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The Evolution of MIDI and How Its Impacted Music and Education

Most modern music can be made with little more than a laptop and a collection of virtual instruments. The era of the home studio is in full swing, and it’s all thanks to MIDI. Controlling a vast array of synthesizers and samplers from a central computer, playing on stage with a bunch of controllers and instruments, and even sitting in the park creating music with headphones, a mini keyboard and an iPad is all made possible with MIDI.

You may not be able to hear MIDI, but with your Nura profile activated, you might be able to detect and understand the instruments that rely on MIDI in almost all of your favourite music. Is that triumphant brass section in Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow’s INDUSTRY BABY from a recording of real horns? Or is it a set of MIDI notes triggering sounds in a sampler? Pop on your Nuraphone, and we’ll find out how MIDI has changed music forever. 

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a protocol that has enabled countless producers, rockstars, composers, DJs and virtuosos to craft their masterpieces. Its primary function is to communicate data between computers, instruments, synthesizers, controllers, and more. You can draw in a melody on a computer, for example, and send it to an external synth that can play the notes in the melody. 

Synth designer Dave Smith developed the protocol in 1982, wanting to play multiple synthesizers with just one keyboard. Humans only have one pair of hands, after all. 

Once he’d developed the protocol and its hardware connectors, Smith needed to convince other synth manufacturers to implement MIDI, so that performers and producers could play all of their synths together, even if they were from different companies. 

Smith, who owned Sequential Circuits, met with brands including Yamaha, Korg, Roland and Kawai, to persuade them to integrate MIDI into their instruments. In the end, he gave it away for free.

“We wanted something everyone could agree on, and then we wanted to give it away because we wanted to make sure it became universally adopted," Smith told NPR. "I don't even remember discussing much about the possibility of charging royalties or licensing fees. It was just assumed that we would give it away."

40 years later, it’s still the global standard for communication between instruments, with MIDI 2.0 arriving imminently. 

MIDI essentially translates music into data for other devices. This means that if you press down middle C on a MIDI keyboard, the connected device – often a computer – will receive pitch, velocity, note length, and several more properties. You can then edit, copy, play or delete this data to create chords, transpose notes, and make other adjustments. 

Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) are particularly effective at viewing and editing MIDI. Check out Jacob Collier making MIDI art by playing the right note on his keyboard.

It’s not just keyboards and synths that can communicate with MIDI; there are MIDI violins, guitars, electronic drums and plenty more instruments that are fluent in the protocol. With MIDI, you can connect your electric violin to a DAW and transform it into a thunderous, floor-shaking bass synth. 

You can even use your laptop’s keyboard to input notes into a DAW and play virtual pianos, orchestras, chopped samples and virtual guitars, among countless other instruments. 

Let’s take a look at MIDI in the hands of the pros. 

In their Twitch streams, UK dance duo Disclosure breaks down the production techniques they employ in their music. If you’ve got your Nura device on, you’ll be able to hear in the clip below that the bass guitar in Disclosure’s remix of Doja Cat’s isn’t a real bass guitar. Instead, it’s a virtual instrument played using MIDI, along with various effects to apply a little more presence. 

Guy Lawrence goes into a fair amount of detail, but the main takeaway from the video is that with the right amount of tweaking on MIDI notes and effects, you can transform digital software into a full-sounding bass guitar. 

The incredibly talented TOKiMONSTA relies on MIDI, too. In this video for Guitar Center, she’s surrounded by MIDI-equipped gear as she walks us through her track, Rouge. She explains how she creates her drum grooves by triggering samples with MIDI notes. The bassline, synths, and guitar of Rouge are also mostly virtual instruments that run in her DAW, triggered by MIDI. 

Producers often draw in MIDI notes on a grid to keep them in time. That’s why when listening to tracks like Joel Corry’s Sorry, each note in the piano’s chords start and stop at the exact same time. A real pianist would likely hit the notes at slightly different times, but a certain sense of urgency and energy is created when MIDI notes are making each chord play instantly. You’ll be able to feel that urgency with your NURAPHONE on, of course. 

MIDI is also helping musical newcomers learn an instrument. Whether it’s the piano, drums, or the modern trend of finger drumming, MIDI is the impetus. For an idea of what finger drumming is, Jeremy Ellis’s video with Native Instruments is a fantastic example. 

Companies such as Melodics use MIDI to teach you musical skills, with visual and audio feedback to let you know if you’re hitting the right notes. When you hook up a MIDI keyboard or controller, you can play the notes shown on-screen in time with the music and learn how to play some of your favourite songs.

In short, MIDI is everywhere in music. With an excellent pair of headphones and a keen ear, you might notice which instruments in a track are real and which sounds are created using MIDI. Be warned, though – some producers are so slick with their MIDI editing that you’ll have a hard time telling the difference at all. 

If you have been inspired by this article and want to give MIDI keys a go, or if you're already a pro and just want to practice, you can now get 40 free lessons from Melodics on us when you sign up to NURANOW! Head here for more info.

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