Making music with MIDI magic

January 11, 1999|By Mike Himowitz

Your PC is a remarkable music machine. In fact, even the least expensive computer today has capabilities that would have made a professional musician green with envy a few years ago.

This magic is embeded in your sound card and in software - much of it bundled with Microsoft Windows - that can turn your computer into a jukebox, or even a full orchestra.

The World Wide Web is teeming with music that can take advantage of your computer's internal music maker. Last week we talked about Internet radio stations; this time around, we'll discuss collections of MIDI files - electronic compositions waiting for your computer to play them.

To understand how these work, consider that your PC deals with sound in two ways. First, it can digitally record and reproduce audio from any standard source (a CD, microphone, tape deck or radio), much like a digital tape recorder. It stores these recordings as ``wave'' files, and you hear them all the time, even if you don't realize it. The chord that Windows plays when it starts up and the ``ta-da'' you hear when you shut down are the most common examples. You'll find others stored on your PC, usually with the extension ``wav.''

The problem with wave files - even the highly compressed MP3 files used for storing pop album tracks - is that they take up a lot of space, and the better the sound quality, the larger the file.

But there's an alternative for producing music. Most sound cards today have built-in ``MIDI'' synthesizers that can turn your computer into a piano, drum, bass, guitar, harpsichord, saxophone or all of these at once.

MIDI is an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, a standard developed in the 1980s to let a new generation of keyboard synthesizers and other electronic instruments communicate with one another. A MIDI file is like a musical score - a set of instructions that tells your synthesizer what notes to play on which instruments and when to play them. If a wave file is like a digital copy of a painting, a MIDI file is a paint-by-the-numbers kit. Your PC actually produces the music from scratch.

Early sound cards had cheap FM synthesizers that imitated various instruments electronically. Newer ``wave table'' synthesizers use digital samples of real instruments that sound more realistic, although even the best still have trouble with certain sounds, such as violins and other bowed instruments.

To create MIDI files, musicians often hook up their keyboards to PCs (the joystick port doubles as a MIDI connector) and record while they're playing. With software, the resulting songs can be ``cleaned up'' to correct mistakes, change instrumentation, or add new parts. It's also possible to compose music directly on the PC and play it through the sound card and your speakers - or through a MIDI keyboard attached to the PC.

MIDI is a ``native'' Windows format, which means that the Windows Media Player knows what to do with MIDI files. Newer Macs can handle MIDI files, but if you have an older Mac or run into problems, surf over to www.apple.com/quicktime/ and download a copy of Quicktime 3, Apple's multimedia player.

If you're a Windows user, you're likely to find a half dozen demonstration MIDI files on your hard disk already. They have the extension ``mid,'' and if you double-click on one of them, your computer will automatically launch Media Player and start up the music. MIDI files are also used for music and sound effects in games and educational programs.

MIDI files are tiny compared to wave files. In fact, the wave file containing the chord that Windows uses to get your attention consumes as much space as the entire first movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony in MIDI format.

Most MIDI files can be downloaded in a few seconds, even over a standard dialup connection. Because they're so portable, musicians have been posting their MIDI files on the Internet for years, usually for the sheer joy of sharing them with others.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of MIDI Web pages, including huge archives of popular and classical songs. Many of them can be played from your Web browser by clicking on a link - or you can save the MIDI file directly to your hard drive.

Although a handful of these Web pages (usually commercial sites) pay royalties for the use of the songs, most MIDI recordings of pop songs on the Web are technically in violation of copyright laws. However, the music industry has generally ignored them because they're noncommercial and don't affect record sales.

There's no guarantee that you'll like what you hear. The quality of a MIDI file depends on the skill of the musician who created it and the quality of your sound card and speakers.

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