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What Is MIDI?

May is #MIDI month! The MIDI Association has dedicated May 2018 to getting the word out about MIDI. Are you familiar with MIDI? What does it have to do with scenes line the one pictured above or the concert hall? At Perennial, we are pleased to introduce MIDI to those of you who aren't quite sure.

First, please listen to the music in the video below. What do you hear? What instruments do you hear? What kind of expression? Does it feel like "real" music to you? What are your impressions?

Are you surprised to learn that the sounds you just listened to were all synthesized and created by created inside a computer? This is Hans Zimmer's demo that he created for the epic orchestral score for 2014's Interstellar. What secret technology did he use to create this moving piece soundscape? MIDI.

So, Let's Meet MIDI​...


MIDI is an acronym, standing for "Musical Instrument Digital Interface."​ It has been the standard of the music industry since its inception in 1983. It connects software, hardware, and digital musical instruments from various manufacturers and allows them to effectively "talk" to one another. It is used commercial music (i.e. EDM), art music (electro-acoustic), film and tv scoring, as well as live performances. MIDI is more than just for music and audio creation performance; it is also used to control lights and video in live performance that occurs in real-time, meaning live, right before your eyes.


The story of MIDI first began in the early 1980s. While some manufacturers had invented ways for their equipment to synchronize with others in the same brand, there was not yet a standard that enabled electronic music instruments of various brands and types (such as synthesizers, drum machines, samplers, turntables, etc.) to synchronize with one another. This proved a problem for both manufacturers and music creators as the new world of digital synthesizers made the idea of synchronization a reality.

​​​Roland founder, Ikutaro Kakehashi and Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits are known as the “Fathers of MIDI.” They began to work together to develop a ‘universal’ digital communication system for synthesizers in 1981. The first MIDI synthesizers were released in 1982. They were the Roland Jupiter-6 and the Prophet 600. They officially debuted the first version at ​​​NAMM in Winter 1983 connecting the Jupter-6 and the Prophet 600 in front of impressed attendees. The schematic

(engineer’s map) to the left shows their design. Kakehashi and Smith later received Technical Grammy Awards 30 years later, in 2013, in honor of this monumental work. (The picture to the left is Smith at the time of they received the Grammy.)


MIDI is closer to notation as a type of musical technology than an instrument. Rather than recording physical sounds, MIDI records performance information. It is a type of written language for music that is read by digital equipment, such as computers, synthesizers, and lighting systems. The types of data that it stores include position, note on/off, channel, pitch, velocity, and expression. This data is readily editable (as I will demonstrate in upcoming video posts.) Data is stored in system of 128 values (0-127.) (It is a 7-bit system, as 2^7 is 128. (The image shows an events list of MIDI data from Apple's Logic Studio.)

We will discuss more about bits and other computer concepts and terms in a future Computer Music Education post.) This is due to the limits of computer in 1983, and though our processing power is much more now, the same MIDI standard remains today.

Every DAW or Digital Audio Workstation has MIDI capability. Examples include Ableton Live, Logic Studio, GarageBand, Audacity, Sonar, Reason, Pro Tools, Maschine, Mark of the Unicorn (as seen in the 1987 video above,) and FL Studio. MIDI data can be sent or exported between DAWs, just as it was sent between physical instruments in the 1980s. This is called “ReWire.” A future video will take you step-by-step on how to use ReWire to allow Ableton Live and Logic Studio to “talk” to one another. Music notation software such as Finale and Sibelius, use MIDI as well. If you preview sheet music on music sales websites, such as or, the clickable demos they include on the page are playing the sheet music for you “live” through your computer using your computer’s own MIDI capability.


As mentioned earlier, MIDI is also a handy tool for synching video in real-time. VDMX is one standard tool that VJs and other visual artists use to do this. Others include PureData (PD,) an open-source or free program where the original source code is open to the public, Max/MSP/Jitter (a commercial product with a related history to PD,) ArKoas GrandVJ, and Modul8. The free Apple programming language Quartz Composer, which powers the iTunes visualizer, is an important tool for this. I will have video and article about these topics and more in the future. Take a look at my most popular ever The Art of the VJ. For a little about the history of this art form. Lights and other stage effects are also controlled by MIDI.

MIDI is the ultimate “ONE MAN BAND”

Watch these two Deadmau5 videos to see how he controls everything in his studio and live shows through MIDI. MIDI allows a music creator to truly become a “One-Man-Band,” where you can take control of every aspect of your musical performance through real-time manipulation and programming that has been carefully forethought and planned and synched.


The Akai EWI or Electronic Wind Instrument (pronounced eee-wee) is an electronic musical controller designed for wind instrument players. All EWI models can control external synthesizers or other MIDI instruments and can create MIDI data.

Mi.Mu Gloves which allow a player to perform music by gestures. Musician Imogen Heap (pictured,) along with a team, created these gloves so that "anyone can be a musician."

MIDI guitars are either guitars that incorporate a piece of software that converts you’re the instrument’s analog audio signal into a digital MIDI signal. Or, they are controllers (like Jamstick pictured above) that are built to replicate the feel of a guitar, but produces sound through iOS or MacOS. This makes it possible to use your standard guitar exactly as you would MIDI keyboard or MIDI controller.

Button controllers, such as Launchpad or Ableton Push, use buttons, knobs, and/or sliders to input MIDI data in a computer.

Tablets and smartphones can be used as MIDI devices. Touch screen technology makes entering data feel natural and emotive as pressure differences or sliding between notes is a breeze. (The screenshot above shows a "Smart Instrument" on an iPhone screen that is run inside the iOS DAW, Garageband.)

The MIDI sprout is an instrument that translates biodata from plants into sounds.

The Naonext Crystal Ball is designed specifically for creating dynamic live performances. It creates and controls sound, light and video and gives all your computer-aided creative work a new dimension.

Build your own MIDI controller. Using buildable devices, such as Arduino, it is easy to build your own MIDI device. Be creative. Make it your own.


MIDI Association

The MIDI Association’s aim is to create a global community for those who create music and art with MIDI. It is free to join, and they offer information about the latest technology as well as vintage MIDI gear.

Introduction to MIDI and Computer Music: The MIDI Standard

Indiana University offers a detailed explanation of the MIDI standard, its history and how it works.

Zzound’s MIDI Resources for Students and Teachers

Offers a large list of links to MIDI related websites, including libraries of listenable MIDI files, educational articles, and more.

Arduino - Open Source Software and Hardware

This is a tutorial for an advanced project where you can create your own MIDI device using an Arduino hardware kit.

DIY MIDI Controller

This site has many examples and suggestions for musicians looking to create their own controllers.


To discuss more about music and computers, the future of music, the relationship between visual art and music, and whatever other arts related topics are on your mind, reach out to us! Feel free to comment or email Let me know what you are doing to celebrate MIDI month.


Janae Jean has an extensive background in new media and music education. Janae is actively researching using electronically generated sounds for emotional and physical healing. Her other professional blog,, has more about her personal journey with music, her other creative projects, and wellness-related articles.


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