At the Hollywood Olympics’ “Most Time Between Sequels” event, the Bronze went to the 29 most excellent years between Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and Bill and Ted Face the Music. Pretty good…although bested by Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, whose 35 years picked up the Silver. But even that couldn’t match MIDI’s 36 years, which garnered the Gold: Version 1.0 was released in 1983, and MIDI 2.0 in 2019. Yes, MIDI has been part of our audio/video world for almost four decades.
Although much has changed in MIDI 2.0, what stayed the same also matters. There’s the same cast—a global collection of music companies who put competition aside to create a universal standard. And again, the directors are The MIDI Association (formerly known as the MIDI Manufacturers Association) and AMEI (Association Music Electronics Industry, the Japanese equivalent). Both organizations work with their members to iron out the spec’s details.
But MIDI 1.0 hasn’t gone away. MIDI 2.0 is simply more MIDI, and is backward-compatible with MIDI 1.0 gear. That’s because MIDI 2.0 is a language that incorporates both MIDI 1.0 and 2.0 messages. It’s like if I learned Russian, I could still speak English. I could also speak with Russians in their native tongue.
Because the 2.0 spec was adopted in 2019, some have become impatient that MIDI 2.0 gear is still gestating. But that’s like wondering why a movie isn’t in theaters right after it’s greenlighted. Scripts require character development, and let’s be fair, we’ve barely cleared the opening credits.
Apple recently made macOS MIDI 2.0-ready, which now allows for communications with MIDI 2.0 devices. Roland introduced a MIDI 2.0 keyboard that’s ready to talk to other MIDI 2.0 devices. To continue the movie comparison, companies are currently getting dailies from the shoots—but the next NAMM show looks like when MIDI 2.0 will open in selected theaters near you.
FROM MONOLOGUE TO DIALOGUE
MIDI 2.0 devices start communicating through a process called Capability Inquiry (MIDI-CI). Among other advantages, this makes backward compatibility possible. One MIDI 2.0 device can ask another one if it speaks MIDI 2.0. If the answer is “yes,” they can converse using MIDI 1.0 and 2.0 commands. If there’s no response, then the MIDI 2.0 device communicates using only MIDI 1.0.
With Capability Inquiry, a MIDI 2.0-friendly DAW can ask a control surface if it speaks MIDI 2.0. If so, the control surface can configure its faders, knobs and buttons for that DAW—you wouldn’t need to create a template. But if the control surface is talking with a lighting dimmer, hardware synth, mixer, etc., then it could adapt to those applications.
Property Exchange messages allow (for example) a DAW to ask a hardware synthesizer for a list of its parameters, and then put them onscreen for editing. You wouldn’t need a separate editor, so external hardware synths would look like virtual synths to the DAW.
MIDI 2.0 also has instrument Profiles. Organ drawbar presets are a classic example of why this is useful. Different keyboards use different controller numbers for the drawbars, so if you set up a control surface to control drawbars in Synth A…who knows what would be controlled in Synth B.
Similarly, if a controller says “guitar” or “electronic drums” in response to a synth’s inquiry, the synth would know how to best configure itself for that specific controller. Currently, the Technical Standards Board—the unsung heroes of the MIDI spec—are defining universally applicable profiles, among other things.
Controller resolution has increased dramatically, from 128 steps to more than 4 million, and Controls no longer “stair-step”; MIDI-controlled mixer fader resolution is indistinguishable from analog faders. Time-stamping slashes timing jitter, and even better, it’s possible to retrofit MIDI 1.0 for better timing, as well as some other 2.0 attributes.
For greater potential control with mixers and expressiveness with electronic instruments, there are now more than 32,000 controllers instead of 128, including per-note controllers for individual notes. Velocity also has better resolution. Furthermore, MIDI 2.0 is hardware-agnostic. The new Universal MIDI Packet format shuttles MIDI data easily over any data-carrying transport, like USB or Ethernet.
Ultimately, though, what’s most exciting about MIDI 2.0 is what we don’t know is most exciting about MIDI 2.0.
When MIDI 1.0 appeared, no one expected it to control the Bellagio’s fountains in Las Vegas, run Broadway plays, or become embedded in the DNA of virtually every recording studio. MIDI 2.0 was designed to be equally open-ended so that it can evolve and morph over the coming decades. Controller numbers are reserved for functions that don’t exist yet—but they will.
(Full disclosure: My two-year term as president of The MIDI Association ends in January 2022.)