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I am confused about midi channels and tracks. What is exactly the difference, and what is the use of a track at all? I can send my midi messages to the channels with the first 4 bits of a status byte, so why would I need a track?

2 Answers 2

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A track (or track chunk in terms of the official MIDI spec) is a block of MIDI events in chronological order. Channels are a way to assign different instruments/programs to groups of notes and related events (controller changes, aftertouch and so on).

For example, you can have several drum tracks: first for snare, second for bass drum and so on. But all of them will output MIDI events to a single channel. Splitting data into track chunks can be useful to import MIDI files to a DAW, for example, for separate processing.

So a track chunk is a way of logically grouping MIDI data. Channels are a way of outputting events to separate instruments.

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MIDI events have channels in order to allow for different things (unison note events, different volumes and effects and stuff) to happen at the same time. MIDI events have no notion of "tracks" at all.

Instead, tracks are an organisational grouping structure in MIDI files. Each track contains sequential events quantized to some underlying clock scheme. Interpreting a MIDI file turns this into a one-dimensional stream of MIDI events happening in real-time.

A multiple-track MIDI file can be converted into a single-track file. When playing this file over a real-time MIDI connection, the result in the form of timed events will be indistinguishable.

How your MIDI file generating application utilizes tracks for the purpose of itself and other programs working with MIDI files (rather than a real-time string of MIDI events where tracks are not involved) is comparatively wide open to discretion.

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  • Just to add a little to the two answers, you can think of MIDI tracks as a sorta virtual counterpart to the physical MIDI cables. Converting multiple tracks into a single track is like a MIDI merge device that has several MIDI inputs and a single MIDI out. Feb 9, 2023 at 8:05

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