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Roland’s A-88MKII keyboard is a sign that MIDI 2.0 is on the way

MIDI 2.0 is close to being finalized, and Roland has announced its first keyboard controller to support the new protocol, as spotted by MusicRadar. Roland’s A-88MKII MIDI keyboard controller is an upscale product with wood components and hammer action keys that mimic an acoustic piano. The 88-note keyboard comes with a bunch of onboard creative tools, like customizable trigger pads and advanced arpeggiator controls. There’s also a control app for iOS and Windows to assign commands and create custom setups for instant recall.

But, what really separates the A-88MKII from being just another keyboard is support for the upcoming MIDI 2.0 protocol, which the Midi Manufacturers Association has been working on for over 10 years. This next advancement is the biggest update to MIDI since it was first created, and it will allow for increased musical expression, tighter timing, and simplified connections between devices, among other things.

Although MIDI is associated with music, MIDI files don’t contain any actual music samples. This is because MIDI is a digital interface that communicates data about music between different devices, like the sequence of notes in a melody and how those notes should be played.

The original MIDI specifications were written back in 1982, and the protocol has stayed at version 1.0 for over 30 years. There have been a lot of enhancements since then, like Machine Show Control, which allows for control over non-musical equipment like lights and effect devices, and MPE, an amendment to MIDI that enables instruments to recognize expressive touch, like pitch bending or vibrato. But even though MIDI 1.0’s utility keeps growing, there are still many limitations.

Several improvements come with using MIDI 2.0. Devices can now talk to each other and “agree” on features that both support. This should make MIDI systems easier to use as it opens up new options for devices to self-configure their connections. There’s also increased resolution (MIDI 1.0 messages are usually 7 bit, while MIDI 2.0 messages can be 16 and 32 bit), more expressiveness like per-note pitch bend, web-based integration, way more channels, and tighter precision with timing accuracy (also called jitter). As one member of the association says, if “MIDI 1.0 was a monologue, MIDI 2.0 is a dialog.”

It’s important to note that MIDI 1.0 is not being replaced, and there’s a high priority on backward compatibility. The association says that rather, “it is being extended and is expected to continue, well integrated with the new MIDI 2.0 environment.” Many MIDI devices won’t need MIDI 2.0’s features to operate as normal, and some will likely use bits from both the MIDI 1.0 and MIDI 2.0 protocols. “MIDI 2.0 is just more MIDI,” says the association.

Recently, C++ framework company JUCE spoke with several members of the MIDI Manufacturers Association who said it will likely take “several years for a wider range of MIDI 2.0 products to start coming to market.” The challenge with every MIDI update has been getting companies to support it. The association officially adopted MPE last year, but so far, only a few companies — like Roli, Sensel, and Roger Linn Design — have created products to utilize it.

Last year, in an effort to avoid slower adoption once the new protocol rolls out, the MIDI Manufacturers Association locked in several companies to make prototypes with MIDI 2.0. Those companies included Google, Native Instruments, Steinberg, Yamaha, Roli, and, yes, Roland. Music conference NAMM is around the corner, and it’s very possible more MIDI 2.0-compatible stuff will pop up there.

So whenever MIDI 2.0 officially arrives, the A-88MKII is ready. Roland’s keyboard sports three user-definable zones, a pitch / mod lever, and eight multipurpose pads that can be customized to trigger commands and events. Additionally, Roland says the sensitivity and responsiveness of the keyboard can be adjusted to “match your unique playing style.”

As far as inputs and outputs, there’s the classic 5-pin MIDI in and out ports, a dedicated sustain pedal input (plus two additional pedal inputs), and USB-C for power. An AC adapter input is also included as an additional power source, which Roland says is needed when connecting the A-88MKII to iOS devices with Lightning, using the Pad Camera Connection Kit.