Electronic Music and MIDI

Since the 1970s, electronically-produced music has been produced with the aid of computers and synthesizers. Today, almost all songs have at least some aspect performed by a synthesizer, but how did this become to be?

The first synthesizers weren’t computers or digital keyboards; rather, they were machines and basic analog electronic systems that were used to produce a sound. The first digital electronic synthesizers (which I cover) did not come into existence until the 1950s.

RCA spearheaded the introduction of the first synthesizers. In 1952, the company produced an “Electronic Music Synthesizer” that did not render music in the traditional sense, but rather composed it. In 1957, the company produced a computer that could render music – the first true (by today’s sense) synthesizer.

Other Types of Electronic Music

However, electronic music produced by computers weren’t new and/or hard to create. Early mainframe computers, such as the IBM 1401, emitted strong electromagnetic interference from their processing units. Thus, specific programs were written to create notes and sounds in this interference. While mainframes were known for this, microcomputers of later years – like the Apple II – could equally produce music through the same way.

The second method is by creating music through tones produced by the internal speaker or beeper. For Windows 95-Windows Vista machines equipped with a piezeoelectric buzzer, the Bleeper Music Maker program can render music via input notes or MIDI files (which I’ll discuss later.) Earlier computers, however, had programs that could utilize the buzzer to make music. IBM wrote a program packaged with their PCs to play the William Tell Overture through the internal speaker.


A view of the data inside of a MIDI file, running on the OpenMPT softsynth.

When discussing electronically-synthesized music, primarily of the “modern” area (1980s through today), there are two electronic file formats that come up: MIDI (.mid) and MOD files (.mod).

MIDI, or Musical Instrument Data Interface, is a basic interface used to connect electronic musical instruments (i.e. keyboard – more on the technical name later) to a computer or device that records the data for future reference. MIDI files can be synthesized using a synthesizer, but can be used to time special effects on-stage such as lighting or pyrotechnics.

The most common misconception is that MIDI is music. MIDI, in reality, isn’t music. Rather, it is like the “sheet music” a musician uses to play an instrument. A sequencer or synthesizer will read and interpret the MIDI file, and use that data to play a series of instruments, or samples. In laymen’s terms, MIDI is just instructions for the computer to use to actually create the music.

A MIDI system is made of multiple components, including:

  • Synthesizer- The most important part of the system. In many modern cases, this is either a musical keyboard or a computer. Software synthesizers, called softsynths, are programs executed on a computer to create the music. (Softsynth examples include TiMidity++, GarageBand, OpenMPT, and Windows Media Player.)
  • Sequencer- The sequencer is either a standalone piece of hardware or a program executed on a computer to either record the MIDI data (input), or sequence the data during playback (out.) (As with any type of music, electronic or not, timing is very crucial.)
  • Sampler- a machine similar to a synthesizer, but utilizes samples (see below).

As with non-electronic forms of music, terms such as pitchtimbre, and volume are thrown around, too. Here are some more terms used in MIDI.

  • Sample- an “instrument” used to create the sound. A MIDI file may use more than 32 samples to create a variety of sounds, composing of drums, voices, and other instruments. A set of samples inside of a synthesizer is known as a sample bank.
  • Frequency Modulation- in some MIDI systems, especially in the case of keyboards and advanced computer MIDI sound-cards, frequency modulation (FM) is utilized to change the pitch of a sample without the requirement of multiple samples for one instrument.
  • SoundFont: in modern MIDI, a user of a softsynth program can easily swap one sample bank – or SoundFont – for another, creating a vividly different sound.
  • General MIDI (GM): a standardized form of MIDI used across a wide variety of manufacturers. Most common.

The History of MIDI

While synthesizers date back to the 1950s, MIDI was not developed until 1981.

The founder of two electronic synthesizer manufacturers, Ikutaro Kakehashi (of Roland) and Tom Oberheim (of Oberheim), along with Dave Smith (president of Sequential Circuits) pitched the idea of MIDI to huge synthesizer manufacturers like Yamaha, Korg, and Kawai. The idea behind MIDI was simple: an interface that allows two or more synthesizers to communicate.  In October 1982, Robert Moog – the developer of the infamous “Moog Synthesizer” – announced the development to the public in the Keyboard Magazine publication.

It is no wonder that Roland produced the first MIDI-compatible equipment, including the first synthesizers, sequencers, and other components.

The NEC PC-88 was one of the first microcomputers to fully support MIDI. (Source: TV Tropes)

As for the personal computer (microcomputer) aspect, only two NEC computers (PC-88 and PC-98) and the MSX supported MIDI early on. However, it wasn’t long before games utilized MIDI to its fullest extent, by producing simple music that would work well on any compatible system, not to mention easy to create and conservative on space. Since a sample bank could differ from PC to PC depending on its hardware and the manufacturer, while the same basic song was played across all compatible systems – the actual sounds could be completely different.

By the early 1990s, MIDI was very popular in games and similar applications. Manufacturers like Creative Technology developed sound-cards like the SoundBlaster that improved processing of these files. For some computers, like members of the original IBM PC series (PC, PC-XT, and PC-AT), an external sound card was necessary to produce “real” sounds rather than a series of beeps from the PC speaker – and later piezoelectric beepers. Throughout the dial-up age of the internet and bulletin-board systems, MIDI surged in popularity as most MIDI files are less than 100KB, making them an easy way to transfer music via slow connections.


While most modern keyboards can act as a synthesizer and (even cheaper models) feature MIDI ports for communication with a sequencer and/or computer, early synthesizers didn’t utilize MIDI – and some today don’t.

Early Digital Synthesizers

Robert Moog created the Moog Synthesizer in 1969. This was one of the most popular early forms of a digital synthesizer.

The late 1970s and early-mid 1980s saw a large boom in the use of electronic music and, in turn, digital synthesizers. The Synclavier, e-Mu Emulator series, Fairlight CMI, and various other synthesizers and samplers were born during this time period.

One of the earliest computer-based synthesizers (which could be called the earliest “softsynth”) was the MUSIC program for the IBM 704 computer. Predating the transition to transistors, a program written for the 704 allowed the computer to render “Daisy Bell” – complete with very early speech synthesis, also in the program for the 704.

Today, many keyboards act as synthesizers, allowing the user to change the instrument and many other aspects.