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Home > Music making > MIDI connection over a USB extender

MIDI connection over a USB extender

The weird layout of my room and the limited space on top and behind my digital piano had prevented  my workhorse laptop at the opposite wall and my Casio CDP-200R from being digitally unified for almost two years now.  So I was using a much smaller netbook instead, on a makeshift cardboard mount. MIDI files I recorded were shared to my other laptop wirelessly via Dropbox. I was getting tired of this work around. I don’t often use that netbook so I had to wait for it to boot each time I want to record something. A netbook is also not powerful enough for DAW work, and is not convenient due to its small screen.

I ended up looking on M-Audio’s MidAir wireless MIDI transmitter and receiver, which would have been a neat solution. The problem though is that the CDP-200R does not have the traditional MIDI port MidAir uses, but has a USB port instead. It most likely internally converts MIDI to USB like many of the new “MIDI” devices today do, making it convenient to connect to a computer (no need for an adaptor or module), but unfortunately, not with other MIDI devices that use the traditional round 5 pin DIN MIDI connector. I tried looking for a reverse adaptor, one that will take USB output from a device and convert it to a 5 pin MIDI standard, but such a thing does not seem to exist and it’s hard to filter out the well known opposite (MIDI to USB adaptors) from search results. The MidAir might be a hundred plus dollar dust collector for my peculiar case.

Another possible alternative is a wireless USB hub, but so far I have only seen a lot of bad reviews for the existing products, so it’s yet another dust collector candidate. Reviews mention that it does not work like its wired counterpart requiring special drivers, client software, authentication and stuff, and transmission is not very reliable. For music playing, any interruption of the transmission would be unacceptable.

Since I couldn’t use a wireless MIDI (or USB) connection, I settled for a wired USB one. An unmodified USB connection is not designed to go beyond 5 meters.  Beyond that you need a repeater (for another 5 to 20 meters) or an extender (can go up to 50 or 90 meters). USB extenders use network cables (CAT5/5e/6, Ethernet, RJ45) in between the USB device and computer’s USB port. Extereme extenders that use optical fibers can go from half a kilometer to 10 kilometers (now you can read your USB stick from another city!).

The extender I used, made by IOGEAR, is USB 1.1 compliant so I had to check that my digital piano is not restricted to USB 2.0 before buying (here’s how to). Thankfully, it is not, as Windows’ device manager showed (view by connection). The extender is claimed to work up to 198 feet (60 meters).

It worked! I used it with a 5m CAT6 cable. No drivers were required and it really seemed that I simply extended my piano’s USB cable. I tested it with Syfonone and my favorite 20+ MB piano soundfont. There is an acceptable amount latency, which was not really surprising, and is similar to the latency of a directly plugged USB MIDI device. I notice that the audible mechanical sound made by my piano keys are a tiny bit earlier than the digital sound coming from my computer (I had an earphone cable extender, what a messy setup). I’m also not using any ASIO device/software, just the built in soundcard. Anyway, the latency was acceptable to me. I can play Bach’s prelude in C major without any problems (the only classical piece I’ve managed to memorize). Once the sustain or reverb kicks in, the mechanical sound of my keys are no longer noticeable when playing many notes (legato).

Of course, the best solution would have been rearranging my room, but knowing myself, that would take years to happen. It is also nice to know that there are alternatives. I will still wait for M-Audio to develop a MidAir that takes in USB-MIDI output. Perhaps they will make a special connector someday. Let’s hope.

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