I COME FROM A MUSICAL family: grandfathers who taught music, a father who plays the viola in his city orchestra and two sisters who won scholarships to a prestigious American music school. But a CD player was the only musical instrument I ever needed or understood ... until I began producing videos. Suddenly I needed music on a zero-dollar budget, and that's when I became acquainted with MIDI. Many people who have heard of MIDI know it as a sound file that plays cheesy, synthetic music on websites. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, but it is not a file format. Rather it is a communication protocol originally designed to allow electronic keyboards to be connected. With a MIDI link, players could gain access to the features of different keyboards through one set of keys. MIDI also allowed light-show controls, VCRs and tape decks to be connected. When computers arrived on the scene everything changed. They allowed MIDI data to be captured and rearranged; suddenly, you could connect your computer to your MIDI keyboard, bang out a tune, fiddle with the captured data on the computer then play the edited version. Matters have now progressed much further, and although websites seem to call on only the least of MIDI's abilities, with the right software a remarkable realism can be achieved. Because you can begin by recording the sound of an actual instrument before manipulating that sound, the results are much more realistic than might be expect-ed from a computer. But realism also depends on what intruments you are trying to play and how elaborate you wish to be when creating files. Computers handle most instruments well, and I was able to create a piece with flute and piano that was fairly emotive. String instruments are another story: it is difficult to reproduce the change in pitch that occurs when a guitarist bends strings, for example. WHEN I FIRST WADED into the world of MIDI, my saviour was a program called Melody Assistant, a music-composition program capable of producing MIDI files and commu-nicating with MIDI devices. Most music programs save in their own file format but can export a MIDI copy of the finished product. In the same way, word processors save files in their own proprietary format but are capable of saving copies as universally readable text files. Melody Assistant can read and write music through an interface so simple even a musical idiot like me can copy a simple folk song onto a blank musical stave. But I didn't really need to copy the music at all. OMeR, a sister program to Melody Assistant, will scan a sheet of music, read the notation and translate it into a file that can be read by Melody Assistant. OMeR's accuracy depends on the quality of the paper the music is printed on, but given clean white paper and sharply printed notation it is highly accurate. Perhaps more remarkable is a program called Music Master Works, which has a speech-to-text capability that means any aspiring songwriter can make music, even if they can't read or write the notes. Plug a microphone into your computer, hit the voice-to-note button and start singing, humming or whistling. The software will identify the notes you produce and their length, then write them down. Once the 'tune' is in the machine you can rearrange the song, experiment with adding instru-ments, and soon your home will be alive with the sound of music!