Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI, as well as MIDI controllers, represent a revolution in how we create, perform, edit and record music. This is even more true with each passing day as computers become more powerful, compact and pervasive.
At its core, sound is analog. That is, sound waves can exist in infinite combinations. This is necessary for sound to seem rich and unique, but it makes recording and transmitting much more difficult.
This is where digitizing and MIDI come in. By breaking down sound into various qualities, and by representing each with a number, we gain an ability to create and transmit sounds in a way that would be quite difficult were we working with infinite possibilities.
There are many ways of digitally encoding sound, of which MIDI is but one. MIDI is a method specialized for music. Rather than encoding the sounds themselves, a process that would require lots of disk space and processing power, MIDI merely encodes the commands required to recreate the music. For instance, rather than encoding the sound of a note being played, MIDI instead encodes the pitch of the note along with its duration, volume and other characteristics.
This method has a number of unique advantages. MIDI commands can be entered in many different ways, such as via mouse, computer keyboard or a MIDI controller. MIDI controllers are hardware devices that resemble actual musical instruments such as piano keyboards, stringed instruments or even horns controlled via breath.
The commands entered from the MIDI controller aren’t sounds themselves. They are, instead, the music required to make the sound. Imagine MIDI commands as sheet music which must be played by someone to be heard. It can be easily edited before this happens, thus making the final product as close to perfect as is possible.
Once completed, the MIDI is then played back on a synthesizer, a device capable of reading MIDI commands and converting them to actual instrument sounds. Synthesizers vary vastly in quality, from simple systems that sound very electronic, to complex virtual orchestras comprised of real recorded instruments. In this way, a song can be created and edited in an inexpensive garage studio and, when rendered on the right equipment, sound as if it had been played professionally.
MIDI is an incredibly versatile technology that isn’t only for music production, however. While some MIDI controllers are only capable of producing the commands, many combine the controller and the synthesizer into a single unit, replacing cumbersome pianos and other large instruments with impressive-sounding devices a fraction of their size. Also, by including numerous instrument samples, MIDI controllers can impersonate a large variety of instruments in new and physically impossible ways, letting you bend piano notes like guitar strings, or play some instruments far outside their real ranges.
MIDI technology is starting to appear everywhere. Once found only in professional gear, many consumer keyboards and MIDI controllers are beginning to incorporate MIDI connections. With the right knowledge and software, MIDI can kickstart a music hobbyist to the next level. Casual compositions and musical ideas can leap out of the keyboard and into your computer, onto CDs and around the internet. By digitizing the physical art of making music, MIDI controllers empower musicians to fully embrace the digital age.
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