Musical misunderstanding

19 June 2010

I've started reading You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier. The book has a good premise, not being the techno-utopian screed I'd feared. Anything that takes a pop at the future of the hive mind overlords gets instant points from me. But it doesn't get off to an auspicious start when Lanier takes on the failings of MIDI. It has plenty of failings but Lanier omits two important details about the standard for transmitting data to control electronic musical instruments.

The most glaring error - although it's probably more for the purposes of hyperbole than through ignorance - is that MIDI only transmits note-on and note-off messages. Even early MIDI synths respond to more than that. Yamaha was very keen to make the DX series synths respond to a breath controller because of concerns over expressiveness. The level of expressiveness was limited compared to an analogue synths for a long time but the basics were there. And hardly anybody ever bothered to use the breath controller input except for keen experimentalists such as Michael Brecker.

In an interview in the 1990s, Brian Eno asked for an instrument like the DX7, which he used heavily, that would have a lot more means of articulation but all that was possible with MIDI. No-one stepped up to make Eno's dream synth. The charts are, as Lanier complains, full of mechanistic music but this is due to artist and consumer choice - as evidenced by the seemingly endless litany of Ministry of Sound compilations. But in the margins, people have dealt with the limitations of MIDI and are beginning to transcend them.

A legitimate complaint against MIDI is its atrocious data resolution. Working in the 1980s, the designers had the limitation of a slow serial communications link to deal with. So all the controllers, other than pitch-bend, were confined to a resolution of 8 bits - just 128 discrete steps. That's pretty granular although the net effect is not as bad it seems.

Film composers are able to produce convincing soundtracks - augmented by live orchestras only in more lavish productions - using banks of MIDI-controlled samplers. Most of these are now realised in software so they work around the poor speed of hardware MIDI but the core protocol is the same. People who want to avoid some of the workarounds needed for MIDI are now using protocols such as Open Sound Control (OSC), which is way more flexible than MIDI ever was. It makes possible new instrument controllers such as the Eigenharp. It looks like Darth Vader's bassoon but it's one of a new generation of electronic musical instruments that don't seem at all affected by Lanier's MIDI lock-in, other than a lack of interest from commercial music producers.

The Eigenharp has its own problems. It provides an impressive array of sensitive controllers but needs some work in the usability department as it makes Boehm fingering on a woodwind instrument seem like a triumph of ergonomics. But it's hardly constrained by the tyranny of an 1980s hardware protocol.

Pointing to mechanical music, with MIDI at it's core, is an emotive argument. But that's all it is once you dig into the detail. That doesn't really bode well for Lanier's book even when I'm sympathetic to his core premise.