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Recording Handbook
Chapter 7: The MIDI Revolution

7. The MIDI Revolution

This truly has been a revolution of music power and access to it. It began in the early 1980's, as small computer chips were finding their way into synthesizers. Several forward looking manufacturers of real vision had the brilliant idea to establish a standard for communication between devices. This became the first MIDI protocol. The MIDI standard has been expanding and improving since then and just about every electronic musical device made today comes with MIDI plugs and some kind of implementation.

a. Sequencers

The first "sequencers" in the 1970's were analog. They were initially designed to playback a pattern that you "stepped" in one note at a time and had a control to set the speed of the playback. They had a very limited pattern memory and there was no standard way to lock any other device to them. MIDI sequencers changed all that.

Hardware MIDI sequencers began to appear in the early 1980's. They were cheap and easy to use. The Roland MC-500 and Yamaha QX series were very popular early models. As personal computers became cheaper and more widely available, "software" sequencers began to appear. Dr.T for the Commodore C-64 was an early pioneer. Soon the Apple MacIntosh and Atari 1040 ST came on the scene and names like "Performer", "Notator", "MasterTracks", "Vision" and "Cubase" became widely known software titles.

Software based sequencers are versatile, powerful devices which have several advantages over their hardware cousins. Easy updates through software, a much larger monitor screen to view information on and more intensive editing capabilities are just a few. The range of options and features is vast. A recent innovation is the incorporating of digital recording into the sequencing program itself.

Confusion about Midi Clock and Midi Time Code (MTC) is very common. MTC and Midi Clock are related but actually intended for different purposes. Midi clock came first and its principle role is to tell listening midi devices what the tempo is(primarily sequencers and drum machines). Midi Song Pointer came next and it tells other midi devices where bar 1 is, where bar 2 is, etc. As you can imagine, a high degree of accuracy (we're talking milliseconds here) is needed for consistent control and lockup between video decks, audio machines and midi equipment running together. Midi Time Code(MTC) was developed to give midi devices an absolute reference point, much finer than bars or beats. Midi machine control(MMC) allows the sequencer to chase the audio recorder OR for the audio recorder to chase the sequencer! Midi Machine Control uses MTC to keep things locked up to a very tight degree of resolution.

Most newer programs and MIDI devices support MTC and MMC. JL Cooper makes several different boxes for communicating across formats. I use their DataMaster to read SMPTE off my 1/2" 16-track and convert that to "ADAT speak" to lock my ADAT to the 16-track. The DataMaster also supports MTC and MMC, but my sequencer doesn't. That's okay, I'll keep my Notator and Atari 1040-ST for now!

b. Synthesizers

Synthesizers have changed dramatically since computer chips began showing up in their circuitry in the early 1980's. Before that, they were rather cumbersome machines given to tuning instability, usually two voices at best and had to be reprogrammed manually for each new sound. The famous mini-moog and Arp synthesizers were popular models in the 1970's.

The first truly polyphonic modern synthesizer with patch memory was the Sequential Circuits "Prophet 5" which debuted in 1980. It had analog osciltors and their usual tuning problems but it's patch memory and programming versatility revolutionized the industry and the use of synthesizers for live performance. For the first time, keyboard players could change sounds with the touch of a button.

Digital oscilators soon followed and all variations of synthesis techniques were exploited in one form or another. The "polyphony", or how many simultaneous voices could be produced by these units, also began to increase. The MIDI protocol allowed you to have a different sound on each of 16 MIDI channels limited only by the capabilities of your MIDI synthesizer. The Yamaha FB-01 was one of the earliest synth "modules" to take advantage of this MIDI feature.

The Yamaha DX-7 became the most popular digital keyboard of the mid-1980's. Roland also produced many popular keyboards in it's Jupiter and Juno series. Korg introduced onboard effects with it's DW-6000 and DW-8000 synths. Korg hit another homerun with the M-1 synthesizer, introduced around 1990. One of the first "workstation" designs, it combined sampling technology and synthesis to produce breakthrough sonics along with an onboard sequencer and digital effects, to once again up the ante in the synthesizer race. MIDI synthesizers keep getting more powerful all the time for less money, and that trend continues.

c. Samplers

"Samplers" are like synthesizers in a lot of ways. In a synthesizer, oscilators produce the raw sound that is then modified by filters and LFO's and sent through envelopes and amplifiers, etc. In a sampler, on the other hand, the raw sound source can be anything that they sample. Then you can apply all the filters, LFO's, envelopes and amplifiers to that.

The first keyboard samplers available in the early 1980's were the EMu Emulator series. With an integrated 5 1/4" discdrive, they were big, heavy and expensive and awesome sounding. The Akai S-612 and Ensoniq Mirage were two of the first inexpensive rack mounted MIDI samplers. The prize for the first inexpensive MIDI polyphonic keyboard sampler goes to the Casio FZ-1.

It appeared in 1985 and had 8 outputs and a standard 3 1/2" discdrive for saving. Akai made the very popular S-900 rack mount samplers which evolved into the S-950. Then stereo samplers came along and like everything else, they just keep getting more powerful and less expensive. Recent options available include built-in CD Rom, SCSI hard disc and optical digital interfaces.

d. Computers

Computers have become essential in modern music making. They are found in synthesizers, recording devices, effects, automation and synchronization systems. They made the MIDI revolution possible.

The most popular music software in the 1980's was written for the Apple MacIntosh and Atari 1040-ST computers. In Europe, the Atari was the dominant machine and C-Lab "Notator" and Steinberg "Cubase" were two popular programs. In the US market, the Atari computers were much less expensive than the Macs but in the early 90's, having business difficulties, they eventually disappeared from the market here. Atari still enjoys a large presence in Europe and introduced the Falcon series there which includes 8-track digital recording capabilities straight out of the box!

The Mac has always had a rabid following despite the more expensive hardware cost. "Performer", "Vision" and "MasterTracks Pro" were all strong sequencer packages written for it. The hardware prices have moderated somewhat and it still enjoys a loyal user base and large share of the music market.

The IBM was not that popular for music at first. Voyetra Systems had an early sequencing package for it but it wasn't until "Windows" came along in the late 1980's that more software was written for it. "Cakewalk" became a popular program for this platform in the early 1990's and soon others followed. E-Magic's Logic Audio is a powerful digital recording and sequencing package that was originally written for the Mac, and later ported over to the Windows platform.

The real breakthrough for IBM has been it's rapidly expanding market share due to the popularity of "Windows", the ever increasing power of the chips that drive the PC and the price differential between PC's and Macs. The 386 gave way to the 486 which gave way to the Pentiums and their speed and efficiency keeps growing. Apple had the edge on digital recording systems at one time but the "Windows/IBM" platform has now caught up in most respects.

Hard disc recording systems are rapidly evolving and computers are doing the recording and acting as the "front-end" interface between the operator and recorder. The "SoundScape" hard disc recording system from the UK uses a dedicated hardware recorder and a windows front-end. ProTools, which previously only developed software for Macs, released the "Session 8", an 8-track hard disc recorder, for the windows platform in 1993 and now ProTools is fully supported on the PC platform as well.

The computers have gotten powerful enough to handle it; so now you can sequence your synthesizers and program your drums, then record your guitar amp and vocals into the computer and arrange the digitally recorded tracks against the sequenced tracks all from within the same program. "Vision" for the Mac, "Cakewalk Pro" and C-Lab "Logic" for the PC and "Cubase" for the Atari Falcon all have this capability.

Skip to 2013 and the major players have reshuffled the deck. "Logic", "Cubase" and "Cakewalk" are probably the big 3 integrated recording/MIDI software titles.

Digital recording and editing are logical jobs for the computer and there are many systems taking advantage of this power. Basically, the computer acts like a word processor for music. The material is recorded into the computer and then you cut it up and rearrange it, EQ it, adjust it and put it back together however you like. There are the usual complement of now standard AES/EBU digital ins and outs. Newer designs are incorporating digital interfaces for the popular Alesis ADAT and Tascam DA-88 digital recorders.

Another great use for a digital editing system is recording your mixes in pieces. If you don't have console automation and the mix is too complicated, simply record your song in segments and edit it together. Several powerful digital editing programs are available now including "SAW Plus" and "Sound Forge".



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