What Are Midi files?


What are MIDI FILES?

MIDI Files. What are they?

MIDI files are many things to many people. They are spoken about by musicians, computer users, karaoke artists, studio engineers, etc. Each of these different types of users may have individual applications for MIDI files; leaving the newcomer bemused at what may appear to be a ‘Black Art’. In this section we will try to inform the beginner of the uses and advantages of using MIDI files, and explain some of the terms used to identify the various formats.

MIDI files are most commonly supplied on a 3.5“ floppy disk, exactly the same as used on today’s computers. These floppy disks are usually either type DD (Double Density), or the higher capacity HD (High Density). Keyboards fitted with HD disk drives can use either HD, or DD disks. However, keyboards with DD disk drives can only use DD disk. For this reason, most MIDI files are currently supplied on DD disks. It is likely that in the future DD media will become obsolete, for this reason check that any new equipment you buy is fitted with an HD disk drive! Since this section was written, it has become very difficult to obtain DD disks. By the same token all recent equipment is fitted with an HD drive and so it will only be users of older equipment that are affected by this inevitable change of media. See "Tips for DD drives" below for further information.

The full title of a MIDI file is a Standard MIDI File (SMF), with the key issue being that they are standardised. This standard is very strict for commercial MIDI file manufacturers (such as those offered in the BCK catalogue) to ensure they operate correctly on all equipment designed to play them. Part of this standard is that the disk format must be of a DOS type. This makes certain the disk can be read by all the following computers: PC’s , MAC (via Apple file exchange), Atari, Amiga (via any DOS file exchange), and of course, all musical instruments, with a disk drive, that bears the GM, GS, XG logo.

This format represents the background on to which data, or if you prefer, information is written. For a MIDI file, this data is recognised by the keyboard, or computer program as musical notes and related controls. This is where the hardware (keyboard or computer), and the software (MIDI file) form a partnership. The MIDI file can do nothing without hardware, the hardware will not have the information to play the selected music without the software.

"Format" is also used to describe the way a MIDI file has it's tracks organised. You may hear musicians speaking of Format 1 or 0, this also sometimes described as "Type" 1 or 0, whatever way it's described it means the same thing. Format (or type) 0 file have all the music data mixed to a single track. Format (or type) 1 file have a separate track for each MIDI channel being used. On the surface it would seem that a format 1 file would be more useful to the musician but in practice it makes little difference. The only time you are likely to need access to all the separate tracks is when they are being edited on a computer. However, as virtually all modern computer sequencer programs split up the MIDI channels into separate tracks, even from a format 0 file, the difference becomes academic. The format or type is only important to musicians who use keyboards, or MIDI file players, as most of these can only read format 0. All MIDI files on our site are format (or type) 0.

"General MIDI, GS, XG. What's this all about?" MIDI files use the built in sounds of whatever is playing the MIDI file, these sounds are known as sound sets. General MIDI is a sound set containing 128 different instrument sounds. The quality of each of the sounds varies from maker to maker and model to model. As with most products, the more you pay the better they sound. What they all have in common is the name of the instruments and unified program change numbers. GS also uses these 128 sounds (known as Capital sounds) but has further sounds (known as Sub-Capital) which may be exploited by the MIDI file programmer. A sub-capital sound is a variation of the Capital sound, i.e. "Bright Piano" is a sub-capital variation of the "Piano" capital sound. By using this example you can see that if a GS song uses "Bright Piano" and is played on GS equipment, that is the sound you will hear. However, if the same song is played on a General MIDI system, the sub-capital sound "Bright Piano" does not exist and so the capital sound "Piano" is substituted. GS is a Roland system, where XG is a Yamaha device. While not the same, we hope this simple explanation illustrates the principle of both systems without resorting to "in depth" technical descriptions. The bottom line is that all GM, GS, and XG equipment can play GM files. GM equipment can also play GS or XG, but not with exactly the same sound as a GS or XG player. Please see "GS MIDI Files" below for further information.

A MIDI file, unlike a record or tape, does not carry any sound. It’s best to think that the MIDI file data is pressing the keys of a keyboard automatically, for those who can remember the old "Player Pianos" that used a paper roll of punched holes to play the notes, you can imagine a MIDI file as being a modern equivalent (but the notes are not physically pressed). Therefore, the sound of the MIDI file is as good (or bad) as the keyboard, MIDI file player, or computer that's playing it. Similarly, the control you have over the MIDI file depends on the controls offered by the keyboard or computer program. For example; the MIDI file may be playing in the wrong key for the musician. All MIDI files can be transposed, but if the hardware does not have a transpose control, obviously this can not be done.

“I might as well use a tape or mini disk recording”. A quote often heard at exhibitions which underlines how little is generally understood about MIDI files. In it's simplest form, a MIDI file could be regarded as an intelligent record, but its use goes much further than this. As mentioned before, what you get out of a MIDI file depends on how much you can control it. A keyboard may just be able to mute the melody line, enabling the user to play along with the backing. Most keyboards will also give the musician a tempo control and perhaps a transpose. None of these basic features are available on a tape recording (remember, if you alter the tempo of a tape recording, the pitch will also change, and visa-versa!). So, immediately there is an advantage for MIDI files. They "sound live" because a MIDI file playing a keyboard is exactly the same sound as a keyboard player using the same instrument (except the MIDI file can't play a wrong note). All other type of backing media such as CD, Minidisk, or tape always sound like a recording when compared with a MIDI file, which is not surprising when you consider that is exactly what they are. If you want to get away from that "compressed" sound and progress to a much "fatter" live sound, then MIDI files really are the future.

It's not just a keyboard thing! All musicians can benefit from using MIDI files. The Backtracker M88 has been optimised as an easy to use MIDI file player for all to use quickly and efficiently on stage. The simple "tape recorder" style controls make operation easy and intuitive. Using the optional foot switch you can stop/start between songs "hands free". Loading time has been cut down to seconds once the first song of the set is loaded (which only takes a few moments more), thanks to the Backtrackers ability to pre-load a song while the current song is playing. This can be from the disk in the disk drive, or from another disk - that's right, you can remove the disk while the song is playing (once the disk read light goes out)! Simple changes to the song such as transpose, tempo, track mute can be made on the fly and if required saved to disk for the next time the song is loaded. Complete sets of songs can be made by loading from a disk, making any changes required, and then saving to a blank disk. The song will then play back in the order they were added. Of further use to the working musician is the ability of the Backtracker to connect via a SCART cable to a regular TV set. This lets you rehearse a new song with the lyrics on screen, and the music (including singing through an attached mic) with effects, through the TV speakers, or even host a karaoke night!

Further controls found on computer sequencer programs offer a wealth of benefits over audio recordings. Here are just a few features that can be found on the low priced MIDI Connections Light program: Change individual voice sounds/volume/pan/reverb/chorus. Transpose individual or all tracks. Adjust tempo. View file lyrics in a karaoke window. Add MIDI lyrics to a song. Analyse harmony to calculate chord structure. View as notation. Print music, chords, guitar tab, and lyrics. And of course, the ability to edit every single note. Just imagine, you can make your own personal arrangements of your favorite songs.

Many MIDI files available from us feature encoded lyrics (where appropriate). These are not merely printed, but actually encoded in the data to synchronise with the song. This development can only be viewed on more recent keyboards and computer programs that are equipped with this function - but the future will most likely see all new equipment providing this amazing facility.

Vocal harmony tracks are also offered on many MIDI files. To use these the system must include a MIDI Vocoder unit. A number of these currently exist i.e. Korg iH, Digitech Vocalist, etc. Many "upmarket" keyboards now have a vocoder fitted internally (or are available as an option). By setting the vocoder to MIDI channel 5 you can use these to add up to four part harmony to accompany a solo singer. "How does this work"? The sound and words you sing into the mic are recorded by the vocoder and simultaneously played back at the pitches determined by the MIDI file data. Your voice is instantly mixed with the vocoder harmony voices to create a very authentic, and perfectly in tune, four part harmony. So you can easily do the physically impossible and sing a four part harmony solo - that's your voice, your words at up to four different pitches instantaneously - Magic!

"A peek into the future". MIDI files are not the only "kid on the block", other music formats have been around as long, if not longer than MIDI files. The classic "wave" file, or WAV file, has been used in sampling equipment and computers has been used for years. Although both MIDI and WAV files have their roots in computers, the two formats are totally different in the way they work. As written above, the MIDI file does not have any sound, it triggers the sounds stored in the playback equipment. WAV files however are all sound because they are a digitized recording of any sound. Computer programs have existed for some time that can "insert" a WAV file sound into a MIDI file at any selected point. This type of MIDI file has been used extensively in recording studios but not had any real impact on commercially available files because a) the WAV data is too large to fit on a disk with MIDI file songs, and b) keyboards and MIDI file players do not play WAV file. With the introduction of the new Ketron SD1 this is about to change. This system allows pre-loaded WAV files to synchronise with a MIDI file, or even an accompaniment style. At last, real sounds - any sound you want - coupled to the flexibility of a MIDI file. Another new standard for MIDI files is now available on keyboards: "GM2".

Tips for DD user. It is likely that DD disks will become unavailable. This means that all our albums will have to be made on HD disks which will not work on older equipment (including Atari computers). Until that time we will still have DD blank disks available, so if you have older DD equipment, it may be worthwhile stocking up on blank disks while you still can. To copy MIDI files on a HD disk to a DD use windows Explorer on a PC. First create a temporary folder on the hard drive, then copy all the MIDI files to that folder. Remove the HD disk and insert a blank DD floppy disk. Copy all the song files, one a a time, and in the running order listed on the disk label. If you select all the files and copy all, the running order will be wrong. In the case of MIDI Chart busters on HD, do not copy the RAR music print files, they will not fit on a DD disk.

Please note: You can only make copies of MIDI files for personal use. To make copies for others is illegal and could result in prosecution, further, the market for MIDI files is very small compared with CD's tapes etc. If piracy becomes rife, it will not be viable to produce them; we ask you to consider the future of this small industry and the benefits you stand to lose if you accept pirated copies, or produce copies for others to use.

MIDI Files for all. They're not just a keyboard or computer thing, all musicians, cabaret artists etc., can reap the benefits of this unique format. Use them for backing, rehearsing, printing music, composing your own songs, it's up to you and your own creativity.



Questions & Answers

Q. What does Format 1 & Format 0 mean?

A. MIDI files known as format 1 have all their separate instruments on individual tracks. Format 0 contains all these tracks mixed down to one track. Most keyboards use format 0 only, and because you can not see the tracks, format 1 would be of no value. All MIDI files in this catalogue are format 0. Modern computer sequencers automatically convert these to format 1 during loading, or if not, can be made to separate the tracks
by MIDI channel (which amounts to the same).

Q.What’s the difference between GM & GS?

A. GM MIDI files use a standardised set of 128 sounds. GS instruments also use this set plus
a few hundred extra sounds in subsets. Until recently the rule of thumb was you can use GM & GS MIDI files on a GS instrument, but you could only use GM MIDI files on a GM instrument. On modern GM equipment you can also use GS files. - read the GS article below for details.

Q. Can I transpose MIDI files?

A. All MIDI files can be transposed and edited in all kinds of ways provided that your keyboard has the appropriate controls. See opposite for details

Q. Do I get printed music with MIDI files?

A. Commercial MIDI files tend to fall into two camps. There are simple arrangements of songs, complete with printed music, or there are more realistic and complex MIDI files, such as those in this catalogue, that do not. However, you can transpose the MIDI file to a more suitable key, and print the melody (or any) line on a computer printer from a suitable sequencer program (i.e. MIDI Connections). The latest MIDI Chart Buster albums from MCB40 (July 2001) onwards contain top line, chords and lyrics music as a TIF file for printing on a suitable computer
graphics program (i.e. CorelDraw, or even Word For Windows). You must only print music for your own personal use.


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