Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 142 / JULY 1992 / PAGE S5

How to get started with MIDI. (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) (Compute's Getting Started with PC Sound) (Buyers Guide)
by David English

Now that it's part of the official MPC (Multimedia Personal Computer) standard and Windows 3.1, you're going to hear a lot more about MIDI. It stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and it was developed in the 1970s by a group of synthesizer manufacturers. MIDI is a communications standard that allows electronic musical instruments to talk to computers and to each other. Most of today's electronic keyboards have MIDI interfaces built in--especially the high-end keyboards. There's even a segment of the software market that caters to professional MIDI-based musicians through two widely-distributed MIDI magazines (Keyboard and Electronic Musician).

If your PC has a sound card, you may already have a MIDI interface built into your sound card. The Sound Blaster Pro includes a MIDI adapter, while the Pro AudioSpectrum Plus, Pro AudioSpectrum 16, Ad Lib Gold, and original Sound Blaster can be easily equipped for MIDI. Most professional musicians use a MIDI interface that conforms to the earlier Roland MPU-401 standard, so you may run into software that doesn't work with some of the sound-card MIDI interfaces. Fortunately, Windows 3.1 solves much of the MIDI interface confusion by letting you add drivers that should work with any windows-based MIDI software.

Five-Finger Exercise

You say you'd like to play a MIDI keyboard, but you never learned how to play the piano? Check out the Miracle Piano Teaching System (The Software Toolworks, 60 Leveroni Court, Novato, California 94949; 800-234-3088; $479.95). It includes a four-octave MIDI keyboard with built-in speakers and 128 different instrument sounds, as well as innovative software that makes it easy--and fun--to learn to play the piano. You don't need a MIDI card to use the Miracle system--the keyboard plugs into your computer's serial port--but in does have its own MIDI interface so you can use it later as a standard MIDI keyboard.

You also could buy an inexpensive MIDI keyboard, such as a Casio or a Yamaha, and hook it into your MIDI-equipped sound card. You can find these for $200-$600 at many of the discount department stores. A variation on this theme is to purchase a MIDI sound module, such as Roland's SC-55 Sound Canvas for $795, and a separate MIDI keyboard, such as Roland's PC-200 for $350 (Roland, 7200 Dominion Circle, Los Angeles, California 90040; 213-685-5141). This kind of MIDI setup would have cost you $2000-$3000 only five years ago. The Sound Canvas sounds terrific, and Roland offers a nearly identical PC-card version, the SCC-1, for just $495. Roland also manufactures an unusual device called the CP-40 Pitch to MIDI Converter ($295). It uses a microphone to convert the sounds of your voice or any acoustic instrument into MIDI messages.

If you already have a MIDI keyboard but need a MIDI interface and software, take a look at INTRO MIDI Starter Pack (Dr. T's Music Software, 100 Crescent Road, Needham, Massachusetts 02194; 617-455-1454; $229). It includes an MPU-401 MIDI interface card; two 5-foot MIDI cables; a sequencing program, called Prism, that lets you record and playback your MIDI performances; and a notation program, called Copyist Apprentice, that lets you convert your Prism files into standard music notation that can be printed out as sheet music.

If the ability to create standard music notation isn't important to you, consider the Cakewalk Apprentice MIDI Starter Kit (Twelve Tone Systems, P.O. Box 760, Watertown, Massachusetts 02272; 617-273-4437; $169). It includes a MIDI interface card, a 10-foot MIDI cable, and a sequencing program based on the popular Cakewalk series of sequencing programs.

For a Windows-based sequencing program, take a look at either Trax or Master Tracks Pro 4.5 (Passport Designs, 100 Stone Pine Road, Half Moon Bay, California 94019; 415-726-0280; $99 and $395). Both are powerful; Trax just has fewer features than its professional-strength brother.

Musicator and Musicator GS are two popular DOS-based notation-based sequencers (Musicator, P.O. Box 410039, San Francisco, California 94141; 916-756-9807; $545 and $299). Musicator GS includes special support for the Roland Sound Canvas and SCC-1 sound card. A Windows version of Musicator GS should be available sometime this summer.

For an easy-to-use Windows program that combines sequencing and notation, check out Midisoft Studio for Windows (Midisoft, P.O. Box 1000, Bellevue, Washington 98009; 206-881-7176; $249.95).

Other popular MIDI notation programs include MusicTime and Encore 2.5, both excellent programs (Passport Designs; $249 and $595); MusicPrinter Plus 4.0, another professional-level notation program (Temporal Acuity Products; Building 1, Suite 200,300-120th Avenue NE, Bellevue, Washington 98005; 206-462-1007; $595); and QuickScore Deluxe, an introductory notation program that works with the Sound Blaster and Media Vision sound cards, as well as standard MPU-401 MIDI cards (Dr. T's Music Software; $99).

Get Giddy on MIDI

Two specialty sequencing programs can bring out the creative composer in just about anyone. Band-in-a-Box is more fun than most PC games (PG Music, 11-266 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, New York 14222; 416-528-2368; $59). It builds instant accompaniments based on your choice of chords and musical styles. Drummer offers easy-to-use pattern sequencing (Cool Shoes Software, 116 Churchland Drive, Winston-Salem, North Carolina 27101; 919-722-0830; $99). It lets you create simple or complex rhythms from patterns of notes. Despite its name, Drummer isn't just for drum patterns.

PianoWorks is a detailed series of MIDI-based interactive piano lessons that include reading and rhythm exercises, ear training, and music theory (Temporal Acuity Products; $129).

With the Windows-based MIDI Quest, you can send and receive specialized MIDI information to and from more than 130 different kinds of MIDI musical instruments (Sound Quest, 66 Broadway Avenue, Suite 1207, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 1T6; 800-387-8720; $300). X-oR is a similar program that runs under DOS or Windows (Dr. T's Music Software; $229).

You can even buy hundreds of new instrument sounds (called patches) for most MIDI instruments. One company that specializes in this area has created the SoundPalette series of sounds for the Sound Canvas and SCC-1 (Sound Source Unlimited, 2985 E. Hillcrest Drive, Suite A, Westlake Village, California 91362; 805-494-9996; $39.95 for a package of 64 sounds).

I've only scratched the surface of the MIDI hardware and software that's out there. Much of it is expensive and designed for professional musicians. Now that Microsoft officially has added MIDI to Windows, you can expect to see a flood of new MIDI products aimed at the consumer-level PC user.