Has Bluetooth Finally Arrived in the Studio?
Updated: Aug 26
So i followed with interest the development of CME Pro's WIDI Master and took the plunge to purchase 4 units from the original batch. CME Pro have a philosophy of engaging tightly with its community who they involve in the development. This blog is a review and challenges the use of bluetooth in a studio environment. This isn't a sponsored review, its a fully independant assessment and sharing of my experience of WIDI Master in a small studio. Its based on real world and pragmatic application of WIDI Master. So lets start with what WIDI Master is. CME developed WIDI Master as a bluetooth replacement for the standard MIDI cable. So in essence two units form the end to end MIDI connection. Instead of a physical cable, bluetooth technology is used between the devices for MIDI communications. Anyone who has had experience of bluetooth especially in a studio environment (which is heavily dependant on tight synchronisation) will immediately ask 'what about latency'. Latency is the 'delay' in timing of an action occurring at one point and being received at another. This can be audio, but in this case we are talking about the MIDI communications. At what point from a note being triggered is it applied at the receiving end. It is unfair to lay the blame of latency on one element. Latency always exists. Even without technology a voice shouting from one place takes time to be heard somewhere else due to the speed of sound. In a studio environment each element in the chain adds some latency, so pragmatically its the entire chain thats relevant. Here we test a few things on latency and be aware the tests measure the system setup latency and it cannot be only attributed to the WIDI Master alone. Also the tests are more pragmatic and real world applications more so than scientific metering or a lab process. These are just my own checks, in my own studio but in my applications. So, get to the point your thinking? Ok so i tested latency through series of checks, first simply by listening to click signals on a master device (Synthstrom Deluge) and a receiving secondary device (Elektron Digitakt - all envelopes at zero attck and not inherent delay in the sample start). After all if you can hear a big synchronisation difference in the timing of the two drum hits then we fall at the first hurdle. See the video attached. Connecting directly between devices was tested and in addition i connected the Digitakt via an iConnect MIDI interface and also through a MIDI Pal (MIDI analyser). These would also add latency but hey, they are part of my set up. Finally i recorded audio under both scenarios into a DAW through an SSL2+ Audio Interface then into Logic on a MacBook. The audible sound was good, no distinct issues moving from 40 BPM through to 300+. In fact i was very happy with the performance here.
Secondly, testing by recording in. The audio latency was of course more visible on the logic project recordings and more audible on playback due to it being in the same space / speakers and not the open room for each synth. Approx 16ms between Deluge track and the Digitakt track with the longer chain of gear and around 11ms peer to peer Deluge to Digitakt. CME claim 3ms latency in their tests which is quite understandable in manufacturers test conditions. To put this into perspective, my own tests connecting direct a 1metre MIDI cable showed 3ms latency for peer to peer connection in the setups shown. You could, from these tests, conclude that the CME WIDI Master demonstrated a latency of around 8ms which is pretty good. Personally i think this performance for Bluetooth MIDI is while not perfect, is quite impressive and certainly an improvement on some historic configurations with cable-less set ups.
This will suit many of my own applications, although for any release level tracks some additional production may be required in the box. So what about practicality? The set up of the MIDI Masters is easy. It could be argued that given CME Pro marketing is to replace a MIDI cable then packs of two could be a standard offering, although many will want to use only one with a iOS or PC device. Both single and dual packs should be offered in my opinion. The units automatically pair when switched on which is indicated by a blue led moving from slow flash to a static or MIDI traffic level indication. If using more than 1 pair, then the order of power up is important to ensure the right devices are connected together. My biggest issue is the form factor and In/Out design. When using the MIDI In connector (not needed if your only using MIDI out) there is a small power connection cable. This is side mounted and can easily obstruct additional connections. It is not always easy to check its connection. In addition the blue indication LED seems to be applied from one side of the device so depending on the MIDI connection orientation of the synth or controller could be hard to see status. I find these units great and have many application ideas already in mind.
I see a lot of options with integrating synths and controllers but also by linking hubs where distance is more than a few metres. I didn't test for distance but everything worked well in my 5m studio environment. The latency will of course always be a consideration depending on the actual set up but this gives options when working across studio. Small clustered setups of course would benefit first and foremost by a direct cable. WIDI Master devices come into their own when communicating directly with a DAW or tablet, phone device. There is a rising attraction to iOS applications in musical setups. I also tested a single WIDI Master with an iPad and using MSXII Sound Design's Chomplr app and it worked great. These units when acting as an interface as a part of integrating from modular to desktop to laptop is something to consider as an option. So all in all i was pleased and would recommend the WIDI Master. Of course each producer and engineer will have different expectations and this should be factored in. The value of the pro's outweighs the cons and I'm looking forward to getting to know these even better over the next few weeks.
- Latency is low and great for many applications.
- Easy to set up
- Avoids multiple cables across studio
- Solid support, engagement and transparency of technology from CME Pro
- Opens up the integration of platforms (iOS, Mac to Desktop)
Could be Better:
- Interconnection cable can be obstructive
- LED Indication only one side
- Price point vs MIDI Cable (maybe package dual or single options)
- Latency isn't on a par with a physical cable (of course not)