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The History of MIDI – “Hey, remember the 80’s”?

History of MIDIHere’s a couple of cool videos if you’re interested in learning, or in some cases “reliving” many of the key events and technology that made MIDI a standard in the musical world.

30th Anniversary of MIDI

Computer Music History – Apple Computer and Midi Interface (1987)

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MIDI Polyphony and Multi-timbrality

Korg Oasys
Korg Oasys

What is Polyphony?

Polyphony is simply the number of notes that a keyboard or device can be playing at any one time. So, for example, if you press two keys at the same time, you’re using 2 notes of polyphony. Simple, right? Well… not exactly.

Another way to use two notes of polyphony would be to hold the sustain pedal and hit the same note twice in a row.

Additionally, playing a note in a “Combi” mode (where sounds are layered or stacked on each other to make rich tones) allows you to use up many polyphony notes with every single key press.

Polyphony is also used when running a sequencer or record function, playing a keyboard’s on-board drums, using the song or style arranger, etc.

So, you can see it is important to understand the ramification and how polyphony fits into your playing style and available equipment.

What is Multi-timbrality?

Being “multi-timbral” can be related to polyphony, but is actually the ability to play multiple types of sounds at the same time.  So, you want to play a bass line with the left hand and piano with the right? You’ll need multi-tembral capabilities in your keyboard.

Many times the different sounds are separated onto different MIDI channels and can be manipulated on a channel by channel basis. But often, as seen in many lower prices models, the keyboards are not multi-timbral and can only play one sound type at a time.

Obviously the more use you make of your keyboard’s multi-tembral features, the more available polyphony you will need.

Why should I care?

Polyphony is very important. The last thing you want to do is to get home with your wonderful new keyboard or sound module, start playing and discover it can only play 16 notes at a time. 16 note polyphony.  If you find that to be the case, you might as well throw your sustain pedal out the window. You won’t be using it.

It’s like this… you have 10 fingers. if each finger plays two notes (in a run or in repetitive strokes) and your polyphony is 16 notes, you’re 4 notes over the limit right away. The keyboard will start to shut off previous notes to compensate for the new ones.  Although sometimes it’s okay, this usually sounds bad and ruins your musical experience.

Some lower end keyboards can be in the 8 to 30 polyphony range (or less). Most higher end keyboards these days come in 64 to 128 note polyphony. This is pretty good for playing individual instruments that aren’t layered and many pad/synth or multi-layered sounds.  But if you’re going to be doing any major composing or orchestrating, you may likely need even more.

What can I do about it?

If you are stuck with a keyboard or sound module that has a low limit for polyphony or you find you are pushing the limits of what it can output, there are couple things you can do.

1. Get another sound unit. Purchase an additional sound module or keyboard and connect them using MIDI. This will double (or more) the polyphony available to you. Plus, it’s always fun to get new gear.

2. See if your sound module is expandable. Often you can buy cartridges or expansion chips that will increase the functionality of your existing device.

3. If you’re making complex arrangements and running out of notes, you may need to record some of your tracks into a computer, converting the notes into audio waveforms. This will allow you to shut those notes off in your arrangement and free up some polyphony.

If anyone has any suggestions, or more Polyphony tips, please comment below.


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What is quantization?

imageFor musicians who work in recording or producing realm, quantization is an issue that comes up frequently. As for me, I deal with it on some level in almost every recording project I create.

So what is quantization anyway? Well, the long answer is “It depends on who you ask”.

  • An online dictionary will tell you:
    The process of converting, or digitizing, the almost infinitely variable amplitude of an analog waveform to one of a finite series of discrete levels.
  • Audio-technicians might tell you:
    Quantization is the process of converting a continuous analog audio signal to a digital signal with discrete numerical values. Example: In a compact disc, an analog recording is converted to a digital signal sampled at 44,100Hz and quantized with 16-bits of data per sample.
  • A physicist will tell you:
    To apply quantum mechanics or the quantum theory to something.

However, for a recording artist or musician, the meaning of quantization is a little bit different. I define it as: “Making music mathematically perfect.”

In other words, when a person plays a keyboard, drums, bass, sax, etc. into a recording device, the recorded performance usually lacks precision in timing to some degree. Although it may sound good, each note is likely not placed exactly in the correct spot in time. To record something with absolute mathematical precision would be nearly impossible for any human.


Enter Computers. So to compensate for the lack of timing precision, computers can come along behind us and make sure all of our timing is adjusted, lined up, and perfect. This is the act of quantizing.

Quantizing is done very easily when working with MIDI note data. Since MIDI notes each have a definite start and end time, all the computer has to do is recalculate the note data so that each note starts at the correct time and presto, you have perfect timing.

However, the process is not so straight forward when working with non-MIDI audio (voice, guitar, etc). When there is not a precise start time to the note, it is more difficult for quantizing software to know where to put each note in time. Waveform quantizing software has to basically guess where the individual notes are. As technology gets better, these programs are getting more and more accurate, but there is still some element of guesswork when trying to quantize waveforms.


The Quantizing Challenge

Nearly every recording software available today has a quantizing option built in and a ton of settings to go with it. The problem that many people fall into is that they think quantization will fix their timing problems in general. But let me be honest, if you can’t play with the beat at least to a pretty decent level of accuracy, don’t think the quantize button is going to fix it. For Quantize to work, you have to get the notes at least CLOSE to where they go in the timeline.

Most of the time you can choose if you want the computer to quantize the notes immediately as you’re recording, or later when you go back to edit. But either way you are going to tell the software you want to snap the notes to the nearest 8th note (1/16 note, 1/2 note, etc.), so you have to be a good enough player to be able to place the notes pretty close to the correct time. If you are too sloppy, you’ll have notes shifting to the wrong places and the final product will sound horrible.


The Quantizing Catch – Should we?

Now that we are on the same page as to what quantizing is and how to do it, the big question on everyone’s mind is “Should we even do it in the first place?” First you go through and play in your parts, and then go back and correct all your timing mistakes with quantization. After all, it does seem a little like cheating, doesn’t it? That actually is a very good question… “Should we?”

I think it comes down to personal taste and style. Computer music done for the electronica scene will not doubt be heavily quantized. In fact often the programs used for this genre don’t even give an option to shut off quantize. Country, blues, gospel, opera or classical would be expected not to use this timing correction process, but I’m sure many do.

I remember hearing a Bruce Hornsby song where there was an orchestra and of course a piano part over the top of what sounded like a very synthetic drum track. In that case, I would assume the drums were heavily quantized and the rest was probably not. But who knows.

Personally, I don’t mind the rhythm tracks (bass, drums, etc.) to be mathematically perfect, but I prefer the humanness of the main instruments. The slight timing nuances of the players gives the music more life for me. That why I prefer live music to recordings anyway. But being a computer music buff, I also appreciate the heavily quantized sounds of the industrial music scene as well.

Tell me what you think. Do you have any quantizing tips, tricks, or stories? What do you think sounds best?

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Create Bass Lines from Drum Tracks (MIDI Tutorial)

I posted a new YouTube tutorial online. Check it out.

Have you ever wondered how to make a great bass line from scratch? Here’s one suggestion. This technique will allow you to create a great sounding bass line to go behind your song using nothing but a MIDI editor and a drum track.

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Why MIDI is Better Than Audio Loops

Why MIDI is Better Than Audio Loops…

Here are a few good reasons.  And if you see any I’ve missed, let me know in the comments below.

User Editable
Pitch Transpose
Very Limited Range
Tempo Variation
Very Limited Range
Edit a single note in the pattern
Ability to change instrumentation
File Size
Device Compatibility
Wide Range
Software Compatibility
Wide Range
Somewhat Limited

To be fair though, there are some advantages to using sound loops though.  The primary benefit is that they are essentially ready ‘out of the box’. If you have software that can accept them, you simply plug them in and away you go. You don’t have to set up a sound source first.

But having said that, I will always love MIDI above all other forms of recording because of its HUGE flexibility.


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Axis 64 Midi Controller

OK, I’m all for innovation and changing the way we do things for the better. So in the spirit of experimentation I thought I would post this cool MIDI controller I found online.

This guy, Peter Davies, redesigned the musical keyboard arranging the keys based on harmonic table.

Take a look. It’s pretty cool looking.

My initial thoughts are… what about velocity sensitivity and after touch. But these are issues that I’m sure could be addressed easily enough.

Let me know what you think of this device.
Do you like it?
Have you used it?
What are the drawbacks or benefits?

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MIDI Crossword Puzzle

MIDI Crossword Puzzle
MIDI Crossword Puzzle

Download Here:
(PDF) MIDI Crossword Puzzle Download

Here’s a challenge for all you MIDI fans out there.   Download this crossword puzzle and give it a shot.  If you are able to actually complete it, comment below and let me know that you did it.  I’ll be interested to see if you think it is difficult or easy. Certainly some of the clues are easier than others. But some are pretty hard.

If you guys like it, I’ll try to come up with more fun stuff like this in the future.

I’ll post the answer sheet once I’ve heard from some of you about it. Perhaps in a week or so. Or maybe sooner if there’s a demand for it.

So don’t wait! Comment below once you’ve tried it.

Happy Crosswording!

P.S. Go ahead and post this to your Facebook or Twitter.  Or email it to friends who might be interested.  Test their knowledge and see if they can finish it without your help.