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What is MIDI? A Noob’s Overview

Sometimes there’s something that seems like everyone already knows except you. This can be the case today with the sheer amount of info online about MIDI EXCEPT the very basics of what it is!

You’ll see all kinds of info about sequenicing, usb midi, and all kinds of stuff, but this post is for the noob who isn’t afraid to ask the basic question of ‘What is MIDI?’.

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface and can be thought of as a computer language for musical instruments. The term “interface” can be misleading by today’s common usage of the word, since now an interface is mostly thought of as physical devices such as usb audio interfaces which often have both audio and MIDI ports on them. Sometimes the port itself is referred to an interface, so this contributes to the confusion of newcomers.

So in a sense MIDI encompasses both hardware and data because it is a specification, not just a physical or digital thing. When somebody says or writes MIDI, they could be talking about a port, a file, a cable, a sequence, or all of the above! MIDI data can be note information like velocity, pitch, channel, duration and other parameters.

In the early days MIDI it was largely used for connecting various hardware together like synths, drum machines, stand-alone midi sequencers, and even…. lights??!! Yep lights. This is still actually done since midi is a great way to synchronize music to lighting for stage productions. The early 1980s saw a huge influx of new electronic instruments, but digital recording still had not been perfected, so all of this equipment was largely still being recorded to tape. MIDI enabled musicians to connect all this new gear together and synchronize it musically.

In addition to all of this, there’s also something called ‘sysex’ data. Sysex stands for System Exclusive and it still uses the MIDI protocol for information transfer, however it is not musical information, but instead is information about the particular piece of gear like a synth or drum machine. This is useful because you can store information from a synth to an external device using sysex data. In the early days you could use a sysex data recorder to store the information about that piece of hardware such as a patch or settings. Some hardware even featured a ‘tape out’ which allowed you to connect a standard cassette tape recorder to capture data from the synth.

Once personal computers became more available to the public, MIDI started to evolve even more. Way before we were recording audio on computers, we were already sequencing MIDI. In fact, digital audio workstations such as Cubase and MOTU Performer started out as pure MIDI sequencers until computer power caught up to feature audio recording as well. The Atari ST computer came with a standard MIDI port buit-in to the computer and was heavily used by producers such as Trent Reznor in the early days of computer sequenced music.

Other computers like the PC, Mac and Amiga relied on serial ports and special MIDI to serial adapters and cables to make connections to midi hardware. This eventually evolved into USB MIDI and software synths. Today it is possible to work with MIDI 100% in a computer with no external hardware need. However, since the core protocol of MIDI has never changed, even the oldest MIDI devices can still function with modern computer hardware.

This extremely flexible system has remained the standard for musical data and because of it’s longevity, electronic music equipment made as far back as the early 1980s is still widely used today! MIDI is cool.

Thank you for reading and I hope this article helped you understand exactly what MIDI is.