In a digital world, why use MIDI?

It seems bizarre that in a world where you can have a complete recording studio, including instruments, effects, recorder and mixer in a laptop, why would someone use old, noisey and quite frankly bulky external MIDI gear? More to the point, why would you use computers around 20 years old to control them?

When it's put like that, it does seem more than a little silly, but it misses the point on 2 counts.

Lets look at the computers first, which after all is why this site was first created. The humble Atari ST and its decendents ruled the roost in music studio's for around a decade. Even as the PC and Macintosh took over and sidelines the Atari's, they were still workhorses in many studio's right up to the mid 90's and even now they can be found lurking in the most unexpected places. While the PC and Macintosh advanced and became more powerful, it was often said that the timing on the Atari's was always tighter and had a better 'feel', but as there was no support and no consistent advancement of the platform, people turned increasingly to newer technology and people convinced themselves that newer was better.

As has been proven in test after test, the Atari MIDI timing was always better than the computers that replaced it, however with the original ST and STe series, this was only true on the internal ports and if using an external serial interface, only if that had a single MIDI port. Even devices like C-Labs LOG-3 and Steinbergs MIDEX interfaces, adding additional ports could allow timing to slip, but faster machines like the Mega STE, the mighty TT030 and the Falcon030 could drive up to 9 MIDI ports in Cubase without too much issue. When using interfaces such as Soundpool's MO4 and multi-port serial interfaces on the higher speed serial ports on these machines, timing on all ports was pretty solid, allowing them to control a myriad of equipment without breaking a metophorical sweat.

In terms of sheer control, the Atari's were still king, it was just that the world had moved on.

But external MIDI keyboards and modules were still popular, even though the computers connected could not control them with precision. Each company had their own methods of generating sounds, and each system had its own character and (Dare I say it) soul. As times moved on, computers became more powerful and started hosting instruments internally, our beloved hardware was becoming software, and in the process lost much of its character. While you could get emulations of old classic systems, there was much being lost in terms of feel and vibrency. While new creative avenues were opening, the sound was dying.

More and more people are resturning to older equipment, and it's not the first time. Acid House came about because old analogue equipment was deemed worthless in the new digital age and young cash starved kids bought it and made something new with it. Hip-hop took the 12 bit samplers of old, again considered worthless in the new 16 bit CD quality age, and made drum loops and beats that had a character that manufacturers try to re-create today with the newer, cleaner sounding systems and miss the whole point as a result. Today people find yesterdays equipment at an affordable price and make what they feel comforatble with on that equipment, and many of those people are also looking at the platform that was domenant at the time of the modules release.

So why MIDI?

Well, a number of reasons, including sound, character and choice. Many modules do not have a direct software equivelent, which in some ways restricts the choice of sound palettes available in the software studio. The software studio is just too clean, making a sound that is as perfect as it can be, which then has effects added to add 'character'. What is the point in that? Real instruments have character because there are little variences between each one. Amplifiers depend on resistors and capacitors, each of which are unique. Software is software, exactly the same on each computer it is installed on. No variation, no character. In addition to this though, you also need some way of mixing the sounds fof multiple instruments together, and there is nothing better for doing this than the good old traditional mixing desk. Why is this better than software on a PC you may well ask, well for starters your default interface is NOT a mouse or trackpad, it is a proper physical, well thought out interface that has developed and served music producers over many years. Sure you can re-create this with control surfaces hanging off USB cables, but even then you don't have access to all the functions tight there in front of you, unless you have bottomless pockets and have one of the huge really expensive control surfaces which generally cost up to 40 times the amount a good taditional mixer would cost for a modest studio.

However it must also be remembered that with external MIDI equipment comes issues such as timing, number of MIDI ports and such like. As we know, you can get MIDI interfaces with 8 ports on the PC and Macintosh, but the timing is lousey. USB is currently the worst interface to put timing critical data along, in part because of the data structure but also because it could well be sharing its alloted space with mouse, keyboard and audio data if you are on a machine with only a few USB ports, but also the data gets fragmented within the operating system as it is passed from the application to the driver layer to the port and finally to the device to be decrypted and turned back into MIDI data and squirted down the correct port.

If you want to use this type of gear, and many people still do with more joining us every day, you need something built to handle it. This is either a dedicated hardware sequenced such as the Roland MC500, or an Atari.

MIDI gear is having a revival, welcome to the old skool