Windows goes MIDI. (Musical Instrument Digital Interface)(Cakewalk Professional for Windows, Master Tracks Pro 4.5 for Windows) (Software Review) (Column) (Evaluation)
by David English
I confess. Until recently, I did almost all my MIDI work on a Macintosh. It wasn't really my fault. I just couldn't find programs on the PC that were as powerful and easy to use as Opcode's Vision and Mark of the Unicorn's Performer--both available only on the Mac. Fortunately, that's beginning to change. Two new Windows-based MIDI sequencing programs have made making music on the PC just as much fun as it is on the Mac.
You may be wondering, What is MIDI, and what is a sequencing program? MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It's a communications standard that allows electronic musical instruments to talk to computers and to each other. Most electronic keyboards have a MIDI interface built in, and most sound cards (including the popular Sound Blaster and Pro Audio-Spectrum cards) come with a MIDI interface or offer one as an option. If you're running Windows 3.1 or Windows 3.0 with the multimedia extensions, you're ready for the flood of Windows-based MIDI programs.
A sequencing program is a sort of elaborate tape recorder that records and plays back MIDI music. It doesn't actually record sounds; instead, it records the various on and off positions of the keyboard's keys as you play, along with the force that you use to strike each key (the harder you strike a key, the louder it sounds) and the time that passes between each note. Taken together, this is enough information to play back a nearly identical performance when used with the same or a similar musical instrument.
Because a sequencing program records a limited amount of information when compared to a full audio recording, MIDI is especially appropriate for multimedia applications and presentations. Where a typical audio recording might take up 10MB when recorded in 16-bit-stereo, that same music, stored as a MIDI performance, would take up less than 100K. And because you can use a sequencing program to edit MIDI data much as you would use a word processor to edit words and sentences, you can easily alter the music to fit your needs.
Either of these new sequencing programs would suit the needs of a professional musician, weekend composer, or multimedia artist. The first, Cakewalk Professional for Windows (Twelve Tone Systems, P.O. Box 760, Watertown, Massachusetts 02272; 800-234-1171; $349), has a number of exciting features, most notably the ability to mix real audio data (in WAV format) with MIDI sequences. You can use the program with Windows' Media Control Interface (MCI) to control other multimedia devices during playback. In addition to the usual piano-roll and eventlist notation of MIDI notes, this latest version of Cakewalk lets you view and edit your notes in staff notation--the kind you see with traditional sheet music. The program even includes its own built-in programming language and sample programs, so you can write your own editing commands.
While Cakewalk is new to Windows, Master Tracks Pro 4.5 for Windows (Passport Designs, 100 Stone Pine Road, Half Moon Bay, California 94019; 415-726-0280; $395) is a substantial upgrade to the very first MIDI sequencing program for MPCs (Multimedia PCs). New features include the ability to perform many editing functions while the music is playing, an easier-to-use Track Sheet (song and track information are now in one area), and recordable volume faders. The program has special support for the Miracle Piano Teaching System, allowing you to hook up your Miracle keyboard to your computer's serial or MIDI interface. And while Master Tracks doesn't offer staff notation, you can export your files to either of Passport's notation programs, Encore for Windows ($595) and MusicTime for Windows ($249). A stripped-down version of Master Tracks, called Trax for Windows, is also available from Passport. At $99, it's one of the best bargains in music software and a great way to get started with MIDI.
I tried both programs with a MultiSound board, a Sound Canvas, and a Miracle keyboard, and had no problems at all. These are highly sophisticated programs that are surprisingly easy to use. If you've wanted to make music with MIDI, and you're looking for a program that you won't easily outgrow, you can't go wrong with either program.