A La Carte

The Baltimore Sun, Sunday, July 6, 1997





Doing a little MIDI ragtime on the Internet
`I stumbled onto this little corner of the Web'
by Mike Himowitz


IF JOHN ROACHE had been born with larger hands, he might never have created one of the World Wide Web's most delightful sites.

The 57-year-old pharmacist from Torrance, Calif. has been playing the piano since he was 5, but he doesn't have the octave-plus-two-keys range it takes to make a concert ragtime pianist. So he creates exquisite MIDI recordings of famous ragtime, stride and swing compositions. He shares them on a page that offers great music, scholarly dissertations, and a superb tutorial on what makes ragtime ragtime.

I don't know exactly how I stumbled onto this little corner of the Web -- I'd never paid much attention to ragtime before. But I spent couple of fascinating hours listening to Roache's music, reading his essays and exploring links to other ragtime and jazz pages. It was pure serendipity.

Then it occurred to me that I should spend more time writing about one of the things that makes the Web so special -- labors of love. Unlike any medium before it, the Web gives people with unusual talents and interests a chance to share their passions with fellow enthusiasts -- and with folks like me who just happen to drop by.

"It's not exactly mainstream, that's for sure," Roache said when I called to ask him about the ragtime site. "But people seem to find it, and I get e-mail from people all over the world who enjoyed it. That's what's so gratifying about it."

Roache's Web page (), also provides an unusual opportunity to explore the tiny orchestra that's hidden in your computer. Unknown to most users, every PC with a sound card and most newer Macs have the capability to play MIDI files. Better yet, recent versions of Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Internet Explorer and AOL's Web browser can play MIDI music files on the fly whenever you click on a MIDI link.

So what's this MIDI stuff? Glad you asked. MIDI is an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It's a standard that allows electronic instruments of all kinds -- including keyboards, guitars, drum pads and your computer -- to talk to one another.

You can play a MIDI instrument by pressing a key or plucking a string -- or you can send it a set of instructions, known in the trade as a MIDI sequence. Each instruction tells the instrument what note to play and how long and how loud to play it. If you have a multivoice instrument -- which can play more than one note at a time -- a MIDI sequence can be an entire musical score.

PC sound cards contain MIDI synthesizers capable of imitating dozens of instruments. They can play MIDI sequences, which are usually stored as files on your disk -- or transmitted over the Web. Microsoft Windows, for example, plays MIDI files with a program called Media Player, which will also handle digital recordings and music CDs.

With special software and a cable that connects to your joystick port, you can hook up a MIDI keyboard to your computer, play a song and record. Then you can edit the song on your computer, fix mistakes, add or change instruments, and play it back through your sound card or through the MIDI keyboard. In fact, that's exactly how most pop composers and arrangers work today.

Unlike digital recordings of live performances, which can gobble up megabytes of disk space, MIDI files are relatively compact. That makes them perfect for transmission over the Web. In fact, Roache's signature piece -- a rollicking, three-minute rendition of Eubie Blake's "Baltimore Todolo" -- occupies only 28K.

On the down side, the quality of MIDI sound depends on the capability of your sound card. Inexpensive cards use cheap FM synthesizers that make a lot of instruments sound like skating rink organs. Better models, such as wave table synthesizers, use digitized samples of real instruments to produce more realistic voices.

"The problem [composers face] is that my synthesizer might not sound like your synthesizer," said Roache, who plays a Roland stage piano hooked to a Pentium PC with a Sound Blaster AWE wave table card.

"Ragtime music is pretty good because a piano is basically a piano, and most synthesizers are good at that. But if I start doing stuff with strings and bass, what sounds good to me might not sound good to you."

The quality also depends on how much time and talent the MIDI artist puts into each song.

Roache, who began recording digital music on a Commdore 64 in the early 1980s, spent a month playing and editing the "Baltimore Todolo," which was based on a Scott Kirby recording. "I would wind up working two hours on single measure, getting the timing of the notes and figuring out exactly where each note went," he recalled. "But I'm a perfectionist."

Roache may also be the only artist to record a ragtime version of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," which he uses in an on-line tutorial that explains the rhythms and techniques that make ragtime music unique. Stop by and learn a little while you enjoy the tunes. This is the Web at its best.

You can contact Mike Himowitz by sending e-mail to mike.himowitz@baltsun.com.


Originally Published on 7/06/97 in the Baltimore Sun, Business Section
© 1997, The Baltimore Sun. Reprinted with permission.