Archive | May 14, 2013

The MIDI Revolution: Synthesizing Music For The Masses

You can’t hear it, not exactly, but it’s in almost every song on the radio. It’s a 30-year-old technology that hasn’t changed much over the years but is now used in ways that its creators likely never imagined. In contemporary music, there’s nothing closer to a universal translator than MIDI.

Simply put, MIDI is a way for computers to understand musical instruments. Until 1983, when the technology was first demonstrated in a presentation to the National Association of Music Merchants, synthesizers were stand-alone electronic instruments, incapable of linking up with computers. But the idea for MIDI goes back to 1978, when engineer and synthesizer designer Dave Smith put out the Prophet 5, one of the earliest musical instruments to include a microprocessor.

After Smith’s creation, a number of designers built similar synthesizers, all equipped with digital compatibility. This meant they could communicate digitally with one another, but it was a complicated process: There was no standard way for these instruments to connect.

“And then in the early ’80s we all started realizing that it was kind of silly for all of us to have our own proprietary interfaces that couldn’t talk to each other,” Smith says. “We realized that if the industry was going to grow much, that we really should have a common way of doing that.”

So Smith worked with a team of designers to create what was called the Musical Instrument Digital Interface, a technology that unites synthesizers and computers. Most synthesizers work by pressing a key on keyboard to generate an electrical current, which becomes sound by passing through an amplifier and speakers. MIDI turns that current to something that computers could understand.

“What MIDI does is it digitizes that process,” says Tom White, CEO of the MIDI Manufacturers Association. “Instead of actually creating a voltage, there’s a series of numbers that are generated every time you press a key or turn a knob on the synthesizer. And the wonder of all that, the magnificent part about it is, since its all numbers, then a computer can process it. So what happens is, you can play something on a synthesizer, the computer can store it and then it’s easy to play it back or edit it.”

So lets say, for example, a middle C is struck on a keyboard that’s hooked up to a laptop. MIDI turns all of the information about that note — its timbre, length, volume, etc. — into code that the computer can then change. That C can become a D or be stretched to twice its length. The possibilities are nearly endless. And it’s not just keyboards that can plug in. With the right setup, electric guitars, violins, basses — almost anything — can be played and manipulated through MIDI. Today, much of what’s heard on commercial radio was made with the technology.

How does MIDI work? Listen to a demo.

The reason MIDI is everywhere has a lot to do with the intent of its creators. At the time, Smith, who is sometimes called “the father of MIDI,” was with a company called Sequential Circuits. He set up a meeting with keyboard companies Roland, Yamaha, Korg and Kawai.

“The idea was, it didn’t have to be perfect. We wanted something everyone could agree on and then we wanted to give it away because we wanted to make sure it became universally adopted,” Smith says. “I don’t even remember discussing much about the possibility of charging royalties or licensing fees. It was just assumed that we would give it away.”

Today, that decision has allowed MIDI to travel far. In addition to music, MIDI is also used to control light shows and animatronics. It was used to generate ring tones in early cellphones. What was first used to link one synthesizer to another is now used to control the synchronized fountains at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Its impact on the music industry was recognized this year when Smith and his collaborator Ikutaro Kakehashi won a technical Grammy for their work.

Electronic musician Holly Herndon uses MIDI in a couple of ways.

“I use a MIDI controller when I perform live and also when I’m writing,” Herndon says. Instead of a keyboard, her controller has buttons, knobs and sliding faders that can map to sounds on her computer.

“Maybe this kind of Western piano interface isn’t the best way to write music, and that’s what’s so interesting about MIDI,” she says. “Maybe the best way to compose a new piece is to turn a knob in a certain way or to use faders. That’s, I think, not to overblow it, but that’s kind of revolutionized the way that we approach composition.”

A revolution spawned by a desire for connection and collaboration, not dollars and cents.



Natural remedies for travel ailments

From jet lag to sunburn, the body takes a beating while we’re out exploring the world. Some ailments can be assuaged by a well-timed painkiller, but there’s also a whole world of effective natural remedies that are easy to pack and handy in a pinch.

We asked Dr. Kate Brainard, one of the resident naturopathic doctors at Pharmaca, as well as Dr. Karen Hurley of Bastyr University for the best tips about staying healthy naturally on vacation.

Jet Lag


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Jet lag, which occurs when your sleep-wake cycle is disrupted by a flight across multiple time zones, can ruin you for the first few days of your vacation.

On flights, Dr. Brainard suggests using Miers Laboratory No-Jet-Lag, a blend of five homeopathic remedies that she calls “safe, easy to take, and proven effective in tests.” She also recommends melatonin. “Melatonin is the hormone our bodies make to regulate the sleep-wake cycle—taking extra in a supplement form may help to reset the cycle disrupted by jet lag.”

Travel AnxietyPhoto: Shutterstock)

Travel is one of life’s greatest thrills, but for most people it also comes with its share of stresses. Travel anxiety can really take you out of the moment, and since you want to enjoy every minute of vacation, it’s an affliction worth treating.

Dr. Hurley recommends Bach Flower Rescue Remedy, a blend of five flower-essence formulas, stating that it can be “very helpful.” Dr. Brainard suggests L-Theanine, an amino acid found in green tea that “supports mental calmness and relaxation by increasing dopamine and GABA in the brain. … without any drowsiness.” She also recommends kava kava, a popular ceremonial drink in Polynesia that “supports relaxation from tension, encourages a sense of well-being, and promotes relaxation of nerves and muscles,” all without disturbing mental clarity.

Motion Sickness

ds.For motion-sensitive travelers, Dr. Brainard recommends PSI bands, “adjustable wristbands that apply acupressure to help relieve the symptoms of nausea and vomiting.” She also suggests traveling with a concentrated-peppermint product, such as Pharmaca Peppermint Spirits or Herb Pharm Breath Tonic, and taking vitamin B6 or homeopathic Gelsemium Sempervire 30C by Boiron, both of which are known to relieve motion sickness. Dr. Hurley adds that ginger chews or ginger tea can also be helpful.

Traveler’s Diarrhea

With so much new input during travel, the microbial balance in the digestive tract can be easily disturbed. Dr. Brainard says, “It’s important to plan ahead and supplement with probiotics to give the immune and digestive tract a head start.” She suggests starting a good probiotic (such as Jarrow Formulas’ Jarro-Dophilus EPS, which doesn’t require refrigeration) a few weeks before leaving “to build up healthy colonies of friendly flora.”

And you can’t go wrong, says Dr. Brainard, sticking to bottled water from a trusted source and making sure to wash your hands frequently. If you are hit with TD while traveling, try UrgentRx Upset-Stomach Relief. These pocket-sized packets are easy to transport and can be taken with or without water.


When choosing a sunscreen, Dr. Brainard says that “it’s vital to always choose a broad-spectrum product that protects against both UVA and UVB rays.” Sun-protection factor (SPF) ratings measure only UVB rays, which are largely responsible for both burns and skin cancer, but it’s important to protect against UVA rays as well, since they “penetrate deeper and are responsible for premature aging and wrinkling of the skin.” Of the more natural sunscreen brands on the market, Dr. Brainard recommends Sanitas, Eco Logical Skin Care, Kiss My Face, Badger, La Roche Posay, and Alba Botanica products.

Treatment can’t fix a sunburn, but it can offer some soothing relief. Dr. Brainard recommends All Terrain Aloe Skin Repair with healing herbs or Boiron Calendula Lotion. She also notes that rehydrating after being out in the sun all day is important, and she suggests coconut water as a good way to get more electrolytes than with water alone.