Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Project One: ReDesign of a MIDI-Control Interface

MIDI has completely changed the way music can be played, produced, and recorded. MIDI interfaces have become more complex and are able to do more complicated things than ever before today. This somewhat new technology is a powerful tool in the audio production world and without MIDI controls music would not be the same as it is today.

A common misunderstanding about MIDI is how it actually works. MIDI control surfaces do not emit any sound and can not produce media on their own. MIDI is an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. A MIDI controller interacts with software and software creates output. The MIDI surface acts as an analogue controller for software which emulates hardware. It is cheaper to design and program software to act like musical instruments than to actually create the instruments. MIDI surfaces bridge the gap between digital and analogue control.

While no one is disagreeing that MIDI control hasn't helping the music industry, there are some faults with the system. For example, MIDI commands are 127 steps. While that might seem like a lot, and sounds almost seamless when sliding a fader, it actually isn't. With only 127 steps, you are limited to less than 127 different parameters for each knob or button. The other major problem with MIDI is delay. MIDI commands are sent with speed down to the millisecond, but two commands cannot be sent at the same time. One command needs to trail behind the first, no matter how simultaneously the buttons were pressed. Since everything within music happens according to a time structure, this can cause problems down the road, especially with complex control movements.

  • 1897 - The Telharmonium is invented. The telharmonium was an early electronical instrument that created music using tonewheels. It was invented by Thaddeus Cahill.
  • 1928 - The Ondes Martenot was another early electronical instrument developed by Maurice Martenot in France.
  • 1928 - The Theremin is invented by Leon Theremin. This musical device completely removes all physical handling of the instrument and music is produced by metal rods sensing the proximity of the users hands.
  • 1971 - First touchscreen developed by Sam Hurst.
  • 1983 - MIDI is born. Dave Smith first introduced the idea of connecting multiple digital instruments in 1981, but it wasn't until 1983 that his ideas were put into effect.
I redesigned a MIDI controller to be used in the studio setting or during live performance. Through my own experience I have collected and compiled what I feel is most important for the typical DJ or studio artist.

I will most closely relate my redesigned controller to one of similar style already on the market. The UC-33e Evolution:
The UC-33 is a very versatile piece of hardware. With 47 assignable controllers, the device can do nearly everything you program it to. The nine faders are especially important when layering tracks on top of each other when mixing music, and even more so when used as EQ bars for mastering music in the studio. Each fader (except the ninth) had three programmable knobs on top which can be used for various activities such as on-the-fly EQ or effect changes.

The UC-33 can be used with any program that has MIDI support. The amount of programmable parameters appeals to many, but it doesn't have everything that a producer or DJ might need.

My goal was to create a controller that follows in suit the the simplicity of the UC-33e, while adding as many other features as necessary to make it the perfect all in one MIDI Controller. I want to make use of the new controller as much as possible and continue to move the user away from the mouse so eventually total control over software can be done right from the controller.

My Redesign has four major differences to the UC-33e.

Controller is color coded by section.

Pink - Effect Knobs
Green - EQ Knobs
Blue - Faders
Yellow - Launch buttons
Red - Touchpad
Light Blue - Screen

First, I have another panel of knobs (pink) above the stand EQ knobs (green). I felt that this is where the UC-33e lacked most importantly. If the controller would to be used like a standard audio mixing board (like it is designed too) then the three rows of knobs would be used for EQing the Highs, Mids, and Lows of audio files. With the addition of the top row of knobs more aspects of music can be controlled without sacrificing the important EQ knobs. The top row could easily be used to apply effects to tracks. Each column of knobs also has two buttons. The addition of these bottons help to quickly easily trigger and drop effects. There was no way of doing this with the UC-33e. In addition to the top row of knobs, all knobs will have light sensors indicating their position. This design is effectively implemented in the Behringer BCR2000. This helps to accurately show orientation of knob, as well as stimulating the eye with colored LEDs. These afford quick actions in a dimly lit club setting.

Two, this redesign incorporates a much larger much more detailed screen in the upper right hand corner (light blue). This screen will recieve data from the computer as to which tracks are loaded to the fader sections, and which tracks are currently playing. This will furthermore remove the use of the computer from the live performances. Below the screen is a pad with 16 buttons for various controls and programs.

Three, in red, there is now a touchpad controller on the right hand side of the controller. This can be used to access music from a hard drive as well as power effects in a live settings. This will work the same way as the Korg Kaoss pad does for live effects, using the X.Y grid as a system for changing the speed, volume, frequency or wobble of the current effect. Navigating the screen is controlled from the touch pad. I believe strongly that touchscreens and touch panels are going to become more and more part of what we use every day. While they work fantastically, and the iPhone and Lemur both have proven that MIDI through a touchscreen is possible, it is not for everything. The tangibility of faders and a knob that can actually be twisted are very important. These motions can be done just by feeling for the right knob.

Four, the launch buttons for playing tracks are now lined up according to the fader which they are assigned. In yellow at the bottom cue and play/pause buttons have been added. On the UC-33e, launch buttons were way over the the right hand side, now they relate directly to the faders. This keeps track organization much more simple than before.


One of the biggest problems with controllers like this is that they can get very complex very quickly. I've added only a few more buttons and knobs and it already looks intimidating. Unfortunately, music production and live mixing is a complicated process that requires nearly this many features. A simple understanding of how a mixing board works makes the complex design much less daunting. Since it is a MIDI controller, the buttons and faders will all have to be assigned (unless it comes with preset files) and once that is complete the programmer will definitely have a very strong idea of how it works.

The design is complex but it has all the functions of a standard soundboard at half the size and with much more flexibility. Color coordination helps separate each of the different parts of mixer, and lights indicate more visually accessible settings. As complicated as it might look, and MIDI control user's only restriction is the amount of buttons and knobs as are in their hardware. With this vast number, no function should be left out.

Lastly, mentioned early was this controlled called Lemur. It's worth it to mention again the innovation that this controller is. It is a full touchscreen MIDI controller. It'll run a few thousand dollars, but it's very neat. With multi-touch capabilities a lot is possible with this type of hardware.