General MIDI or Not to General MIDI, That is the Question!
Dear Squeak and Blat,
Thanks for your column and the great advice guys. Maybe you can help us out here at our school. I chair our department and am trying to write a grant to create a music technology lab. Our music education prof wants us to buy "General MIDI" keyboards for the lab and I am not sure that this is a good idea. I am told by our composition faculty that such keyboards are really not intended for professional use. What do you guys think?
Dear Gill. Writing a grant? Wow, that sounds great. Be sure to build in a few thousands for Squeak and Blat to drop in as consultants! Your music ed prof wants to take advantage of the standardized features that a General MIDI keyboard offers. One of these is the assignment of instrument sounds to a standard location in the keyboard. For example, Squeak's favorite Okie clarinet sound will also be in the same place within the instrument, no matter which General MIDI device he buys. When your music ed prof installs a software program and chooses "General MIDI" as the instrument, the software will produce sounds on the keyboard that will aways sound correct. It makes setup of a MIDI workstation with software a lot easier.
Now it use to be that only the cheaper keyboards had general MIDI, but now you can find many of the more expensive devices supporting General MIDI. Tell your computer faculty not to worry. A General MIDI is certainly a good choice for a multipurpose lab!
Gill, are you any relation to that Fortune 500 billionaire Bill Bates? Or, was that Gill Gates?
Another thing to remember, Gill, is that many MIDI sound modules and keyboard synthesizers have several "banks" of sounds, typically 128 sounds per bank. Only one bank is General MIDI. So I would look for a MIDI device that offered more than just one GM bank so your student and faculty composers have more sounds to choose from for those more creative and advanced projects. Also, look for a MIDI synthesizer or sound module at a reasonable price that lets you program your own sounds either by uploading new digital sounds or by synthesis techniques like FM synthesis. These features should keep those composers busy for many hours creating new sounds. You'll want some MIDI editor/librarian software to support this as well.
Peter R. Webster (a.k.a “Blat”) and David Brian Williams (a.k.a. “Squeak”) have presented workshops and other presentations together for CMS/ATMI conferences and workshops for more than 20 years. Their collaboration has led to publications and presentations internationally on music technology as well as the co-authorship of the textbook Experiencing Music Technology (Cengage Learning/Schirmer Books, 3rd edition Update, 2009), a widely adopted and highly acclaimed music technology textbook for high school and college students. Dr. Webster is emeritus professor of music education at Northwestern University and Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Southern California; Dr. Williams is emeritus professor of music and arts technology at Illinois State University, a freelance consultant, composer and musician, and immediate past president of The College Music Society.