Into the New Millennium With…?
Keeping an Old Friend Young

by Paul D. Lehrman

ell, this time it’s for real. The new millennium. No more arguments about when it begins—it’s here. The Y2K warnings and the Y2K jokes can be put away forever; the census has been taken, the presidential election circus (I hope!) is over and we’re now in 2001, indisputably the 21st century.

Arthur Clarke and Stanley Kubrick were a bit over optimistic about what we were supposed to have by this year: There’s no permanent space station above the Earth, and no Howard Johnson’s restaurant in it (or anywhere else for that matter), and no one’s building a nuclear-powered HAL/IBM-controlled starship to take humans to Jupiter’s moons, or even our own. In his earlier writings, Clarke was right on the money about communications satellites covering the Earth, but he was dead wrong about the role of garbage at the turn of the 21st century: He saw it as a potential fuel source, not something to be delivered over microwave, twisted copper pair, coaxial cable and optical fiber to every home and office in every corner of the globe by the Petabyte. And he never foresaw the culture of the personal computer, the ubiquitousness of the Internet, the dynamic forces that are pulling the entertainment industry apart and putting it (maybe) back together in an entirely new way…or MIDI.

MIDI? “Why would anyone want to talk about MIDI in 2001?” I hear you cry. “I thought MIDI was like so last century!” Well, it was. But it’s a little early to be digging its grave and dancing (no doubt using downloaded 124bpm loops) on it.

I’ll admit it. I’m a MIDI-holic. Yes, my name is Paul, and I use MIDI. A lot. I compose with it, perform with it, mix with it, process with it, teach it and, yes, write about it. And except for the last one or two items, I’ll bet most of you do many of the same things. It’s become so commonplace, so mundane that we don’t even think about it anymore. And it’s true that it’s not very exciting, compared with the tools we now have for manipulating real audio. But even though messing around with MIDI data may not be as immediately gratifying as running old Rick James samples through Acid, it’s still an important part of what our industry is all about (especially among those apparently dwindling numbers of us who value originality).

But MIDI is old stuff, right? And nothing’s happening with it, right? Yes, it is old stuff (the MIDI Specification, after literally hundreds of changes in its 17-plus years, is still referred to as “1.0”), but to say that it’s moribund is to ignore some very important work that’s being done today to keep it useful in the age of digital video, T3 Internet connections and GigaHertz desktop computers.

A lot of the work, not surprisingly, has been on the consumer side of things, where marketers and manufacturers see potential numbers that exceed by orders of magnitude the size of the professional audio and music markets. MIDI is still viewed as an efficient and highly flexible way of handling music for games, Web sites and similar applications that require either low bandwidth or a high degree of interactivity. It’s still a lot easier—and more convincing, if it’s done right—to make a MIDI file instantaneously change the mood of a piece of background music in a game than it is with digital recordings, no matter how many tracks you might have to play with. And when a game designer has used up all available CPU speed and RAM on polygon generation and has forgotten to leave any room for audio, there’s always enough space to slip in a MIDI file. As for the Internet, when you are dealing with typical dial-up connections (which most people still have), any audio file, even after you’ve crunched it through the compression algorithms of MP3 or Real Audio, goes down the pipeline way slower than a MIDI file.

While many consumers still associate MIDI with the cheesy FM sounds of early PC sound cards, even the cheapest “wavetable”-based chipsets of today sound a lot more respectable than that. (Wavetable is actually a misnomer for these devices, because they are, in fact, sample-based, and true wavetable synthesis is something completely different. But I won’t get into that now.)


Reprinted with permission from Magazine, January, 2001
© 2001, Intertec Publishing, A Primedia Company All Rights Reserved