MIDI Is the Fucking Greatest

Fight me.

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Mar 17 2017, 5:04pm

Protocols hide in the background of our digital lives and make everything work. They allow devices and services to talk to each other, and there's a million of them. Without protocols, you wouldn't even be able to do simple things like send a message from your Gmail address to a Hotmail account.

But this isn't about those protocols, as important as they are. This is about the greatest protocol in the world: MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface.

Let's back up for a second. What makes a great protocol? For one, it should be resilient. When new technologies appear and old ones become obsolete, it should still work with everything. That's not easy to do, because although current tech can give us some idea of the shape of devices to come, it's hard to divine what things will look like 30 years from now. A protocol should also be easy to use. It should hum along underneath the hood, never making itself known, and if possible, allow non-experts to tinker with it.

Here's what MIDI, invented in 1981, can do today at the ripe old age of 36.

I have a rack synthesizer from 1984, a digital keyboard from 2008, and a MacBook Pro from 2015. In the early 80s, nobody could have predicted that everybody would be walking around with a laptop in their bag, or that they might want to use it to make music. How could these technologies possibly work together? Easy: a MIDI cable.

But MIDI isn't just a workhorse, it's also open to experimentation. The other night I watched a video artist work two projectors at once and splice film live while a keyboardist played an arpeggiating synthesizer. Colourful lights pulsed on the screen, in sync with the synthesizer's droning tones. My friends and I concluded that it must be MIDI connecting the synth and the lights. Because, really, what else could it have been?

Even if you're not a musician, you may have seen MIDI in the videos of people making "drawings" out of of musical notes on a computer and then playing them to see what it sounds like. That's MIDI.

MIDI is a protocol for communicating a digital signal containing information like notation, tempo, pitch, velocity, and more. This is a MIDI message. It was initially designed to let synthesizers from different manufacturers work together, but clearly it's become so much more in the past 40 years as technology developed around it.

The real miracle of MIDI, though, is that most musicians aren't experts. They're just making things work. And that's exactly what MIDI does—it just works. You buy a cable for $5 from your local music store, you plug it into whatever you want, and off it goes.

It's the greatest protocol in the world.

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Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that MIDI is 46 years old, when in fact it is 36 years old. This has been corrected and Motherboard regrets the copy error.

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