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Linux and MIDI: In the beginning...

By Dave Phillips, diphilp@mail.bright.net

"The Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) protocol has been variously described as an interconnection scheme between instruments and computers, a set of guidelines for transferring data from one instrument to another, and a language for transmitting musical scores between computers and synthesizers. All these definitions capture an aspect of MIDI." <Roads, Curtis. 1995. Computer Music Tutorial. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. p. 972>

Greetings! This article will hopefully be the first in a series covering various aspects of MIDI and sound with Linux. The series will be far from exhaustive, and I sincerely hope to hear from anyone currently using and/or developing MIDI and audio software for use under Linux.

Perhaps most Linux users know about MIDI as a soundcard interface option, or as a standalone interface option during kernel configuration for sound. As usual, some preparatory considerations must be made in order to optimally set up your Linux MIDI music machine. Be sure to read the kernel configuration notes included in /usr/src/linux/Documentation: you will find basic information about setting up your soundcard and/or interface, and you will also find notes regarding changes and additions to the sound driver software.

Common soundcards such as the SoundBlaster16 or the MediaVision PAS16 require a separate MIDI connector kit to provide the MIDI In/Out ports, while standalone interface cards such as the Roland MPU-401 and Music Quest MQX32M have the ports built-in. Dedicated MIDI interface cards don't usually have synthesis chips (such as the Yamaha OPL3 FM synthesizer) on-board, but they often provide services not usually found on the soundcards, such as MTC or SMPTE time code and multi-port systems (for expanding available channels past the original limit of 16).

Having successfully installed your card and kernel (or module) support, you will still need a decent audio system and a MIDI input device. If you use a soundcard for MIDI record/play via the internal chip, you will also need a software mixer; if you record your MIDI output to tape, and then record your tape to your hard-disk, you will also want a soundfile editor.

When the essential hardware and software is properly configured, it's time to look at the available software for making music with MIDI and Linux. Please note that in this article I will only supply links and very brief descriptions, while further articles will delve deeper into the software and its uses.

Nathan Laredo's playmidi is a simple command-line utility for MIDI playback and recording which can also be compiled for ncurses and X interfaces. JAZZ is an excellent sequencer which has some unique MIDI-processing features and an interface which will feel quite familiar to users of Macintosh and Windows sequencers. Vivace and Rosegarden are notation packages which provide score playback, but each with a difference: Rosegarden accesses your MIDI configuration, while Vivace "renders" the score. tiMiDity is a rendering program which compiles a MIDI file into a soundfile, using patch sets or WAV files as sound sources. Ruediger Borrmann's MIDI2CS is also a rendering program, but it acts as a translator from a MIDI file to a Csound score file. Mike Durian's tclmidi and tkseq provide a powerful MIDI programming environment, and Tim Thompson has recently announced the availability of his KeyKit, a very interesting GUI for algorithmic MIDI composition.

4-track recording to hard disk can be realized using Boris Nagels' Multitrack, but Linux has yet to see an integrated MIDI/audio sequencer such as Opcode's Studio Vision for the Mac or Voyetra's Digital Orchestrator Plus for Windows. Linux also lacks device support for the digital I/O cards such as the Zefiro or DAL's Digital-only.

If you use the tiMiDity package or MIDI2CS you will want to edit your sample libraries. Available soundfile editors include the remarkable MiXViews, the Ceres Studio.

The excellent Linux MIDI & Sound Pages are the best starting point in your search for software, and be sure to check the Incoming directory at sunsite. Newsgroups dedicated to MIDI include comp.music.midi and alt.binaries.sounds.midi; please write to me if you know what mail-lists are available, I'll list them in a later article.

Feel free to write concerning corrections, addenda, or comments to this article. Linux has great potential as a sound-production platform, and we can all contribute to its development. I look forward to hearing from you!

Special thanks to Hannu Savolainen (for maintaining sound support for the Linux kernel) and to Arne Di Russo (for the Linux MIDI & Sound Pages).

Dave Phillips


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Copyright © 1997, Dave Phillips
Published in Issue 15 of the Linux Gazette, March 1997