Yamaha Bolsters Web MIDI with Soundmondo
11 Jan 2016
Yamaha is the latest entrant to a growing set of established industry companies that are exploring Internet/cloud and mobile technologies to augment their product lines. For example, Ableton recently made a move to mobile with the development of its Link protocol for wirelessly synchronizing iOS devices, and Steinberg's latest Cubase update features a collaboration platform called VST Transit. Yamaha's Soundmondo reface patch sharing site, however, marks the first use of Web MIDI by an industry heavyweight.
A number of browser-based synths have been developed that use Web MIDI to let you play them with an external controller, and there are a handful of browser-based DAWs that support Web MIDI, too. A few months ago I put together a simple Web MIDI monitoring console for viewing MIDI messages on your system. (Read more about that here.) But generally speaking, apps using Web MIDI have been experimental (including some by Yamaha) and come with a certain novelty factor given the newness of the API and limited options for music tools that run in a browser. Soundmondo might help change that perception and push Web MIDI a little more toward mainstream usage. At the very least it would be great to see working implementations of Web MIDI in Safari and Firefox.
There's been some skepticism from the major browser players that Web MIDI is a worthwhile endeavor but, though the number of interested users might be a small subset of a given browser's install base, Web MIDI has the potential to be really useful for electronic musicians.
Music is often a communal and collaborative experience, both in terms of creation and listening, and the Internet has tremendous power for community building across computing platforms. Having great audio and MIDI APIs implemented across major browsers enables developers to build broadly-accessible music creation tools and harness some of that unique power.
Would I expect a browser app to replace the DAW on my laptop? Not anytime soon. Probably never. Sure, Soundtrap is a pretty good sketchpad and great educational tool, but I don't expect it to come close to Bitwig when it comes to UX and processing horsepower. But a site for connecting with other users of a synth and creating and sharing patches with them? Absolutely. Soundmondo is a great example of how the Web MIDI API can bring value to music creators. Rather than trying to replace something better suited to dedicated hardware or software, Soundmondo is a supplemental and complementary tool that makes the reface line more compelling than it would be on its own. I'm certainly more curious about reface now than I was before learning about Soundmondo.
I'd actually been wondering if someone would create a site for sharing patches using Web MIDI since this seems a) fairly straightforward to implement and b) useful. Soundmondo, of course, does just that though it's specifically designed for users of Yamaha's reface synths to create and share patches. While Soundmondo looks like a step in a good direction for Web MIDI and is a boon to reface users, it would be great to see a more general platform for patch sharing emerge.
Tools like Ctrlr have been around for awhile and let users create custom graphical editors for patch tweaking. Users can create and share the editors on the site, but not the patches created with those editors. There's also Lemur, an iOS app for designing MIDI/OSC controller interfaces (like the Lemur Bitwig Template). Again, users can create and share interface templates via a user library, but the patches created with those interfaces can't be easily shared.
While looking around for patch editors for the Meeblip anode synth a couple of weeks ago I started thinking about patch sharing using Web MIDI. (I did find a Ctrlr editor and Lemur editor that were designed for Meeblip but haven't as of yet tried them.) One could imagine something like Ctrlr or Lemur that would let you design and share both the editor interfaces and the patches created with them, all in the browser. It would be a substantial undertaking but is certainly possible with the Web MIDI API and right mix of frontend and backend development chops.
But for now, it's encouraging to see Yamaha invest in Web MIDI and it'll be interesting to see what kind of traction they get with Soundmondo.