MIDI: a Pyrrhic victory for idealism

Tuesday 11 December 2012

When I woke up last week to hear on the radio that it was MIDI’s 30th birthday I couldn’t help but wonder (a) if it really was thirty years to the very day, and (b) if some beardy geek had a free MOTU wall calendar next to his framed photograph of Peter Zinovieff with the date circled and “1 sleep till MIDI’s birthday!” scrawled on it.

The first time I heard about MIDI was on a radio show 20-odd years ago when some guy from Severed Heads or something was complaining about how you couldn’t do dick with it, and for this flimsy reason I’ve always been a bit suspicious of MIDI. I’m sure there’s a whole subculture of MIDI Malcontents out there but I don’t want any contact with them because I’d prefer working with what I have then complaining about what I don’t have. For me, MIDI is a useful way of sending controller messages between different devices. Just don’t ask me what synching means; that whole concept is beyond me.

What I really dislike about MIDI is that it’s too precise, too specific, especially the way so many people use it as a sequencer. Every note comes out the same, same pitch, same intonation, on the same beat at the same time, all the instruments moving in lock step. It’s boring. You have do a whole lot of extra work and fiddling about to vary all these attributes just a little bit, to make it halfway interesting. It is, in effect, the absolute reverse of every other musical technology that preceded it. When you learn any other instrument you start of very uncoordinated and inaccurate and have to put a lot of practice into getting things somewhat precise. My ideal MIDI system would be very vague about what it did and when it did it, requiring plenty of tweaking and coding to rein it in.

When I do use MIDI as a sequencer, it’s to take advantage of the two things it does well: giving precise control over pitch and rhythm. This is a big reason why a lot of my music involves microtonality and impossible rhythms.

  1. The reason some people object(ed) to MIDI is because it’s less good than Voltage Control, which preceded it. However, VC was not standardised – some instruments go from +5 to –5 volts, some are positive only, some range out to 15 volts. There’s a lot more analogue standarsidation now than there used to be. Also, VC is analogue and is ill-suited to digital instruments. People also used to complain that 127 discrete values is really not that many, but a lot of MIDI implementations now use floating point numbers, which allow for a lot of notes between the notes. I would guess your work probably uses notes that aren’t rounded integers!

    These days, many have moved on to OSC, which is a lot more flexible and works natively on a network.

    The problem of over-preciseness is one of electronic instruments, and is not necessarily tied to MIDI. It’s something I constantly have to deal with in programming music on a computer. It’s also an issue with some new analogue gear. My MOTM synthesiser does not tend to drift out of tine at all, which is nice, but it also means that introducing any randomness is an extra step. It’s interesting that so much work went in to making things very clean and precise and that the result of this is that we have to add this back in, whether through random number generators in digital music or a noise floor in CD playback.

    Good post!

  2. Thanks! Especially for the bit about voltage control. My memory’s too hazy, but I suspect that was what I initially heard MIDI unfavourably compared to.

    It’s a problem with all digital technology in music, as you suggest. At the moment I’m content with randomising using the standard available MIDI parameters, which offer sufficient fine-detuning if they’re scaled appropriately for my needs. I’m sure I’ll embrace floating-point technology as soon as they opportunity presents itself.