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Is MIDI Finally Out Of The Closet?

Freelance programmer, musician, and SOS author Mike Collins wonders whether MIDI has gained genuine acceptance in pro studio circles or not.

Everyone who reads magazines like SOS could be forgiven for assuming that today's professional recording studios are packed full of the latest MIDI gear, handling everything from synthesis and sampling to automated mixing and effects. This is not the case. Many pro studio owners have steered clear of most MIDI equipment until recently. Their reasoning has been that MIDI is seen as the province of the musician, not the recording engineer.

This year, however, a wind of change seems to be sweeping through these recording studios. The feeling is that 'MIDI is definitely not going to go away, so we had all better start taking serious notice of this thing which we professionals have viewed as a semi-pro format up till now.'

Of course, some studios built keyboard programming rooms years ago, and others have been put together primarily as MIDI recording studios with only the most basic audio recording facilities (for vocals, essentially), but I am referring to the bulk of the established 'traditional' studios here. Places like Abbey Road, Maison Rouge, Utopia and The Townhouse; all well-known in the recording industry. Most recently, several of the major West End studios, such as AIR and Audio 1 (previously known as Trident 1), have equipped spare rooms within their premises as Programming Rooms - acknowledging the fact that many people need such facilities for cost-effective pre-production. However, you have to go to somewhere like Steve Levine's Do Not Erase studio to find an integrated MIDI/recording studio with all the MIDI equipment set up permanently in the control room and synchronised with 'traditional' recording equipment, and with access to a conventional studio floor with plenty of microphones to record acoustic instruments as well. Most major studios still see MIDI as something they can keep 'in the closet' - almost literally.

In the past few years, the recording industry has witnessed a phenomenal growth in the number of devices in common use which feature MIDI control. MIDI started out as a means of easily layering up synthesizer sounds to create more interesting and effective timbres. This practice coincided with a rapid increase in the use of sequencers and drum machines. MIDI-controllable samplers, which are a cross between a digital recording device (which would traditionally have been the responsibility of the recording engineer) and a synthesizer with filters and envelopes to further shape the sounds (which is traditionally seen as the musician/synthesist's area of responsibility) have become commonplace - blurring the distinction between 'engineer' and 'musician'.

To confuse matters further a new category of studio person - the 'programmer' - began to appear on the scene three or four years ago. Usually, these were musicians/keyboard players/synthesists who took on the job of operating increasingly complex pieces of MIDI equipment on behalf of whoever required their services. Some recording engineers also became programmers, as did a few other individuals who were neither former musicians nor engineers but were comfortable with computers and the musical and recording applications of the new technologies.

Delays, reverbs, pitch shifters, and other studio effects units increasingly feature sophisticated MIDI controls - so should they be viewed as tools of the musician/synthesist or as part of the recording engineer's signal processing armoury? Who knows more about MIDI? Who is best placed to judge which effects are appropriate? The engineer, musician, or producer? When should such effects be added, during the mix or while track-laying?

Well, the producer usually has the last word on this when making a record, but nowadays many session musicians will give the engineer a 'sound' to record which has all the effects and signal processing included, and the engineer will record this straight to tape. Keyboard instruments like the Roland D50 and Korg M1 include digital reverb and delay effects as an inherent component of the synth patches, putting their choice and control at the hands of the synthesist not the engineer. Similarly, MIDI is now frequently being used to control mixing automation as well as studio signal processing, via a MIDI sequencer. So who should operate this? The programmer or the recording engineer? After all, most MIDI sequencers demand some familiarity with bars and beats and other musical terminology in order to get the best out of them!

The industry is changing all the time. Several manufacturers of high-end keyboards/computers/synthesizers/samplers/sequencers, such as the Synclavier, are now positioning their products as video audio post-production (VAPP) tools by including direct-to-disk recording facilities - with or without the music-oriented features. Often, these systems are a good choice in a VAPP environment because music, sequences, and sound effects can be easily constructed and synchronised to picture using SMPTE/EBU timecode, and all this can be controlled from the one unit.

Most synchroniser designs now output MIDI timing/sync info to allow MIDI sequencers and drum machines to be locked to recording equipment. MIDI is beginning to be used for desk automation. Even devices such as compressors, limiters, equalisers, and other 'traditional' studio processors now come with MIDI ports as standard to provide an effective means of controlling these units automatically. MIDI patchbays have been around for a few years, but now there are several MIDI-controllable audio patchbays available which allow automation and recall, as well as synchronisation of patch changes.

And then there are the computers! These are being used more and more as controllers for desk automation, sequences, sound sample editors, synth editors, and to control audio and MIDI patching (see Feb '89 SOS article about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop). The Macintosh II computer, in particular, has been chosen by many manufacturers of hard disk recording systems (NED Synclavier, Steinberg Topaz, and Emulator III, for instance) as the front-end controlling device which provides the all-important user interface.

So what about the studio personnel of tomorrow? Should they be musicians, audio/recording engineers, or computer programmers?

There is already a strong argument for the major studios to include a MIDI programmer as well as an engineer and a tape-op on any sessions which involve heavy use of MIDI and computerised equipment. And the numbers of such sessions must surely be on the increase with so much new studio equipment now adopting the MIDI standard. It seems to me that unless studios are to confine their activities to recording acoustic instruments, and unless they decide against embracing the emerging new recording and musical technologies, then tomorrow's studio 'operator' will almost certainly have to adopt a multi-disciplinary approach and become a 'jack of all trades'; or, better still, a 'master of the several trades necessary to make records in our increasingly hi-tech world'!

So what does all this mean to the average SOS reader? Well, a good number of you are professional musicians or recording engineers, and many of you are semi-pro musicians with impressive home studio setups that quite possibly may include more MIDI and computer equipment than some of the larger recording studios! From your ranks will come the next generation of studio personnel - multi-talented musicians/recording engineers/computer programmers equally at home with the idea of using a microphone to record a violin onto an analogue tape machine; using a computer to sequence a song, manipulate sounds, and control the mix; and using a keyboard to control a wide range of MIDI devices.

Mike Collins is a London-based freelance programmer, musician, and Macintosh enthusiast with countless sessions under his belt. He previously worked at Yamaha's R&D Centre, writes magazine articles in his spare time, and intends to upgrade to the new Macintosh SE/30 as fast as he can!

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The Music Network

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


Sound On Sound - Apr 1989

Opinion by Mike Collins

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