Sweet,sweet music

Cakewalk Express

Sound editing systems need the MIDI link to make music.

Roger Howorth

Following on from last month's brief look at MIDI hardware, this month I'll examine in more detail exactly what 'commands' are available to the MIDI programmer. This will be followed next month by a short Basic program that will allow any computer with a MIDI interface to send and receive data via MIDI.

A message for MIDI
The MIDI interface uses a handful of software commands to control a whole range of hardware devices such as synthesisers, mixing consoles and effects units. These commands are often called 'MIDI messages' and consist of one 'status' byte, which is the actual instruction, usually followed by one or two data bytes that provide information relating to that instruction.
In order that the status and data bytes can be distinguished from each other, the most significant bit of each byte sent across the MIDI interface is used as a flag which, if set, indicates that the byte is a status byte; and, if not, indicates it to be a data byte. This, therefore, limits the maximum value that a MIDI byte can hold to a range of 7 bits or 0-127 (Fig 1).

Midi byte:

Status byte:

Data byte:

Midi Byte: Header Most significant bit (128) set Header:Lower nibble used for channel number Data byte: MSB =off leaving 7 data bits
This first bit is always used to indicate whether byte is 'Status' or 'Data' Lowest four bits used for MIDI channel number, leaving only three bits for actual instruction As a data byte is always associated with the preceding Status byte, no channel number is needed, leaving seven bits free for actual data

Midi Message:

Status Byte

Data Byte

Data Byte

First byte is always 'Status'

Usually followed by one or two 'Data' bytes

Fig 1. Breakdown of the MIDI byte

MIDI as a network
MIDI can be thought of as a local area network in that it is used to link various pieces of microprocessor-based musical equipment together. It normally operates on a crude 'star' topology (see the networks article, 'Run around the clock', PCW, February 1987) which means there is one controlling device that sends messages to a number of receiving ones.
However, unlike more typical star networks where all the receiving devices are linked directly to the controller by their own cable, most MIDI hardware only allows devices to be daisychained together, so they all effectively share the same cable (Fig 2). This means that if a message is to be sent to only one device on the daisy-chain, some form of software address must also be sent to tell all the other devices to ignore that message.
MIDI achieves this by a system of software 'channels', which involve each hardware device and each message (well, all right, except one) being assigned a channel number in the range 1-16. A particular device will only respond to a message if these two numbers match. The channel number is sent in the first four bits of each status byte (Fig 1).
It should be noted that although Fig 2 looks suspiciously like an open ring network, the 'slave' devices cannot communicate with each other - only the controller can send messages. It is, therefore, a star system.

Star Layout

Fig 2. Diagram of the 'star' topology and 'daisy chain' links of the MIDI network

The commands
Just as computers are programmed by a series of machine code instructions, so MIDI devices are controlled by a few simple 'messages' which can be combined to perform quite complex tasks, such as playing a piece of Beethoven.
Fig 3 shows the MIDI instructions and the number of data bytes that must follow them. The first seven instructions are quite straightforward, but here's a quick guide to all of them:

NOTE OFF Tells a synthesiser to stop sounding a particular note. It has two data bytes: the first tells the synthesiser which note is to be stopped; the second is the velocity. Imagine someone is playing a note on a violin. If they were to stop playing the note instantly, then the sound would also stop pretty quickly. But, if they were to gently slow down the bow until it came to a halt, say, half a second later, then this would produce a completely different sound.

NOTE ON Complements the NOTE OFF command. and uses two data bytes for similar purposes. This message can also simulate a NOTE OFF message if its velocity byte has a value of zero.

POLYPHONIC KEY PRESSURE/ AFTER TOUCH Contains information about how a particular note is being played. It uses two data bytes: the first identifies an individual note and the second carries the pressure value. Imagine someone playing a trumpet: the sound produced varies depending on how hard the trumpeter blows at any point in time. So, the sound of a synthesiser can be varied depending on the value in the second data byte; however, polyphonic key pressure allows a different value to be used for each note to be played.
This form of key pressure is usually only implemented on the more expensive synthesisers on the market.

REAL TIME CONTROLLER CHANGE Most synthesisers are equipped with a variety of realtime controllers, such as a sustain pedal (also found on pianos). The controllers are either on/off-type switches,or wheels and knobs which can produce a range of values from 0-127.
This MIDI message alters the value of these controllers, and has two data bytes: the first identifies the particular controller ; and the second contains its new value.

CHANNEL MODE This message is quite complicated and gives very different results, depending- on the value in the two data bytes. These results all closely linked to the hardware configuration of a synthesiser and are too complicated to explain here; suffice it to say that like all MIDI commands, they are well- documented in the 'MIDI Specification' which can usually be found in the back of a MIDI synthesiser's manual.

PROGRAM CHANGE If a musician wants a synthesiser to make a different sound, he or she presses a button on the front of the instrument. These buttons might be labelled 'Piano' 'Organ' and 'Flute'. PROGRAM CHANGE has the same effect as pushing one of these buttons.

CHANNEL PRESSURE/AFTER TOUCH This is similar to POLYPHONIC AFTER TOUCH except that one pressure value relates to an entire MIDI channel. This means that rather than each note having its own pressure value, each instrument shares one. This form of after-touch is found on many of the cheaper MIDI synthesisers.

PITCH WHEEL CHANGE Most synthesisers have a special real-time controller that alters the tuning or 'pitch' of the instrument. This is called the Pitch Wheel and is special because it uses two data bytes to convey the controller's new position. This gives the pitch wheel a range of 14 bits or 0-16383, as opposed to other MIDI controllers which only have a range of 0-127.


Number of Data bytes


Note Off
Note On
Key Pressure
Control Change
Program Change
After Touch
Pitch Bend
0 to 2
System Exclusive
System Common
System Real Time
XXXX is the MIDI channel number.
sss and nnn are switches to extend the meaning of commands.

Fig 3. The MIDI instructions and accompanying data bytes

System messages
The group of System Messages is an interesting one. 'System Common' and 'System Real Time' are linked to sequencing applications (see 'Musical Interlude', PCW, October 1987), so I won't discuss them further here.
As far as 'System Exclusive' is concerned, MIDI's designers realised that they couldn't plan for every future requirement, so this command allows programmers and manufacturers to expand the MIDI instruction set indefinitely.
System Exclusive is the only MIDI message whose length is undefined - that is, the number of data bytes which should follow the System Exclusive status byte is unknown. Furthermore, the data bytes' definition is unclear.
Only two things are certain about the System Exclusive message, and one is how it should end with an 'End of System Exclusive' status byte. The other is that the first data byte to follow the System exclusive command is a manufacturer's identification code, which is a number in the range of 0-127. As its name suggests, this number is unique to a particular MIDI device manufacturer.
When a device receives the System Exclusive command, it checks the ID code. If it doesn't match the manufacturer's code, the device will ignore the data which follows it; if it does match, however, the device will receive and act upon that data. The only rule about the data is that it can only be in the range 0-127.
What makes the System Exclusive message so useful is that it allows manufacturers to invent new MIDI instructions which take advantage of their particular product. In this way. it is possible to make anything MIDI-controllable - even a kettle.
In practice, this message is often used to send bulk data dumps, such as the data which instructs a synthesiser to make certain sound.

In practice...
It's very easy to experiment with MIDI messages and your home computer because with the exception of 'system exclusive', it is necessary to send only two or three bytes to a synthesiser in order to coax it into action.
In next month's Musical Interlude I shall present a very short and simple Basic program that will allow a MIDI- equipped computer to communicate with any other kind of MIDI device. Using this program two or more computers can be linked to form a simple network, or if you have a synthesiser you can examine exactly how the MIDI messages are composed and sent as the instrument is used, and experiment with its reactions to messages that you send from your computer.

Note: In the original article there was some confusion about where the most significant bit was in the header and data bytes respectively. Probably because of this,the table of commands (Fig 3) listed the decimal upper nibbles as 128,129,130,131,132,133 and 134,and this cannot possibly be the case,partly because they do not correspond with the binary equivalents and partly because I've programmed MIDI and those numbers would be changing the Channel Number not the Command.Apparently Roger was not very good at binary arithmetic (or he had his data lines wired back to front). Roger's Atari must have had a hard time deciphering his coding,and so too would anyone's computer who utilised Roger's decimal versions of the binary command list. The one's listed in Fig 3 (128-224) are the correct numbers,and if you don't believe me,you can check by either computing them from the binary (check Hexadecimal for help) or actually send them to a keyboard or computer and listen or see for yourself.More evidence if any were needed of the poor maths skills of the general populace.You'd think a programmer would know better! -LB


Roger Howorth is a freelance computer journalist and sound recording engineer who owns and experiments musically with an Atari ST. If you would like to share your musical experience with Roger or you would like to pass on any interesting snippets, why not write to him care of PCW VNU House, 32-34 Broadwick Street London W1.





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PCW FEBRUARY 1988 File Info: Created 15/7/2000 Updated 1/11/2018 Page Address: http://leebor2.100webspace.net/Zymic/pcw1.html