As I’ve been making more music and learning about the state of the industry, I just get more and more excited. It’s a combination of my love for rock-solid specifications, good engineering work, creative expression, and promising unknowns.
The MIDI Spec’s long-overdue time to shine
MIDI has always been a specification designed to synthesize hardware and software. From a technical standpoint I find this fascinating, because it’s:
- Remarkably old (38+ years), and has needed to be interoperable across that entire timeline.
- Promising, versatile, but limited on both ends by hardware & software design.
MIDI exists both as a pipe dream for the future, and a actual tool that you can use today. That’s a fascinating duality, especially with the advancements in commercial tech since the 2010s.
Expressions with Commercial Technology
The 2010s have made tons of computer interfaces commercially available, opening the door for just as many modes of expression.
New consumer-grade hardware
A crucial caveat that my friend Kyle pointed out is:
There have been interesting MIDI instruments playing with interface and interaction modalities for a while now but they were pricey and/or technical.
The old “the future is here is just isn’t evenly distributed” bit.
You can’t talk about the evolution of MIDI without taking into account how consumer tech factors into its usage.
Let’s take Artiphon’s 2 flagship products for example. Both the Instrument 1 and Orba are commercially priced at <$300. Between the two devices, you have:
- A Gyroscope that acts as a tilt sensor for fun effects while playing, and to simulate a shaker.
- Pressure sensitive pads, small and affordable enough to make 60 individual pads.
- Switches to simulate guitar strings.
- Capacitive touch for sliding.
- A handheld, wireless synthesizer with a looper; and a portable MIDI controller that’s a blast to play.
Smartphones & Tablets open up opportunities for portable and abstract interfaces, just by the nature of being touch-based mobile computers.
AR/VR/Wearable tech is a bit of an unknown, simply because so much of it is still stuck in buzzwords and early tech demos, but the idea is promising! And naturally, Artiphon is experimenting in the space with Scan Band.
More Power! 🖥🚀
This one’s pretty straightforward: performance improvements mean that we can create more impressive software instruments.
Moving beyond sample-based instruments, Audio Modeling has an entire suite of digital instruments that simulate real-world instruments, rather than rely on sampling. The result is a technical achievement: massively expressive instruments with a minuscule memory and performance impact.
Plogue specializes in software instruments that reproduce the exact hardware specs of the synths and sound cards inside retro consoles and home computers.
Software is getting better…
Beyond DAWs, more MIDI-based tools have cropped up to streamline composing and ideas, such as:
- Suggester for chord progressions.
- Dorico as a modern composing tool.
- Midiflow as the portable Swiss Army Knife for MIDI data.
But we’re still (largely) stuck with the Piano Roll
My biggest gripe right now is that everything is a Piano Roll under the hood. It’s a Fine™ way of representing notes, but:
- It’s too complex to quickly tweak notes.
- It’s hard to parse (especially when there isn’t a lot of screen real-estate).
- It limits your expressivity be effectively railroading you. It’s a grid with segments!
What’s especially frustrating is that there are some low-hanging fruit for improving the Piano Roll!
- The ability to filter a piano roll (eg: only show a set of keys for a particular octave or scale).
- The ability to group keys together. A vertical stack of tracks that mimic a piano’s keys doesn’t make sense for a drum machine, and grouping would be especially useful for MIDI transformations triggered by MIDI keys.
- The ability to “explode” out a MIDI section and see all the extra metadata and transformations, allowing you to holistically edit a performance.
The exciting future
As I look at what the next few years hold for music creation, we’re at the precipice of some amazing changes. The hardware’s in a great spot, so the focus should be on the software.
Software development is becoming more accessible, but we’re in a serious drought of:
- Truly efficient interface design
- Innovations in how we use software for work. We aren’t creating different modalities for different phases of work, which is the greatest strength of Software!
By making software development more accessible, and standardizing common UI problems, we open up the space for actual improvements & specialized software. This isn’t just a problem in the music tech industry, it’s a problem with the tech industry writ large.
Thankfully, people are experimenting! Take Patatap, which just got an update to accept MIDI input. A perfect blend of art & technology, in my opinion.
If AR & wearable technology take off, they’ll become more consumer accessible. So things like the MI-MU gloves won’t be exclusive to professional musicians (don’t look at the price tag. Just don’t).
In short, the state of music tech in 2021 gives us the chance to create:
- Better remote collaboration tools and workflows
- MIDI editors focused on freedom of expression, rather than versatility, becoming focused tools in a larger workflow.
- MIDI controllers that harness the advancements in our everyday hardware.