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MIDI Plug  ·  Source: Robin |Vincent

The winter NAMM show was an opportunity for the MIDI Manufacturers Association to get all their members together to hash out the realities of the long-awaited MIDI 2.0. The question is – are we that bothered?

“MIDI Sucks”

Two years ago I wrote an article about the future of MIDI with the rather click-baited title of “MIDI Sucks, so why do we put up with it?”. In it I suggested that although MIDI is an awesome thing there are elements that are restrictive, frustrating or just a bit dodgy. In our little corner of the internet it caused a bit of stir as people quite rightly came to an often emotional defence of the ancient 5-pin DIN-based technology. At that time MIDI 2.0 or “HD MIDI” was still a bit of a pipedream but it alluded towards a better future where all MIDI devices were intelligent or at least could do basic 21st century things like communicating in both directions at once and announcing what they were.

Two years down the road, MIDI 2.0 is hitting the prototype stage and looking back, I’m prompted to ask the question: who is it for?

What I mean is that so many of the responses I got to the original article were about how happy people were with MIDI. It makes me wonder how many people actually have a MIDI 2.0 shaped hole in their studios or their workflow?

First, let’s look at what the MIDI 2.0 NAMM conference brought up.

MIDI 2.0

There was a lot of helpful MIDI 2.0 clarification and bullet points.

  • Will it need a new cable? No, it doesn’t care what cable (or “Transport”) you use as long as it’s compatible at each end. We already have 5-pin DIN, TRS minijack, USB and so on.
  • Can it work now with existing Transports? No, new specifications need to be written for each.
  • Will it provide better timing? Yes.
  • Can it provide better resolution? Yes. There’s a lot about MPE and individual note control but existing messages get an upgrade. Velocity will be 16bit, Poly and Channel Pressure and Pitch Bend will be 32bit.
  • Can it cope with microtonal and non-Western scales? Oh yes.

Then we have the three Bs:

  1. Bidirectional – MIDI changes from being a monologue to being a dialogue (nice).
  2. Backwards compatible – communication can drop back to MIDI 1.0 if necessary.
  3. Both – any improvements should also aim to enhance MIDI 1.0.

Followed by the three Ps:

  1. Profile Configuration – Profiles defining how a MIDI device responds to messages.
  2. Property Exchange – Messages that relay what a device does and its settings.
  3. Protocol Negotiation – How to negotiate MIDI 2.0 or drop to MIDI 1.0.

So, in essence, MIDI 2.0 aims to provide two-way communications between MIDI devices that reveal who they are and what they do. Profiles will allow for automatic and global mapping of parameters and at all times it will be able to drop to MIDI 1.0 if MIDI 2.0 doesn’t work. Support for higher resolution data and individual note MPE will be baked in.

MIDI 2.0 Environment

MIDI 2.0 Environment

Who is it for?

These are all great and useful things but I wonder whether existing technology has already overtaken this future. MPE already works within the current MIDI 1.0 specification by using a number of MIDI channels to send different note data and increasingly DAWs offer ways to record and edit it. Bidirectional control that reveals parameters is available in devices that support OSC and is already used in many controllers, particularly those built for Ableton Live.

Hardware controllers are increasingly integrated with DAWs and other pieces of software. I recently picked up a PreSonus ATOM and it instantly works with the Studio One Impact XT drum machine without any setup or configuration. Consider the NKS system from Native Instruments where their controller keyboards map themselves automatically to any compatible instruments or effects. Or the similar VIP software from Akai or the DAW integration of Nektar controllers.

So many of the things that MIDI 2.0 offers are already available with the right choice of hardware. And it’s become quite innovative offering tightly integrated DAW controllers that are specific to their task rather than every controller manufacturer producing a generic, works with everything but not specific to anything MIDI 2.0 controller. Part of MIDI control within a studio or performance environment is how you put the hardware and software together. Those are worthwhile tasks that teach you a lot about your gear and how it works. Wouldn’t a controller that “just works” undermine that a little because sometimes I like taking the long way around? I sit at my MIDI keyboard and it plays what I want to play and the knobs control what I want them to control – what is it I’m missing from that scenario?

So again I wonder who this is for? Much of the driving force comes from the people behind ROLI. They want MPE technology to be integrated into all MIDI devices which make their own range of MPE controllers more compatible with a larger range of gear. From a general manufacturers point of view it gives them all a chance to sell us yet another controller, but this time with MIDI 2.0 stamped on the box. How much of this higher resolution and enhanced protocols am I actually going to use? It’s like how many people are finding that despite the almost limitless possibilities of composition in a DAW we actually quite enjoy a MIDI-free 8-step analogue sequencer.

MIDI 2.0: How much do we really need it?

So, in my last article, I argued that MIDI was a bit rubbish and needed an upgrade whereas now I’m asking whether we really need MIDI 2.0 at all. How contrary am I? MIDI 2.0, if it ever makes it into everyday MIDI devices could be awesome. And it will be at its best if we don’t even notice it. Things will just be simpler, more automatic, we’ll start forgetting that “MIDI Learn” ever existed and just get on with turning knobs and enjoying the connection. Because I have my doubts that MIDI 2.0 will change much for most people and with a bit of luck we’ll forget what all the fuss was about.

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Steven Kastner

I submit that the premise of your whole argument is flawed because of the contextual box you are put into by the physics of a keyboard. As usual, MIDI is being discussed by a musician who uses a traditional keyboard controller. Keyboards are the most restrictive, non-expressive musical instruments. You want evidence? Look at a piano, the keyboard which started the controller type. The piano is a serial pitch device. Pitch goes up and down; it is bi-directional. A piano cannot play in between the 12 note scale. Yes, MIDI 1.0 gave keyboards pitch, aftertouch, and velocity control. But these… Read more »

Diki Ross
Diki Ross

And yet…. Rachmaninoff. Art Tatum. Herbie Hancock. Beethoven. Non-expressive? If you find that you need more axes of control to achieve expressivity, I submit the fault lies with your imagination and technique, not with the so-called ‘restrictiveness’ of an instrument that has led the world as the main solo instrument choice of great composers and improvisers for hundreds of years. The idea that more axes of control equals expressiveness is fundamentally a cop-out. Once MIDI 2.0 comes along, someone, somewhere will claim how limiting it is, and what we need is MIDI 3.0. Rinse and repeat. Don’t get me wrong.… Read more »

Diki Ross

The larger problem is, will hardware manufacturers implement the additional resolution and capabilities of the new specification when so few will actually use it? In the software world it will vie with already established protocols, but in the real world there are these mythical beasts called musicians who actually play music rather than sitting at home in their bedroom studios. To a large degree they have not yet abandoned hardware keyboards because of reliability and latency issues. Will MIDI 2.0 appear in the keyboards they will be playing? Imagine if midi 1.0 had been ratified but nobody made keyboards that… Read more »