The MIDI debate. 

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MIDI files, who needs 'em?

Slow down, there may be more to this than meets the eye.

Now you can download MP3s, write your own CDs and minidisks, log on with Kazzaa, or choose from a dazzling array of music radio stations and TV channels, would anyone seriously consider listening to a MIDI file? Well I say... the MIDI file is dead.... long live the MIDI file! It's easy to forget that in the third millennium, most of the commercial music you hear has been originated, processed, or synchronised with some aspect of MIDI applications somewhere along the line, and if you are at all into the more poppy end of the market you could have been listening to MIDI files (admittedly super processed ones) for nearly 30 years! So what is my point exactly? I just want to defend the MIDI file against a current misunderstanding that a MIDI file is purely and exclusively one of those dodgy little files that plays your PC sound card through the Windows Media Player. 

For most PC users, the humble offerings from Microsoft provided with Windows will be their first encounter with the concept of MIDI. After a taste of that, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps they've wandered up a cul-de-sac. I don't want to fall into the trap of trying to justify MIDI files by explaining the whole concept of MIDI, but I would like to remind you that there may me more to a MIDI file than immediately meets the eye! Let's not beat about the bush, there are hundreds of thousands of MIDI files littering the Internet and sadly, most of them really are no more than litter! Good quality MIDI files are hard to come by. However, take a moment to pause for thought before you rush to judgement. Do not throw out the baby with the bathwater. First, consider the piece of hardware that actually creates the sound that the MIDI file activates in your headphones or speakers. If you have a sound card that cost around 50, a portion of that cost is swiped in profits and overheads for the retailer and wholesaler. The manufacturer also needs to make a living (deserves is another question!) as well as cover costs, so the manufacturing cost of the card may be less than 10, and the chip that provides the MIDI instrument sounds is only one component of that card.

Question. Do you seriously expect your 5 sound chip to compete in sound quality with an audio production created in Elton John's squillion pound studio complex? On the other hand, MIDI files have a flexibility which completed audio products don't. Yes, you can sample and reprocess audio sections on a bar by bar, or even beat by beat basis, but you can't isolate the bass part and play it back on a completely different instrument. "Well who would want to do that anyway?" you may ask. If you just did, then read no further, this article is for people who have some understanding of music (or at least would like to)! The difference between a Jamiroquai CD and a MIDI file is a bit like the difference between a Jaguar XK8 sports coupe and an experimental prototype kit car. The one is complete, and if it appeals to your taste, if you can afford it, you need look no further. Simply enjoy! The potential of the prototype depends on what tools or 'know how' you can apply to it. Are your own strengths and interests in working on changing the look and design, or how well the engine works? Do you just fancy changing to a different set of alloys, or do you want to convert the whole thing from a saloon to an off-roader? Don't forget though, the XK8 was also a prototype once! You might get away with changing the wheels on an XK8, but try converting it to a 5-door estate, and I suspect it might lose something!

Whether you like it or not, if you ever watch telly, or listen to commercial music, then you listen to MIDI files! The difference between these files and the Microsoft Media player things is just that the ones you hear on the box are posher. They have had more time lavished on them, and the synthesisers and samplers being used have sound generating chips that cost a bit more than a fiver! They are often integrated with recordings of actual instruments or vocals. Furthermore, the people doing the work for TV and film music are likely to include highly paid professionals. MIDI files are used in advertising jingles, program theme tunes and mood music. Listen to an American movie, and chances are the audio track will have been composed using MIDI.

So what? The point of all this is knowing how to get the best out of the MIDI files you can get access to, and sadly that involves a cost! You need software! A Media player is fine, (some people enjoy running around in experimental cars!) but a MIDI file, unlike an audio file can be completely taken apart and rebuilt. You can even do that on you own PC or on some mid and top range music keyboards. Yes, all of this does require some knowledge and understanding of music and technology, but that is precisely the point. A MIDI file IS a marriage of music and modern technology, and in a format that offers frightening potential and extraordinary usefulness to music performers and educators. Uses for performers like changing the tempo without changing pitch, or vice versa. Yes the technology exists to do that with audio now, but it's so simple with MIDI, even the most basic MIDI software (other than a media player!) lets you do that! Uses for teachers, like music minus one, yes you can buy stuff ready made in the music shops, but what if you want to minus the bass player today, the solo brass part tomorrow, and the drummer the next day. With a MIDI sequencer, you can mute tracks with ease, not to mention slow down tempo, loop a tricky section, or both(!) for rehearsal purposes! How much usefulness do you want? 

Still not convinced that the MIDI file rules? OK, take an audio track and find me some software to convert it to a score, and provide parts for the individual players. Gotcha! Even in millennium 3, there is no software that gets that clever. This is an essential application for the music industry at large and the educational process as well. With MIDI files and some score-writing software (yeah, OK, good programmes may not be all that cheap) you can not only convert to printed scores, but provide transpositions, rearrangements and player clarifications to your hearts content. It isn't always fast and easy, the point is that if there is the desire or a need, a MIDI file means you can!