by Todd Albertson
When Jerry and I first discussed this column, he asked me how much tutorial material I could come up with while addressing the needs of radio producers at the same time. My answer was, "maybe twelve months or so." If you have been counting, this is article #19, and while I haven't covered all the aspects of MIDI, I can see that it is time to bring this particular tutorial to a close. It makes little sense to continue into the deeper and deeper intricacies of MIDI, while each month, the average reader finds less and less that is helpful for radio production. After all, this is not a musician's magazine (though I am aware of much musical talent out there amongst RAP's readership). This then, is the final page of what I hope was an educational series of articles written with the hopes of simplifying and teaching the basics of MIDI to an elite group of individuals whose profession will eventually demand such knowledge. I thought it would be appropriate to end the series with a summary of what was covered. So let us take a look at the big picture.
Early synthesizers often provide clues to much of which seems complex today. By looking back to the early days of separate modules, we found we were better able to understand, not only the evolution of synthesizer construction, but of terminology as well. For instance, the word "patch" came to mean "a sound or voice in its completed form after construction" because, in the early days, "patch" cords were the means of actually building the sound. Reviewing the modular construction of such early synths as the Prophet series and the early Rolands helped us to get a handle on how oscillators, filters, Q (resonance), LFOs, and other modules came to exist and function as they do. ADSR's and other envelope types were discussed. Likewise, we touched briefly on the radical changes brought about by the now famous DX 7 and Roland's "Linear Algorithm" approach. All these things were important to bringing us where we are today, and by looking back, we gleaned a better understanding of today's machines.
Together, we hooked up a synthesizer with MIDI cables for the first time. We came to understand the proper usage of those MIDI IN, OUT, and THRU ports found on the back of nearly every synth (and much outboard gear) made in the last several years. We then went on to gain our first glimpse of MIDI "channels" and OMNI mode.
In these many months, we have learned that MIDI is really a simple computer language. Like all computer languages, MIDI consists of bits and bytes which can be strung together in meaningful ways, just as the letters of the alphabet are strung together to convey my thoughts to you now. The language is sent through the MIDI cable in the form of electrical pulses, one byte at a time. The computers that translate our keyboard playing to MIDI code are called "controllers," and the computers translating the MIDI language into sound are called "sound modules." Remember please, that the things we normally call "keyboards" are both controller and sound module in one unit.
We explored the meanings of the various types of MIDI codes, from simple NOTE ON/OFF commands through the more exotic controls such as breath control. We covered three categories of SYSTEM events: "Exclusive Codes," "Common Events," and "Real Time Messages." We covered two categories of CHANNEL events: "Voice Events," and "Mode Calls." Each of these categories provided much to study and enjoy.
We learned that we could store MIDI codes in memory and on magnetic media such as disks for later recreation in real time. We found we could transfer this information to other media for storage and even pass it to another production person at a sister station via phone line and modem.
Hexadecimal and octal math was introduced, and simple conversion examples were provided. In addition, a quick reference chart was made available.
Articles on sequencers helped us to better understand how different these units are from the tape recorders we have worked with for so long. The concepts of "tracks" and "channels" can be confusing, so we spent some time on that. The incredible power of "editing" sequences was presented. Additionally, we covered the pros and cons of "dedicated" and "software-based" sequencers.
These are the basics and then some. For some of you, only a little of the information we have passed on will really apply to your daily routine. For some, maybe none of it will apply in the lifetime of your career. For others, especially those of you who are still young in your career and have your eyes set on the big gig, this basic information will eventually be the groundwork for understanding how your studio works.
It has been a rewarding series to write. I sincerely hope it was useful! MY biggest fear in writing these articles has been whether or not I was hitting the mark for the average radio producer. Luckily, some of you actually wrote, called, or otherwise contacted me to discuss various MIDI-related topics, and thus I have had good fortune to make new friends. How lucky I am for that! I would like to thank Jerry for asking me to write this series, and you for taking the time to read it. May you all get Synclaviers, and God bless.
Editor's Note: Our hats are off to Todd for providing what is probably the only MIDI tutorial ever written for radio production people. His closeness to radio and his immense knowledge of MIDI were the perfect combination for a writer of this tutorial. Thank you Todd.