After 36 years, MIDI is finally moving to 2.0

What springs to mind when I say "MIDI," gerbils? Is it perhaps thoughts of an old Gravis Ultrasound or Sound Blaster AWE? Expensive Roland synthesis hardware? Perhaps you're actually a musician who still uses the Musical Instrument Digital Interface to this day. Despite being virtually unchanged since its release in 1983, MIDI remains by far the most popular digital interface for musicians. At the 2019 National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM)show, the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA) just announced that it is in the preliminary prototyping phase of drafting the MIDI 2.0 standard.

Not that Advanced Gravis exists anymore.

When nerds like me start talking about MIDI, it's usually in the context of old PC games that used the format for lightweight music. MIDI files, unlike contemporary music "module" formats, don't include the samples with their musical sequences; the file is just a sequence of notes with some control data. That means MIDI files are very small, but back in the day, it also meant that presentation of the music varied a lot based on your audio hardware. These days, audio hardware doesn't include a hardware MIDI synthesizer. Fortunately, there are lots of great software synths available.

MIDI is more than just a file format, though. (In fact, there are many MIDI file formats.) MIDI is a standard by which musical instruments can speak to each other, as well as to computers. It's also used to integrate lighting and floor effects with music. When MIDI was created, there was some controversy because the technical limits of the format were sometimes considered to be insufficient for musicians. Case in point: MIDI allows only seven bits of precision for encoding channel modifiers, like pitch bends or chorus effects.

Those sacrifices had to be made if the MIDI hardware was to find its way into musical instruments, mixer boards, samplers, and all sorts of other places. In 1983, it simply wasn't realistic to be moving around kilobytes of data per sequence, much less megabytes. We're in 2019 though, and the standard hasn't changed. Meanwhile, we have smartphones with multi-gigahertz multi-core processors and gigabytes of RAM in our pockets. As the MMA itself notes, despite being a fundamentally technological product, MIDI has not kept pace with the advancements of the last 33 years.

MIDI is a widely proliferated standard, and the MMA is careful to note that MIDI 2.0 will include complete backward compatibility with classic MIDI (now "MIDI 1.0") devices. In fact, the first part of the MIDI 2.0 specification to be drafted is the MIDI-CI, or "capability inquiry" specification

As far as what the new standard will add, nothing is set in stone yet, but perhaps the biggest change is that MIDI 2.0 will be a bi-directional connection. Devices will be able to talk back and forth across a single cable to share profile configuration and exchange properties. That doesn't sound like much of a feature in 2019, but when you consider that MIDI currently doesn't have it, it's a pretty big deal. Integrating property exchange with the protocol means that MIDI 2.0 hardware won't require device-specific drivers.

In changes more interesting to musicians, the MMA says it is targeting 32-bit precision for effects in MIDI 2.0. For non-musicians, it's difficult to imagine what the utility of such high precision could be, but music theorist and educator Adam Neely notes that the changes could have great implications for artists working in new styles of music, like microtonal music. He further says that they could also help artists discover new ways of creating music. The new standard will also raise the number of instrument channels from 16 in classic MIDI to 256.

There's no timeline yet for the release of any MIDI 2.0 hardware; the MMA doesn't even have a logo for the new protocol set. The group says it expects prototyping to continue throughout 2019, though. Companies involved in the development include Ableton, Google, imitone, Roland, Steinberg, Yamaha, and more. As with the current MIDI specification, MIDI 2.0 will go up on the official MIDI website for free when it is complete.

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