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A MIDI User Knocks The Knockers!

Article from Sound On Sound, May 1991

A MIDI user knocks the knockers! Simon Sanders of Micromagic puts the case for leaving MIDI users alone to get on with making music.

The Musical Instrument Digital Interface was first proposed 10 years ago, and in the relatively short period since then it has come to be accepted as a worldwide control standard for the audio industry.

Its original purpose was to allow the musician control over multi-instrument systems from a single performance controller, but it has since found many other applications and is responsible for changing forever the way in which music is produced and recorded.

Having achieved such a high status within the industry, there are bound to be those who will knock MIDI. There are many people out there who are saying that MIDI is too slow, not accurate enough, not flexible enough, not capable of handling enough data, and so on. Having used MIDI almost every day for over six years now, I cannot say that I have never encountered any of these problems. However, with a logical approach, and careful choice of hardware, I have yet to encounter a MIDI problem that does not have a simple solution.

The argument that MIDI is too slow is usually raised by those who have experienced MIDI delays, but these problems can generally be put down to the fact that the person is using Thru sockets to daisy-chain several devices together. Daisy-chaining is fine if you are using just two or three devices, but problems will arise when you try to link more than this together. However, this particular problem is very easily put right with an inexpensive MIDI Thru box, (you can get a 1-in/3-out box for £15).

It is true that MIDI has a limited bandwidth, and that if too much data is fed through the system then some of it will be lost as buffers overflow and so forth. But in practice this imposes no real limitations: most professional sequencers and mother keyboards have multiple MIDI Out sockets, usually individually addressable, giving the user the ability to set up several independent MIDI circuits. This effectively increases the bandwidth of the MIDI data stream, allowing it to cope with far larger amounts of information.

In my own system, I use a MIDI output expander with my sequencer which gives me three independent circuits, two for the music data and one for the mix data. This gives me 32 MIDI channels just for the music sequences (I've never yet needed all of them), and I have never had any problems with delays, jams, or lost data. The other 16 channels are being used to control three MIDI controlled mixers and various effects and patchbays. These types of devices do not require a lot of real-time control, and therefore I also use this circuit for the MIDI timing information.

The prize for the most hotly debated part of the MIDI spec, has to go to MIDI Time Code (the infamous MTC). A late addition to the MIDI spec, MTC is a very convenient means of piping an absolute timing reference around the studio.

"MIDI does have its foibles, but it has proven to be adequate for most people's needs and will continue many years to come."

Initially conceived as a better way of locking together sequencers and drum machines than MIDI clock and Song Position Pointers, MTC now finds itself controlling digital recording systems and even analogue tape machines, to the dismay of many in the pro-audio industry.

I have often heard the argument that MTC is not as accurate as SMPTE/EBU timecode, and is therefore not accurate enough for audio-for-visual users. They go on to say that a tape machine slaving to MTC will suffer enormous jitter problems, unlike a machine slaving to SMPTE/EBU. The truth is that all machines under external control have to 'flywheel', using the incoming timecode for timing adjustments. Therefore, if a machine has jitter problems, it is not the fault of the timecode system, but of the software on the tape machine and/or synchroniser.

I have been using MTC to control my multitrack for several months and, as yet, I have had no problems. I also know of several people working with video who have been using MTC for audio synchronisation with no complaints. As usual, the proof of the pudding is in the eating!

MIDI is in active service with millions of people all around the world, most of whom have found relatively few problems with it. MIDI does have its foibles, but it has proven to be more than adequate for most people's needs and will continue to be so for many years to come. To introduce an upgraded form of the MIDI specification would be to continue the format wars that we have experienced in the past, and would make much of today's MIDI equipment obsolete, (or would force us all to buy MIDI V2 to MIDI V1 convertors!). I feel that we should leave well alone and be mindful of the fact that we are one of the only industries which has a truly standardised digital communication system.

The MIDI Music Show at the Hammersmith Novotel, April 26th-28th, provides an excellent opportunity to find out more about the world of MIDI music, whether you're a beginner or a seasoned pro.

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Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

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Sound On Sound - May 1991

Opinion by Simon Sanders

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