MIDIs: Why and How

General MIDI files are my discovery of the week, and I am dashing around the Net to find my favorites, and making links for them on my pages for your enjoyment. What is MIDI and why can you play MIDI files? Glad you asked.

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Data Interface, and it's a serial communications protocol devised in the 80's to allow synthesizers to communicate with each other. The protocol consisted of discrete messages for every control pressed on a synth's keyboard, such as key-on and key-off messages, instrument selection, etc (geek...geek...geek). However, once personal computers were mixed in as controllers and data storage terminals it wasn't long before a standard file definition for files to store MIDI data was congealed, and exchanging information between computers was made much easier. Sometime in the early 90's, the multinational corporations that run the world decided that what we needed was an keyboard-model-nonspecific standard, for which MIDI data could be even more transportable. It would have a fixed palate of sounds roughly correlating to various musical instruments; each synthesizer advertised as "General MIDI compatible" would be responsible for implementing the actual sounds required by the standard. There was much weeping and moaning from MIDI geeks when General MIDI was introduced, about it being "dumbed down" and how sound quality would vary between implementers. That was about the point where I stopped paying attention to General MIDI until I discovered just a few weeks ago that it was thriving on the Net and a whole subculture of people who make and collect "midis" existed.

It turns out that in the past few years, software and hardware that can play General MIDI has become a part of most P.C.'s sold. The sound comes out of speakers on the computer itself; and while the sound ain't symphonic, the authors of these files have gone to a lot of trouble to squeeze the most out of what they can expect these files to be played on. Why use MIDI's? The stupendous advantage of MIDI files for Web music is their low overhead. They're small. You can get 5 minutes of music downloaded in about the time it would take to load a picture, and with the proliferation of MMX, soundcards, and Windows (tm), not to mention wave tables, they can be relatively portable. .WAV files take a lot longer to load for less sound, unless you loop them, and are thus generally useless. The only other game for net music is RealAudio, which is great, but it obliterates bandwidth (assuming you even have a lot to begin with) and is too large and expensive for Mom & Pop web servers (like this one). Of course, with RealAudio you're getting the actual sound you want rather than the local half-assed General MIDI implementation of that sound (ignoring for the moment those annoying bursts of static in RA when a packet is late or lost), but keeping our perspective it's not really all that big a deal. If you want crystal clear sound, you can go out and buy the CD; if you just want to be entertained while you're typing or appreciate some pimply kid's interpretation of a band you both like, it's a lot of fun.

As I stumble across what I think are really great midis, I'll put links on my pages to them so that my friends and co-conspirators can try them. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to make some original midis of my own, and in this way "publish" some of my music on the web.

On my main MIDI page, most of what you'll see are links to things I found linked on other peoples' pages. While it would have been more stable to download the files and serve them myself, it still would have been a lot of disk space and a grey area in regards to copyrights. It will be more likely that you will be able to play these MIDIs if you have Netscape 3.0 or greater, Windows, and some kind of sound card that you've heard work before. I've tried these on a late model mac and they did work there also, but I know less about the minimum configuration required, it took longer to download, and the sound wasn't as rich for some reason. All you will need to do to launch Netscape 3.0's MIDI player is click on a link on my page and it should start up after a few seconds. When you play a MIDI file, the whole thing is downloaded, so if you know how you can retrieve the file from your cache for later replaying. GOOD LUCK!

This page last modified 2/25/98

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