An alternative approach to MIDI
by Don Johnson
Like many people who were fascinated by musical instruments that played themselves rather than requiring one to spend years learning and practicing how to play something oneself, I eventually came across John Smith’s plans for building a Busker organ.   I explained to my wife, Avril, that this would be a much tinier instrument that the leaky player piano that I owned for a while - until she got tired of having a power cable and a thick black pipe from the vacuum cleaner under the stairs coiling across the hall and lounge so that I did not have to pedal like a Tour de France rider to get it to play – so I was ‘allowed’ to make one.
I enjoyed the challenge involved in the construction, but needed help from John on a number of aspects.   During our conversations he mentioned needing to make springs for a larger instrument he was making, and since I ran a small electronics department at a spring-making company. I was able to offer him any spring wire that he needed as we had tons of the stuff!   As a result of these collaborations, we became quite good friends, and I visited him when he was at a couple of organ festivals, and later at the Dorset Steam Fair – as I then had moved to Somerset.  
I had used the Busker when fund-raising with Rotary on a number of occasions, but while at the steam fair, John showed me his latest creation – Topsy.   I was impressed by the instrument itself, but also by the use of MIDI, allowing electronic storage of music instead of bulky paper rolls. 

Knowing of my electronics background, John suggested that it would be no problem for me to make my own Topsy, and encouraged me to do so.   I had a couple of conversations with the late Ian Jefferies about MIDI, and he mentioned that there was some software that would run on a Palm Pilot that could be used as an alternative to the SDMPs (SD MIDI  player) that were normally used.   As I had one of these PDAs (personal Data Assistant) already, I like the idea of saving money, and decided to go ahead with the project.   It did take a while to track down all the relevant information as this was very much an unusual combination of a PDA, MIDI and an old-fashioned mechanical organ, but eventually I got there and ended up with a sophisticated instrument that was again used for many fund-raising activities.
As I reviewed all the information I had gathered, I realised that it would be very helpful to anyone else thinking of using a PDA instead of a SDMP, so decided to gather it together, and publish on my personal web site.   This was fine, until the company that had produced the PDA MIDI software – called ittyMIDI – decided that as the Palm devices were becoming obsolete, they would no longer publish or support ittyMIDI.   Although there were still places where one could download the software (or ‘app’ as these are now called), it was not possible to pay a registration fee to enable it to run properly.    I had registered my copy, and since it would not deprive anyone of any revenue since it was effectively ‘dead’, I offered to pass on my registration code to anyone who wanted to use ittyMIDI .   The only minor drawback was that the Palm software on the PDA and the associated PC - from which music was initially loaded – has to have my user name, Don Johnson.

I understand that a SDMP costs from around £80-90, but PDAs like the Palm Vx that I used for Topsy are still to be found on Ebay, varying in price but from as little as £10.   The main requirement to bring one back to life is a new battery, and these can also be found for around £12.   The Vx version used a serial connection for linking to a PC, but the later Palm versions like the m505 and m515 use the faster USB system, so are much more convenient to use.   Although these can be a little more expensive on Ebay, the exercise of some patience still enables a considerable saving to be achieved over the SD system. 

Both the Vx and m500 series Palms need a small interface circuit between a cradle fitted in the organ and the MIDI Controller board, but this contains only seven components plus the input and output sockets.  A Vx cradle for the organ comes with a cable with a 9-pin serial D-Type female connector already, but for the m500 series, a similar cable has to be connected in place of the existing USB cable.   Details of the interface circuit and the connections for the m500 series are included on my website page.
The ittyMIDI software is actually in two parts.   One is the ‘Loader’ which is installed on the PC where you manage/compose/edit your MIDI files, and the other is the ‘Player’.    The Loader program enables MIDI files to be selected and put into groups – or Books - for sending to the Palm when it is sitting in its cradle, and the button on the cradle is pressed to perform the ‘sync’ function.   Sending the data is automatically managed by HotSync Manager which controls how the PC communicates with the Palm cradle.   Hotsync Manager is part of the ‘Palm Desktop’  - which, like ittyMIDI, is also available from my website.  After installing Palm Desktop on your PC, it can be ignored - only the Hotsync Manager is needed.    Prior to sending the MIDI files to the Palm, the Player program is also sent from the PC to the Palm sitting in its cradle. This is done automatically by the ittyMIDI software the first time a ‘sync’ is initiated after the software is loaded onto the PC. 
The Player program remains permanently on the Palm when it is moved to the organ, and is quite comprehensive, enabling its touch–screen to be used to select tunes by name from the Books of stored files that have been sent from the PC.   It can make changes to Pitch, Tempo, etc., and can be set to play a tune repeatedly, play a sequence of tunes, or even a selection of ‘Measures’ within a tune.   You can also generate Playlists from the tunes stored in one or more Books, so that particular programs of music can be stored, and played as desired.   I have not used the SD system, but I believe that the range of controls on the Palm is more extensive – and clearer ?
One further advantage of using a PDA is that its basic function is to store information, and this can be utilised to provide a means of quickly finding tunes from what might be a large selection.   On my web page I describe how I used entries in the ‘Memo Pad’ – easily inserted using the Palm Desktop software on my PC – to enable the built-in ‘Search’ function on the Palm to quickly find tunes from key words in their titles.   The name of the containing Book, and the tune’s number in the list enable the Book to be selected and the up/down controls used to step to the appropriate number in seconds.

The Palm information is on the Palm & MIDI page on my website, www.donjohnson24.co.uk, and it does contain a lot of detail – which might appear quite daunting at first glance.  However, hopefully, everything that one is likely to need should be included there, but I am happy to provide anything additional that is required, and can be contacted using the details on my Home page.