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ATPM 5.11
November 1999



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MIDI and the Mac

by David Ozab,

Part 2—What is MIDI?


“This has been going on since the eighties?!” I love that quote (it’s from L.A. Story by the way). It could also apply to the close relationship between MIDI and the Mac. The MIDI specification was in development at the same time as the Mac, and the two were publicly unveiled within months of each other (during the 1983 NAMM show and the 1984 Superbowl telecast respectively). Since then, they have maintained a close, if sometimes strained, relationship, and Apple still counts musicians, along with artists and educators, among the loyal Mac following.

Then Came the iMac

No floppy drive, no SCSI port, and no serial ports. Just this newfangled USB. For anyone who had set up a MIDI studio up to this point, the future was now, but it was also incompatible with the present. Then came the Blue and White G3, and after that, the G4. More flexibility and more power, but compatibility with old hardware and software is still an issue. As such, I will focus my overview on these newer systems. I’ve only listed prices posted on the net. Contact the manufacturers for prices I haven’t listed here, download demos when available, and always comparison shop.

Software—The Sequencer

The heart of any MIDI studio is a good sequencing application (for a discussion of sequencers and other basic terms, please see Part I of the series). Three professional quality software packages are available, each with a long history on the Mac. Most of these programs incorporate multi-track digital audio as well, and I’ll return to them in a future series on that topic. Opcode offers two programs—essentially identical in their MIDI implementation—Studio Vision Pro ($399.95) and Vision DSP. Of these, Vision DSP is the better deal (and the best deal overall) at $199.95 for the packaged version (with additional software, and paper manuals) and $59.95 for a download version (with online documentation). Opcode also offers Musicshop ($99.95), a stripped down sequencer formerly known as EZ-Vision. Mark of the Unicorn offers Performer and Digital Performer, both with multi-track digital audio, and FreeStyle, a stripped down sequencer with an excellent notation window. Steinberg rounds out the market with Cubase VST ($399.95), an increasingly popular cross-platform sequencer and digital audio recorder.

Software—The Sound Modules

The simplest software synthesizer is also free and included on every Mac. The Quicktime Music Synthesizer is a feature in Quicktime 4. It is about as general (and generic) as General MIDI gets, but for online MIDI files and rough playback, it’s marginally acceptable. If you want to get more sophisticated, but still stay in the software realm, Bitheadz Inc. offers two reasonably priced modules. The Retro AS-1 is an “analog style” digital synthesizer that sells for $259, while the Unity DS–1 is a multi-timbral sampler that sells for $449 and accepts a variety of sample formats. Both use onboard RAM and hard disk space, so you can exploit the full power of your Mac at no extra cost. Going up to the next level, Digidesign’s Sample Cell II Plus ($1295) is a 32 voice sampler residing on a PCI card (sorry, iMac owners) with 32 MB of dedicated RAM. The software interfaces with the card, and accesses samples from the hard drive.

Software—Notation Programs

Though only marginally related to a MIDI studio, a notation program is handy addition to any musician’s computer. Coda Music Technology’s Finale 2000 ($545) is still the best notation application on the Mac. Despite its high learning curve and rickety sequencer, it is the most sophisticated notation program by far. Other options exist, though. Mark of the Unicorn’s Mosaic is worth a try (the demo is available online). Finale Allegro ($199) includes the basics of Finale in a simpler package. Another option is Opcode’s Fermata, an inexpensive ($59.95 online) and user-friendly notation program that fills the void left by Passport’s Encore.

Software—The Advanced Stuff

For those inclined to programming, Opcode offers MAX ($495), an object-oriented environment for MIDI and multimedia. I have used MAX since the beta version in 1990, building interactive music systems, algorithmic music generators, and other fun widgets. For those looking for interactivity with a simpler learning curve, Cycling ’74 offers M ($74), a classic program described as an “intelligent composition and performing system,” as well as a package deal for both MAX and its digital signal processing twin MSP. I’ll talk more about MSP in upcoming issues.

The Authorization Issue

In last month’s issue of ATPM, I wrote a segments piece about authorization by floppy disk key. Companies that have used this method in the past have been slow to catch up to the new floppyless world of Macintosh. Therefore, at this time, a USB floppy drive is essential. Two options are available to run key disks: the Imation Super Disk ($170), and Newer Technology’s uDrive ($99). Unfortunately, other USB drives are presently incompatible with authorization disks.

Hardware—The Computer

I assume that most of you have already made your choice in this area. For those of you looking to upgrade, though, some important differences exist between models. If you own a serial MIDI interface and want to continue using it, you need to either buy a Revision A or B iMac (the original Bondi Blue models) and the Griffin iPort serial adaptor, or a G4 without an internal modem. In its place, you can install a third party serial port. The Stealthport serial adapter (available through Opcode) and Griffin’s gPort serial adaptor are both MIDI compatible. If, on the other hand, you own or plan on buying a more recent iMac, or have already bought a G3 or a G4 with an internal modem, you will need to purchase a USB MIDI interface.

Hardware—USB MIDI Interfaces

Unless you plan to go the software route exclusively (And who wants to play instrument with that kind of keyboard?), a MIDI interface is the other essential component of the MIDI studio. Earlier this year, iMac and G3 owners were frustrated by the lack of available devices. Fortunately, the demand is now being met, and several USB to MIDI interfaces are on the market. Opcode presently offers two models, the MIDIport 32 with two MIDI ins and outs, and the MIDIport 96 with six MIDI ins and outs. Roland offers the Super MPU 64 with four ins and outs (it is also OMS and Free MIDI compatible). Mark of the Unicorn has released USB versions of its MIDI Time Piece and MIDI express, each with eight ins and outs, as well as several smaller interfaces.

Hardware—Controllers and Sound Modules

Once you have a computer and a MIDI interface, the world of synthesizers and samplers is wide open. Listing them all is beyond the scope of this article. Remember that hardware costs money. An instrument with a keyboard costs more than a rackmount module, which, in turn, costs more than a software-only module. Get one keyboard you really like (or another controller if you prefer—guitarists, wind players, and percussionists have options too), and use it to control all your other modules. The days of Rick Wakeman acrobatically playing multiple keyboards while stomping frantically on organ pedals are over, as evidenced by those of you asking “Who’s Rick Wakeman?”

In Conclusion

Though it’s been rough in the early going, the iMac, G3, and G4 are all good hubs for a MIDI studio. The iMac should be sufficient for MIDI alone, but if you are interested in incorporating digital audio, the G3 (if you already own one) or G4 are better choices ( Note: As I write this, Steve Jobs has just unveiled the new line of iMacs. The addition of FireWire, though geared toward video, may also offer potential for audio applications.)

Manufacturers’ Web sites

Sources for USB Interfaces


An example of comparison shopping: in the latest Mac Mall catalog, I found a couple of great deals. The Unity DS-1 Digital Sampler is listed for $322.99 and the Retro AS-1 Analog Synthesizer is $189.99. I would still recommend downloading the demos first, but if you decide to buy, these prices are substantially below those quoted from Bitheadz’s Web site.

Correction to MIDI Part I

Apparently, I found this mistake before any of our readers did. In last month’s article covering the basics of MIDI, I identified the Status Byte 10010001 as a Note On message on MIDI channel one. Well, I forgot that binary counts from zero and that, therefore, the last four bits of a Status Byte on MIDI channel one are 0000, not 0001.

Next Month: MIDI and the Mac—Part III: The limitations of MIDI, and what could replace it.
Coming soon: Digital Audio and the Mac—another multi-part series.

apple Copyright © 1999 David Ozab. David Ozab is a Ph.D student at the University of Oregon, where he teaches electronic music courses and assists in the day to day operation of The Future Music Oregon Studios. You can visit his Web page at

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