Midi is one of the greatest inventions that has ever happened to music and electronic music especially. It has allowed us to achieve almost anything with regards to creating music, and it is single-handedly the reason why music is what it is today. How does it work, though?
Midi goes to 127 but has a total of 128 unassigned values (0-127). Midi is an old 8-bit computer language, and the maximum value that can be expressed by one 7 bit byte is equal to 2 to the power of 7. This provides us with a total of 128 values that can be assigned.
Ever wondered how Midi came into being and the struggle musicians had to go through before its invention back in the 1980s? This article will cover all of that and why Midi goes to 127 and not any higher as well as why it has not been changed since then.
Why does Midi go to 127?
Midi goes to 127 due to how it is coded. Back in the 1980s, when it was invented, technology was not as vast and complex as it is today. Midi is a computer language made of binary code and is an 8-bit language. Due to this and how it is explicitly coded can only have a maximum number of unassigned and signed values.
Let’s first take a look at the inception of Midi to get a better understanding of how it came about and how it works in order for us to completely understand why it goes to 127 and not any higher.
Midi, in its simplest term, is the computer-based language of electronic music. To completely understand what Midi is and why it uses 127, we’ll need to know how it came into being.
Midi came about due to the evolution of synthesizer technology. In the very early days of electronic music, synthesizers were massive and very expensive. They were so large that they required patch cables to interconnect their various modules, and furthermore, you needed to have a strong knowledge of synthesis just to create a sound. Not to mention, there were only monophonic synths, and this meant that you could only play one note at a time.
By the late 70s, the majority of synths had moved away from using patch cables, but they were covered with knobs, faders, and sliders. Furthermore, to create a sound, you still had to have a vast knowledge of synthesis.
Now, if you had that skill set and you were able to create a sound that you liked, there was still no way to store or save it on the synthesizer. This meant that the position of every knob, fader, and slider had to be written down on a patch sheet if you wished to use that sound again.
In the 80s, synthesizers had progressed and were capable of 32 to 64 preprogrammed sounds that were stored as presets. These presets could be recalled with the touch of a single button. This was a giant step forward because it meant that you did not require knowledge of synthesis, and you could make music with a synth straight out of the box.
This new technology also broke the one note at a time barrier, allowing you to play 8 to 12 notes at once. Hence, two-handed playing was finally available. This did not come without its caveats, though, and people always push the boundaries of anything they do. Thus at this stage, musicians wanted to and tried to layer sounds together.
To layer sounds at this stage meant that you needed multiple synthesizers set to a different sound, and it was not uncommon to have three or more synths trying to achieve this. You would then play one synth with one hand and use the other hand on a different synth. Therefore, If you wanted to layer sounds, two-handed playing was not available.
The solution for this arose when an electronic language was created where you could connect multiple keyboards (synths), yet you could control and access them from one central synth that could be played with two hands. Furthermore, the language would have to be universal because that way, regardless of the keyboards make and model, the synths could be connected together and work in conjunction with one another.
Thus, in 1983, Midi, the electronic language of music, was invented. Midi stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Midi became the standard for every professional keyboard that was made.
How did Midi work back in 1983?
Whenever the controlling keyboard (synthesizer) was played, an instant stream of high-speed information was transmitted out of the initial synth. That data stream (Midi data) contained information about which preset had been selected, the notes being played, how hard the notes were struck, how long the notes were held, and when the sustain pedal was used.
This meant that the receiving synth (the slave or one which was connected to the primary synth) would play whatever the master synth told it to. If you had multiple synths connected to one another, you could essentially build complex lush layers of sound.
Midi with regards to computers
Due to the fact that Midi is a computer language, meaning it is made from ones and zeros (binary code), the next logical step after achieving the connectivity of multiple synths was to insert a computer in between them.
This is where the invention of music applications like DAWs came into being, and this is where Midi had to be able to speak to these applications and be able to transmit data.
The important factor to consider is that Midi has to have unassigned values that will be assigned when it needs to be. For example, you will have 128 unassigned values, and then when you hit a note on a keyboard, that value (whatever it is will be assigned with the data).
So why does Midi go to 127?
Due to Midi being an 8-bit computer language as well as it being invented in the 1980s it is limited. Midi technically goes from 0-127, giving it 128 unassigned values. The maximum value that can be expressed by one 7 bit byte is equal to 2 to the power of 7. This provides us with a total of 128 values that can be assigned.
This is the reason that Midi goes to 127 and not any higher. We have to take into consideration when it was invented, how it worked with synths, and then how it communicates with computers assigning and reassigning data to these values.
We discovered that Midi is an 8-bit computer language that was invented all the way back in the 1980s and was created so that musicians could effectively create and link synthesizers together without the need.
Due to technology being limited back then, that was the highest amount of data they could essentially use. Midi goes has 128 unassigned values, and that is the largest amount it can have because the max value and of one 7 bit byte is equivalent to 2 to the power of 7, which gives us 128.
You might ask, well, why don’t they change it now, seeing as computer languages can be 16-bit, 24-bit, 32-bit, 64-bit, and even 128-bits. The reason for this is because it would be a massive undertaking that would cost millions, if not hundreds of millions or even billions.
All electronic music equipment from the 1980s up to now has been manufactured to run with the current Midi system that is available. To change it now would mean that all the music equipment from then until now (including some music applications) would be obsolete. Manufacturers would have to spend millions on new manufacturing equipment, and musicians would also have to go out and purchase new equipment.
This would have to be considered as a worldwide endeavor, and the time and resources it would take would just be too great.
Hopefully, this article cleared up why Midi only has 128 (not 127) values. Remember, you have to include zero. Remember that to make music, a deep understanding of how Midi is written is not required, and for the most part, everything nowadays is plug and play, so you do not need to worry.