What is MIDI?

Friday, March 23, 2007 
By Stephane Brault

MIDI Interfaces

All MIDI interfaces are made of a MIDI Out and MIDI In connectors. A MIDI interface sends binary data through it's MIDI Out connector to another devices' MIDI In. All MIDI compatible instruments have a built-in MIDI interface. Some computers' sound cards have a built-in MIDI Interface, whereas others require an external MIDI Interface which is usually connected to the computer via USB or FireWire.

Message format

Every MIDI connection is a one-way connection from the MIDI Out connector of the sending device to the MIDI In connector of the receiving device. Each such connection can carry a stream of MIDI messages, with most messages representing a common musical performance event or gesture such as note-on, note-off, controller value change (including volume, pedal, modulation signals, etc.), pitch bend, program change, aftertouch, channel pressure. All of those messages include channel number. There are 16 possible channels in the protocol. The channels are used to separate "voices" or "instruments", somewhat like tracks in a multi-track mixer.

The ability to multiplex 16 "channels" onto a single wire makes it possible to control several instruments at once using a single MIDI connection. When a MIDI instrument is capable of producing several independent sounds simultaneously (a multitimbral instrument), MIDI channels are used to address these sections independently. (This should not be confused with "polyphonic"; the ability to play several notes simultaneously in the same "voice".)

Low bandwidth

MIDI messages are extremely compact, due to the low bandwidth of the connection, and the need for real-time accuracy. Most messages consist of a status byte (channel number in the low 4 bits, and an opcode in the high 4 bits), followed by one or two data bytes. However, the serial nature of MIDI messages means that long strings of MIDI messages take an appreciable time to send, at times even causing audible delays, especially when dealing with dense musical information or when many channels are particularly active.

MIDI File Formats

Standard MIDI File (SMF) Format

MIDI messages (along with timing information) can be collected and stored in a computer file system, in what is commonly called a MIDI file, or more formally, a Standard MIDI File (SMF). The SMF specification was developed by, and is maintained by, the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA). MIDI files are typically created using desktop/laptop computer-based sequencing software (or sometimes a hardware-based MIDI instrument or workstation) that organizes MIDI messages into one or more parallel "tracks" for independent recording and editing. In most but not all sequencers, each track is assigned to a specific MIDI channel and/or a specific General MIDI instrument patch. Although most current MIDI sequencer software uses proprietary "session file" formats rather than SMF, almost all sequencers provide export or "Save As..." support for the SMF format.

An SMF consists of one header chunk and one or more track chunks. There are three SMF formats; the format is encoded in the file header. Format 0 contains a single track and represents a single song performance. Format 1 may contain any number of tracks, enabling preservation of the sequencer track structure, and also represents a single song performance. Format 2 may have any number of tracks, each representing a separate song performance. Sequencers do not commonly support Format 2.

Large collections of SMFs can be found on the web, most commonly with the extension .mid. These files are most frequently authored with the assumption that they will be played on General MIDI players.

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