Playing Midi Files
Midi Files are a set of instructions that tell a device - such as a computer's soundcard - that is Midi compatible (that knows about the Musical Instrument Digital Interface protocol) what to do to provide a representation of a piece of music.
Most Computer Operating System software, such as the various flavours of Windows, and the succession of Mac OS versions, includes a Player that can accept Midi instructions; the Windows one is called "Media Player" (it will usually be found in Start|Programs|Accessories|Entertainment), and it can do all sorts of other exciting things as well as play Midi Files. In addition, there are many other dedicated Midi Players around, some free, some not, and most of these give much more flexibility and choice over what they can do than does Media Player. Several that can be downloaded are:-
- MidiSoft Recording Session
MidiSoft seem to have gone through a number of incarnations in the last ten years; I do not know where, on the Web, they are currently to be found. Recording Session (Version 1.11) is the software I use to make my voice-emphasised Midi Files, and I recommend it. It allows adjustment of both the volume/emphasis and the tempo of the playback. This version of Recording Session is a very old one - it dates back to 1993 - and a "freebie" version can be downloaded from here. See, however, the Problems with Session comments, below.
A slightly newer version of Session - Version 4, from 1995 - has recently come my way from a Contact in America. It deals with some of the noted problems - specifically it is a 32-bit program, originally for running under Windows 95 (so you can properly choose, and save, the Midi Drivers in SetUp) - but ... it still has problems with some time signatures/tempos - and it keeps giving me an "out of memory" error message whenever I use it (but see below). From here you can download the self-extracting SETUP.EXE File (which includes both 16- and 32-bit versions, so you can run it on Windows 3.1 if you really want!), plus a zipped set of HTML Files (which my US Contact prepared to show how to install Session 4 under Windows XP). I actually prefer the layout of Version 1.11, but maybe that's just because I'm used to it.
On the subject of the "out of memory" error message (see above), a Contact in Holland running "Session" under Windows XP notes that if you go to the program location (probably C:\Program Files\Session4), you can right-click on the executable (Session.exe), click on 'properties' and choose the compatibility tab, tick '256 colors', click apply, and then close - and this apparently solves the problem. At the moment I can't test this because I'm still using Windows 2000 (which doesn't show a compatibility tab), but my Contact says that this tweak did the trick for him (for as long as Session 4 is running, your whole computer runs only in 256 colors, but is restored to normal as soon as you close the program); maybe it will work for you, too.
- Chris Hills' MidiPlay
MidiPlay is a free Windows program for playing Midi files. It shows the Notes as they are played, and allows singers and instrumentalists to adjust both the volume/emphasis and the tempo of the playback, to help them to learn their parts. It seems to do most of what MidiSoft's Session does, though not in the same way, and without some of the latter's problems. It can be downloaded from here.
- MidiNote's Composer
Composer is a commercial Windows program for composing and playing music. It also plays Midi files, and provides the same sort of flexibility as Session, though not in the same way. MidiNote also sell other music software, and trial versions of their stuff can be downloaded from their Website here.
- Myriad Software's Melody Assistant
Another commercial program for composing and playing music is Melody Assistant. Myriad - whose Home Page is here - provides a range of interesting Music Software, and Melody Assistant appears to be a cut-down (and Share-ware) version of their top-of-the-range "Harmony Assistant". Melody Assistant, which runs on Macs as well as on Windows machines, has been recommended to me by several of my correspondents as an excellent player of Midi Files, though I myself have no direct personal knowledge of the Program.
- Winamp.com's Winamp
This is a superb - and free - Media File Player that plays just about every type of Music File you can think of - including, and without fault, all those emphasised Session-derived Midi Files which Windows Media Player doesn't like (see below). And although you can't vary the relative volume of any chosen track, or change the tempo, nevertheless you can - unlike with the Noteworthy Player (see below) - start and stop the File anywhere you choose. If all you want, then, is a Player that you can "associate" with Midi Files so that it will automatically spring to life and play whatever Midi File you double-click on, I recommend Winamp. The basic, but-still-with-plenty-of-frills, version of Winamp can be downloaded free from the Winamp.com Website here.
- vanBasco's Karaoke Player
This is an excellent, and free, Midi File Player - whether for Karaoke purposes or not! - and many people have recommended it. It seems to play the emphasised Session-derived Midi Files quite happily, and allows both tempo and starting point adjustment, plus for the individual channels some limited volume adjustment (which can itself be used to provide some, or more, emphasis to any chosen voice). It can be downloaded - for free - from the vanBasco Website.
- Noteworthy Composer's Noteworthy Player and Noteworthy Viewer
I use Noteworthy's Composer program to key in all the music that I then upload in Midi File form, and their free Viewer can quite happily play Midi Files of any sort. However, unlike Session and the others it does not permit any sort of adjustment.nor does it let you start anywhere except from the beginning. And it may look a bit odd (see Odd on-screen scores using Noteworthy Player below). It can be downloaded from the Noteworthy Website here.
Noteworthy Viewer is an updated version of the Player, which does let you re-start from where you stopped, and change tempo. You can also mute one or more staves. Download it from the Noteworthy Website here.
MuseScore is a free, open-source Program for creating, playing and printing music. It is available under the three major Operating Systems - the various flavours of Windows, most of the Mac OSs (including OS X - Mountain Lion), and various sorts of Linux. It seems a little complicated, trying to be all things to all men, but ... in its Midi File Player guise it has been recommended to me a couple of times, so it might be worth a try. It is freely downloadable from the MuseScore Website.
- Alexander Scheutzow's Vocis Magis
This is a rather different sort of Player. It takes un-emphasised Midi Files and allows any particular track/voice to be selected and emphasised as required. The free version - downloadable from Scheutzow's Website here - displays no Midi Data note information, so the User is reliant on reading the printed Score, but the paid-for version can show data in piano-roll format. The software is written in Java, so will run under Mac and Linus OSs as well as most flavours of Windows provided they have Java on board (Java Runtime, version 1.5.0 (alias 5.0) or higher, is preinstalled on most modern computers and is otherwise available free of charge).
- Roni Music's Sweet MIDI Player
For Mac Users there has been strongly recommended to me this free Midi File Player. I am told that it plays the emphasised Session-derived Midi Files OK, and that it allows you to select/change both tempo and starting point, plus volume adjustment for the individual channels to provide some, or more, emphasis to any chosen voice, as well as enabling you to change the instruments used if you don't like the ones I've selected. A version suitable for Mac OS X (10.3.9 or higher) can be downloaded - for free - from the relevant sub-page of the Roni Music Website.
- Other Mac-compatible Players
The range of Midi File Players available to Mac Users is strangely limited - and apart from the standard Quicktime most of what there is comes as full editing software, and has to be paid for. One possibility is Garageband; with a Macintosh running this - it's been installed on new Macs for about 3 or 4 years now, or is available as part of Apple's iLife suite - you just need to drag the Midi file into Garageband and it will split the File all into tracks that can then be individually edited, changed into different instruments, and played around with to your heart's content.
And you can, of course, use the Mac-flavoured version of MuseScore and Melody Assistant (see above).
- iPhone and iPad Players
The iPhone and iPad do not seem to support MIDI file playback natively, and it is necessary to install a suitable App.
For iPhones there is, apparently, a Sweet MIDI player iPhone version which lets you play the file and adjust track volume levels, but it's more of a general purpose General MIDI player; a better - but not free - iPhone player, more suited to use by Choral Singers, is "Learn My Part" (LMP). This allows MIDI files to be played in a way that is most helpful for learning parts. Each part is represented with a mixer-style volume control and three preset buttons - Isolate, Highlight and Challenge - to change relative track/channel volumes (Isolate mutes all the other parts, Highlight sets the other parts to play softly and the selected part loudly, and Challenge mutes the selected part), though you can manually set the volume levels however you like. It also allow the tempo of playback to be adjusted, and a marked section of the file to be "looped" (which can be useful for going over a small section you are trying to learn). More details, and a demo video and a link to the application in the Apple App Store, can all be accessed via the link above.
Because LMP allows selective Voice emphasis, as described above, it may be best to download the UNemphasised Files, and then apply the desired emphasis using LMP.
For iPads there is "Sonja™". Sonja™ is primarily a notation tool (using standard piano-roll format) for those who don't read music well, but it is also a tool for learning and practicing vocal compositions recorded as computer Files rendered in either Midi or native Sonja format. After importing a chosen File the User can adjust all the voices' relevant volumes so as to hear, and thus learn, the right part. Since notation tracks and audio tracks can coexist in Sonja, audio accompaniments and voice exemplars may also be included in a Sonja file, and the chosen voice part then played along with accompaniment from a real instrument or a real singer.
The basic version of Sonja™ is free; the paid-for version allows for MIDI export, as well as for importing or exporting Sonja-format files which may include notation tracks, audio tracks, and lyrics that appear on each note.
- Android Tablets and Smart Phone Players
All Android Tablets and Smart Phones seem inherently to be able to play Midi Files, and there are numerous Apps, many free, which will play such Files and even show their notation. One such is Madhav Vaidyanathan's "Midi Sheet Music", which is free but a little basic. It works not only with Android but also under Windows, Mac OS X, and Ubuntu Linux. Another Android Midi File Player is SK Lee's somewhat more comprehensive "Midi Practice Player", downloadable for just under £2 (at the moment; September 2013), and for which there is a free trial version that does everything the paid-for version does but only plays in 30-second chunks.
The Problem with Session
As I intimated above, there is a problem with Midi Files produced by Session. Although the Midi Files output (exported) by Noteworthy Composer play perfectly properly with Windows [3.1, 95, 98, 2000, XP, Vista ...] Media Player (and all other Players I have tried), once they been loaded into and then saved out from Session they may no longer play properly in other Players - they still play OK in Session itself - if they use more than Midi Channels 1-10 (in some other Players, such as Windows Media Player, they may not play all the channels, and there may from time to time be strange changes in tempo). That is to say, I can't work out why, or what to do to correct the situation. But worry not: maybe they'll work for whatever Player you use ... and if they don't then they DO play properly using Noteworthy's own Player (see above).
Session has a number of other, possibly connected, irritating habits. One - though this mainly concerns me, using it to produce my emphasised Midi Files, rather than you using it to play them back - is that it is easily confused by any Time Signatures that are not measured in crotchet time (so 3/4 or 4/4 or 5/4 is fine, but 2/2 or 5/8 halves or doubles the assigned Tempo), and I have to fudge it - which can be done quite easily, but it's still irritating! Also - and this concerns you - Session is a Windows 3.1 16-bit piece of software, and so you have to use "compatibility" mode for XP and the like. Moreover, Session is expecting there to be a directory/folder called "Session" in your root directory/folder (on Drive C) otherwise you can't save any changes you make to Session itself (such as ensuring it always opens in 16-track General Midi mode). Although you can achieve this by actually installing Session in Drive C's root, it seems to be perfectly OK to have a "Session" Folder there but then instal Session elsewhere, wherever you want.
Another slightly irritating feature is Session's ability to stick the wrong clef at the beginning of a track, so that the subsequent notes end up far up or down from where you expect them to be. A typical example of this is in the Brahms "German Requiem", where in the opening number the Alto line has been depicted as though written in the Bass clef, so that all the notes appear up in the air! There must be rules for the conversion (from mere note, which is what Midi is, to note-on-staff, which is how Session displays it.), and I suspect it depends on the range of the notes, top to bottom, in the staff. But, there is something you can do about it ... as follows:-
Load in the music (for example, for the "German Requiem", the Alto version of the file A-BLESSED.MID; at the moment the clef assigned to the Alto track is the Bass clef). Then, go to the Session pull-down menus (up at the top of the window) and pull down "Music". Select "Clef ...", and a box opens. In the box, use the little down arrow to find all the tracks, and choose the correct one (in my example, it's No 2, Alto). Then choose the correct type of clef - i.e. Treble - and the bar/measure number where you want this to take effect - Measure No 1. Click "OK", and it will miraculously be done! THEN SAVE THE REVISED FILE SO THAT NEXT TIME YOU OPEN IT IT WILL STILL LOOK OK!!
Problem-ridden though Session may be, even so I use it - and I recommend it. Once installed it is simple and easy to use, and will do all you need to make the Midi Files most useful.
Odd on-screen scores using Noteworthy Player
Warning: if you play these Midi Files back using software (such as the Noteworthy Player) that shows you the score on the screen, you may find that some of them play OK but look a bit odd. That's usually because I had to fudge the Session output to get the tempo right (typically when it measures time in quavers [as in 5/8 time], and switches back and forth between these and other units [such as 3/4 time]. Don't worry; just don't look at the screen - read your printed score!
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Last updated by John on 13/Oct/13