23 july 2018

I really wanted to embed a MIDI here on my page. In a place like tilde.town there's a good chance folks reading this will understand the appeal of MIDI, but I found to my dismay that the format is not natively handled these days by either Firefox or Chrome. The format has its disadvantages; unlike various tracker MOD formats with built-in samples, for example, its sound will vary depending on the soundfonts available wherever the file is ultimately played, and it's ultimately limited to the kind of data you can express in sheet music. MIDI is like… the Microsoft Word document format of music. It has certain advantages; it was designed to be a native format for digital musical instruments, and it supports much of the same metadata that could appear in sheet music, including timed lyrics. But the reason so many of us downloaded MIDI files ca. 2002 was the file size and portability. You could download one over a bad dial-up connection in less time than it took to listen to the entire song, and you could keep a whole bunch of them on a 1.44MB 3½" floppy disk; and if you embedded one in your Geocities page, Internet Explorer could just play it without anyone needing to install Quicktime or RealPlayer.

I didn't have any MIDI files on my hard drive anymore, but it didn't take much searching, in the end, to dig up one of my favorites again, a little arrangement of some background music from Neon Genesis Evangelion, a 95-second piece called "Hedgehog's Dilemma". The file, in its original format, is 6.9 kB. Rendered to lossless WAV using timidity and reencoded as a variable-bitrate MP3 of average quality using lame, the filesize balloons to 1.6MB, decidedly too large for the floppy disks I used to put these on.

As our internet infrastructure has scaled up to handle ever more data at ever faster speeds, they've dropped compatibility with some of the formats and techniques we used to negotiate these limitations. And maybe I don't need embedded MIDI, but it makes me wonder how we're treating the developing world, or how we're treating those holes in the broadband maps of developed countries, those pockets of a country like the USA where people are using dial-up or a spotty satellite-based connection. Or how we're treating vast populations of people who access the internet primarily through mobile phones on a 1GB/month mobile data plan.

There's a lost artistry to making MIDI files that sound good or even tolerable. The track names metadata in a MIDI arrangement of the Neon Genesis Evangelion theme "A Cruel Angel's Thesis" have been used to store this note: "Edited and remixed by ranma@umich.edu. Long, tedious job, damn it!" A highly layered and sophisticated MIDI arrangement of ABBA's "Lay All Your Love on Me", arranged by John Schlegel in May 1996, helpfully suggests, "If Your Syth will accept them, try turning on the above tracks for a more layered, fuller sound!!"

I talked to my father this evening, 44 minutes on the phone. We mostly talked about cars. I don't really grok cars, and I don't generally like talking about them. But when I'm talking with my dad, I'd rather be talking about cars than just about anything else we could theoretically discuss.