“It was acceptable in the 80s…”
The standard MIDI DIN cable – that’s the big honkin’ connector you use on most of your MIDI gear – has become the bane of music hardware makers. The problem is, as gear has gotten smaller, the standard DIN connector hasn’t. And that’s a big problem, literally. To add a MIDI port to a device, you need to not only have enough clearance for the connector itself, but the whole around the port and the physical assembly that contains it. Speaking as a hardware maker, that takes up space you can’t even see from the outside.
As a result, a lot of hardware that should have had MIDI in and out doesn’t, to save room. Or it’s forced to be thicker than it needs to be. Or it squeezes out other useful ports.
To be clear, on devices that can fit a MIDI DIN, it still makes sense. It’s a standard part, you’ve got the cables, you’ve got things to plug it into, and the connector is safe to use. But if it simply won’t fit, something else is a must. And that’s why other connectors are already shipping on gear. Imagine if they were all interoperable.
It doesn’t have to be this way. S-Video could have become a replacement in the 90s, back when we used such things. (It’s actually also a DIN connector, with a more-than-enough 4-pin arrangement, but it’s smaller.)
Now, you may have noticed a lot of gear includes minijacks onboard. A stereo minijack (3.5mm “miniklinken”) connector has three pins – and MIDI also has three pins. (Okay, it has five, but two are unused.) Look at the breakouts included in the box, and what you’ll see is a standard 3-pin stereo minijack on one end, and then a
horse-drawn buggy taped to a telegraph machine DIN connector on the other.
But here’s where things get interesting. Imagine you have two pieces of gear, each with these minijack-to-DIN breakouts. And you want to connect them together. What would happen if you skipped the little DIN dongles and ran an ordinary stereo minijack cable between them?
Well, whether it worked or not would depend on how that minijack connector itself was wired. So, I asked a few manufacturers, off the record and unofficially, what they were doing. It wasn’t hard to convince people to talk about it; anyone who has ever dealt with this problem dreams of ditching DIN.
It turns out most of them are using the same wiring – seen above.
Pin 1 – Tip
Pin 2 – Sleeve
Pin 3 – Ring
So long as you have two pieces of gear wired this way, you can connect them with a standard stereo minijack audio cable (that’s a single stereo minijack at both ends). It’s exactly the same as using a MIDI cable.
In this category:
IK Multimedia (iRIG MIDI – that’s the diagram at top)
Novation (such as Launchpad Pro)
Arturia (such as BeatStep Pro)
See this discussion of the iRIG MIDI on Sound on Sound, from way back in 2011 (meaning it’s time to do this, folks):
D.I.Y. MIDI/5-pin DIN to stereo mini Jack leads
Unfortunately, one other key maker is an outlier. Korg, which uses minijacks on its SQ1 sequencer and new ElecTribes, swaps sleeve and ring, unless I’ve got the wrong information. As long as you’re comfortable soldering your own cables, you could solve that, but it means there isn’t an immediate de facto standard.
On the other hand, it’s already pretty terrific that a lot of the stuff you’d immediately want to use hit at the same wiring at random. (No one, to my knowledge, has ever published something like this.)
So, rather than wait any longer, I think it makes sense to go public. Rather than wait for a standard, all you really need is for manufacturers to start using this same wiring. And by all means, don’t eliminate MIDI from a product just because DIN won’t fit. The “post PC” age is turning out to be more reliant on MIDI than the one before it, from iPads to all-hardware live rigs.
If nothing else, if you make DIY hardware, you can start doing this now. And you can plug your custom synth or whatever directly into a Launchpad Pro or BeatStep Pro (just to name two) and start playing it.
That’s a pretty cool accidental standard. So maybe we should make it less accidental.
Comments welcome. And if you have hardware with minijacks, I didn’t cover all of them. I’d love to hear what you’re doing.