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MIDI: The Next 30 Years

February 13, 2013
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It’s been a most excellent adventure so far, but there’s a lot more to come

Thirty years ago, at the 1983 Winter NAMM show, a Sequential Circuits Prophet-600 talked to a Roland JX-3P, and MIDI went mainstream. Since then, MIDI has become embedded in the DNA of virtually every pop music production (yes, I stole that line from Alan Parsons, but I don’t think he’ll mind)—and it’s all because our industry was forward-looking enough, and generous enough, to put their competitive differences aside and create a spec for the common good of all musicians.

But to consider MIDI a museum piece that, against all odds, has remained relevant over the decades ignores the reality that— thanks to the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA)—MIDI continues to evolve. Aspects we enjoy today, such as General MIDI, computer and smart phone support of MIDI technology, MIDI over USB and FireWire that eliminated MIDI speed issues, and the show-control aspects that run Broadway plays and theme parks, are extensions that no one anticipated when MIDI was proposed. What’s more, the MMA fulfills the crucial role of avoiding marketplace confusion by making sure that the term “MIDI” is used only when applied to a very specific set of technologies.

Tom White has headed the MMA for the past two decades, and it’s not an overstatement to say that he’s the glue that has helped the association grow the MIDI spec during that time. Currently, he and the MMA membership are reaching out to the world of consumer electronics and other areas where MIDI is establishing itself anew. Although the MMA has policy not to discuss future projects until they’ve been approved, here’s a peek into the future—and what it means to MIDI. If you thought the past 30 years were cool . . .

MIDI API for HTML5 (Liaison with W3C) Making MIDI an integral part of the web experience has implications that extend far beyond having MIDI playback as you watch videos, or creating exceptionally useful online music lessons. With MIDI for HTML5, any browser app could be controlled with a MIDI controller—which opens up numerous possibilities for interactivity—or talk to any MIDI device.

“High Definition” (HD) Protocol This “next generation” MIDI-like technology would offer higher data resolution, more channels and controllers, support discovery of devices, and most importantly, be compatible with existing MIDI gear.

MIDI Payload Format for Ethernet-AVB The IEEE Ethernet AVB standard could replace most proprietary audio/video networking solutions, and enable interoperability of products from different manufacturers. The MMA is working to incorporate MIDI (and any future MMA data protocols) as part of the spec to complement the audio/visual elements.

Inter-Application Communication Protocol for OMAC (iOS-MIDI) This establishes MIDI messages that enable two iOS apps to identify and enumerate each other, making it much easier to run, for example, a synth app and controller app for it at the same time. The Open Music App Collaboration group on Google has defined some ways for iOS MIDI apps to work together, and the MMA has agreed to assign a Universal System Exclusive ID for OMAC apps to request/respond regarding specific features such as number of voices supported, which controller numbers they respond to, and the like.

MIDI Home Control Protocol This is very “blue sky” at the moment, but it sounds good: Currently, control devices for the home (lighting, shades, audio, etc.) generally use proprietary technology, so products from different manufacturers often can’t interoperate (sound familiar?). But a company in Argentina has developed a “translation protocol” using MIDI, defined a set of home control messages in SysEx, and provides converters (software and hardware) between other control protocols. The MMA is looking into the feasibility of making their protocol part of the official MMA spec.

So, not only is MIDI alive and well, but advancements like these will keep it relevant and on technology’s cutting edge. Stay tuned. . . .

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