A Beginner's Guide To MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression)

A Beginner's Guide To MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression)

MPE has seen a huge surge in popularity in recent years with more and more developers and users taking advantage of the possibilities that it unlocks. Here at Time+Space, we've certainly seen a rise in the number of you asking about compatible software so we've pulled together this article, with the help of our friends at PreSonus and Zero-G, plus composer and MPE fan Nainita Desai...

So what is MPE?

MPE stands for MIDI Polyphonic Expression, and is a relatively new MIDI standard that allows users to control fine details of individual MIDI notes on digital instruments, resulting in a response that feels similar to acoustic instruments.

Whilst we have always had the ability to control parameters such as pitch bend, velocity, aftertouch and modulation wheels via MIDI, these have typically been global expressions, meaning if a chord is played and a change in MIDI is applied, it will apply to all notes in that chord.

The benefit of MPE is that we can now control these parameters for each note in the chord and allow them to have independent values of each other, resulting in a much more expressive and realistic way of performing MIDI instruments.

Roli Seaboard and Blocks


Examples of MPE hardware

Some of the most prominent hardware manufacturers of MPE hardware are Roli, Roger Linn and Sensel, but as the format has quickly gained popularity since its official adoption by the MIDI Manufacturers Association in 2018, plenty of start-ups and new manufacturers have began work on new controllers and instruments that compliment the possibilities of MPE.

Roger Linn LinnstrumentRoger Linn's Linnstrument features 200 pads that can detect subtle finger movements in 5 different types: strike, pressure, left-right, up-down, and release.

Eigenlabs Eigenharp

 

Eigenlabs' Eigenharp features a strip controller of sensitive keys and an optional breath pipe which adds a whole new dimension of MIDI control.

 

Sensel Morph


Sensel's Morph controller features a tablet-sized pressure sensor with swappable interface overlays, allowing you to customise the controller to your specific needs.

And, of course, there are so many other controllers available too!

 

MPE Compatible Software

Many software developers have also made their programmes MPE compatible including DAWs and VSTs. In doing so, parameters of the programmes are mapped to the controllers, allowing you to use all dimensions of control and touch with the software.

DAWs such as Presonus Studio One, Ableton, Logic Pro X and Cubase have all incorporated MPE compatibility in recent updates, opening up the options for producers, composers and live performers.

MPE, was added to Studio One in version 5 for use with VST2 plug-ins also supporting MPE. We got in touch with PreSonus' Ryan Roullard to find out more... 

Ryan Roullard PreSonus

"With MPE in Studio One, each note performed on an MPE-supporting controller is sent to the VST on its own independent MIDI channel. This allows for complex, expressive configurations and performances, as each individual note can be manipulated by multiple parameters simultaneously.

For example, a user could assign filter cutoff to aftertouch pressure; assign pitch-bends to lateral sliding gestures, and forward/backward movement to LFO rate. MPE data is also conveniently visualized and editable via Studio One’s Note Controller Lane of its Automation Editor, with three optional views for Pressure, Pitch, and Timbre.

Furthermore, Studio One’s External Devices Manager includes ready-to-go presets for both the Roli Seaboard Block and Seaboard Rise, making setup and control of virtual instruments via MPE as easy as possible.

Any external controller can be set up to Enable MPE via a simple tickbox in Studio One’s External Devices Manager, which allows Studio One to pass MPE data to its hosted plug-ins. There’s also a convenient Pitch Range field to specify the range of the controller. Just make sure your instrument is also set up to receive MPE via the checkbox “Enable MPE” in the plug-in editor popup menu, and you’re ready to begin expressing yourself as polyphonically as contemporary technology will allow."

 

Presonus Studio One 5 Roli

 

PreSonus Studio One 5 Roli set up

 

Zero-G's stunning Ethera vocal series has patches incorporated into its library for the Roli Seaboard which allows you to play legato vocal lines that feel natural and smooth. Ethera producer Stefano Maccarelli says:

Stefano Maccarelli

"When I made the first version of Ethera: Ethera 2.0, the ROLI Seaboard had only been on the market for a few months. I was very impressed by this innovative product, so I started studying how to make Ethera 2.0 patches for ROLI.

Kontakt does not natively support ROLI and MPE protocol, for now, so you have to find some tricks to be able to exploit a Kontakt library with ROLI. So I did some Ethera 2.0 vocal patches for the ROLI. Patches didn't work with the TRUE LEGATO engine, but they do allow you to use the GLIDE of the ROLI to create impressive vocal performances, especially for an ethnic sound.

I then decided to replicate this in Ethera Soundscapes. Whilst with Ethera Gold, I made a version of the Hybrid Synth, called "Core Synth", to exploit the ROLI's potential. I created a series of sounds such as Flutes, Textures and Drones, which could be played with the ROLI in an exciting way. The ability to control expressiveness is ever-increasing!"

 

Zero-G Ethera Gold 2.5 Roli

 

Take a look at this video below which shows the true power of Ethera and the Seaboard in combination!

 

 

At the time of writing, Rob Papen has announced a new update for his synth bass plug-in SubBoomBass 2 which now offers full MPE support. Likewise, the fantastic new Blade 2 additive synthesis plug-in is also supported and includes a dedicated MPE soundbank.

There are a number of other plug-ins that, while not currently fully MPE-compatible, can be used with MPE controllers including Native Instruments Kontakt, Spectrasonics Omnisphere and Trilianu-He, with no doubt many more to follow in the near future.

Rob Papen Blade 2

 

A Composer's Perspective of MPE...

Composer Gareth Coker

In a recent interview with us, prestigious game composer and BAFTA nominee Gareth Coker told us about his love for the ROLI Seaboard and MPE:

"My favourite hardware is the ROLI Seaboard Rise 49, it just allows me to do things I didn’t think were possible with a keyboard and really can make you think about making music in a different way. It also works wonders with MPE patches which obviously is what it was primarily designed for!"

We also got in touch with one of our favourite film composers, BAFTA Breakthrough Brit Winner Nainita Desai, who has some interesting words to say on her view of MPE and controllers:

When writing, I start with a blank template at the start of every project. Noodling on different instruments also forces me to be creative in different ways which then takes me out of my comfort zone. It helps to not rely on muscle memory which is when you tend to gravitate towards the same approach and chordal shapes.

Composer Nainita Desai

I blend live playing and midi samples a lot – samples are great for control and choice, lack of budget, flexibility. However, the human interpretation of music is incomparable to samples. The speed with which you can achieve and experiment with every nuance is so much faster and organic than samples, not to mention the emotional impact of working with musicians.

I’m really keen to break down technology barriers and find a way of injecting human expression into the writing process in as fast and organic a way as possible, so I do have midi controllers such as the Touche Expressive, Joué, Roli Rise and blocks such as the Lightpad. I was also one of the first adopters of the Roli Grand Stage.

Something that I learned from working with Peter Gabriel and the school of writing to ‘capture the magic’ of a performance without letting technology get in the way. So I tend to record all my improvisations when composing and then edit and fine tune later on. I write instinctively and fast when responding to visual scenes, so getting ideas down fast is important. I then easily spend hours and days tweaking unless I am face with deadlines !

The ROLI Equator synth is brilliant and I also use Touche Expressive with my Arturia soft synths. I’ve just got a Deckard’s Dream synth which is MPE compatible so I’m using it with my Roli rise and it’s like having a real Yamaha CS-80!"

 

Joué MPE controllers

 

Why MPE?

MIDI has been one of the most important standards in production, composition and performance for around 30 years, allowing both software and hardware to communicate with each other in ways that would seem impossible in prior years.

In an age where we strive to create virtual instruments that sound indistinguishable from the real thing, as well as looking to generate new and unique technologies to perform music, it only makes sense to further the develop the tools available to us to create controllers and programmes that feel more expressive than ever before. It will be very interesting to see the development of MPE over the coming years as we find new ways to benefit from this exciting standard... watch this space!

View MPE compatible plug-ins