The Significance of MIDI in EDM

Photo: gearslutz.com

Electronic music has been on the rise since 2008, with its emergence in mainstream culture in the United States. A huge factor in this growth has been the invention of DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations), which emulate a music studio in a computer screen. Now, anyone can use music production software to synthesize his own dreams and aspirations, and make them audible for the rest of the world to hear. However, music creation at home would not have been viable, if the invention of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) did not occur in the 1980s.

Although MIDI is something standard in any DAW now, it was a ground-breaking idea in its time. Musicians were lacking the ability to play multiple instruments at once, thus, diminishing their creativity. Now, they can program any number of synthesizers to play the same sequence, at the same time. This is why melodies in edm have more complex textures than non-electronic genres.

The idea of electrically connecting instruments together was discovered by Dave Smith, founder of Dave Smith Instruments. He pitched it to other synthesizer manufactures, whom used it for their own instruments. He then produced the first synthesizer with MIDI capability, under the name Prophet-600.

A video of the first MIDI capable synthesizer:

Programming MIDI laid the foundation for music production suites and gave the ability to create composition patterns and connect any of these midi-capable synthesizers.

“What MIDI did is it allowed the first home studios to be born,” as Dave Smith said.

Many musicians started using synthesizers in the past, such as Pink Floyd on the track “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” but the golden era in electronic dance music started in the 1990s, with the emergence of Big Beat in UK’s pop culture.

One of my favorite British acts of the 1990s is The Chemical Brothers. I have seen them live at North Coast Music Festival in 2010 and 2015. They use analog synthesizers and drum machines to play music that sounds computerized, yet exhibits humane characteristics.

The Chemical Brothers performance at North Coast Music Festival in 2010:

Going along the Big Beat movement, Fatboy Slim (or by his real name, Norman Cook) was also one of the pioneers of this underground groove. Known for his early productions “Rockefeller Skank” and “Praise You,” Cook uses MIDI to create his tracks in the studio. However, he does not use electronic synthesizers for his live sets. His performances are usually conducted on CDJs (Pioneer’s line of Disk Jockey CD players), with the exception of vinyl sets.

Fatboy Slim‘s “Big Beat Souffle” from his official YouTube channel:

Last but not least, UK-based electronic music band The Prodigy, is also a pioneer for this Big Beat phenomenon. They use electronic instruments that are connected through MIDI, along with live drums and vocals. I have never seen them play live, even though they are my favorite band form the 1990s.

Here is a glimpse from a Prodigy concert in 2013:

These producers and bands took advantage of the MIDI technology, and created music that was ahead of its time. All these computerized melodies might not be peculiar to the ears now, but they were a unique sound for the music scene in the 1990s.

Passed on to the next generations, the ability to use MIDI patterns is the sole reason edm can have complex compositions with multiple-instrument layers. Next time you are listening to your favorite electronic music song, remember of Dave Smith, and what he started for all of us.