Is your Midi Controller Late?

Allow me to introduce you to your new least favorite musical companions: latency and jitter. This evil pair can take what would have been a really stellar musical performance and digitally drag the life out of it. Because MIDI is becoming more and more a part of the everyday DJ vocabulary, it’s crucial to understand that not all MIDI systems are created equal. No matter how tight your playing is, sending it through a system that is beset by latency and jitter issues will result in a sound that does not necessarily reflect your skills.

 

Latency is the delay between when you strike a note and hear the resulting sound on your speakers. Usually this delay is measured in milliseconds. To give you a rough idea of what that amount of time feels like, the time it takes for a camera shutter to operate is about 9 ms. While milliseconds may appear to be a remarkably short amount of time, some studies have suggested that a musician can discern and play with musical variations down to 1.5 ms.

 

Latency’s partner in crime, jitter, is the average difference in time between each MIDI event’s latency. In other words, if you hit a cue point twice, and the measured latency was 7 ms for one hit and 15 ms for the other hit, the jitter would be 8 ms. A musician may learn to work with latencies and compensate for the delay, but there is no way to compensate for a different delay each time you hit a note. Significant jitter in a system can really kill the musical feel any instrument is supposed to have

 

THE BACK STORY

 

MIDI was originally developed as a way to control synthesizers with other keyboards and send useful digital information within an analog environment. In such a case, MIDI was very fast (0.32 ms per byte) and had almost no jitter.

 

The problem came when music companies started to send MIDI to computers over cables such as USB. The drivers that are required for those devices to communicate with the computer introduced all the problems of modern MIDI and can vary wildly between computer systems and MIDI interfaces. Rather than getting better, the performance of MIDI over USB seems to have gotten worse over time.

 

HOW BAD IS BAD?

 

Most people agree that anything fewer than 10 ms is generally acceptable in real-time music environments. That number, however, is the total latency of your system, which comprises several different stages of latency, including the most significant: your audio card. While there are actually many more parts of the system that can introduce a delay, the two most significant are: 1) the time it takes for your key press to be recognized by the software (MIDI latency), and 2) the time it takes for the sound to travel from the software to the speakers (audio latency). With the speed of computers increasing and audio drivers getting better all the time, audio latencies of 3 to 7 ms are realistic. That leaves only about 3 ms of MIDI latency if we want to stay under our target system goal. In terms of jitter, 1 ms is ideal and anything larger than 2 ms will start to affect performance. The good news? Those figures are achievable. The bad news? Some MIDI interfaces have been tested to have as much as 20 ms of latency and 12 ms of jitter.

 

UPGRADE YOUR TIMING

 

Florian Bomers, creator of Bome’s MIDI Translator software (www.bome.com), recommends the following ways to ensure your system has the best chance of MIDI timing success. Bomes is also the the software engine behind our own mini.Translator.

 

  • Use only one device per MIDI cable (don’t use the same device for audio and MIDI if possible).
  • Don’t use USB hubs.
  • Don’t run virus scanners on your computer (Windows).
  • Use a dedicated music computer with only your performance software installed.
  • Turn off spotlight (Mac).
  • Theoretically, connecting your controller via 5-pin MIDI cable to a PCI audio card would give you low latency if your controller does not typically send (or receive) multiple MIDI messages at once.

Read our full interview with Florian

 

TEST YOUR SYSTEM

 

Here is a simple way to test your overall system latency, so you know how bad it really is. Connect your MIDI controller to a sequencer or your favorite DJ program and use a MIDI button or key to trigger a sound with a sharp attack such as a kick or snare. You will need two microphones routed to the left and right channels of a stereo pair. One will record the sound of you hitting a key and the other will record the sound as it comes out of a speaker. Record them both into a waveform editor such as Adobe Audition or BIAS Peak. Once you have recorded the results, select the area between the beginnings of each waveform. This distance as displayed in your audio editor is the final system latency of all factors combined, including computer, software, audio card and MIDI interface.

 

I hope this article won’t scare you too much; chances are high that your actual MIDI performance may be fairly good. That being said, now is a great time to find out just how much that computer may be affecting your music without you realizing it. Bomers seemed positive about MIDI’s prospects for a bright future. “I’m sure that the unique properties of MIDI (real time, multipurpose, efficient, low cost) will be very useful for many decades to come,” he says. The MIDI Manufacturers Association (www.midi.org) in Japan is currently working on a new version of MIDI (working title: “HD”). Improvements for latency, jitter and throughput are high on the list, plus higher resolution (as high as 32 bits). That’s good news for future controllerists who need full expression of every single button tap.

This article was originally published in Ean Golden’s Remix magazine column “the digital dj”

BomesFlorianmidi controllerMidi Latenceymidi translatorPerformance upgradeTips
Comments (13)
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  • Frank-up

    i have latency and jitter problems aswell,
    im using 2x of cdj 2000(and yes 2000 not 200)
    and im connecting them midi via usb cables to my laptop computer which is a brand new vaio computer with good performance,

    anyhow, when i play traktor on 10ms 1950 sample buffer rate or whats its called, it response slow and its sounds awful although im using asio4all :S

    when i lower the buffer size and the latency it stills response slow on 2ms , 395 buffer size, and it still sounds awful
    i got a couple of programs on my computer such as: FL studio and plugins, ableton, virtual dj, traktor scratch pro, world of warcraft, GTA san andreas and 10 gb music.

    anyhow still my computer with a 500gb hardrive,4 gb ram, 2,2ghz inte core 2 duo processor should be able to manage this without any problems?
    since when should i have a computer just 4 the reason of DJing this is my personal computer and i would love to get some help how to solve this problem —> phille_nb@hotmail.com

  • BentoSan

    [quote comment=”19109″]Was considering buying a Xone:3d and I want to know does it suffer from latency issues. Basically the setup will be a Macbook Pro running Traktor and using the xone as an external mixer / midi controller. Thanks.[/quote]

    Theres no way of knowing without actually testing it on your system for youself. Latency and jitter varies from system to system.

  • Skiz

    Was considering buying a Xone:3d and I want to know does it suffer from latency issues. Basically the setup will be a Macbook Pro running Traktor and using the xone as an external mixer / midi controller. Thanks.

  • stet

    I'm just getting into the digital side of DJing and have read this and the other article about latency and jitter. Currently I'm using a desktop computer but was planning on getting a laptop, but this has got me wondering. Has anyone tried or are using a portable rackmounted computer? For me this would definitely be a cheaper option but wondered about the logistics of it all, i.e. getting it into the DJ booth. Obviously it will be bit more hassle to move about, but the fact I can have more bang for buck compared to a laptop is really appealing, let alone the fact of using a PCI audio card with a 5-Pin MIDI connection and superior cooling.

  • erik t

    'Too Late For Tears'… LOL thats some funny sh*t. I've been laughing for like 10 minutes.

  • petey wheatstraw

    any reviews on the hercules controller steel that is coming out at the end of october?

  • Mycole

    I totally thought DJs Latency and Jitter were going to be new moderators. Drat! Fooled again!

    Very useful information though. I think most of us know about latency, but I've never given much thought about jitter or even knew it existed. Now I either learn the methods to test this or be eternally paranoid. So much to do!

  • BentoSan

    [quote comment="14262"]Moldover has done some testing of his own (on the DoepferUSB64, MIDITron, and LeoBodnar) and posted the results at http://www.moldover.com/controllerism/downloads/M

    Yes this was a excellent piece of work done by moldover 🙂

  • Tos

    Moldover test results are usefull.

  • Taz

    [quote comment=""]Great article, Ean. Do you have a video demonstrating this test?? Would love to see it.[/quote]

    I think a video demonstration for this done with the VCI-100 would be great. Very informative article thank you Ean.

  • oquela

    Great article, Ean. Do you have a video demonstrating this test?? Would love to see it.