It’s been a long time coming, but MIDI now officially has added MPE and “capability inquiry,” opening up new expression and automatic configuration.

MIDI, of course, is the lingua franca of music gear. AKA “Musical Instrument Digital Interface,” the protocol first developed in the early 80s and has been a common feature on computers and gear and quite a few oddball applications ever since. And it’s a bit of a myth that MIDI itself hasn’t changed since its 80s iteration. Part of that impression is because MIDI has remained backwards compatible, meaning changes haven’t been disruptive. But admittedly, the other reason musicians think about MIDI in this way is that the stuff they most use indeed has remained fairly unchanged.

Engineers and musicians alike have clamored for expanded resolution and functionality ever since MIDI’s adoption. The announcements made by the MIDI Manufacturers Association aren’t what has commonly been called “HD MIDI” – that is, you don’t get any big changes to the way data is transmitted. But the announcements are significant nonetheless, because they make official stuff you can use in real musical applications, and they demonstrate the MMA can ratify official changes (with big hardware maker partners onboard). Oh, and they’re really cool.

Standardizing on new expressive ways of playing

First, there’s MIDI Polyphonic Expression, aka MPE. The name says it all: it allows you to add additional expression to more than one note at a time. So, you’ve always been able to layer expression on a single note – via aftertouch, for instance – but now instead of just one note and one finger, an instrument can respond to multiple notes and multiple fingers independently. That means every fingertip on an instrument like the ROLI Seaboard can squish and bend, and a connected sound instrument can respond or a DAW can record the results.

Hardware has found ways of hacking in this support, and plug-ins that require complex per-note information (think orchestral sound libraries and the like) have had their own mechanisms. But now there’s a single standard, and it’s part of MIDI.

MPE is exciting because it’s really playable, and it’s already got some forward momentum. Major DAWs like Logic and Cubase support it, as do synths like Native Instruments’ Reaktor and Moog’s Animoog. Hardware like the ROLI gear and Roger Linn’s Linnstrument send MPE, but there’s now even hardware receiving it, too, and translating to sound – even without a computer. (That’s not just weird keyboards, either – Madrona Labs’ Soundplane showed this could work with new instrument interfaces, too.)

Making MPE official should improve implementations already out there, and standardize inter-operability. And it means no more excuses for software that hasn’t picked it up – yeah, I’m looking at you, Ableton. Those developers could (reasonably) say they didn’t want to move forward until everyone agreed on a standard, to avoid implementing the thing twice. Well, now, it’s time.

More demos and product compatibility information is in the news, though of course this also means soon we should do a fresh check-in on what MPE is and how to use it, especially with a lot of ROLI hardware out there these days.

MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE) Specification Adopted!

Making instruments self-configure and work together

MPE you might have heard of, but there’s a good chance you haven’t heard about the second announcement, “Capability Inquiry” or MIDI-CI. In some ways, though, MIDI-CI is the really important news here – both in that it’s the first time the MIDI protocol would work in a new way, and because it involves the Japanese manufacturers.

MIDI-CI does three things. Here’s their official name, plus what each bit means:

1. Profile configuration – “Hey, here’s what I am!”. Profiles define in advance what a particular instrument does. Early demos included an “Analog Synth” and a “Drawbar Organ” draft. You already know channel 10 will give you drum sounds, and General MIDI drum maps will put a kick and a snare in a particular place, but you haven’t been able to easily control particular parameters without going through your rig and setting it up yourself.

2. Property exchange – save and recall. If configuration tells you what a device is and what it does, the “exchange” bit lets you store and recall settings. Last week, manufacturers showed gear from Yamaha, Roland, and Korg having their instrument settings saved and recalled from a DAW.

MMA say the manufacturers demonstrated “total recall.” Awesome.

3. Protocol negotiation – the future is coming. Actually, this is probably the most important. Profile configuration and property exchange, we’ll need to see in action before we can judge in terms of utility. But protocol negotiation is the bit that will allow gear now to build in the ability to negotiate next-generation protocols coming soon. That’s what has been commonly called “HD MIDI,” and what hopefully will bring greater data resolution and, ideally, time stamps. Those are features that some have found in alternative protocols like Open Sound Control or in proprietary implementations, but which aren’t available in standard MIDI 1.0.

And this “negotiation” part is really important. A future protocol won’t break MIDI 1.0 compatibility. Gear built now with protocol negotiation in mind may be able to support the future protocol when it arrives.

As musicians, as hackers, as developers, we’re always focused on the here and now. But the protocol negotiation addition to MIDI 1.0 is an essential step between what we have now and what’s coming.

No gear left behind

For all the convervatism of musical instruments, it’s worth noting how different this is from the rest of electronics. Backwards compatibility is important for musical instruments, because a musical instrument never really becomes outmoded. (Hey, I spent long, happy evenings singing with some violas da gamba. Trust me on this.)

The MIDI-CI adoption process here, while it’s not the most exciting thing ever, also indicates more buy-in to the future of MIDI by the big Japanese manufacturers. And that finally means the AMEI is backing the MMA.

Say what?

While even many music nerds know only the MIDI Manufacturers Association, significant changes to MIDI require another organization called the Association of Musical Electronics Industries – AMEI. The latter is the trade group for Japan, and … well, those Japanese manufacturers make gear on a scale that a lot of the rest of the industry can’t even imagine. Keep in mind, while music nerds drool over the Eurorack modular explosion, a whole lot of the world is buying home pianos and metronomes and has no idea about the rest. Plus, you have to calculate not only a different scale and a more corporate culture, but the fact that a Japanese organization involves Japanese culture and language. Yes, there will be a gap between their interests and someone making clever Max/MSP patches back in the States and dreaming of MIDI working differently.

So MIDI-CI is exciting both because it suggests that music hardware will communicate better and inter-operate more effectively, but also in that it promises music humans to do the same.

But here again is where the craft of music technology is really different from industries like digital graphics and video, or consumer electronics, or automobiles, or many other technologies. Decisions are made by a handful of people, very slowly, which then result in mass usage in a myriad of diverse cultural use cases around the world.

The good news is, it seems those decision makers are listening – and the language that underlies digital music is evolving in a way that could impact that daily musical usage.

And it’ll do so without breaking the MIDI we’ve been using since the early 80s.

Watch this space.