As any electronic musician who has tried to recreate a natural sounding acoustic instrument will tell you, expressiveness has historically been lacking. In many cases, this also applies to electronic sound design prior to applying automation. This is true of the highest quality sampled acoustic instrument as well as many types of synthesizers. But that is changing, and it is changing fast with MPE MIDI.
A Brief Review of MIDI
MIDI or Musical Instrument Digital Interface is a communications protocol for interconnecting electronic musical instruments and computers. A traditional MIDI signal can carry up to sixteen channels of information for aspects of music such as notation, pitch, velocity, vibrato, and panning.
Whereas in the past MIDI was primarily used to control hardware, today it is typically used to control or trigger software instruments stored on a computer. These software instruments are most commonly loaded in a digital audio workstation (DAW), such as Apple’s Logic, and then a MIDI controller is used to trigger those sounds. A MIDI controller is any device which can trigger notes and/or send other MIDI event data.
Keyboards have historically been the most common type of MIDI controller, however, keyboards are part of the problem when it comes to expressiveness. Unlike a string instrument such as a violin or guitar, keyboards are lacking in dimension. You hit the key, and aside from the note and velocity, you are quite limited. Mod wheels and other such interface controls have been introduced to try and correct this problem, however, given limitations of traditional MIDI, these controls produce channel-wide messages which are applied to all notes being played on a single MIDI channel. Therefore, if a mod wheel is used to trigger an event like pitch bend, it will bend all notes versus just one particular note.
As a result of these limitations, playing acoustic instruments via MIDI usually results in unnatural sounds when trying to recreate the expressiveness of instruments such as guitar, violins, woodwind, and brass. However, as a result of the new MPE MIDI standard and the rise of expressive MIDI controllers, that is all changing.
What is MPE MIDI?
MPE MIDI or MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE) is a new standard adopted by the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA). MPE MIDI enables multidimensional controllers to control multiple parameters of every note within MPE-compatible software. Now, instead of an articulation like pitch-bend controlling all notes, every note can be individually articulated for much greater expressiveness.
MPE MIDI accomplishes this by assigning each note its own MIDI channel so that channel-wide expression messages can be applied to each note individually. To take full advantage of this, an expressive MPE compatible controller is needed to pair with compatible software. An MPE midi controller allows musicians to apply multiple dimensions of finger movement control such as left and right, forward and back, and downward pressure thereby supporting pitch bend and vibrato on a keyboard without the use of a mod wheel.
Expressive MPE MIDI Controllers
While this list will likely change rapidly, some MPE MIDI controllers that currently exist and that I have tried are:
Artiphon INSTRUMENT 1
The Artiphon INSTRUMENT 1 is a new kind of digital instrument. Positioned as a multi-instrument, it can be played as a guitar by strumming it, as a piano by pressing the keys; as a drum pad by tapping the surface; or as a violin that is bowed. Therefore, it allows a muscian to strum, slide, tap, and drum any sound on a single multi-dimensional interface that is fully compatible with the new MPE MIDI standard.
From my experience, the Artiphon is a great tool for guitarists, though the software instruments capable of making use of its features are still a bit lacking, at least in the electric guitar space. That said, it makes the default acoustic guitars in Logic far more realistic than any traditional controller I have tried to date. I have also not gotten a wonderful result from strings yet, but it does make for a very usable drum pad. The keyboard feature is also quite usable, though it is still easier to use a more traditional keyboard layout, and with numerous keyboard MPE MIDI controllers showing up on the market, I would likely default to one of those.
To learn more check out the Artiphon INSTRUMENT 1 website.
The ROLI Seaboard reimagines the piano keyboard as a smooth, continuous, touch-responsive surface that supports multidimensional support to create a whole new range of expressive sounds. Unlike the Artiphon, the ROLI Seaboard comes with its own software-based instruments to make the experience better right out of the box. Whether paired with Equator, or NOISE, the ROLI software offers an excellent and easy introduction to the power of this MPE MIDI controller.
That said, playing the ROLI Seaboard does require some getting used to. While it is a keyboard design, the spacing and feel are obviously quite different from a traditional keyboard. But despite the learning curve, it does offer an easy and intuitive entry into MPE MIDI whether you are looking to play acoustic instruments or never before heard synth sounds.
To learn more check out the ROLI Seaboard website.
Also published on Medium.