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  What is MIDI?
By Marc Schonbrun

We throw the term “MIDI” around a great deal these days, but how much do we really know about MIDI? In terms of Godin Guitars, all of the SA (Synth Access) guitars have an available 13-pin output that can drive a Roland or Axon “Guitar Synth”. The 13-pin cable itself has nothing to do with MIDI; it’s just a cable that carries the separate strings of the guitar to the synth unit.  So, does MIDI make synth sounds? Well, yes and no. To get to the bottom of this, we have to go back in time.

Rewind to the early 1980’s and think back to what a computer could do at that time… Word processing at that point in time was a huge deal. Computers didn’t record any audio back then. What a computer was able to do was send small amounts of data out to control external devices. Once musicians got wind of this, there was a nice groudswell about the “possibilities” of hooking a keyboard up to a computer (the keyboard was the most evolved synthesizer of the day, even though guitar synthesizers existed at the time.) Let’s get back to the idea of “control,” as that’s all MIDI does. The computer controlled the keyboard, it told it what note to play, how long to play it and how loud to play it. There may have been other data sent, such as pitch bend and other goodies, but essentially a computer could make a keyboard sound through very simple text based instructions: note on, note off, velocity. In these early days, there was no standard for how computers and keyboards interacted until MIDI was finalized in 1983. The standard was reached by a consortium of companies that represented the state-of-the-art in keyboards and electronics of the time. All MIDI was, and still is, is a text-based language for computers to control keyboards and vice versa; and nowadays, any sound producing device, from a guitar synth, to a computer plug-in.)

MIDI has nothing to do with audio… A MIDI cable sends basic data (better yet: instructions) to a device (such as a keyboard or a sampler) and the device makes the sound. MIDI will only ever be commands through a cable, and it will never be a sound, only an instruction.  Repeat after me: MIDI is data! Audio is sound!

What made it even better is that the keyboard could send its data to the computer and record it as MIDI events, and compositions could be made and manipulated on the computer; this is known as “sequencing,” as in a sequence of events — in this case, MIDI events. Musicians relished in the idea of writing music, manipulating it in the computer and having the computer deal with the complexities of playback; not the mention the ease of converting MIDI to standard musical notation. The programs we know of as Logic and Cubase were born during these days, albeit with different names at the time.

What’s amazing is how simple MIDI is: note on, note off and velocity, and how it hasn’t changed, virtually at all since 1983! As computers became more powerful, they took on audio and other jobs, but MIDI remained unchanged.

So, what does this have to do with the guitar? Well, we guitarist don’t want to be left out of the fun. We wanted to get in on this party! Keyboards have it really easy, they press a key, which is a switch and the keyboard sends out a very simple note on and velocity command in MIDIspeak. Since each key has a different switch, it’s very easy to keep track of which key is being pressed; building a MIDI keyboard is a (relatively) simple operation. On the guitar, it’s not that simple… Each note has to be analyzed, detected and converted to MIDI. It’s a very complicated process and simply takes time! As technology has progressed, the time it takes for the audio-to-MIDI conversion (also known as latency) has improved, and this has made it easier for guitarist to join in the party. Computers have also become smarter, faster and more fun to use as musical creation tools.

MIDI conversion on a guitar involves a pickup, more specifically, a pickup that has an independent sensor for each string. Each string is sent separately, on its own MIDI channel for conversion. Most MIDI converters call for a bulky, external pickup to attach to your guitar. Not only do these pickups aesthetically look bad, they are not as accurate as other styles of pickups. The best MIDI pickup is a piezo-based pickup, one that is built into a set of bridge saddles. Piezo-based pickups track faster, more reliably and require no external modification to an instrument; if you didn’t know it was there, you’d never know your guitar had it. You also get the piezo acoustic tone as a bonus!

It’s no surprise that every Godin SA equipped guitar uses piezo-based pickups in their guitars. This not only leaves you with the best quality MIDI conversion, but a beautiful looking guitar. Simply put, if you want clean, accurate MIDI conversion, start with a piezo-equipped Godin SA and plug into a whole new world of recording, transcriptions and musicianship.

Now that you know a little about MIDI, we’ll spend each month talking about all the fun you can have with your SA equipped Godin, and believe me, you’re going to have a blast! I use my Multiacs for recording, notation and live guitar synth playing — they really “do it all.”

About the author : Marc Schonbrun graduated magna cum laude from the Crane School of Music. He is an active educator, writer, and performer on the East Coast. Marc's musical resume ranges from classical guitar concertos to jazz trios and rock concerts. He is an active lecturer on guitar and music technology, and he frequently tours the country educating musicians and teachers. He is also the author of numerous books on music theory, guitar playing, and music technology.


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