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MIDI Latency
MIDI Latency

One of the common questions we get here at is regarding MIDI latency and how to correct it. This article explores what MIDI latency is, and what you can do about reducing its effects in your musical productions.

But before going into the remedies of the latency problem, let’s talk about what it is. Latency is the lag time between when any MIDI note is initially triggered to the time the sound actually exits the speakers. Latency is caused by the electronic processing needed to construct and send out each sound. There are many factors that contribute to the latency time in any given musical system.

Some of the devices that can affect latency time are: processor speed, RAM, sound cards, MIDI interfaces, USB interfaces, serial port interfaces, software program overhead drain, MIDI effects software, or MIDI player program. Essentially, any processing that needs to be done to the MIDI information before it sends out to the speaker will contribute to latency.

So then, what can you do about it? If you are experiencing MIDI latency problems, there are several steps you can take to combat the problem. The first and cheapest option to try is to examine the software you are using. Many software synths and MIDI sequencers actually have latency setting built into the program. This feature will allow you to set the latency time as low as you can. Setting the latency time too high will cause an annoying delay in the sound output. But too low of a setting and your computer will clip and stutter as the processor and software tries to keep up with the high demand. It’s your job to find that perfect balance for your particular setup.

If latency settings are not available to you however, start looking into upgrading your equipment. Or at least identifying the hardware you have that could be causing the problems. A better MIDI interface and sound card could do wonders. I’ve also read that USB interfaces are far less reliable than some other types of interfaces when it comes to latency. If you would like some more in-depth information on the specs of various equipment, take a look at these two articles by Martin Walker….. “The Truth About Latency”. I found them to be very helpful and informative. 

As these articles point out, most of the time the latency delay time is not nearly as big of a factor in producing MIDI music as is the consistency of that delay. Some hardware and MIDI interfaces perform more consistently than others. And according to experts, this is the bigger issue.

Anytime you are dealing with computer or software generated music you will have to deal with latency. There’s no way to get around that. It is possible however, to bring that latency time down to where you cannot detect it with the human ear. A little investigation work into your individual system’s components will go a long way towards giving you the results you desire.

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Using MIDI files with an external sound source

How to Connect MIDI Devices
Connect MIDI Devices

How to use these kinds of files in your keyboard and/or standalone midi sequencers.

What is a MIDI file?
MIDI is a means of communicating music information among synthesizers, keyboards, computers and other electronic sound equipment through digital messages. Unlike wave files, MIDI files do not contain any sound. Instead they contain commands that tell the receiving unit exactly what note to play, what sound it should be played with, how loud it is, and how long to hold the note on.

What this means is that when you get a MIDI file, you are getting a file that contains what the composer did on his keyboard. The file is fairly small because it contains no actual sounds or voice information. To play back this file you need either a keyboard with both a MIDI interface and a floppy drive or a computer with MIDI capable sound card.

Playing back a MIDI file.
Playing back a MIDI file is fairly simple to do. In most cases it is a matter of putting a disk that contains a MIDI file into the floppy drive of your keyboard, selecting the file to be played and playing it. Since MIDI is such a common standard, it truly is this easy.

Playing MIDI files is extremely simple, but getting the most out of the play back can take a little more work. Consider, for example, playing your MIDI file back on a PC with a standard sound card. You will quickly find that the sounds coming from your computer may be a little flat or lifeless compared when the same piece is played on a keyboard.

The reason for this is found in how sound cards work. Sound cards have a wave table IC that contains the sampled sound of many instruments. Due to the expense and work involved in sampling these sounds few standard sound cards contain sampled sounds that are even close to the quality found in most keyboards or sound modules.

A keyboard has been designed to reproduce high quality sounds. A sound card has been designed to produce sound, not necessarily “high quality”. So what can you do about this? The answer is simple, connect the MIDI output of your sound card, to the MIDI input on your keyboard, and set your computer to play the MIDI file out to the keyboard. Now when you play back the same musical piece, the keyboard will play it with its full sound compliment instead of using your low quality sound card sounds.

Also worth noting… there are available now, high quality sound cards with “synth” engines built into them. These cards are typically much more expensive than your average generic sound card though. Consult your local music store for more information about this.

How do I connect MIDI devices?
Connecting MIDI devices is a fairly simple task. The standard cable for MIDI is a 5-pin cable with a small round connector. This cable carries the digital commands from one unit to another.

To connect the MIDI devices start with the master unit. All MIDI units will have jacks labeled as IN, OUT and most have a THROUGH. Take a suitably sized MIDI cable and go from the OUT of the main unit to the IN on the slave unit. Then take a second MIDI cable and go from the IN of the first unit to the OUT on the slave unit. (Note: the Out from one unit cannot connect to the OUT of the other. This will not work. An OUT must always connect to an IN).

Now that the digital command links have been established you can begin to establish the audio connections. Start with the slave device and run a patch cable from the audio out to the audio input on your mixer or amp.

These simple connections are all that are required. Now you can use the main unit to cause any of the other unit(s) to play music as you see fit. Remember the shorter the cable run the better the signal quality will be. And it is not recommend to run more than 4 or 5 units in a MIDI chain as the signal can become weak and unstable.

Further details.
The exact details for playing back MIDI files on your keyboard, sequencer or drum machine will vary with different models. While the basic steps are usually the same, the best source of instruction is yours owners manual.

If your instrument has a disk drive, normally you would start by saving a MIDI file on a standard DOS formatted disk. After the file is saved, you insert the disk into the floppy drive on your digital instrument. Use the built in floppy drive controls to select the MIDI file on the disk and then select play.

Playing back a MIDI file on your PC may be slightly more complicated but still is very simple. The first step is to ensure that the MIDI drivers for your sound card or MIDI ports are installed and enabled. The information that came with your sound card will tell you how to this properly.

On a PC it is very common to use some sort of music editing software to play back or modify a MIDI file. Follow the manufacturer’s directions to install your music editing software and ensure that it works with your sound card.

Once the software and hardware are ready you can begin having fun. Insert the disk with the MIDI file into your PC’s floppy drive and open the file with your music editing software. The software will allow you to play or change the file as needed.

As you can see, thanks to industry standards, using MIDI files is fairly simple to do. You will be amazed with the possibilities that are opened up once you begin working with MIDI files.

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Cool ways to use these MIDI drums for fun.

Music Fun
Music Fun

Forget work, huge recording studios, expensive gear, towering effects racks, and sequencing learning curves. Let’s talk about how to use these MIDI Drum Files just for fun.

Out of the 10,000 or so people that have accessed our drum files recently, a large percentage of them use the files to back up original music tracks. Another block of people download them specifically as cell phone ringtones (more about how to do that in a later email). But hidden in there somewhere is a group of people that come up with creative uses for these files just for fun. I thought you might like to hear some of the stories and get some creative ideas for yourself.

Take Mary (San Francisco, Ca), for example. After getting our complete set of MIDI Drum Files, she selected about 35 and proceeded to chain them all together using Cakewalk’s Sonar 3. She added some strings over the top of the beats and converted them into one long MP3. Now they can be heard almost every day in the lobby of her ‘modern dance’ studio in Southern San Francisco. Thanks Mary.

Then there’s Toby (Springfield Mo.)… Junior High camp director. He bought these files for a 2003 summer camp he was involved with in Missouri. Selecting out the Rap and Rave, beats he gave the students one week to come up with the best rap about their counselors. The kids were able to pick the beat they wanted and could perform it in front of everybody. The show was a screaming success and the performers had their friends rolling on the floor with laughter. Thanks Toby.

OK, its Halloween night, the lights are dark, the spider webs are hung above the entry way. Who better to greet unsuspecting trick-or-treeters than Snoop Doggy Dog Himself…. Or at least Mark H. of Houston TX. made up to look like ‘The Dog’. The drum files play all around his house to make it sound like one of his rap song drum beats. He greets the kids who stop by. Most of them ask if he really is Snoop. Thanks for the creativity Mark.

These are some stories that have come from creative people over the years who not only get good use out of our MIDI Drum Files, but also have fun with them in the process. If you have any stories like these of creative ways to use our drum files… Please let us know about it.