You might be forgiven for thinking MIDI music was completely dead. While MIDI files were originally awesome (especially if your alternative was a PC speaker), everyone knew that WAV files offered higher audio fidelity by the early 1990s. Not being a musician, the last time I seriously recall encountering MIDI — at least, in significant amounts — was back in the days when everyone loved embedding something like “My Heart Will Go On” into their Geocities, Angelfire, or MySpace page.
The tremendous strength of MIDI, especially before the advent of CD-ROMs, was that it allowed for genuine soundtracks in an era when portable storage was difficult to come by. Because MIDI files aren’t actually audio files — they’re sequences of instructions — they can consume orders of magnitude less storage space than the equivalent audio files would.
I had to read up on MIDI to write this story, and if I’m being honest, the standard was and is far more important than I had realized. MIDI allowed for the creation of a common interface standard that allowed hardware built by different manufacturers to talk to each other.
Before MIDI, all communication between electronic musical instruments was proprietary to each manufacturer. Whatever company you used, you were all-in on that company. By providing a common interface, MIDI allowed music professionals far more flexibility. The standard launched as the PC desktop revolution was kicking off, and MIDI eventually became popular for music playback in an era where you might trade songs on a floppy. MIDI was the reason you could trade songs on a floppy. I won’t pretend that they sounded all that great, because the original SoundBlaster doesn’t exactly qualify as a top-tier piece of audio equipment — but again, we’re talking about an era where the consumer alternative to MIDI was the PC speaker.
Today, MIDI is used all the time, both on stage during live performances and under the hood of digital audio workstations and virtual instruments. Still, given its 1983 origins, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Introducing MIDI 2.0
Now that we’ve talked about the history of MIDI and how awesome it was (and also, why everyone sorta hated it because of the aforementioned Geocities-MySpace-Angelfire connection), let’s talk about what MIDI 2.0 brings to the table.
MIDI 2.0 is bi-directional, allowing devices to talk back and forth to each other rather than being a strictly one-way communication channel. This is key to maintaining backward compatibility — a MIDI 2.0 device will query for MIDI 2.0 support and fall back to MIDI 1.0 if needed.
MIDI.org writes that the new standard:
re-imagines the role of performance controllers, the aspect of MIDI that translates human performance gestures to data computers can understand. Controllers are now easier to use, and there are more of them: over 32,000 controllers, including controls for individual notes. Enhanced, 32-bit resolution gives controls a smooth, continuous, “analog” feel. New Note-On options were added for articulation control and precise note pitch. In addition, dynamic response (velocity) has been upgraded. What’s more, major timing improvements in MIDI 2.0 can apply to MIDI 1.0 devices—in fact, some MIDI 1.0 gear can even “retrofit” certain MIDI 2.0 features.
MIDI 2.0 includes profiles that can dynamically configure devices for specific use cases and it allows for these devices to share information about their own characteristics with each other. The new standard looks as though it’s been built to take advantage of the additional capabilities musical instruments in the 21st century offer that weren’t available in the early 1980s.
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