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Does Education Need MIDI?

Martin Russ plays devils advocate and states why MIDI systems are not what school music departments need.

One thing really struck me at this year's British Music Fair — the vast numbers of visiting music teachers. Now music teachers at a music fair may not seem very inappropriate, but the really thought-provoking thing was that many of them seemed interested in MIDI and hi-tech music, and needed guidance in how to use it and what to buy, not sales talk. With the recent changes in education policy, music now has a firmer base in the curriculum, and so the potential market for hi-tech and MIDI in schools must be huge, surely?

In fact, I would argue that because of the way that MIDI and hi-tech music have been developed so far, the opportunity is not exploitable. What is offered by most MIDI products seems to be exactly the opposite of what schools actually need!

To illustrate my point I will describe some of the important attributes of a successful computer-based music system widely used in schools, and then contrast this with what hi-tech and MIDI have to offer.

The system I have in mind is the Hybrid Music System, from Hybrid Technology in Cambridge, designed around the unfashionable these days (in the music business, if not in schools) but still very useful BBC computer (I still use a BBC B!).

For a couple of hundred pounds you get a comparatively sophisticated music production system which incorporates elements of scoring, arranging, sound editing, composition, accompaniment and mixing, with high quality multitimbral instrument sounds and percussive sounds. The essential parts of the Hybrid software are stored in ROM inside the computer, and so are instantly available when the computer is turned on. Most importantly, a complete working environment can be stored or recalled very quickly from a floppy disk (and documented easily), and so a pupil user or teacher demonstrator can very quickly reconfigure the system to perform different tasks.

In contrast, the MIDI/hi-tech approach starts out more expensive — a budget of a couple of hundred pounds is going to restrict you to a low-cost synth expander with limited sounds, limited expandability, and limited features. Complete software packages offering the same degree of functionality as the Hybrid Music System also tend to price themselves out of the school music budget, and most of the cheaper packages tend to be dedicated sequencers or editors anyway, not complete working 'environments'.

ST, Macintosh, Amiga, and PC software tends not to use plug-in ROMs, and so everything needs to be loaded from disk every time. Saving a sequence may be easy and quick in a MIDI system, but trying to save the accompanying sounds and setups can be far more troublesome, and the sequence is not saved in any way that is documentable. Furthermore, sophisticated software for capturing snapshots of complete MIDI systems can be slow and expensive to use, and in a half-hour music lesson teachers cannot afford to waste 15 minutes reconfiguring each piece of MIDI equipment.

Somewhere along the line, the technology of MIDI and hi-tech instrumentation has been deflected away from an 'educational' (in the widest 'learning' sense) musical environment. I do not recall ever seeing the equivalent of AMPLE, the Hybrid Music System's music composition language, for any MIDI-based hi-tech computer, and yet in my opinion, Hybrid's 'word processor' for musical composition, control, and experimentation is exactly what many technicians, musicians, dabblers, and experimenters would love to have. It is far too easy to become focused on sequencers, samplers, and MIDI systems, and lose track of learning about making music. From an educational point of view, it looks to me like the MIDI mentality has got it entirely wrong!

So what can be done about it? Well, the first responsibility lies with the major instrument manufacturers and software houses. They need to reappraise their products with a different set of criteria. The fundamental ways that MIDI and hi-tech musical instruments work needs to be approached in a different manner, so that the user (the pupil) has the maximum musical flexibility in an easily stored, recalled, and documented way. Until then, I reckon pupils might be better off with a BBC computer and Hybrid Music System!

Martin Russ has taken time off from writing reviews and articles for this magazine, and is deliberately trying to be controversial.

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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 - Sep 1990

Donated by: Bert Jansch / Adam Jansch

Opinion by Martin Russ

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