TI:ME Essay: Electronic Instruments and MIDI

The Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME) offers courses, workshops and conferences on technology and use to music educators and students of music and education.  TI:ME offers two levels of certification much like Suzuki, Orff or Kodaly offer certification to earned levels of knowledge and expertise.  For those working in the field already, TI:ME offers alternate certification for their Level 1 certification.  This and the following two articles are papers I wrote for that alternate certification.

First, a little clarification. Back in the day (as my students like to say), music software was divided into three separate and distinct categories. Software to manipulate MIDI, audio and notation were separate purchases. Today, the lines are blurred.  Sibelius & Finale, traditionally notation programs, offers some good MIDI and even audio.  Logic, traditionally a MIDI program, offers excellent audio and good notation.  Now that digidesign and Sibelius are owned by the same parent company, Avid, traditionally an audio program has some good notation and will only get better.  Although these programs can be considered “triple threats”, it’s still important to choose software based on your primary needs.  Although I can get some good notation out of Logic Studio, I wouldn’t publish music with it.  The same can be said for a notation program, it’s not my first choice for composing or teaching music through composition. I know that may be heresy to some but more on that in another article

Electronic Instruments and MIDI

Today’s electronic music instruments come in all shapes and sizes.  Keyboards, drums, guitars, winds, strings and even instruments you can play on your cell phone!  Around 1983, electronic instrument manufacturers got together and created a standard for transmitting musical information.  MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) was born and a new world of music was created.  MIDI is simply a standard digital format for devices to communicate to each other.  Think of it as the language of electronic music.  When you hit a note on a MIDI keyboard, a series of parameters is captured, translated to a digital format (a collection of 1 and 0). MIDI parameters include pitch (the actual note you want to play), velocity (how hard did you hit that note will effect the sound or tone quality), volume (loud and soft and everything in between) pan (what you hear in the right or left ear) and other parameters that can be entered and manipulated by the user. Remember, MIDI information is just the digital information.  It has no sounds. You’ll need something to interpret the MIDI information and reproduce the sounds.  That’s the sound module or what might be called the tone bank, a computing device that reinterprets the digital information and reproduces it as sound.  All sound modules contain the basic industry standard for General MIDI that includes a collection of 128 preset sounds divided into 16 channels (translate that into groups of sounds like Keyboards, Guitars, Bass, Strings, Reeds, Sound Effects, Drums and others) and certain functional parameters including the ability to interpret velocity, support polyphony (simultaneous multiple voices). What separates one manufacturer’s keyboard from the next and what distinguish entry level of keyboards from more expensive keyboards are the proprietary sounds in the sound module and the user’s ability to manipulate these sounds on the instrument.

There’s a good advantage to MIDI information, the files are small, really small.  That means ease of transporting large amounts of information, either on a variety of hard devices like flash drives, CDs, and even iPods or cell phones.  You can even send these files over the internet they are so small.  Any computer with sound capabilities translates the MIDI information into sound.  Remember those cheesy cell phone ring tones?  That’s a MIDI being played back with General MIDI sound bank.  MIDI information is very handy for a variety of things.  You can import MIDI into a notation program. The program interprets the MIDI information and translates it to the graphics that become standard music notation.  Need a piece of public domain music?  Go to any number of websites that have MIDI, download the file, import into a notation program and you’ve got the music.

MIDI instruments are also good choices for educators considering today’s software programs for notation, sequencing and audio processing.  A MIDI instrument sends the signal to the sound module.  You can get any variety of MIDI instruments that look like keyboards, drum pads and even wind or string instruments.  Most MIDI instruments are even computer ready via a USB cable making them ready for use with software right out of the box. Sound modules can be external hardware that looks like a small box with a bunch of buttons and dials, internal hardware built into the MIDI device like a keyboard or drum machine or software often called soft synths that come with sequencing or notation software or you an buy separately to plug into your software or add to (expand) your hardware sound module.  Buy a good MIDI device of your choice, keyboard, drum pads or whatever you like.  Get a sound module.  As you can afford, upgrade or expand your sound module thus increasing your available sounds.

Today’s electronic keyboards offer MIDI and then some.  Basic or entry level electronic keyboards offer portability, light weight and an affordable price.  They come standard with features such as 49 – 61 keys, built in speakers, removable music stand for holding print music, pitch modulation wheel, octave transposition key for accessing higher or lower octaves, built in harmonic accompaniment patterns, built in drum and percussion patterns, MIDI IN & OUT and some with MIDI THRU ports, AC and DC power options, TRS output for headphones or optional external speakers, optional sustain pedals, and the ever present ON/OFF SWITCH.  Basic sounds include the industry standard 128 electronic and simulated acoustic instruments and 47 separate drum and percussion sounds.  Most entry level keyboards will include an array of manufacturer proprietary sounds.  Built in sound modules on today’s entry level keyboards can contain hundred of sounds to choose from.  You can even find entry level keyboards with instructional software built right in.  Some entry level keyboards include basic sampling capabilities and recording entering these little guys into the world of keyboard workstations.


Yamaha’s PSR-E213 for $100

Once you take a step up to the $150 – $350 range, keyboard features increase and a whole new world of computing becomes available on theses keyboards. There is an increase in the number of sounds available and the amount of polyphony (number of sounds that can be played at one time) from 32 notes to 48 and up.  Available on some models are touch sensitive and semi weighted keys, LED displays, USB computer connectivity, 2 or 4 track audio and MIDI recorders and some have up to six tracks of sequencing capabilities.


Casio’s WK-500 for $300

The $350 – $500 range of keyboards really becomes a cross between a home/entry level keyboard and a keyboard workstation albeit with limited capabilities compared to professional level workstations.  The more powerful built in computer allows for  sequencers increasing to 16 tracks capabilities, more sophisticated built in sounds, increase in polyphony on some models and flash or other external memory card slots. The hardware change on these machines is a better pair of built in stereo speakers, some or all metal casing or just a simple increase in the size of the keyboard from 61 to 76 or 88 keys.

The $500 – $1500 variety of keyboards becomes what some companies call “arranger” keyboards or keyboard workstations.  These include even more powerful processing computers and a larger sound module.  Some manufacturers include sounds found in their highest end workstations.


Korg’s Pa50 for $900 touts a TRITON based sound engine

With the professional keyboard workstation, the idea is simple, build a powerful enough computer into the keyboard for sophisticated MIDI, some audio sequencing and sound manipulation, an “all-in-one” device for keyboard players.  Once you get into this category, it becomes a mater of personal taste.  You’ll need to decide first and foremost what sounds you like.  Manufacturer propriety sounds are really most keyboard players look for.  What distinguishes the Korg TRITON from Yamaha’s MOTIF is really the built in sounds that make the TRITON a TRITON and a MOTIF a MOTIF.  They may have a few processing bells and whistles that distinguish them from the other but when you purchase a workstation of this caliber, it becomes a matter of what you want and need in sounds, functions and flexibility.

Electronic ensembles are great ways of having students who don’t play traditional band or orchestra instruments playing in an ensemble.  You can create a complete electronic ensemble with just a few keyboards.  I have an ensemble that use nothing but “nano” technology including instruments on their cell phones and hand held processing and tone generating devices.  Branch out to include a guitar and maybe even some electronic drums and you begin to get a variety of players and musical interests.  Add a mixing board with USB or fire wire capabilities and you can not only have a student be the band’s engineer but you can record or include sequences to the mix.  The possibilities are only limited by the teacher and students imagination. Oh yeah, your budget might have something to do with it, too, but in today’s schools, one affordable keyboard or MIDI instrument with a sound module can at one moment be in the classroom as a teacher station then move to the rehearsal room for electronic ensemble or jazz band rehearsal and finally end up on stage at a school Talent Show, musical or even be the continuo part in the orchestra, all in a days work.


One Response to “TI:ME Essay: Electronic Instruments and MIDI”

  1. Donald Curts Says:

    “With the professional keyboard workstation, the idea is simple, build a powerful enough computer into the keyboard for sophisticated MIDI, some audio sequencing and sound manipulation, an “all-in-one” device for keyboard players. ” thats the point!

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