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MIDI - The Force Awakens

Everyone’s favorite music technology protocol is moving rapidly into the 21st century

 

By Craig Anderton

 

 

 

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (well actually it was over 30 years ago in Anaheim, California), two synthesizers—one from Roland, one from Sequential Circuits—talked to each other over a MIDI cable. Through a miracle of inter-industry co-operation refreshingly free of politics, the music industry banded together to create a specification that has endured to this day.

 

But…as the old saying goes, what have you done for us lately? The answer is quite a bit.

 

When hard disk recording and ADAT hit, digital audio recording entered the spotlight—while MIDI’s spotlight dimmed. But then Steinberg introduced Virtual Studio Technology, computers got faster, virtual instruments became a sophisticated alternative to physical instruments, USB made it easy for MIDI to talk to computers, and now, MIDI is more important than ever and actually gaining in importance. With MIDI ramping up to be a part of 2.6 billion devices as it invades the smart phone market, the sky’s the limit.

 

THE GUARDIAN OF THE MIDI GALAXY SPEC

 

It takes effort to maintain a spec—dealing with multiple music business companies (with an overlay of American/Japanese/European cultural divide) is like herding cats. Friendly cats to be sure…but cats nonetheless. That task, which borders on the thankless, falls to the MIDI Manufacturers Association.

 

Lately, there’s been increased interest and participation from consumer-oriented companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft, as well as long-time supporters like Yamaha, Roland, Gibson, Korg, and others who recognize the value of being involved with the MIDI specification. By paying their share of the organization’s dues, MMA members have the right to help shape the future of MIDI, and vote—with one vote per member, regardless of size—on the various initiatives.

 

This year's MMA meeting at the Anaheim Marriott started off with a review of what happened in 2016.

 

Regarding the mechanics of how changes happen to the MIDI spec, the MMA is an all-volunteer organization with the exception of one employee—Tom White, who heads up the MMA. When a company has a proposal for an extension to the spec, working groups of interested parties coalesce to explore how it would work, and eventually, proposals go to a Technical Standards Board for review. After that review happens, it’s up to the Executive Board of the MMA to “make it so” (full disclosure: I represent Gibson Brands on the Executive Board.) Also, the MMA works closely with AMEI, its Japanese counterpart. This effectively doubles the available brainpower.

 

The MMA holds an annual meeting at NAMM, with both public sessions (through invitation to, for example, journalists and educators who work with MIDI) and other sessions that are closed to the public.

 

Approval of changes is a difficult, lengthy, and time-consuming process. Different manufacturers have different priorities, the MMA’s all-volunteer nature means software engineers who are normally very busy in their “day jobs” don’t have a lot of spare time, and it’s crucial that anything new doesn’t “break” anything old.

 

MIDI SPEC ENHANCEMENTS IN 2016

 

Although there are several very exciting initiatives on the horizon (more on that later), 2016 brought several extensions to fruition. Some of the higher-visibility ones include:

 

BLE-MIDI. This allows MIDI to talk to computers over Bluetooth Low Energy, with no special hardware required. Although virtually all aspects of the MIDI spec originated in the music industry, this was originally an Apple standard (spearheaded by Torrey Walker), and was proposed to the MMA. It was then adopted with minor revisions. At NAMM 2017, Cakewalk demoed the Zivix Jamstik working with SONAR (BLE-MIDI support was introduced with Windows 10 Anniversary Edition), despite Zivix itself thinking it wouldn’t be possible. Granted, any software needs the right “hooks” for Windows, but there’s no doubt other companies will be incorporating BLE-MIDI into their software.

 

Other other new features, MoForte's GeoShred 2 software instrument now includes MIDI Polyphonic Expression

 

MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression). Championed by ROLI, Roger Linn, and others, this allows expression for individual notes within a polyphonic data stream. It does this by maximizing the use of MIDI channels to allow per-note control of pitch, volume, timbre and more. The bottom line is this brings acoustic instrument-like expressiveness to new electronic controllers, like ROLI’s keyboards and the Linnstrument. 

 

Windows 10 Multi-Client Support. This is a fancy way of saying “you can have several MIDI programs running at once.” Ever wonder why you couldn’t run your sequencer and the editor for your virtual instrument that communicates via MIDI at the same time? Now you can, because Windows has the intelligence to separate individual MIDI data streams. There are also many other Windows 10 enhancements, like MIDI support in PowerShell and the Windows Store.

 

This doodle generated sound on Chrome using the Web-MIDI API.

 

Web-MIDI API (Application Program Interface). This is currently supported in Chrome and Opera, and is what allowed you to play a synth on Google’s home page as a tribute to Bob Moog on what would have been his 78th birthday. Firefox is also moving toward adoption, albeit slowly. Microsoft and Apple aren’t committed to supporting it yet, but it probably won’t take long before they figure out this is a really cool feature to have—especially for education.

 

The MIDI Association gave info on all things MIDI that were happening at the Winter 2017 NAMM show

 

The MIDI Association. The MMA also established a free, public-facing, user-oriented offshoot at www.midi.org that explains MIDI, presents news about the spec, makes the spec available for download, and has numerous articles as well as a forum on all things MIDI. It’s a cool site and well worth checking out.

 

THE FUTURE

 

The MMA is understandably reluctant to reveal what’s under consideration. Much of this is to avoid early mentions of something that “seems like a good idea” at the time, but for some reason, doesn’t pan out. As a result, although I’d love to give you a peek in to the future, I can’t. But the fact that I wish I could probably gives you a hint that there’s a lot more bubbling under the surface. What I can say is that both the MMA and AMEI agree on the need to improve MIDI in terms of speed, resolution, and channels, and have a goal of finalizing new extensions to the specification as rapidly as practical.

 

The challenge is how to bring MIDI into the 21st century without invalidating the huge universe of existing MIDI gear, but the music industry’s best minds are on the case…and MIDI looks poised to mean even more in the 21st century than it did in the 20th.

 

Resources

 

Individuals can join The MIDI Association, a global community of people who work, play, and create with MIDI, for free. Companies that make MIDI products and want to help decide MIDI’s future can join the MMA. In either case, visit www.midi.org for more details.

 

______________________________________________ 

 

 Craig Anderton is Editorial Director of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.

 

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Etienne Rambert  |  February 08, 2017 at 4:18 pm
Great article. I'm glad to hear about this. I've been using MIDI since before the GM1 standard was established. It rarely gets the credit it's due. I saw in the late 80's that MIDI could be the most liberating technology in the history of music. IMO, it has lived up to the hype. So I'm always happy to hear musicians give MIDI the short shrift.
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