How Do These MIDI Drawings Even Work?

Sounds from a simpler time.

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Mar 14 2017, 7:59pm

You may have seen this now-viral MIDI drawing by Norwegian musician and composer Mari Lesteberg. In it, she depicts a Super Mario level using a MIDI composition. The result is a jaunty little tune with a plodding bassline that makes the whole thing sound like a knockoff of Super Mario.

It looks cool, but what's going on here?

Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI, is a digital protocol that allows devices such as keyboards, synthesizers, and even computers to communicate with each other seamlessly. It was developed in the 80s, and helped define computerized music for the decade and beyond. Thirty years later, the ubiquitous MIDI interface protocol still won't die: People on YouTube are way into making computer music by "drawing" a sketch using MIDI notes, and then feeding them into a synth to see what happens. It works similarly to sheet music: The height of the "notes" corresponds to the pitch of the music, and each line or dot represents a note in the song.

This is among the earliest results on YouTube of true drawings-turned-MIDI, from 2010: Three dudes goofing around in Logic sound software successfully form a smiley face, and freak out about it.

The art form's come a long way in the last seven years. Lesteberg's creations have started going viral, after her first MIDI drawing, a tribute to Frank Zappa, but she's moved quickly from crude pokémon note-paintings to compelling visual journeys. Side-scrolling adventures are a natural fit for the medium. I'm IN the woods with this one:

Lesteberg's far from alone. Here, musician Andrew Huang demonstrates the process of making a MIDI drawing, although he seems to do it the hard way, with a laminated tracing sheet involved:

Huang references musician Aleksander Vinter, who's been creating gorgeous MIDI drawings and posting to his Facebook page, including this "bird in the rain" that'll stir up some real feelings if you're not careful.

Others are less artful but just as impactful, like this ode to the POTUS.

The charm of the MIDI drawing is in its embodiment of sounds. It's nearly synesthetic: A lilting melody looks like a bird. A trip through the Mario Brothers' landscape sounds as charmingly innocent as it looks. The president's head sounds like orange barf. It's uncanny, how the visual and audible combine to take us on a simple, sweet journey. Like this one, straight from the heart:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XM6P6mygPw

Rousing.

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