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.

Comments closed
    • BorgOvermind
    • 9 months ago

    MS-DOS games with soundtracks converted from .mid to .mp3 sound horrible, not even close to the original feeling. GOG failed on this one.

      • RAGEPRO
      • 9 months ago

      They CAN sound just fine. It’s all down to what they used to render the .mid in the first place. [url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YXFYWJ7dbz0<]This link from the article[/url<] goes to a great video that demonstrates how different a single piece of MIDI can sound based on the hardware that's rendering it.

    • Chrispy_
    • 9 months ago

    Oh noes, I’ll have to replace my electric piano, it’s obsolete!

    (actually, it just writes files in MIDI format straight to a USB memory stick and the piano can’t do anything that MIDI 2.0 adds)

    • PrincipalSkinner
    • 9 months ago

    After 36 years, I turned 37. Now it looks like I’m closing in on 39.

      • Krogoth
      • 9 months ago

      Still steaming hams? πŸ˜‰

    • Wirko
    • 9 months ago

    What’s the situation with MIDI over USB? Does it at least have the advantage of much higher data rate or is it limited to the same kilobits per second for some reason (like compatibility with USB-to-normal MIDI converters)?

    • toki
    • 9 months ago

    In a galaxy far far away, around 95 or 96 the record label Ninja Tune used to have sample and its own midi section on their website. I used to love the idea of having things for everyone to enjoy. I was so forward thinking to me and to give people tools to go out and create on their own. Beautiful stuff

    • DragonDaddyBear
    • 9 months ago

    Oh the memories. I used to sneaker net Final Fantasy and other music (edit: in MIDI and .it formats) from my parents AOL-connected computer to mine years ago.

    Side thought, is it just me or was music generally better back in the day? I remember reading that Nintendo went with MIDI on the N64 Mario because it could be faded, started, stopped, and generally manipulated based on the location of the player. I happened across this very interesting video, too. [url<]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JRojRIA1ng[/url<]

      • meerkt
      • 9 months ago

      You can do that to a certain degree also with recorded music (I think Need for Speed 2 is an early example for music with block-based branching).

      Does that Mario game do fancier things?

    • cynan
    • 9 months ago

    I remember how awesome MIDI was as a kid when the family got a Gateway 2000 (Pentium 75) in the mid 1990s with an Ensoniq Soundscape ISA audio card that had 2MB (2MB!) on baord memory for “wavetable” MIDI sound founts. Music in Doom just came to life.

    Edit: Er “fonts” not “founts”

    • derFunkenstein
    • 9 months ago

    More precision is a pretty big deal, and non-musicians can probably grasp some of it. Think of it this way: every parameter is a 7-bit unsigned number and just about everything defaults to 64. You can start to hear a stair step when you change velocities (which a lot of old synth hardware uses to approximate volume) or slowly sweep through various settings on effects.

      • meerkt
      • 9 months ago

      But not if it’s interpolated, I suppose.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 9 months ago

        Sure, but what you could also find is that (for example) setting a value of 24 is just a tiny bit too (something) and setting it to 23 or 25 goes past where you wanted it to be. Any VST that allows control via MIDI has to deal with this sort of thing.

          • meerkt
          • 9 months ago

          Though that’s another issue. Also sometimes annoying in volume controls of consumer devices.

    • drfish
    • 9 months ago

    No one has mentioned the most important use of MIDI yet, playing Axel F from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack in the background on about 83% of all Geocities pages.

    • Usacomp2k3
    • 9 months ago

    Gravis. I think I still have one of their joysticks.

    Kids these day’s don’t know how easy they have it. No setting IRQ’s, manually entering the HDD information for sectors, etc. Choosing which sound type and graphics types. Programming your own startup script for DOS.

      • Thorburn
      • 9 months ago

      Hell, my first PC I had to choose between Windows 3.1 or Wing Commander 2 (with speech pack) – my hard drive wasn’t big enough for both!

      My Gravis Ultrasound made MIDI files sound glorious though.

        • Usacomp2k3
        • 9 months ago

        Even floppy-sourced games used to give you the bar showing how much hard drive space you had to see if you could install the game. Multi-disk games were awesome. Especially when disk 5 of 7 was corrupted. Didn’t NT 3.5 come on something like 26 floppies as the install medium?

          • just brew it!
          • 9 months ago

          A lot of those installers also broke when HDD sizes passed 4GB!

          • Mr Bill
          • 9 months ago

          I put all the disks for each early operating system on its own magneto optical disk. Quick installations; faster than CD or DVD. That was around 1994.

      • meerkt
      • 9 months ago

      Keeping Windows working nicely, with the interdependence of everchanging Windows versions, drivers, software that likes to run in the background, services, registry modifications…

      DOS was easier and more consistent.

        • Usacomp2k3
        • 9 months ago

        I’ll vehemently disagree. Every plugged in an AT power cable backwards? Oops.
        For the average consumer, they never worry about any of that. It all happens automatically. Plug in a new device and by-and-large the drivers are all built-in or will be downloaded automatically via windows update. It is so convenient.

      • Krogoth
      • 9 months ago

      You use to DIP switches and play around jumpers to assign resources for your devices and peripherals. πŸ˜‰

      It was a PITA to get ~600KiB of free conventional memory with mouse and CD support. πŸ˜‰

      • jihadjoe
      • 9 months ago

      lol your post made me remember my first hard drive’s CHS setting on the AMI BIOS table: pretty sure it was type 13.

    • chuckula
    • 9 months ago

    [quote<]Integrating property exchange with the protocol means that MIDI 2.0 hardware won't require device-specific drivers.[/quote<] First they took away my choice of CGA/EGA/VGA at game install time, and now they won't let me pick my sound card either? Oh Commander Keen, what has the world come to?

      • Krogoth
      • 9 months ago

      Pffft, real men prefer Hercules monochrome on an amber CRT Monitor. Bonus points, if you got a RAMcard loaded with 512KiB of EMS memory.

    • ET3D
    • 9 months ago

    My ringtone is MIDI. I’m glad that Android still supports this.

    Thanks for the interesting news item.

      • chuckula
      • 9 months ago

      Is it literal MIDI or is it just an MP3 encoding of a MIDI output?

        • Mr Bill
        • 9 months ago

        Sort of a MIDI Me, eh?

        • ET3D
        • 9 months ago

        MIDI. An actual .mid file. And I even edited it (many years ago, when I originally got it) to change the instruments and cut it down in length.

          • chuckula
          • 9 months ago

          You win!

          Bonus points if it’s Stones from Ultima.

          [url<]https://youtu.be/vbvoDPub4fg[/url<]

    • ronch
    • 9 months ago

    I miss my Sound Blaster Pro 2.0 to this day. I don’t know who dumped it in the Recycle Bin.

      • just brew it!
      • 9 months ago

      …along with the system with the compatible slot?

        • ronch
        • 9 months ago

        Remember when motherboards had EIGHT ISA slots? I actually wondered back then what on Earth people are gonna put in all of those slots.

          • just brew it!
          • 9 months ago

          My IMSAI had [u<]22[/u<] slots! But back then, the motherboard was just a passive backplane, with no active components on it. The CPU took up one slot. The control panel took up another. RAM took up anywhere from 1 to 16 slots (depending on the amount of RAM and density of the memory cards). Video interface (if you had one, instead of just a serial terminal) required a slot. Serial/parallel port card needed its own slot. Disk controller (or cassette tape interface, if you were too cheap/poor to afford a floppy drive) took up a slot. It added up pretty quick!

    • FireGryphon
    • 9 months ago

    What’s amazing here is that MIDI was good enough that everyone used it for all this time without any competing standards cropping up.

      • BiffStroganoffsky
      • 9 months ago

      If my musician friends are any example, they didn’t process life…much less music…beyond two bits!

    • atari030
    • 9 months ago

    Atari ST FTW! Built-in MIDI interfaces from day one. Pretty much de facto standard equipment for sequencing musicians back in the day. Boy….Intel-based PCs were completely pathetic during that era.

      • caconym
      • 9 months ago

      It was known for having really solid timing. I know of records that were sequenced with it up to the early/mid-2000’s.

      • rutra80
      • 9 months ago

      AMIGAAAH!!!

    • jihadjoe
    • 9 months ago

    Holy crap the GUS! I had one of those back in the day. Made me feel so much cooler than all my friends who had boring old Soundblasters.

    • Flying Fox
    • 9 months ago

    I wonder if the MIDI Manufacturers Association can sue Mixed Martial Arts for the rights to the acronym, similar to the WWF case…

      • Voldenuit
      • 9 months ago

      Nah, it’s gotta be an air guitar cage match.

      • Neutronbeam
      • 9 months ago

      Just wait until the MIDI-chlorians debacle kicks off again–it’ll be brutal.

        • Mr Bill
        • 9 months ago

        +3 Off the scale!

      • Srsly_Bro
      • 9 months ago

      Mixed martial arts is a sport like boxing. It isn’t the name of any major MMA organization.

    • Krogoth
    • 9 months ago

    Talk about a trip down memory lane.

      • Blytz
      • 9 months ago

      Only one way though

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