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MMD > Archives > September 2012 > 2012.09.06 > 06Prev  Next

MIDI Information for Orchestrion Design
By Julie Porter

[ Tom Noble wrote in 120904 MMDigest:

> I am looking for basic MIDI information so I can learn about it.

The best place to find basic information on MIDI is here in the MMD
Archives.  MIDI is a broad field, with much history.  It is also
fast changing and constant at the same time.  There was a really good
introductory page.  Sadly it is no longer online, however, it can be
accessed through the Internet archive pages. 

I once printed it out these pages which make a book I reference a lot.
(So it's an interesting example of paper being a more robust means of
information archival.)

What I think readers of the MMD desire is an index of where to start
when accessing this information, i.e., a primer.  Other times I see it
as a database of where to get free music to play on their instruments.

This is complicated because MIDI means different things to different
people.  To most it is audio -- the representation of sound as discreet
events.  These sounds can be mixed together into tracks.  An event can
be a physical event such as commanding to strike a piano string with a
hammer.  Or it could be a waveform sample, gigabytes in size, of that
same event.  Most modern computer operating systems such as Apple iOS
use the latter and see the MIDI as the same as a WAV file.

Such is driving audio and associated MIDI tracks more and more into
the world of corporate hardware control.  Apple no longer allows for
unprotected (DRM) MIDI events without a crypto chip license, such
demands that the market numbers in the millions.

 [ Digital Rights Management (DRM) describes a range of technologies
 [ which enable control of distribution and access to information.
 [ Ref. 
 [ -- Robbie

Historically, most MMD readers here see MIDI as a piano roll --
instructions to turn the notes of the piano on and off.  Typically
this was done through hardware and a DIN 5-pin "MIDI plug" sold by
Radio Shack, plus a 20-year-old DOS computer and a soundcard, none
of which are really offered for sale new anymore.

I have been coding a non-MIDI pipe organ recorder for an obsolete
organ relay.  The last few months have been spent coding a clock onto
it.  There was some grumbling that none of the other pipe organ relays
require one to set the time.  My captures of the pipe organ events are
saved to a SD card.  In theory they could be converted to MIDI or to
synthetic audio.  Such cards serve the same [purpose] as the paper the
piano roll is punched upon.  I had to implement the clock so anyone can
read the SD card.  One needs to know when the file was saved -- it is
only noticed when it is not there, so that one can save the combination
action piston settings onto a web page and access such from anywhere
there is a net connection.

Using a piano roll analogy gives us an idea of what MIDI is -- the
file which has a name ending with ".MID", a file that can be sent by
the computer over the wire and played on the piano.  Some people see
MIDI as a database of files which can be collected and shared, but
*.MID files are like other files on the computer and I like to think
of them as the paper the music is written on.

To me it helps to think that a *.mid file is no different than a text
file or an image file (such as a JPG file).  The same information can
be stored in all three file types.

Because most of us are interested in the basics, we ignore that a *.MID
file can contain text events such as the song name, copyright info,
history and lyrics.  We also ignore that *.mid files can contain images
(also lyrics and video that can be synched through SMPTE timecode).
We also ignore (up to a point) that *.mid files can contain sound
samples and modifications to these sound samples ("Doctor Who" score
and sound tracks, Theremin effects and pitch bends).  The theme to the
Titanic movie can only be performed by MIDI.

The one audio modification we do not tend to ignore is the volume or
velocity of the note, which is what is called the "information", like
the capitol "I" in what is now called "IP", information property and
intellectual property being the same thing.

Returning to the hardware.  Most people see the file sequencer first.
This handles the conversion from the data file to [wireline] events.
Next is seen the cable and connector, which can be as simple as the
5-pin RS cable or as complex as the Internet-over-wireless exchange.

The remaining part is the device that converts the "information"
into something physical.  In our example this information is the
orchestration -- the jazz and the rags that the instrument plays is
the media.  Typically this is done with electronic valves, which use
pneumatics to amplify the pressure and strike the piano strings or
sound the organ pipes.

There are a number of valve control devices that have been made to
do this over the last 130 years, from the time Robert Hope-Jones
made an electromagnetic pipe organ in the 1880s.  The simplest method
is to re-purpose a pipe organ chest to connect to a MIDI controller.
Interestingly, writers over the years have equated such with the
complexity of the brain.

Over the last 20 years or so, dedicated improvements have been made
to use rare earth magnets to make these valves smaller and more
dedicated to orchestration use.  Computer chips used to control the
fuel efficiency of automobiles are cheap and can be had for a few
dollars each.  Modern cars have dozens of these devices in them.

There are about half a dozen engineering consultants, most whom I think
read the MMD (myself included), that can and have supplied "solutions."
To MMD readers here, my guess is that there are 100 or more here on-line
whom have the talent to do so, but have not invested the time needed.
Some of this subject came up at the MBSI meeting this last weekend,
related to the case of music roll scanners.  I was only able to attend
the Rally as I spend most of my waking time working on such

The electronics needed to connect the rare earth magnets to the MIDI
wire and then to the "information" is something called a shift
register.  Any electronics hardware engineer can make such a device.
Over the last three years there has been an explosion (due to the
express need to teach science and engineering to young people) of small
computing devices with the unlikely names of Arduino (Italian for blood)
or Raspberry Pi.  This is the focus of the 18- to 30-year-old generation,
who do not consider themselves other than artists or entertainers.

Specifically, these devices are based on the tiny computers that now
exist in automobiles or the factories that make such automobiles, or
the thermostat in your house, or the security light timer that fails
after a few months!

Recently I was using Google to translate for myself more of the 1920s
book, "Le Monde des Automata", as well as 100-year-old Swiss newspapers
(where the information in the automata book came from.)  Google kept
replacing the French word "automate" with PLD.  A PLD is another name
for a robot that operates a car factory or other industrial process.
Technically it is also the robot brain that controls something like the
orchestration MIDI.  Some of this is so new that we do not have names
for it.

This is why the subject has become complex.  Anyone under 30 (and some
of us in our 50s, too!) can understand Raspberry Pi, a hardware device
that can connect to the electronic valves.  The solution is obvious,
yet these same people are taught that they must "own" and patent the

In short there are simply too many people with too many ideas for
agreement as to what MIDI is, let alone basic MIDI.  Right now someone
is thinking that they can control the intellectual value of such a
device, while others are thinking that someone is going to steal their
information property without compensation and it must be stopped.

The complexity is like language translation.  A *.MID file can contain
any audio waveform plus images.  One would not expect an orchestration
to play Russian political lectures (Russian overtures perhaps).  Better
yet would be to play Russian ragtime, or perhaps the ragtime compositions
of the children of Russian emigrants.

Currently there are cultural issues regarding the ownership of music.
What if one is wanting to add MIDI to a piano to play songs that were
not sold to play on it?  How does this differ from one who wants to
copy, say, an old movie or TV program, and make a device to play that?

Most of the 100 or so people who joined the Rollscanners group joined
because they want free music.  I did my best to make a system that
others could build, to share how to build, but it was not what was
wanted.  Economically there is no value in designing and selling a
system that can be used to steal what belongs to someone else.

Should MIDI be a product, packaged like an iPhone, controlled by
individuals who compete?  Or could it be a disciplined club like the
Ham Radio Amateurs who build kits and exchange information, or a
secret society like the Rosecrucians?

Returning now to a hypothetical primer.  What I started to
write relating to things like VanBasco's MIDI player (many deleted
paragraphs in this reply) is in violation of the DMCA [Digital
Millennium Copyright Act] and related stuff.  On attempting to
distill this information into a primer it soon becomes marketing
literature, with bullet points, competitive analysis and other noise.
Other times it turns into a history lesson of 20-year-old computing.

The real goal, though, would be how to combine and write such a primer
that is accessible across the generations from Rasberry Pi controllers
to can-opening church keys!  A primer that doesn't force ideas onto
others but rather is a way to discuss and accept the ideas of others.

Julie Porter

   [ Raspberry Pi controllers: 
   [ Arduino controllers: 
   [ -- Jody

(Message sent Thu 6 Sep 2012, 21:18:24 GMT, from time zone GMT-0700.)

Key Words in Subject:  Design, Information, MIDI, Orchestrion

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