There are currently 55 companies in the MIDI Association prototyping MIDI, 2.0 so 2023 looks to be a big year for MIDI with more MIDI 2.0 products hitting the market and a celebration of the 40th anniversary of MIDI itself.
MIDI made its debut in 1983, ushering in a new era for electronic music production. For the first time in history, there was a digital interface standard for recording music. It transformed the experience of working in a recording studio and even the kind of music people could make. You could say that MIDI has remained the gold standard for digital musical connectivity internationally ever since.
A new MIDI 2.0 protocol was announced in 2020, nearly forty years after their original launch. Word surfaced at Winter NAMM, with the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA) calling it one the biggest advancements for music technology in decades.
Our company, AudioCipher, specializing in generative MIDI and develops plugins for music producers, attended NAMM this year and had the pleasure of connecting in person with Athan Billias, president of the MIDI association. He showed us some of the impressive new devices built on its platform, including use of midi controllers for triggering video camera automations.
In this article we'll cover some of the basics about what MIDI is, how it's used by professionals today, and what you can expect from MIDI 2.0 in the coming years.
What does MIDI stand for?
The word MIDI stands for musical instrument digital interface. It's the underlying set of code and specifications (a protocol) that allow us to record and playback digital music notes. It's how we connect digital synths (MIDI controllers) to DAWs like Ableton, Logic Pro, Pro Tools, etc.
If you’re looking to learn more about the evolution of MIDI, be sure to check out The MIDI Association’s free website at midi.org. You can even register with their site to download the core MIDI specifications for developing your own software and hardware.
What’s Different in MIDI 2.0?
If you think about how much better computers are now than they were in the 80’s, you’d be right to assume MIDI 2.0 represents a near quantum leap in power compared to MIDI 1.0. Led by Mike Kent of AmeNote and the chair of MIDI Association’s MIDI 2.0 Working Group, this protocol was designed to improve on the sonic depth and overall quality of digital music. These new standards even seek to improve on engineering workflows.
So what exactly will we find in this version of MIDI and how will it disrupt our existing devices? The great news is that MIDI 2.0 supports backward compatibility, meaning any of these new MIDI 2.0 devices will be able to use and send MIDI 1.0 data as needed. Don’t go throwing out your old gear just yet!
1. Higher Resolution and Articulation
Analog instruments are celebrated for their warmth and depth of expression. By comparison, note controllers using MIDI 1.0 can communicate with only 128 steps of information.
Because of technical limitations in the 80’s, MIDI was only 7 bits, which means the greatest number of steps that it can represent (resolution) is 128.
In the same way that video resolution has improved over time, from 1080 (high definition) to 4K (ultra high definition), MIDI 2.0 similarly represents a move toward ultra high-resolution data. MIDI 2.0 controllers have 32-bit resolution which means that their resolution is an incredible 4, 294,967,295. Yes, that’s right from 128 steps to over 4 billion. So you end up with MIDI devices capable of such granularity the human ear may not even be able to detect the micro-sonic differences.
The new Note On and Off contain more resolution for Velocity (16 bits) and extra room for more information about the meaning of Note On and Off. For example a Note On attribute for the specific pitch for each note or an Attribute that contains the details of the articulation used in sample libraries (Pizzicato, Staccato, etc).
2. The Universal MIDI Packet
Another major feature of MIDI 2.0 is the Universal MIDI Packet, making it easier to use with any digital transport like USB or ethernet.UMP supports 16 groups of MIDI messages, each containing its own set of 16 MIDI Channels, for a total of 256 channels. Compatible sequencers will be able to accommodate more complex arrangements.
3. Jitter Reduction
One of MIDI 1.0’s weak points is timing. When you play a large chord on a MIDI keyboard, even if you press on all the keys at once, it’s common to hear a slightly arpeggiated performance in your playback. This slight delay is called jitter and it’s due to variations in the send-receive interval length.
MIDI 2.0 introduces a clever solution called the Jitter Reduction clock. It works by broadcasting a message to the receiver with the current time. The receiver cross references the two devices and renders MIDI events more accurately.
4. MIDI Capability Inquiry (MIDI-CI)
I mentioned earlier that these improvements won’t make your existing gear obsolete. That’s because whenever you link to a control surface MIDI-CI automatically detects devices equipped with MIDI 1.0 and 2.0 respectively. The implementation of bi-directional property exchange supports the discovery and configuration of devices without any effort on your part.
MIDI-CI profile configuration and property exchange reduce the need for manual configuration of devices. It uses Profiles to establish a set of rules about how your devices respond to MIDI messages. Property Exchange allows preset info and synth settings to controller mapping and parameter listing all in human readable (JSON) format.
5. MIDI 2.0 vs MPE
Beyond the technical improvements that reduce latency and increase resolution, MIDI 2.0 also comes with special functions like the option to pitch bend individual notes in a chord. This is a big change, as virtual instrument tracks in MIDI 1.0 can apply only one pitch bend at a time. In other words, it bends all the track’s notes at once.
If you’re already watching this space, you may be familiar with a related technology called midi polyphonic expression. MPE builds upon MIDI 1.0 to give each note its own MIDI channel. There are a number of midi controllers, like the Roli Seaboard, that market their keyboards with the label "MPE" to indicate support for this feature.
MIDI 2.0, on the other hand, introduces a major change to the whole MIDI spec for Per Note Controllers and Per Note Pitch Bend. Users can also control individual note parameters with this feature. So while MPE is the more popular solution today and more hardware markets itself that way, I wonder whether MIDI 2.0 will gradually phase itself in as the deeper universal foundation, of which MPE will be one facet. Geert Bevin of Moog Music called MPE the bridge between MIDI 1.0 and MIDI 2.0.
Best DAWs and MIDI keyboard for MIDI 2.0
Roland A-88MKII was one of the first keyboards announced as “MIDI 2.0 ready”, opening the playing field for other manufacturers to join the wave. That being said, the site’s product page still says that MIDI 2.0 is coming soon, indicating that we’re still on the crest of a release. Here’s what we know and why it’s lined up to be the best keyboard for MIDI 2.0 to date.
The Roland A-88 MKII brings the responsiveness of Roland’s PHA-4 keyboard into the world of keyboard MIDI controllers. Along with feeling like a real piano, the A-88 MKII provides assignable knobs, finger drumming pads and program controls. You get the functionality of your favorite virtual instruments and analog synthesizers.
Roland’s competitors Yamaha and Korg reportedly shared MIDI 2.0 prototypes at NAMM 2020 but have not released anything for public consumption to date.
The A-88 MKII is ready for seamless integration with your DAW of choice. It’s a great alternative to something like the Native Instruments keyboard, because Roland doesn’t lock you into a particular software suite and doesn’t require a computer to use it. The MIDI 2.0 spec is designed for any digital connector you'd like to use.
Apple users will be happy to know that Logic Pro X has already introduced MIDI 2.0 to its settings as an attribute that can be switched on. Microsoft users have options too with MultitrackStudio 10, compatible for Apple and Windows operating systems. Software developers can develop new MIDI 2.0 compatible presets with the Steinberg VST 3.7 SDK.
Our company, AudioCipher, is exploring opportunities to take our Word-to-MIDI plugin to the next level with MIDI 2.0. Pick up a copy today and support our effort to push the envelope for creativity in the DAW.