A Deeper Glance at MIDI FILES

What is MIDI? What are MIDI Files, and how do Music Producers use them?

Before we talk about MIDI Files, it would be good to know what MIDI is. MIDI is an abbreviation for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. The Musical Instrument Digital Interface is an interface that facilitates communication between electronic devices and various digital instruments (VSTi/Plugins) as well as hardware synthesizers, sequencers, samplers, and other equipment, etc.

Examples include:

  • i. Synthesizers: Nord Lead, Korg Minilogue, Moog.
  • ii. Sound modules: Korg Triton Rack, Roland JV 1080.
  • iii. Midi Controllers: Akai Mpk 49, Presonus Faderport (instruments, pads, mixers, etc).
  • iv. Samplers/Sequencers: Roland VS-880, BeatStepPro, Akai Mpc, ASR10, etc.
  • v. Computers

One link of MIDI Protocol supports an optimum of 16 information channels. Each of these channels can be transmitted to other devices. MIDI cables, as well as USB cables, are used to transmit MIDI data from one piece of gear to another.

In MIDI data, messages specifying various features of sound and music are transmitted. The following features will be defined:

  • i. Vibrato
  • ii. Velocity
  • iii. Trigger
  • iv. Pitch
  • v. Panning
  • vi. Notation
  • vii. Clock signals.

All MIDI interfaces, i.e., the computer, controllers, instruments, are connected by a MIDI/USB cable. The notes of a keyboard are transmitted via a MIDI cable (or USB) into an electronic device; a computer, workstation, sequencer, or a smartphone/IPAD, etc.

Once the midi information is recorded, it can be saved and later recalled for further use or manipulation. This saved midi information is known as a ‘MIDI file’.

What are the MIDI Files?

Unlike audio files: WAV, AIFF, MP3… a MIDI file contains a set of instructions or commands. An example is a tempo, note placement, note length, velocity, etc. The files take up very little space (unlike audio) and are extremely versatile as they can be used within any DAW.

Back in the day, when hard drive spaces had not yet reached gigabytes/terabytes, and high-speed internet had not yet been implemented, MIDI was a popular format used for transferring music amongst arrangers, musicians, synth programmers, and producers.

The Standard MIDI Files (SMF)

There are two different types of Midi files; Type 0 and Type 1. Both contain the same information but are packaged differently.

Type 0 packs all midi data into a single track. Meaning, if your musical piece was made up of 10 instruments, all 10 instruments would merge into 1 single channel.

Type 1, on the other hand, keeps all midi information on its respective channels. Using the above example, Type 1 would spread those 10 instruments onto 10 different channels making the information easier to work with.

The invention of MIDI

In the early 1980s manufacturers had different standards for instrument synchronization.

Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland, is the one who started the revolution that induced the massive spread of the music industry.

Ikutaro saw the lack of a universal standard as a hindrance to the development of the sector. He took action by offering Tom Oberheim, founder of Oberheim Electronics a proposal to develop the needed standards. Tom, in turn, extended the project to Dave Smith, the then president of Sequential Circuits (June of 1981).

This shows prospects of evolution and success, the trio used the Digital Control Bus of Roland to explain their thoughts to Yamaha, Kawai, and Korg representatives. This was in October of 1981.

It was Dave Smith and Chet Wood, an engineer at the Sequential circuits who developed the interface of universal synthesizer and was proposed in November 1981 to the Audio Engineering Society. Kakehashi, Roland, Kawai, Yamaha, and Korg were in charge of modifications.

The Prophet 600 and Roland Jupiter 6 were the first MIDI synthesizers to be manufactured. Both were released in 1982. In 2013, Kakehashi and Oberheim were awarded Technical Grammy’s Award for this innovation.

How MIDI is used for Education

MIDI Files can also be used to learn many aspects of music creation:

  • Music Theory
  • Music Composition
  • Chord Structure
  • Song Arrangement

This is done by analyzing the MIDI FILE in a DAW

Load any midi file is loaded into a DAW, double-click the midi file and analyze the midi notes and their placement via the DAW’s piano roll (MIDI Sequencer).

This allows anyone to visualize how melodies are put together, how notes are stacked to create chords, velocities settings, note lengths, and more. Analyzing a MIDI file serves as a great visual learning aid as opposed to simply reading books on the topics of music theory, composition, harmonization, and chord structure.

Books are great, but a lot of times the pictures in them do not supplement the text that you’re reading well, leaving the individual who’s trying to learn at a huge disadvantage.

How Do Music Producers/Beat Makers use Midi Files?

Most beatmakers and music producers use MIDI FILES to save melodies, drum, and percussion patterns. They do this to help them create music. Think about it, if there are certain hi-hat patterns or melodies you’d like to use it makes sense to recall those performances in the form of a midi file then to re-create it every time you want to use it.

Producers also use MIDI files for educational purposes. Let’s say they want to know how a specific song was put together all they’d need to do is find a MIDI FILE, download it and open it up, and their daw. From there, they can analyze the entire song.

Other producers will purchase what is known as a Midi Pack and utilize the melodies or patterns within each midi file to help them compose a track. Often times the producer doesn’t analyze the midi file for the sake of education. Their main purpose is to take the midi melodies/patterns and use them as is or change a few notes.

Some music producers in the music production community see this as being lazy. For others, it’s a way of being fast and efficient.

MIDI FILES can be loaded into both hardware and software sequencers. Popular software sequencers include programs like; FL Studio, Ableton Live, and Reaper just to name a few.

Popular hardware sequencers include; Akai Mpc, Maschine, and the OctaTrak.

FL Studio

Fl Studio is a product of Image-Line, a Belgian-based company. This DAW is popular amongst top producers in Hip-hop/Pop genres:

  • Ronny J
  • Wonda Gurl
  • Metro Boomin
  • Murda Beatz
  • Mike Will Made
  • Cardiak
  • 808 Mafia
  • T-Minus
  • DJ Mustard
  • Plus many more

You can produce full songs, film scores, beats… whatever you want in it. This software is favorite among Hip-Hop and Electronic Dance Music artists, producers, and DJs.

Pros and Cons Of MIDI

The Pros of MIDI

  • i. Produce your music without the need for various musicians or instruments.
  • ii. Edit and apply changes to your compositions and input the MIDI files into any DAW or hard sequencer/sampler.
  • iii. MIDI files are very small in size and don’t take up much hard drive space.
  • iv. Your performances are made better in a shorter time.
  • v. Allows creators to make music faster.
  • vi. Store melodic performances.

The Cons of MIDI

  • i. The programmed instruments may come out sounding unrealistic if you don’t know how to write for said instrument. For example-  if you play the flute line like a piano, it’s going to sound unrealistic.
  • ii. Vocals can’t be stored with MIDI.
  • iii. The overall tone and character will depend on the sound of the device playing the MIDI file.

MIDI has made music creation a lot easier for both amateurs and professionals.