MIDI Keyboard

MIDI Protocol, MIDI Keyboards, and Where To Start

As technology advances, so too do the arts. While the global telecommunications network has already allowed tens of thousands of artists of all levels and skill to connect with a potential audience of tens of thousands, the internet is only the beginning of what modern digital technology has done for artists.

It has allowed the modern, technologically savvy artist to do much more than we could have imagined only a few years ago. Visual artists have come into many new tools, ranging from digital drawing tablets that enable digital painting to 3D printers that allow for virtually anything to be sculpted.

Musicians, too, have had their boons from the modern upsurge in technology. While many of the more modern advances in musical technology have their roots in decades past, most of these tools were previously only available to major media producers and extremely specialized technicians. Now that modern manufacturing has reduced the prices of these devices, nearly any musician can manage to get these digital music devices and start playing with them before they really know how to use them.

Naturally, as with any new musical instrument, these devices take a great deal of practice to truly master, often sounding incredibly terrible the first time the musician uses it no matter how advanced its technology. However, as practice happens and skill grows, the sounds will come out smoother and more coherent. Once they get an idea of how these devices work, the true magic can really happen.

The MIDI Keyboard and How It Works

One such digital music device is the MIDI keyboard. This is a piano synthesizer designed to play by sending MIDI signals through a USB device to a machine built to process those signals. To use it, you simply play it as you would a piano. The notes are the same, the only difference is how they're produced.

Because MIDI signals are digital, they can be processed by a variety of different devices. All it takes is the software to interpret the digital information and speakers built to make the right sounds. This machine could be a type of digital audio workstation that connects directly to a theater speaker, or it could be your own personal computer. As long as it can make the sounds, it can play the music.

It is notable that not all MIDI keyboards are actual keyboards. That is, there are a variety of different MIDI instruments that use the same MIDI protocols to create music. These take a variety of forms, everything from simple controllers with levers and buttons to a device called a "Continuum Fingerboard". This is a device designed to play similarly to a "fretless" keyboard, meaning there are no distinct keys. Rather, the player slides their fingers along the board and creates sound by changing the speed and direction.

Of course, all of these devices share one similarity. Namely, they all use the same MIDI protocol.

What is MIDI Protocol?

MIDI protocol may sound like some weird science fiction computer term, and to be fair the people who came up with the name probably did that on purpose. It was created in the 1980s as personal computing and technological advances became widespread enough that electronic devices were no longer prohibitively expensive.

It was a collaboration of multiple technology, electronic, and music companies. It started with the founder of Roland (an electronic musical instrument company) talking to the founder of Oberheim Electronics. It then jumped from company to company, until there were enough different companies signed on that creating a universal programming language was easy.

And that's exactly what MIDI protocol is. It's a programming language designed to be universal, allowing multiple devices to communicate with each other.

MIDI is short for:

  • Musical
  • Instrumental
  • Digital
  • Interface

It is intended to allow electronic musical instruments, computers and other digital devices to connect to one another communicate instructions to each other. The MIDI technical standard includes up to sixteen channels of information in a single MIDI link, and multiple MIDI links that theoretically increase the capacity as needed. Each of these information channels can be routed to communicate with a separate device.

A MIDI signal carries event messages (programmed instructions for what a device should do when the user interacts with the device in a specific way) that can specify a variety of musical elements. The pitch, velocity, notations, vibrato, cues, audio panning, volume and clock signals that synchronize temp between multiple devices can all be controlled from a signal MIDI device. In the case of a MIDI keyboard, these MIDI signals from the keyboard use the keys played to trigger preprogrammed actions. A sound module inside the keyboard or a program or specialized hardware device known as a sequencer, not only records the resulting sounds from the keyboard, but also has the ability to edit the data later.

MIDI technology continues to grow as digital music grows in importance in twenty first century culture. The standard is continually updated by The MIDI Association and their website serves as a central database for anything related to the current, past and future uses of MIDI technology.

The best part of having a central database for anything related to MIDI technology is that it allows people to easily innovate on old techniques. Far too often, musical styles are lost to the mists of time and history. People don't keep track of the techniques, people stop making musical instruments in a specific way, and it doesn't take long before that style of music is gone.

Having a central database for MIDI technology means that anyone wanting to play around with MIDIs has an easily searchable fountain of information. They can find out just about anything they want to know, allowing them to use other people's information to spearhead their own learning.

This allows them to learn new stuff far more quickly, since they don't have to rediscover things that people have already known.

How MIDI Works

Because so many of these keyboards are focused on sending pure information rather than actual sounds, most MIDI keyboards do not actually produce any audio, requiring another device to play any sort of sounds. Information is instead sent to an electronic device that can reproduce a wide range of digital sounds or larger samples that typically resemble traditional musical instruments. Each of these sound samples may be referred to as a voice or a timbre. However, these sounds are interchangeable, and one MIDI keyboard can replicate a saxophone, a grand piano, a brass tuba or a xylophone using the same set of musical skills as a piano player, allowing musicians to be far more flexible.

As discussed, not all MIDI instruments are keyboards. There are a variety of different styles, a few of which have already been discussed. As MIDI protocol became more popular, it became lucrative to create MIDI keyboards in multiple styles of instruments. That way, people who could play one instrument could still have the same amount of flexibility with their music creation.

Many other instruments, such as more advanced electric guitars, can likewise carry MIDI signals between digital audio devices and also replicate a number of different musical sounds according to the user's vision of what will make for a better song. Some of these interfaces are actually even more exotic than those emulating analog instruments, using advanced keyboards with upwards of 1266 separate tonal pitches that use a new style of interface that is purely digital and focused on the usage of computer technology to make music in the twenty first century.

The Uses of MIDI Music In Today's Entertainment

Everyone knows that the 1980s had its own style of music. The electronic synthesizer sounds were incredibly popular, so it made sense to have a universal protocol that could allow multiple devices to communicate. These days, technology has moved on.

With the invention of software such as Garageband and the ability to auto-tune sounds, it would seem no one would have use for the electronic sounds created using MIDI protocol. However, that couldn't be further from the truth. There are a number of ways MIDI protocol gets used in today's music.

First and foremost, there's still plenty of music that utilizes the 80s electronic style. Techno is a great example of one such music. There's also House music, the repetitive dance music that gets played at nightclubs. These genres of music still find quite a bit of use for MIDI protocol, since they often use a synthesizer to create a wide variety of musical notes. Not to mention, MIDI keyboards still find quite a bit of use in Hip Hop and Rap. People enjoy creating interesting beats and creative musical patterns to rap and sing over, and MIDI keyboards can help. In fact, some of the most innovative Rap and Hip Hop music of modern times has used MIDI sounds as background music!

Beyond that, the world of videogames has utilized MIDI protocol since the very beginning. In the days of the old Atari and IntelliVision, the machines would use MIDI protocol in order to make the beeps and blips that came from the action on screen. It wasn't particularly advanced, but the fact that MIDI protocol existed allowed video game makers to create sound for their games without having to devote a large amount of resources to the project.

As video game technology advanced, MIDI use expanded. Once the 8-bit era of video games hit, the hardware could use MIDI files to create entire songs. Some of these songs have even managed to attain mainstream attention, such as the Super Mario Brothers theme song. MIDI use even continued into the next generation of video game hardware, and video games from the 16-bit era of gaming used MIDI files to create music that some people still find influential today.

MIDI Protocol, MIDI Keyboards, and the Future

These days, digital sound tends to be processed as files other than MIDIs. As technology advanced, the ability to digitally reproduce sound as clear and pitch-perfect as any physical instrument became easily accessible. As that technology began to spread, people developed other audio file protocols such as WAV, MP3, and others.

But that doesn't mean that MIDI files have no use, and that doesn't mean MIDI keyboards are becoming harder to find! Quite the contrary! As mentioned, there are still modern styles of music that make heavy use of MIDI files, and thus make heavy use of MIDI keyboards and other MIDI music.

Video game technology has moved past MIDI files for modern gaming, but that doesn't mean the gaming community has forgotten about MIDIs. A style of music referred to as "chip tunes" has become incredibly popular. This music is created by using older video game hardware to process and play the music being created by a MIDI instrument. This style of music is so popular that it's made the original style of Nintendo Gameboy nearly impossible to buy. So many people use them to create chip tunes that there simply aren't very many available!

Beyond that, there will always be new and interesting styles of music that can be created using MIDI protocols. Because of that, there will always be a market for MIDI keyboards and other MIDI instruments. Not to mention, as people begin to create and innovate new ways to play with MIDI sounds, new styles of MIDI instruments will be created. It's difficult to know what kind of amazing instruments and sounds could be created by people who love using MIDIs!

If you've ever been interested in seeing what you can do with MIDI sounds and MIDI keyboards, don't hesitate. Do be careful, however. MIDI keyboards can sometimes be quite expensive. A mid-range MIDI keyboard can easily cost upwards of $600, and some of the fancy once can cost two or three thousand!

But you don't need those. If you're just beginning to look into creating MIDI sounds, all you need is a simple MIDI keyboard. Start with something cheap and see what you can create. After all, if you can't create something interesting with a cheap MIDI keyboard, you'll never pull it off with a fancier one!