Exploring the 2023 MIDI Innovation Awards

Dom Aversano

In Jaron Lanier’s cult classic technology manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget, the writer outlines a concept he calls lock-in, which he defines as when via mass adoption a technology becomes so deeply embedded into a culture that it becomes difficult to either improve or remove it without massive effort, even if its design is fundamentally flawed. The British road system exemplifies this, with its twisting and turning narrow lanes designed for horse-drawn carts, which while somewhat charming relics of a bygone era, can make it impossible to create separated bike lanes without bulldozing entire sections of cities. Lanier provides another example, MIDI, which he perceives as a reductive and delimiting music language that shrinks our conception of music to the functioning of keyboards, yet nevertheless, that he predicts will persist as a language well into the future, due to the huge work it would take to extract it from our musical infrastructure.

More than a decade after Lanier’s book was published his prediction that MIDI would persist is vindicated, however, Lanier may have underestimated the extent to which, unlike the British road system, MIDI has the capacity to transform itself without a major uprooting, which is the intention of MIDI 2.0. Anyone who has followed the non-starter of Web 3.0 will know that technological advancement requires more than adding a number and a decimal place to an existing technology. However, this new version of MIDI offers genuinely new capabilities, such as bidirectionally, backwards compatibility, a finer resolution of detail, and the capacity for instruments to communicate with greater sophistication.

Browsing through the entrants and finalists on the MIDI Association website reminded me of the show-and-tell-type events Music Hackspace put on in its early days. There is a nice balance between slick and sophisticated products built by established companies and eccentric innovations made in a shed by a devoted individual. As is the nature of these things, most of the innovations will not make their way to the mass market (presuming they were designed for it at all) but this does not detract from the creative value of the work. It is inspiring to see people make the brave effort of taking ideas from their imagination and putting them into the real world, so providing an audience for their efforts helps motivate and stimulate this innovation, by demonstrating that it has value and importance in our culture.

For the last few days, I have had the pleasure of indulging in a kind of digital sauntering, where I have explored and browsed through the wonderful collection of innovations on display. One original-looking instrument that immediately caught my eye is the Abacusynth, which as its name suggests, is built in the style of an abacus. The synth is intended to emphasise musical timbre with its creator stating:

“Timbral modulation is arguably just as ‘musical’ as melody or rhythm, but it’s not often emphasized for someone learning music, usually due to the complexity of synthesizer interfaces”.

One aspect of its interface design that is ingenious is that by spinning the blocks it creates a modulation effect, aligning the visual and kinetic aspects of the instrument in a playful and intuitive way.

Another visually appealing instrument is the Beat Scholar, which uses a novel pizza-slice-type interface to subdivide rhythms, provoking the visual imagination and making the likes of quintuplets and septuplets subdivisions much less intimidating. It is a much more visually appealing representation of rhythm than your average piano roll sequencer, where the interface for advanced rhythms often feels like an afterthought. 

When it comes to slickness Roland’s AE-30 Aerophone Pro jumps out, with the company claiming it ‘the most fully-integrated and advanced MIDI wind controller ever created.’ It uses a saxophone key layout and mouthpiece and Bluetooth connection to free up players to move. It looks and sounds like a promising alternative to the keyboard and drum machine hegemony of electronic music, but will ultimately rely on the opinion of seasoned wind players as to whether it is adopted.

Finally, a music installation that stood out for its elegantly simple design is Sound Sculpture, which uses the collaboration and participation of a crowd to move glowing blocks around, which communicate their position to build a sequencer that creates a musical pattern. Watching people collaborate with strangers in this audio/visual artwork is particularly inspiring.

“This project utilizes 25 cubes in a space typically about the size of a half-basketball court. This spatial realization of composing, with blocks, allows multiple people to collaborate, co-compose as a community, and together create structures, rhythms, melodies, and harmonies.”

Whether you are in the depths of Argentina’s Patagonia or the buzzing metropolis of Lagos, you can join online to find out who the winners of this year’s MIDI Innovation Awards are, in a live-streamed 90 minutes show on Saturday, September 16th (10 am PDT / 1 pm EDT / 6 pm BST / 7 pm CET) that will be hosted by music Youtubers Tantacrul and Look Mum No Computer.