MIDI in a Nutshell

You've heard lots about MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), but don't fully understand what it is and how it fits into the world of music, computers and Band-in-a-Box®. No worries. MIDI is a potentially complicated subject, but the principles behind it are actually very simple.

Last updated:  Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The single greatest misconception about MIDI is that it is equivalent to digital audio. MIDI is not sound. Nor does MIDI generate sound - at least not by itself. In fact MIDI is little more than a description of the 'events' that occur in a piece of music, like the pitches and durations of the notes in a melody. Think of MIDI as being like sheet music. Sheet music is a method for conveying information about how a song should be performed. In order to hear a piece of sheet music, you must give it to a musician to play on an instrument. Similarly, before you can hear a MIDI file, you must send it to a device that is capable of generating sound. This device, whether a synthesizer, soundcard or external sound module, 'sight-reads' the MIDI instructions and plays the appropriate notes.

It is precisely because MIDI is not sound that MIDI music is sometimes different from one system to the next. Even though a particular MIDI file will always pass the same information to a sound device - say, an instruction to play an F# - the actual 'character' of that F# will depend entirely upon the type of sound device you are using. (A piece of sheet music is not going to be played identically by all musicians.)

As you might guess, the audio quality of your MIDI music hinges largely upon the quality (and expense) of your MIDI sound setup. While most soundcards that now come stock with computers are able to play MIDI, many of them have a 'tinny,' artificial sound. This is, by and large, the source of the myth that MIDI is 'bad.' Not so. MIDI is only as good as your sound device. A mediocre soundcard generates mediocre MIDI music.

If you are interested in improving your computer's General MIDI sounds, there are a variety of options. You could use a software synthesizer such as the Roland VSC or a DXi synth, or look into purchasing an external sound module. The Roland VSC is a software synthesizer that emulates the sounds produced by the famous Roland SC-8820 - a hardware MIDI sound module - and is included with any Band-in-a-Box® upgrade or first-time purchase. The Roland SD-20 is a great sounding, and relatively inexpensive MIDI sound module that we sell. If you are planning on using your computer for in-depth MIDI composition and production you should also take the time to examine some of the other professional modules and synthesizers currently on the market. They are all different, tailored for varied purposes and tastes. Moreover, you will need to acquire a 'sequencer'- a program that is used for editing MIDI information. PG Music's award winning Band-in-a-Box® is an intelligent auto-accompaniment program, and PowerTracks Pro Audio is a Powerful MIDI (and audio) editing package.

Once you are armed with a decent MIDI sound system and a decent MIDI editor you will have all of the essentials needed to compose just about anything you can imagine. Some criticize MIDI as a compositional tool because it is sometimes difficult if not impossible to (re)create the subtlety and realism of sound we are used to hearing when we listen to a musician playing a traditional, acoustic instrument. (My MIDI guitar doesn't sound much like a guitar!) However, it is important to remember that even if MIDI cannot always mimick traditional instruments perfectly, it is extremely good for sequencing and manipulating an enormous range of instruments simultaneously. With MIDI you can single-handedly compose and play every part of a song from the drums up. It's like having an orchestra packed into your room, and you are the conductor.

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