The MIDI Association (formerly the MIDI Manufacturers' Association) is the underappreciated and underfunded non-profit that not only guards the stone tablets on which the MIDI spec is carved, but also evangelizes the benefits and applications of MIDI to developers, users, and even folks outside the musical instrument industry. At NAMM, they invited me to a presentation on MIDI Capability Inquiries, or MIDI-CI for short. This involves a next-generation MIDI protocol for which specs will be released soon. What does it do and why should you care? I'll try to demystify things.
If you want to keep this read really quick, here's the deal: MIDI-CI will make all MIDI devices talk to each other in a much more standardized way than they already do. Everything will recognize exactly what anything else is and configure itself accordingly, making your musical life much easier. The basic structure exists and manufacturers are into it, but they're working out all the details so we can't have it just yet.
Want more explanation? Keep going past the pictures.
Let's say I'm some kind of professional (music tech journalist comes to mind) and, walking down the street, I encounter another person with the same gig. We also speak the same language. I'm looking for help, so I shake their hand and ask, "Hey, I'd like to inquire what you're capable of." They answer, we get coffee, and before you know it, we've discovered we're very much alike but still have some differences in our workflows and how we do our jobs in general. We decide to come up with a common set of best practices that makes things more efficient if, say, I hire them or they hire me.
That's what MIDI-CI does. The professionals who speak the same language are any two (or more) MIDI devices. The stuff they have in common refers to the fact that most MIDI devices do a core group of things in the same way. A synth modulation wheel, for example, is always on CC 1; filter cutoff on CC 74, etc. And of course, note numbers are universal. The stuff they discover they don't have in common refers to the fact that MIDI instruments and other devices still do a whole lot of things differently even though they're speaking the same basic language. Many CC messages are undefined in the MIDI spec and it's up to individual manufacturers to use them as they please. Then we have NRPNs (non-registered parameter numbers) and sys-ex (system exclusive) and things just get weird. Manageable and much better than not having MIDI at all, but weird.
Another analogy could be language versus dialect. As a New England kid who drank "soda" I was confused when my midwestern cousins said "pop." Among, other things, MIDI-CI promises to get all devices on the same page about such matters. The vision is that connected hardware and software instruments and other devices will shake hands, recognize each other and each other's capabilities, and work together far more smoothly - and with less intervention and programming by the user - than they ever have before.
How will they accomplish this? Via a next-generation protocol that extends the MIDI spec. This is potentially the biggest deal in the industry since the adoption of MIDI itself, especially since Japan's hugely influential AMEI (Association of Musical Electronic Industries) is backing it. Athan Billias, board member of the MIDI Association and director of strategic product planning at Yamaha, explained it to me in terms of "three Ps": protocol, profiles, and properties.
- Protocol Negotiation is the most abstract level of what's going on. MIDI-CI is meant to be fully backward compatible with existing gear, so when two devices are connected, the first thing they need to do is recognize whether they can talk MIDI-CI. If one cannot, they revert to MIDI 1.0. Protocol features under discussion read like a wish list MIDI users have long been making: More channels (256 in 16 groups), higher velocity and controller resolution, full bidirectional communication, per-note support for pitch and controller data, easy support of non-western scales, simplified handling of program and bank changes, and much more. Now, if the protocol is the pipe everything goes through, you need something to put in it, which brings us to ...
- Profile Configuration. This is the part where the devices handshake and recognize each other. Let's say I'm using a software B3-style organ in a session, and I want to hook up an old "clone" organ as a controller because I like its keyboard feel and real drawbars. Now, what CCs and values organ drawbars use just may be the least standardized thing in the MIDI world, and this application inevitably involves a lot of MIDI learning or even manual programming of one control at a time. Heck, some "clones" even put multiple drawbars on the same CC and use different value ranges for different drawbars. Try working with that - I have. If my soft organ and old clone could have profiled each other using MIDI-CI, everything just would have worked. Across the board, controls that do the same thing on similar synths will be matched up.
- Property Exchange. Once profiles are configured, devices can get, set, and recall all of each others' properties. This streamlines the process of, say, a DAW session recalling the settings for multiple hardware synths. Sure, you already use MIDI to do this, or perhaps you use an editor plug-in that serves as an alias for your synth (e.g. Virus TI). The point is, MIDI-CI will do this all for you.
What MIDI-CI is going for is universal Sys-Ex or, as I like to think of it, System Inclusive. In fact, it's based on the Sys-Ex already in MIDI 1.0, which is part of what ensures that new gear will be compatible with old, and that even old gear may be able to take advantage of some of the benefits.
My examples above are just a smattering of what MIDI-CI will be able to do, and I should mention that the MIDI Association and AMEI have a vision that this level of compatibility could extend the uses and appreciation of MIDI far beyond musical instrument markets. Imagine, for example, self-driving cars exchanging not only their distance and speeds, but properties such as their weight, number of occupants, and destination. We were also treated to a demo in which a piece performed on a digital piano directly controlled a flying drone dance. ("But mom, I don't wanna practice my piano! I wanna play with my drone!" Mom: "You can do both, Billy!")
When can we have it? The next-gen protocol exists and all the heavy-hitting manufacturers are on board. They're hashing out exactly how those other two Ps - profiles and properties - are going to work. So I wouldn't expect to be able to buy anything with a MIDI-CI logo on it this year. But keep watching midi.org, because it looks like the universal and smooth communication that Dave Smith and Ikutaro Kakehashi first sought 35 years ago is about to be much more fully realized.