We need “code-able” MIDI controllers!

All MIDI controllers for sale are rubbish!


OK, here comes a rant. I’ve been working on two Arduino-based MIDI controllers in order to try out a few ideas for real time control. I’m using homebrew microcontrollers because I need the flexibility offered by code in order to prototype these ideas.

None of the commercial available MIDI controllers from Novation, Korg, AKAI, Alesis and the rest of the usual suspects support user coding or true executable scripts. Nada. I would love it if one of these vendors made a MIDI controller with an Arduino-compatible development interface. Connect the MIDI controller to a Mac or PC running the Arduino IDE, write your code, download it, and use it in real time control heaven! Fatal coding mistakes are inevitable, so provide an “Oops” button that automatically resets program memory and returns the unit to its factory-fresh state.

Commercial MIDI controllers have a few substantial advantages over home-brew. Commercial controllers are nicely packaged, are physically robust and do a good job of integrating keyboard, knob, slider, LED, display, etc. hardware resources into a compact space. Do I need to mention that they look good? Your average punter (like me) stinks at hole drilling and chassis building.

Commercial controllers, on the other hand, stink at flexibility and extensibility. Sure, the current crop of controllers support easy assignment of standard MIDI messages — usually control change (CC), program change (PC), and note ON/OFF. Maybe (non-)registered parameter number messages (RPN or NRPN messages) are supported. System exclusive (SysEx) most certainly is not supported other than maybe a fixed string of HEX — if you’re incredibly fortunate to have it.

The old JL Cooper FaderMaster knew how to insert control values into simple SysEx messages. This is now lost art.

Here are a few use cases for a fully user-programmable MIDI controller.

The first use case is drawbar control. Most tone-wheel clones use MIDI CC messages for drawbar control, but not all. The Yamaha Tyros/PSR “Organ Flutes” are controlled by a single SysEx message. That SysEx message sets everything at once: all the drawbar levels, percussion parameters and vibrato. Drawbar control requires sensing and sending all of the controller’s knob and switch settings in one fell swoop. None of the commercially available MIDI controllers can handle this.

If you’re interested in this project, check out these links: Dangershield Drawbars, design and code.

The second use case is to fix what shouldn’t have been broken in the first place. The Korg Triton Taktile is a good MIDI controller. I like it and enjoy playing it. However, it’s brain-damaged in crazy ways. The function buttons cannot send program change messages! Even worse, the Taktile cannot send a full program change: bank select MSB followed by bank select LSB followed by program change. This makes the Taktile useless as a stage instrument in control of a modern, multi-bank synthesizer or tone module. If the Taktile allowed user scripting, I would have fixed this nonsense in a minute.

The third use case is sending a pre-determined sequence of pitch bend messages to a tone generator. Yes, for example, you can twiddle a controller’s pitch bender wheel (or whatever) to send pitch bend. However, you cannot hit a button and send a long sequence of pitch bend messages to automatically bend a virtual guitar string or to play a convincing guitar vibrato. Punters (like me) have trouble playing good guitar articulations, but we do know how to hit buttons at the right time. Why not store and send decent sounding pitch bend and controller values in real time as the result of a simple button press?

The fourth use case is an example of the “heavy lifting” potential of user code. Many sample players and libraries (like the Vienna Symphonic Library) assign a range of keys to articulations or other methods of dynamically altering the sound of a notes played elsewhere on the keyboard (i.e., the actual melody or chord). I claim that it’s a more natural gesture to control articulations through the keyboard than to reach for a special function button on the front panel. User coding would allow the redefinition of key presses to articulations — possibly playing a different sample or sending a sequence of controller messages.

Let me give you a more specific example, which is an experiment that I have in progress. Yamaha instruments have Megavoices. A Megavoice is selected as a single patch. However, different samples are mapped to different velocity ranges and different key ranges. As such, Megavoices are nearly impossible to play through the keyboard. Nobody can be that precise consistently in their playing.

I’m prototyping a MIDI controller that implements articulation keys to control the mapping of melody notes to the individual Megavoice samples. This involves mapping MIDI notes and velocities according to a somewhat complicated set of rules. Code and scripting is made for this kind of work!

Finally, the Yamaha Montage demonstrates how today’s MIDI controllers are functionally limited. Yamaha have created excitement promoting the “Superknob” macro control. Basically, the Superknob is a single knob that — among other things — spins the parameters which have been assigned to individual small knobs. Please note “parameters” is plural in that last sentence.

Today’s MIDI controllers and their limited configuration paradigm typically allow only one MIDI message to be assigned to a knob at a time. The target VST or whatever must route that incoming MIDI value to one or more parameters. (The controllers’ engineers have shifted the mapping problem to the software developers at the other end.) Wouldn’t it be cool if you could configure a controller knob to send multiple MIDI messages at once from the source? Then, wouldn’t it be cool if you could yoke two or more knobs together into a single macro knob?

If you had user coding, you would be there already.

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