Linux MIDI: a Brief History, Part 1

An overview of the creation and evolution of MIDI, from early standalone equipment to an all-in-one computerized composition environment.

In 1981, an audio engineer named Dave Smith designed a universal interface for connecting synthesizers together. He presented his basic design at the Audio Engineering Society meeting that year, and in 1982, the Roland corporation expanded the design specification. Later that year Smith's company, Sequential Circuits, produced the Prophet-600, the first MIDI-capable synthesizer.

The first public presentation of a working MIDI connection took place in 1983 at the winter NAMM (National Association of Music Merchandisers) show. A Sequential Circuits Prophet-600 was connected to a Roland Jupiter 6 by each synth's MIDI interface. Connecting synthesizers together certainly was not a new idea, but this means of doing so was new and far more effective than earlier solutions. In the summer of the same year, Yamaha introduced the DX7 FM synthesizer, with MIDI hardware as a standard component. MIDI rapidly found favor with manufacturers that recognized the advantages of standardizing a basic hardware/software interface for data exchange among different machines. It is no exaggeration to say that MIDI fueled an incredibly active period of hardware synthesis development during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

MIDI also was adopted quickly for use with the newly popular personal computer. Manufacturers marketed standalone MIDI interface cards that allowed MIDI data exchange between a host computer and any external MIDI equipment. Software houses created and marketed music composition programs and other MIDI software. Equipped with the right hardware and software, a musician could use the computer to control synthesizers, drum machines, mixers, effects units--anything equipped with MIDI connectors. The extent of control varied, but the efficiency of the MIDI studio made a revolutionary impact on music production.

The MIDI studio of the late 1980s typically included a computer, a keyboard synthesizer, a drum machine, some external rackmount synths, perhaps a MIDI-controllable effects box and a MIDI router box to connect these pieces. At that time, the dominant audio recording medium was tape. By the mid-1990s, though, the MIDI studio was becoming more computer-centric, with soundcards providing better on-board synthesizers and software MIDI sequencers evolving to include audio tracks. By then, audio recording had shifted to the hard-disk. A contemporary MIDI studio still might include a keyboard synth or two, but the computer itself now was able to host software synthesizers and effects processors. At the same time, the computer internally controlled all MIDI connections and routing while running a sequencer capable of recording synchronized MIDI and audio data.

The MIDI specification has responded well to the needs of its community of users. The spec now includes provisions for encoding SMPTE time code, message types for remote operation of machine transport controls, a generalized instrument patch map for synthesizers, a standardized sequence data file format and support for multiport hardware, with a per-port maximum of 16 channels.

For many people, a MIDI refers to a file saved in the MIDI sequence data file format, typically with the .MID extension. If the sequence is orchestrated following the general MIDI (GM) synthesizer patch map, you can play it on any GM-compliant synth and hear the same arrangement of instruments. The quality of instrumental sound varies, of course, from synth to synth. This combination of standard file format and generalized patch map itself has fueled a rather different revolution, the results of which can be evaluated by a quick search for "MIDI files" on Google. As I write this--September 7, 2004--the hits number more than two million. A facile proof, but clearly a lot of people enjoy making and using MIDI files.

What Is MIDI?

MIDI is an acronym for musical instrument digital interface. It is a design specification for a hardware and software interface for the transmission and reception of MIDI data messages. These messages vary in kind and relative significance. For example, when you play a MIDI keyboard, the key press and release actions send on/off messages that trigger the sound capabilities of the receiving synthesizer--which may or may not be the one you're playing. Patch select buttons send MIDI program change messages, pitch bend and mod wheels send continuous streams of data, pedals send their own kind of messages and so on.

The MIDI data stream carries various messages to a target device and activates the device's various capabilities. The original intent was to connect synthesizers, but the MIDI specification now encompasses the control of a wide variety of devices, including non-musical equipment such as lighting systems, pyrotechnic displays and stage hydraulics.

MIDI data essentially is control data, and it is important to note it is not digital audio data. MIDI files are quite small when compared to a WAV or MP3 version of the same file, which gives them much appeal when storage and speed of access are critical considerations.

For the technically minded, here are a few technical statistics: MIDI works at an asynchronous transmission rate of 31.25 kilobits per second, and a single MIDI data byte equals ten bits. A note-on message is three bytes long, so a single key press on your synthesizer keyboard takes about 1 ms to get to the synthesizer itself. Although MIDI is a relatively slow serial communications protocol, it still is good enough to capture and play accurately a human performance.

Despite its popularity, MIDI is not a total solution for computer-based music making. It does not directly deal with audio data, its original keyboard orientation does not lend MIDI to easy implementation for plucked string instruments or wind instruments, and its integer valuation may not provide the fine control sought by the musician or composer. Nevertheless, if your needs do not involve such considerations, then MIDI might be a perfect fit for your music-making endeavors.


Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.


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I found another MIDI resource

Anonymous's picture

I found another MIDI resource site that may be of interest to others. is domain-parked

Anonymous's picture is domain-parked so don't bother...

Atari emulation

Anonymous's picture

Regarding your XSteem screenshot above, IMHO Hatari is the best Atari ST emulator on Linux, but I have to admit I haven't tested it with music software yet.

Aranym is another promising emulator as it will make better use of the host resources, it even emulates DSP of the newer (10 years old :-)) Atari machines. There's even a Knoppix based live-CD for trying it out.

Wondering if midi control program exists

Anonymous's picture


I have just started playing with midi. One program I would like is something that can record the settings for each song I have on my midi keyboard. I would then assign an unused button/buttons on the keyboard to correspond to the song setting. That way I could just press the key and have the midi program set up the keyboard.

Well that is the thought. I may still be misinterpreting some of midi's functionality.

Thanks in advance

Re: Linux MIDI: a Brief History, Part 1

Anonymous's picture

We are years away from anything that resembles "usable" with regards to linux midi.


1) No default soundfont set (just to listen to a .mid file). It would be nice if someone created a nice GPL GM font set that distro's could include.

2) As nice as fluidsynth is with regards to loading font samples, Jack, the low-latency audio sub-system to which it connects seems quite immature. Sure, if my laptop had a pimpin' SB Audigy or an E-mu card, I probably wouldn't have these problems.

3) Using applications with any of these systems requires that you set up the connections manually to each input/output, connecting your midi in to your jack in, to your oss in... etc. etc. A nice, stable default organization would be nice, so i can focus on connecting my different synths than getting my audio sub-system prepared to do something.

4) USB midi controller support _sucks_. The installation procedures especially for any of the Midisport 1x1's 2x2's,etc, is an absolute pain. Because the firmware has to be written upon device initialization and that firmware is closed source, it requires that you either a) use the open firmware project to get a compatible firmware, or b) rip the .sys file from the windows drivers and set it up. This is unacceptable if you want to be a musician and not a sysadmin.

Promising points

1) Midi latency is much lower than on windows, a testament to how well the ALSA sound drivers were written in that audio synthesis is done much more efficiently resulting in less time between key press on the controller to actual sound output.

2) Software like audacity and rosegarden are getting more mature and while not up to snuff yet with current commercial offerings like Cakewalk *bleh*, Logic, ProTools, etc, given some more time, they might be acceptable replacements.

3) The ladspa plugins, while very far behind the current VSTVSTi offerings, do offer some fairly cool effects. I would like to see, however, some ladspa work with regards to GUI, e.g. a Novation V-Station - like plugin for ladspa... I'm fairly certain this could be done.

Author's reply

Anonymous's picture

Your points are well-taken, but I don't believe we'll be waiting for years.

There's already much concern for a GPL'd soundfont set, it merely awaits someone getting it done. So if you're not too busy... ;-)

I'm not sure I follow you re: your laptop and Jack. Could you clarify what you mean by "immature" ? Jack isn't yet 1.0, it's true, but I use it all the time for audio work on my desktop machine and on my laptop.

I agree with you on your point 3. However, developer Bob Ham has been working on his LASH system that would do a "total recall" of connections and settings. The system is not ready for use yet, but it's a very good start towards resolving that problem. Rui Capela's qjackctl has a GUI he calls Patchbay which can save & load connections, I've been enjoying it for a while now, but it's not up to what LASH intends.

Yep, Linux USB MIDI can be a nightmare, and I don't use it myself. As you suggest, I'd rather be a musician, and I try not to support manufacturers who won't support open source efforts. Until the manufacturers get with us we're bound to workarounds or narrow choices. Ain't closed source grand ? ;)

Not much to add to your promising points, other than to mention that Rosegarden is nearing a 1.0 release after years of a complete rewrite, and Audacity is a already solid soundfile editor. Btw, neither is modeled after Pro Tools, I'd compare that one to Ardour instead.

I've been running VST/VSTi plugins under Linux for quite a while. Two systems (vstserver and libfst) provide a bridge for using VST plugins in Linux, and I've had some great success with quite a few plugins. However, your point of having something native that's similar to VST may be partially answered by the DSSI (Disposable Soft Synth Interface) that's being used in Rosegarden. As the developers say, it's a "LADSPA for instruments", but of course it remains to be seen how well it will be adopted by other apps developers.

So, maybe only *1* year... ;-)

Thanks for your comments !


No amidirecord

Anonymous's picture

There is no amidirecord, the correct command is arecordmidi ... a fruitless Google search until I read the amidi man page. ;-) Quozl.

Author's reply

Anonymous's picture

Ouch, sorry for missing that one. Btw, it works pretty nicely, and of course there's aplaymidi for MIDI file playback.


Re: Linux MIDI: a Brief History, Part 1

Anonymous's picture

I'd like to see some midi sequencers on Linux that support midi units such as motu's usb midi express xt.

Author's reply

Anonymous's picture

Alas, it's not the Linux sequencer that must provide the support, it's the ALSA drivers, and the ALSA team cannot write drivers for which they have no programming information. That information comes from MOTU, so if you really want that piece working under Linux you need to cajole MOTU into releasing the driver specifications to ALSA.

Re: Author's reply

Anonymous's picture

Yeah, I just wish MOTU would release protocal information. I'd also like opensource audio editors that can do sample transfers (like closed source Peak for Macintosh) to hardware samplers. There is an open source program for doing smdi transfers (scsi transfers) but I don't think anyone has touched it lately(opensmdi?).

Edirol UM-880 (was Re: Author's reply)

Anonymous's picture

I purchased a Edirol UM-880, and found that it works quite nicely with the ALSA midi-usb kernel driver in, while in FPT mode. It's an 8port device, shows 9 to the system (the 9th port is to communicate with the processor within the UM880), and even supports the standard OSS midi driver in standard mode.

The OSS driver, however, only gives you one port. Better off with ALSA anyway, so you can route the ports with aconnect.

Edirol UM-880 : Author's response

Anonymous's picture

Do you know if it will work with the 2.4 kernel series ? I'm considering purchasing a USB MIDI interface for testing purposes, and I'd like the install/configure pain to last as briefly as possible. ;)