US
Immortal since Jan 19, 2007
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    MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface)
    Project: Proposal for a multimedia playground
    MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface, IPA: /ˈmɪdi/) is an industry-standard protocol that enables electronic musical instruments, computers, and other equipment to communicate, control, and synchronize with each other. MIDI allows computers, synthesizers, MIDI controllers, sound cards, samplers and drum machines to control one another, and to exchange system data.

    MIDI does not transmit an audio signal or media — it transmits digital data "event messages" such as the pitch and intensity of musical notes to play, control signals for parameters such as volume, vibrato and panning, cues, and clock signals to set the tempo. As an electronic protocol, it is notable for its widespread adoption throughout the industry, and for continuing in use since its introduction in 1983 (Musical Instrument Digital Interface).


    Most people know MIDI as the cheesy sounding music files that were popular in the early days of computers and the internet. Imagine a midi version of Christina Auguilera's "Genie In A Bottle" that suddenly loads and pollutes your sound space. Or maybe you have memories of downloading MIDI versions of your favorite video game tunes like the Super Mario World Overworld 2 song.

    During the days of dial-up internet, MIDI files (.mid) were popular because of their small file size. The file simply contains a sort-of musical score that gets played by built in sounds on your computer, which are known as General MIDI sounds (GM). Now that most people use broadband internet, MIDI files are no longer popular, because people just download compressed audio formats such as MP3. The majority of people who download and listen to MIDI files do so for less pragmatic than nostalgic purposes.

    Even though MIDI files are no longer popular for the consumption of music, they are still popular for the creation of music. Most music composition programs can import/export MIDI files. See Finale, Ableton Live, Pro Tools", and List of Scorewriters. MIDI files act as mediators between different software programs.

    The MIDI file format is only one implementation of the MIDI communication protocol. If you take a look at just about any synthesizer, sequencer, drum machine, etc. created after 1983, you will find up to three MIDI ports (IN, OUT, THRU).



    These ports allow communication with other electronic instruments. For example, a music studio could sync all their sequencers to a central computer. The play button on that computer could trigger all the other sequencers to start playing in unison. The stop button would stop them all.

    The most popular use of the MIDI communication protocol is to use a MIDI controller to play an external sound module. This is like using a video game controller to control a video game system. The controller sends information that is interpreted by receiving device. Using a MIDI controller is almost essential for laptop musicians who need a way to control software synthesizers. The most common controllers are piano keyboards such as the M-AUDIO Oxygen 8. There are other kinds of midi controllers such as drum pad controllers for playing rhythms such as the Korg padKONTROL (released in 2006). On Korg's website, they describe this machine as
    The all-new padKONTROL joins Korg’s expanding line-up of MIDI studio controllers. Adding another dimension beyond traditional keyboard control, the padKONTROL is the most expressive and versatile pad controller ever! (Korg padKONTROL)

    Even though it is old, the MIDI protocol is still widely used and being developed for.

    Most commercial MIDI controllers stay within the realm of keyboards, drum pads, and/or knob/slider boxes. With a few exceptions such as the Korg MS20, the most exciting MIDI interfaces are homemade or produced on a small scale. An advantage of building a homemade MIDI controller is that it can be designed to meet an exact requirement. Artist Laetitia Sonami, is a excellent example of an artist who has invented her own electronic instrument for performance. She calls it "Lady's Glove". It is made of "five microswitches, four Hall effect transducers, pressure pad, resistive strips and two ultrasonic receivers" and "a mercury switch on the top of the hand and an accelerometer which measures the speed of motion of the hand" (Lady's Glove). The video C74 Perspectives: Laetitia Sonami on Youtube shows her describing and performing the instrument.


    (from MAKE: Blog: Alternate MIDI controllers)

    In general, the interface that is used has a direct relationship to the creativity that is produced. This is a design issue. A generic all-purpose MIDI controller such as the M-AUDIO Oxygen 8 will not produce or incline the same creativity as for example Sonami's "Lady's Glove". Or take for example a piano compared to a trumpet. The main difference is that piano's sounds are created with only the hands, and the trumpet requires hands and blowing. Another difference is that the piano is polyphonic (multiple notes at a time), whereas the trumpet is monophonic (one note at time). Ironically, a MIDI controller that is designed for generic applications, will be less useful than a MIDI interface that is designed for a specific application. In other words, a MIDI instrument is better than a MIDI controller. Sonami successfully blends both interface and sound to create a unique musical instrument.

    Before the popularization of the DIY craft scene, interfacing to MIDI required a great deal more engineering skills. Now, creating homemade MIDI instruments is more accessible than ever. Websites such as Instructables and Make Magazine provide introductory guides for beginners and inspiration for experienced inventors. One of the easiest ways to make a MIDI interface is to use a special device such as Lada Ada's MIDIsense. This circuit has MIDI ports and connections for hooking up sensors - simply connect some knobs, pressure sensors, switches, etc. to a MIDIsense and a new MIDI interface will be born. This however, is not an ideal solution, because a MIDIsense costs approximately $50. For creating multiple projects, this overhead is too steep. If one instead uses the Arduino platform, overhead can be cut down to a meager $13 by using the low-footprint Really Bare Bones Board Arduino clone by Modern Devices and a 5 PIN DIN Jack (All Electronics # DIN-5C). Sending MIDI messages out of an Arduino is simple and explained in an NYU ITP Article on MIDI Output.

    The Arduino is the microcontroller of choice for the DIY and new media artist community. It is even being incorporated into the curriculum of many universities such as in the class Programming Media 2, which is taught by Casey Reas at UCLA's Design | Media Arts program. It is not the only microcontroller option, however.Youtube user "recotana" has demonstrated that it is possible to send MIDI with a tiny circuit the size of a thumbnail using a PIC microcontroller. The PIC platform remains complex with the lack of an online community that is comparable to the Arduino community.

    MIDI is a standard electronic musical protocol. The possibilities are endless. One could for example connect an old Palm V to a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) by using Mini Music's Spin Pad software, a Palm to MIDI cable and Wayfar's NES MIDI interface. Or one could make his/her own electronic instrument that controls sounds generated in custom software such as Max/Msp or Pure Data. Custom-made MIDI instruments are more expressive than generic MIDI controllers. MIDI instruments are more interesting for both the performer and the audience as seen through the work of Leatitia Sonami. The overhead for creating MIDI projects is cheap, the programming is not as complex as it used to be, and there is a supportive online community.

    I hope I have shared my excitement and inspired you to create your own MIDI instruments.


    Further Reading:

     http://www.sonami.net/lady_glove2.htm  (Sonami's "Lady's Glove")
     http://tomscarff.tripod.com/index.htm  ("old school" MIDI hardware designs)
     http://www.arduino.cc/cgi-bin/yabb2/YaBB.pl?num=1187962258/  (Arduino MIDI in schematic)
     http://nagasm.suac.net/ASL/NIME03/index.html  (Interesting research on sensors for instruments)
     http://itp.nyu.edu/physcomp/Labs/MIDIOutput  (Arduino MIDI output)
     http://little-scale.blogspot.com/2007/06/arduino-midi-out-example.html  (Another Arduino MIDI output)
     http://www.ladyada.net/make/midisense/forcesensors.html  (Force Sensors)
     http://www.saxmusicplus.com/?p=126  (A article on MIDI Controllers)
     http://www.ucapps.de/midibox_gallery.html  (Gallery of devices made with the MIDIbox)
     http://home.comcast.net/~ijfritz/sos_over.htm  (Excellent homemade MIDI instruments)
     http://search.ebay.com/search/search.dll?sofocus=bs&sbrftog=1&dfsp=32&catref=C6&from=R40&satitle=midi+controller&sacat=-1%26catref%3DC6&sargn=-1%26saslc%3D2&sadis=200&fpos=90024&sabfmts=1&ftrt=1&ftrv=1&saprclo=&saprchi=&fsop=32%26fsoo%3D2&fgtp=  (EBAY search for MIDI Controller)
     http://createdigitalmusic.com/index.php?s=+midi+controller  (Create Digital Music blog tag=midi controller)
     http://www.dreamcastgallery.com/dc/gallery.asp?selected_otherkit_id=638  (MIDI to Sega Dreamcast)
     http://wayfar.net/0xf00000_overview.php  (MIDI to NES)
     http://code.google.com/p/arduinoboy/  (MIDI to GAMEBOY)
     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MIDI_Maze  (Computer game that uses the MIDI protocol for multiplayer)
     http://natrium42.com/w/images/thumb/d/dd/Midi-overview.jpg/400px-Midi-overview.jpg  (Image of Nintendo DS to MIDI adaptor)
     http://youtube.com/results?search_query=midi+controller&search_type=&aq=f  (Youtube search for MIDI Controller)
     http://youtube.com/watch?v=ZsF9DVKSnP0  (Although not MIDI, an interesting electronic controller)
     http://reactable.iua.upf.edu/?related  (Although not MIDI, an interesting instrument)
     http://blog.makezine.com/archive/2008/03/alternative_midi_controll.html  (Make Magazine article on alternate MIDI controllers)
     http://www.minimusic.com/spinpad.html  (Palm MIDI software)
     http://www.frankwillems.com/gig-rig/old_gig-rig9.html  (Palm MIDI make)
     http://petemoss.org/software/midihw.txt  (Palm MIDI make two)
     http://www.ittymidi.com/product_a0005.asp  (Palm MIDI buy)

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    Comments:


    alborz     Sun, Jul 27, 2008  Permanent link
    Hey Richard, although I'm not exactly hip to this scene, I just wanted to say that I really enjoy reading about your projects and interests on the topic of home-made electronic musical instruments. I especially feel your enthusiasm on the topic jump off the screen, and I must say it's getting contageous. I definitely would like to explore these avenues in the near future. Until then, keep filling us in on your projects and thoughts.
    Michael Gaio     Fri, Sep 12, 2008  Permanent link
    What's your take on the newer OSC (OpenSound Control) protocol?
    richard     Wed, Sep 17, 2008  Permanent link
    Hello Michael,

    I agree with you that OSC is a versatile protocol with a lot of potential. For example, it allows high resolution data to be transmitted at high speeds. The data is also not confined to a set of functions like MIDI is, i.e., Note On, Note Off, Aftertouch, Continuous Controller, etc. (Essentials of MIDI Protocol). With OSC one can send any sort of information, be it note data, controller data, or any program variables. OSC can act as a communication protocol for applications within a single computer — from Processing to Quartz Composer for example. Or it can even communicate to different computers on a network, which is what you described.

    That said, I do not think it is meant to supersede the MIDI protocol. MIDI is great because it simple. Unless every digital instrument manufacturer decides on specific OSC commands, MIDI will still be useful. OSC is useful on a per-application basis, but MIDI is generally useful.

    Do you work with OSC?

    -Richard
     
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