NAMM 2019: A Brief History of MIDI and the New MIDI 2.0


People have been controlling instruments long before there was even electricity. There were mechanical instruments from the 1800s, player pianos and orchestrions from the early 1900s, and the earliest synthesizers dated back to the first half of the 20th Century. By 1950, visionaries like Dr. Robert Moog and Don Buchla had created instruments that captured the hearts and minds of musicians and artists everywhere.

The synthesizer market began to flourish with the advent of affordable instruments from a variety of manufacturers, including ARP, Roland, Yamaha, Moog, Oberheim, and Sequential Circuits. At the time, these companies held their R&D close to the vest, and each manufacturer had developed different protocols of communication between their equipment. Each manufacturer's system was closed and was designed to work only with components within the system. By the '80s, Dave Smith, of Sequential Circuits, and Ikutaru Kakehashi, of Roland, feared that an absence of compatibility between manufacturers would reduce people's use of synthesizers and interfere with sales growth. Talk of a "universal" digital communication system thus began circulating, in 1981.

By 1983, the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA) had been created, and released the first universal specification "Musical Instrument Digital Interface," or MIDI. The communication protocol allowed all instruments to work together, regardless of manufacturer. The Sequential Circuits Prophet 600 and the Roland Jupiter 6 were the first instruments from different manufacturers to "talk" to each other using a small 5-pin cable.

MIDI has officially remained at version 1.0 for more than 30 years. There have been significant enhancements over the years: General MIDI, the Standard MIDI File format, MIDI Show Control (which runs the lights and other effects), MIDI Time Code to allow MIDI data to be time-stamped with SMPTE timing information, MIDI Machine Control for integration with studio gear, microtonal tuning standards, and a lot more. Today, the spec now accepts many different "transports" for MIDI, including USB MIDI, IEEE-1394 MIDI, RTP-MIDI, and Bluetooth LE MIDI.

Akai Professional MPK mini MKII - Compact Keyboard and Pad Controller

Basic MIDI messages include note-on/off (including which note is to be played), velocity, aftertouch, pitch bend, pan, modulation, volume, and a variety of other MIDI-controllable functions. The current protocol supports a total of 128 notes, 16 channels, 128 programs, and banks (up to 128 banks of 128 programs). MIDI signals also include timing information or clock pulses, which allow different sequencers and effects to synchronize with each other. With the advent of MIDI-compatible computer hardware, such as the Atari ST (1985), the protocol was further cemented as a standard. However, there were some shortfalls, and the MMA began updating the spec regularly. In 1991, General MIDI (GM) was developed, which allowed a uniform specification of sounds from multitimbral instruments. This allowed you to write a song on one synthesizer and send the standard MIDI file to someone with a different instrument and the "sounds" would correlate to correct instruments. There was even a General MIDI drum map, which assigned drums to MIDI channel 10 and provided a uniform program for drum sounds. Still, some manufacturers developed their own standard of GM, such as Roland's GS format or Yamaha's XG format.

General Midi Drum Map
Middle C (c4) is note number 60

Midi Note-Instrument
35-Acoustic Bass Drum
36-Bass Drum
37-Side Stick
38-Acoustic Snare
39-Hand Clap
40-Electric Snare
41-Low Floor Tom
42-Closed Hi Hat
43-High Floor Tom
44-Pedal Hi Hat
45-Low Tom
46-Open hi Hat
47-Low Mid Tom
48-Hi Mid Tom
49-Crash Cymbal 1
50-High Tom
51-Ride Cymbal 1
52-Chinese Cymbal
53-Ride Bell
55-Splash Cymbal
57-Crash Cymbal 2

Midi Note-Instrument
59-Ride Cymbal 2
60-Hi Bongo
61-Low Bongo
62-Mute Hi Conga
63-Open Hi Conga
64-Low Conga
65-High Timbale
66-Low Timbale
67-High Agogo
68-Low Agogo
71-Short Whistle
72-Long Whistle
73-Short Guiro
74-Long Guiro
76-Hi Wood Block
77-Low Wood Block
78-Mute Cuica
79-Open Cuica
80-Mute Triangle
81-Open Triangle

On January 18,2019, the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA) and the Association of Music Electronics Industry (AMEI from Japan) finalized and announced the core features of the next-generation MIDI protocol: MIDI 2.0. Several hardware and software manufacturers will be on hand to test compatibility between the early MIDI 2.0 prototypes, including Ableton/Cycling '74, Art+Logic, Bome Software, Google, imitone, Native Instruments, Roland, ROLI, Steinberg, TouchKeys, and Yamaha.

The MIDI 2.0 initiative updates MIDI with auto-configuration, new DAW/web integrations, extended resolution, increased expressiveness, and tighter timing, all while maintaining a high priority on backward compatibility. This major update of MIDI paves the way for a new generation of advanced interconnected MIDI devices, while still preserving interoperability with the millions of existing MIDI 1.0 devices. One of the core goals of the MIDI 2.0 initiative is to also enhance the MIDI 1.0 feature set whenever possible. Expanding MIDI with new features requires a new protocol with extended MIDI messages. To protect backward compatibility in an environment with expanded features, devices need to confirm the capabilities of other connected devices. When two devices are connected to each other, they use MIDI 1.0 and confirm each other's capabilities before using expanded features. If both devices share support for the same expanded MIDI features, they can agree to use those expanded MIDI features. MIDI Capability Inquiry (MIDI-CI) provides this mechanism.

Roland JUNO-DS88 Synthesizer

The following captions are posted on the MMA website and list the agreed-upon core specifications for the new protocol. Specifications are always subject to change. For more info, check the MMA website.

As you can see, this is all very exciting. With this new standard, expect to see some amazing advancements in musical instruments and the way we can control them. Be sure to stop by the B&H Website or the SuperStore to check out our MIDI-compatible selection of synthesizers, controllers, effects. Happy sequencing!