Musical Instrument Digital Interface

An example of what you can do with Midi 

I created this midi of "America the Beautiful", then separated out the background instrumentals into one midi file, and the two Clarinet lead parts into two other separate midi files.  Then I used "Midi Notate" to create two "Clarinet Only" scores for my daughter to play.  Finally, I used "Cool Edit Pro" in multi-track mode, inserted the instrumentals into Track 1, played it back while my daughter recoreded the lead Clarinet onto Track 2, and re-recorded her onto Track 3 for the 2nd clarinet part.  Then I mixed the three traks down, and added reverb to make it sound better, and saved it as an MP3.  Here is the result !!

Midi of all Parts
(America the Beautiful)
Final MP3 
(the Midi Instruments and My Daughter playing the two Clarinet Parts)

How to tell if your Sound Card's has an excellent Midi Engine 

The vast majority of sound cards have crappy midi engines.  But there are a few that are superb, and have excellent wavetables.  The best way to tell if your onw card is up to snuff, is to listen to a recorded midi from a system with a good midi card.  Then play the actual Midi file on your PC and see if it sounds as good.  Here are a few quick MP3 recorded midi files using various sound cards and also the basic synth midi engine of the "Titanic Song" (The Heart goes On) to compare with:

NOTE:  the AWE64 Gold is no longer made, but had the best midi sound font bank ever, for a mid-range card.  But don't buy on eBay because Creative Labs never made WinXP drivers, and the Microsoft drivers sound lousy.

IMPORTANT:  many system's web browsers are configured to use WMplayer or Quicktime to play midi files.  WMplayer works fine and uses the true midi engine from your card.  However, Quicktime uses it's own sucky player.  So for a true comparison of a Quicktime browser system - instead, ringhtclick and download the files, then play them in WMplayer/

The best amateur midi card ever made (IMO) was the old AWE64 Gold from Creative Labs.  The Audigy2 is close, and that is what I use now.  I wanted to keep my AWE64 Gold, but Creative never released WinXP drivers for it.  So I was forced to switch.

Anyway, listen to some of the samples on this page - recorded from my Audigy2.  Then play the midi file and compare.  Your system should sound very similar to the recorded MP3 when you play the midi file. because the MP3's are recorded directly from the same midi file.  The most common problem is weak bass and instruments that sound like simulated music, or like a series of "organs".  You card should play midi's and sound like actual, authentic, real music !!!  If it true wavetable card, with accurate looping, then it should replicate the instruments very closely. 

Introduction to Midi

 If you are into Music, Midi files open up an entire world that allows you to create virtually any type of music on the PC !!!  Most Midi sites offer up elementary school, simplistic midi's thast sound like someone one-fingering a piano.  But if you take the time to learn how - a midi files can VERY ACCURATELY play complex, artful compositions, complete with a full suite of instruments, and all the effects that you normally hear with recorded albums (such as pitch bends, reverb, tempo changes, etc).

How Midi has become so Amazingly Realistic - the reason Midi has gone from an annoying, simple, "Gaming" type of organ-grinder sound, to a beautiful representation of authentic music - is due to the advent of "wavetable" sound cards, that contain short, recorded samples of actual instruments, which are looped repeatedly to create the true sound of that instrument (more on that later).

Original Song Sample (Mp3)

Midi (recorded to an MP3)

Proof of the Realism that is possible to obtain by sequencing your own Midi's

Midi Defined - Midi is pronounced "middy"  -  and stands for "Musical Instrument Digital Interface".  It is a standard for controlling devices, such as synthesizers and sound cards, that emit music.  Here we cover the basics, but will skip the details, because midi is a very complex topic, with many, many internal formats and proprietary standards  (see www.midi.org for more details and http://www.borg.com/~jglatt/tutr/miditutr.htm for some fantastic tutorials).  Check out his entire site at http://www.borg.com/~jglatt/ 

Midi files do not contain actual sound !!  Instead, they contain a sequence of "messages" that are sent to your sound card's Midi engine and are converted to sound.  Since a midi file is just a sequence of messages - the process of writing midi's is called "sequencing".

Midi files are very, very Tiny - the amazing property of midi is that is can store entire 3-to-4 minute songs in a tiny file ranging from 20 to 50 kB.  Compare this to the "incredible" compression of an MP3, which reduces 40 MB wav files down to 3 to 4 MB !!


Midi is the least understood, and perhaps most exciting component of the personal computer.  Most exciting??  Those little organ grinders ??  YES !!  It opens up a huge range of possibilities.  With midi you can create virtually any sound for Video clip backgrounds, karaoke, accompaniments for instrumentals, or just plain listening.  

A Bad Reputation

Early FM synthesized midi was terrible.  It brings back memories of the annoying kid with the Gameboy, and the old DOS games, which made you want to take a sledgehammer to the speakers.

But with the right equipment and decent compilations, your midi's won't sound like that cheap accordion anymore.  Those tiny little files will spring to life, and suddenly you will hear a full symphony, or an all-out heavy metal band with deep, pounding bass and searing guitar solos !!.  Well  .  .  .  that is, if the midi was sequenced by a proficient author.

There is a lot of poor midi equipment still out there - and a ton of lousy midi files !!  Most midi's on the web were sequenced by amateurs, and sound like somebody playing a piano with one finger.  Hence the reputation. 

Here you will learn about a card that has almost perfect reproduction of the 128 midi instruments.  You will learn how to write midi's for yourself (if you want to), and you will be introduced to a comparison of various midi formats so that you can decide for yourself which way to go.

"Professional" Midi's

The only true "professional sounding midi's" are the ones that the top few amateurs (such as your's truly) sequence.

Professional midi tracks can be found as the background music with many of the PC games - although many now use proprietary sound-engines.  It is a bit more difficult to find them professional midi's for download.  If you visit the many midi websites out there, you will find tons of horrible midi's.  Unfortunately they do not filter out the bad ones.

There really is not much incentive for a pro to make midi files for online purposes.  However, there is one large depot of pro midi compilations - you can listen to short samples for free but must pay for the entire midi :  Tune 1000  -  of course, you would think that these would be incredible, BUT they do not sound anywhere close to midi's that the good amateurs write !!  Here are a couple of comparisons - the pro sequencing vs my own sequencing :

Original Song (MP3) - Spirit of Radio Tune 1000 Midi of Spirit of Radio
Original Song (Mp3) - ByTor My own Midi of ByTor

Midi Comparisons - recorded to MP3 to insure Quality is consistent

It's amazing they can actually sell that sing-songy crap.  To be honest, I do create very detailed midi files - especially when it comes to rock music, which requires months to correctly sequence a long guitar solo, with all it's intricate pitch bends.  You can hear the way the By-Tor midi still sounds like a midi - but  follows the original - very, very closely.  I have done a few "Rush" midi's - specializing in their long, epic's - that feature guitar solos lasting several minutes.  That is why it takes 3 months to complete - the pitch bends take forever!!  Very few people take the time to make sure the solo is replicated note-for-note, including every single bend of the string.  You can do the same, so long as you have an ear for music, and take your time.

Midi Projects - Finalizing with Analog Tracks

Musicians often use midi only for the baseline music - and then add voice and other instruments in analog (wav file format).  You only need to play the midi and record it at the same time to convert it to wav.  Then add any additional tracks that you wish, and finalize it by converting to MP3, since wav's take up a lot of hard drive space.

I use CoolEdit, because it allows you to hear the original instrumental tracks being played as you record a new voice track with the microphone. 

Here is a recent compilation I did just for fun, and I include it here just to show you what you can do if you take the time to learn midi.  I laid down my own midi tracks for a jazz compilation, added a voice track for the finished tune, which I converted to MP3 using 56k to minimize the files size yet still retain enough quality- sounds great for something whipped up on a PC !!  (not the voice - I know, I know - don't quit my day job).  

Click Here to give it a listen (1 MB).  

Anyway the point is - this is a 3-minute song that I made myself completely - and anyone can do this !!  You can write the midi music, convert it to wav and add anything you like, then compress it down.  For quick projects that you want to email to friends and family, you can use 56k mono MP3, which surprisingly sounds great.  Midi truly opens up a fascinating world, if you just spend some time with it.

How Midi Works

To explain midi, it would help if we define the main, popular audio file formats, and compare them to midi : 

You can see what a tiny amount of data is needed to play that trombone sound with midi !!

PC Midi

Midi on the PC is controlled by the sound card - and this is where you will want to be careful before making a purchase.  Most sound card have very poor midi engines within the electronics of the card.  One extra feature of PC midi is that you can connect specialized keyboards and guitars to a "Midi In" port, and record the music as you play to a midi file.  It can even detect the amount of pressure on the keys using a feature known as "after touch".

The midi I/O port on a sound card is typically the same 15-pin port that is used for the Joystick.  Frustrating for gamers that also use Midi keyboards.

But the vast majority use their PC midi for music output only via the sound card's speaker jacks - so we will concentrate only on that aspect.

FM Synthesis

Older midi had only one type of codec - those that "synthesized" the instruments from scratch using frequency modulation.  Therefore, it is up to the quality of the sound card's midi synthesis engine as to how good the sound will be.  None were able to reproduce instruments effectively.  If you are a bit older you may remember the old game of Doom - which had a cheesy midi soundtrack. FM Synthesized midi is terrible, and that is what gave it the "organ grinder" reputation.

Wave Synthesis - Wavetable Midi Sound Cards

In the 90's, a great idea came to the rescue.  Instead of simulating the instruments, why not record tiny samples of the actual instruments and save these samples in the card's DRAM memory ??  It was a miraculous concept, and it spawned an entire generation of new sound cards, called "wavetable cards".  "Wave Synth" is the term for this type of midi synthesis, since it uses actual wave files stored in the card's ROM or the system RAM to play the music.

Daughter Cards

Actually pioneered by Creative Labs when they introduced their first 16-bit SoundBlaster, the concept of a daughter board has been adopted by a number of synth manufacturers -- including Yamaha and Roland. The idea is that you can attach an additional synth to your main soundcard using the connector provided for the purpose, as Paul White has already explained on page 162. This allows you to buy a low-cost soundcard and then upgrade it later, should you find that you need more and/or better-quality sounds. If you want to go along this route, you should check that your soundcard has a WaveBlaster-compatible connector. Yamaha's XG and Roland's SoundCanvas sounds are now available on daughter boards, and Creative Labs offer Emu sounds on their WaveBlaster.