The Great MIDI Comeback?

I recently read a great article by Bernard Rodrigue of Audiokinetic in Develop Magazine, heralding the return of MIDI to the field of video game music.  It was a very well-written article, filled with hopeful optimism about the capability of MIDI to add new musical capabilities to interactive video game scores, particularly in light of the memory and CPU resources of modern games consoles.

It also reminded me strongly of another article I read, from 2010.

Four years ago, Microsoft Sound Supervisor West Latta wrote for that “we may see a sort of return to a hybrid approach to composing, using samples and some form of MIDI-like control data… the next Xbox or Playstation could, in fact, yield enough RAM and CPU power to load a robust (and highly compressed) orchestral sample library.”

So, it seems that the game audio sector has been anticipating a return to MIDI for awhile now (I wrote at length about the history and possible future of MIDI in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music).  The question is – has the current generation of video game consoles evolved to the point that a quality orchestral sample library could be loaded and used by MIDI within a modern video game?  So far, I haven’t come across an answer to this question, and it’s a very intriguing mystery.

Certainly, the availability of an orchestral sample library in a MIDI-based interactive video game score would depend on factors that are not all hinged to the technical specs of the hardware.  Would the development teams be willing to devote that amount of memory to a quality orchestral sample library?  As games continue to participate in a visual arms race, development teams devote available hardware horsepower to pixels and polygons… so, would the music team be able to get a big enough slice of that pie to make a high-quality orchestral MIDI score possible?

I’m keeping my eyes open for developments in this area. Certainly, the return of MIDI could be a game changer for composers of interactive music, but only if the musical standards remain high, both in terms of the music compositions and the quality of the instruments used within them. Let me know in the comments if you’ve heard any news about the great MIDI comeback!


7 responses to “The Great MIDI Comeback?

  1. Whilst I agree that it is an interesting proposal, to have a complete orchestra available to play MIDI data ‘on-the-fly’, the question should be “is it necessary?”

    I genuinely think that whilst it could provide an interesting way of playing music that is generated by the game system, I don’t believe it offers enough benefits for the end-user to be implemented by any developers. Especially when you consider the potential cost of developing the software that makes this possible.

    I believe that as composers, we are responsible to the end-user in creating an immersive experience. If the end-user doesn’t notice any difference in the audio over “fixed-media” that has been implemented in layers etc, then the whole exercise would have been a waste of time and money.


    • David, you’re right, it’s certainly possible that the resources committed might not be equivalent to the gain in musical flexibility and interactivity, and the “fixed-media” solutions do offer lots of great options. I think it’s interesting how persistent the idea of a “MIDI comeback” has been, though. If it could be executed in a practical way, I’d be curious to see what possibilities might be opened up by the new approach.

    • That’s exciting, Steve! Does Fantasia: Music Evolved use a full on-board orchestral library triggered via MIDI? I’d be interested in hear more about your process. Will you guys be doing any music postmortems or “behind-the-music” documentary videos for that project?

  2. Wow that’s exciting! Remember Banjo Kazooee for the n64? The level music stayed the same but if you went into water for example the instruments would change seamlessly (still playing the same theme but with ‘watery’ sounding instruments). That was the ultimate example of how good MIDI is in video games and demonstrates that through changing tone colours you don’t need to jar the gamers ears by changing music, just change the instrumentation to achieve new moods. I can’t wait!

    • Sam, thanks for reminding me of that score! MIDI can do such great things — it would be terrific if modern games could include more sophisticated musical instrument libraries for use in MIDI scores, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens on that front. 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on Samuel McLean and commented:
    Winifred Phillips has a great blog about a possible MIDI revival in video game music. The thought of having an orchestral library on the games console thats triggered through MIDI is an exciting one to say the least!

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