Optimizing latency of an Arduino MIDI controller

Some of the feedback from first user testing of my friend’s Hang-like electronic music instrument was that the latency was too high. How do we bring it down to an acceptable level?

A MIDI controller using capacitive touch sensors for triggering. An Arduino board processes the sensor data and sends MIDI notes over USB to a PC or mobile device. A synthesizer on the computer turns the notes into sound.

Testing latency

For an interactive system like this, what matters is the performance experienced by the user. For a MIDI controller that means the end-to-end latency, from hitting the pad until the sound triggered is heard. So this is what we must be able to observe in order to evaluate current performance and the impact of attempted improvements. And to have concrete, objective data to go by, we need to measure it.

My first idea was to use a high-speed camera, using the video image to determine when pad is hit and the audio to detect when sound comes from the computer. However even at 120 FPS, which some modern cameras/smartphones can do, there is 8.33 ms per frame. So to find when pad was hit with higher accuracy (1ms) would require using multiple frames and interpolating the motion between them.

Instead we decided to go with a purely audio-based method:

Test setup for measuring MIDI controller end2end latency using audio recorded with smartphone.

  • The microphone is positioned close to the controller pad and the output speaker
  • The controller pad is tapped with the finger quickly and hard enough to be audible
  • Volume of the output was adjusted to be roughly same level as sound of physically hitting the pad
  • In case the images are useful for understanding the recorded test, video is also recorded
  • The synthesized sound was chosen to be easily distinguished from the thud of the controller pad

To get access to more settings, the open-source OpenCamera Android app was used. Setting a low video bitrate to save space, and enabling macro-mode for focusing close objects easier. For synthesizing sounds from the MIDI signals we use LMMS, a simple but powerful digital music studio.

Then we open the video in Audacity audio editor to analyze the results. Using Effect->Amplify to normalize the audio to -1db makes it easier to see the waveforms. And then we can manually select and label the distance between the starting points of the sounds to get our end-to-end latency.

Raw sound data, data with normalized amplitude and measured distance between the sound of tapping the sensor and the sound coming from speakers.

How good is good enough?

We now know that the latency experienced by our testers was around 137 ms. For reference, when playing a (relatively slow) 4/4 beat at 120 beats per minute, the distance between each 16th notes is 125 ms. In the following soundclip the kickdrum is playing 4/4 and the ‘ping’ all 16 16th notes.

So the latency experienced would offset the sound by more than one 16th note! We can understand that this would make it tricky to play.

For professional level audio, less than <10 ms is a commonly cited as the desired performance, especially for percussion. From Action-Sound Latency: Are Our Tools Fast Enough?

Wessel and Wright suggested that digital musical
instruments should aim for latency less than 10ms [22]

Dahl and Bresin [3] found that in a system
with latency, musicians execute their gestures ahead of the
beat to align the sound with a metronome, and that they
can maintain synchronisation this way up to 55ms latency.

Since the instrument in question is going to be a kit targeted at hobbyists/amateurs, we decided on an initial target of <30ms.

Sources of latency

Latency, like other performance issues, is a compounding problem: Each operation in the chain adds to it. However usually a large portion of the time is spent in a small parts of the system, so an important part of optimization is to locate the areas which matter (or rule out areas that don’t).

For the MIDI controller system in question, a software-centric view looks something like:

A functional view of the system and major components that may contribute to latency. Made with Flowhub

There are also sources of latency outside the software and electronics of the system. The capacitive effect that the sensor relies on will have a non-zero response time, and it takes time for sound played by the speakers to reach our ears. The latter can quickly be come significant; at 4 meters the delay is already over 10 milliseconds.

And at this time, we know what the total latency is, but don’t have information about how it is divided.

With simulation-hardened Arduino firmware

The system tested by users was running the very first hardware and firmware version. It used a an Arduino Uno. Because the Uno lacks native USB, a serial->MIDI bridge process had to run on the PC. Afterwards we developed a new firmware, guided by recorded sensor data and host-based simulation. From the data gathered we also decided to switch to a more sensitive sensor setup. And we switched to Arduino Leonardo with native USB-MIDI.

Latency with new firmware (with 1 sensor) was reduced by 50 ms (35%).

This firmware also logs how long each sensor reading cycle takes. It was under 1 ms for the recorded single-sensor setup. The sensor readings went almost instantly from low to high (1-3 cycles). So if the sensor reading and triggering takes just 3 ms, the remaining 84 ms must be elsewhere in the system!

Low-latency audio, a hard real-time problem

The two other main areas of the system are: the USB/MIDI communication from the Arduino to the PC, and the sound synthesis/playback. USB MIDI should generally be relatively low-latency, and it is a subsystem which we cannot influence so easily – so we focus first on the sound aspects.

Since a PC must be able to do multi-tasking, audio is processed in chunks: a buffer of N samples. This allows some flexibility. However if processing is interruptedfor toolong or too often, the buffer may not be completely filled. The resulting glitch is usually heard as a pop or crackle. The lower latency we want, the smaller the buffer, and the higher chance that something will interrupt for too long. At 96 samples/buffer of 48kHz samplerate, each buffer is just 2 milliseconds long.

With JACK on on Linux

I did the next tests on Linux, since I know it better than Windows. Configuring JACK to 256 samples/buffer, we see that the audio configuration does indeed have a large impact.

Latency reduced to half by configuring Linux with JACK for low-latency audio.


With ASIO4ALL on Windows

But users of the kit are unlikely to use Linux, so a solution that works with Windows is needed (at least). We tried all the different driver options in LMMS, switching to Hydrogen drum machine, as well as attempting to use JACK on Windows. None of these options worked well.
So in the end we tried going with ASIO, using the ASIO4LL replacement drivers. Since ASIO is proprietary LMMS/PortAudio does not support it out-of-the-box. Instead you have to manually replace the PortAudio DLL that comes with LMMS with a custom one 🙁 *nasty*.

With ASIO4ALL we were able to set the buffer size as low as 96 samples, 2 buffers without glitches.

ASIO on Windows achieves very low latencies. Measurement of single sensor.

Completed system

Bringing back the 8 other sensors again adds around 6 ms to the sensor reading, bringing the final latency to around 20ms. There are likely still possibilities for significant improvements, but the target was reached so this will be good enough for now.

A note on jitter

The variation in latency of a audio system is called jitter. Ideally a musical instrument would have a constant latency (no jitter). When a musical instrument has significant amounts of jitter, it will be harder for the player to compensate for the latency.

Measuring the amount of jitter would require some automated tools for the audio analysis, but should otherwise be doable with the same test setup.
The audio pipeline should have practically no variation, but the USB/MIDI communication might be a source of variation. The CapacitiveSensor Arduino library is known to have variation in sensor readout time, depending on the current capacitance of the sensor.


By recording audible taps of the sensor with a smartphone, and analyzing with a standard audio editor, one can measure end-to-end latency in a tactile-to-sound instrument. A combination of tweaking the sensor hardware layout, improving the Arduino firmware, and configuring PC software for low-latency audio was needed to aceive acceptable levels of latency. The first round of improvements brought the latency down from an ‘almost unplayable’ 134 ms to a ‘hobby-friendly’ 20 ms.

Comparison of latency betwen the different configurations tested.


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MicroFlo 0.2.0, visual Arduino programming

Two months after MicroFlo 0.1.0, another important milestone has been reached. This release brings a basic visual programming environment and initial support for all major desktop platforms (Win/OSX/Linux). The project is still very much experimental, but it is now starting to demonstrate potential advantages over traditional Arduino programming.

Official release notes and announcement here.

The start of something visual

The “Hello World” adopted from Arduino, a program that blinks the built-in LED a couple of times per second. Pressing Play (>) uploads the program to the Arduino using MicroFlo.

The IDE shown is NoFlo UI, a visual programming environment which can also be used to program JavaScript for the browser and Node.js using the NoFlo runtime. This project is developed by Henri Bergius and rest of the NoFlo team. For more details about the NoFlo IDE project, check their latest update and follow their Kickstarter project.


At Piksel 2013 in Bergen, I also presented MicroFlo for the first time, to an audience of mostly new media and experimental sound artists. The talk goes into detail about the motivations behind the project, from the quite practical to the more philosophical considerations. Not my most coherent talk, but it gives some insight.



For the next milestone, MicroFlo 0.3, several things are already planned. Focus is mostly on practical improvements to the system, but I also hope to complete prototype support for “heterogeneous FBP”: Allowing to program systems consisting of both host computer and microcontroller programs in a unified manner using NoFlo+MicroFlo.

I am also planning a MicroFlo workshop at Bitraf some time in December and to demo the project at Maker Faire Oslo.

In the meantime, you can get started with MicroFlo for Arduino by following this tutorial. Feedback and contributions welcomed!

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MicroFlo 0.1.0, and an Arduino powered fridge

Lately I’ve been playing with microcontrollers again; Atmel AVRs with and without Arduino boards. I’ve make a couple of tiny projects myself, helped an artist friend do interactive works and helped to integrated a microcontroller it in an embedded product at work. With Arduino, one does not have to worry about interrupts, registers and custom hardware programmers to get things done using a microcontroller. This has opened the door for many more people that pre-Arduino. But the Arduino language is just a collection of C++ classes and functions, users are still left with telling the microcontroller how to do things; “first do this, then this, then this…”.

I think always having to work on such a a low level limits what people make with Arduino, both in who’s able to use it and what current users are able to achive. So, I created a new experimental project: MicroFlo. It has a couple of goals, the two first being the most important:

People should not need to understand text-based, C style programming to be able to program microcontrollers. But those that do know it should be able to use that knowledge, and be able to mix-and-match it with higher-level paradims within a single program.

It should be possible to verify correctness of a microcontroller program in an automated way, and ideally in a hardware-independent manner.

Inspired by NoFlo, and designed for integration with it, MicroFlo implements Flow-based programming (FBP). In FBP, a program is constructed by connecting a set of independent components. Each component has in-ports and out-ports, and can only communicate with eachother through these. The connections can be defined using programatically, using a declarative text language,  or using a visual editor. 2D/3D artists will recognise this the concept from node compositors like in Blender, sound artists from applications like Reaktor.

Current status: A fridge

I have an old used fridge, by the looks of it made in the GDR some time before I was born. Not long after I got it, the thermostat broke and the cooler would not turn off. Instead of throwing it away and getting a new one, which would be the cool and practical* thing to do, I decided to fix it. Using an Arduino and MicroFlo.
* especially considering that it is several months since it broke…

A fridge is a simple system, something that should be simple for hobbyists to create. So it was a decent first usecase to test the framework on. Principially, such a system looks something like this:


The thermostat decides whether to turn the cooler on or off, and the cooler switch realizes this decision. There are many alternative methods of implemening each of these two components. I used a DS1820 digital thermometer IC to read temperature, and a hacked NEXA remote controlled relay for the switch.
All the logic, including temperature threshold is done in software on an Arduino Uno.

The code below for the cooler switch would have been simpler (a oneliner, left as excersise for the reader) if I instead had used a active high relay directly on the mains (illegal if not a certified electrician). Or alternatively reverse-engineered the 433Mhz protocol used.


MicroFlo code for the fridge, in the .FBP domain specific language (examples/fridge.fbp)
# Thermostat
timer(Timer) OUT -> TRIGGER thermometer(ReadDallasTemperature)
thermometer() OUT -> IN hysteresis(HysteresisLatch)

# On/Off switch
hysteresis() OUT -> IN switch(BreakBeforeMake)
switch() OUT1 -> IN ia(InvertBoolean) OUT -> IN turnOn(DigitalWrite)
switch() OUT2 -> IN ic(InvertBoolean) OUT -> IN turnOff(DigitalWrite)
# Feedback cycle to switch required for syncronizing break-before-make logic
turnOn() OUT -> IN ib(InvertBoolean) OUT -> MONITOR1 switch()
turnOff() OUT -> IN id(InvertBoolean) OUT -> MONITOR2 switch()

# Config
‘5000’ -> INTERVAL timer() # milliseconds
‘2’ -> LOWTHRESHOLD hysteresis() # Celcius
‘5’ -> HIGHTHRESHOLD hysteresis() # Celcius
‘[“0x28”, “0xAF”, “0x1C”, “0xB2”, “0x04”, “0x00”, “0x00”, “0x33”]’ -> ADDRESS thermometer()
board(ArduinoUno) PIN9 -> PIN thermometer()
board() PIN12 -> PIN turnOff()
board() PIN11 -> PIN turnOn()

Is the above solution nicer than using the Arduino IDE and writing in C++? At the moment maybe not significantly so. But it does prove that this kind of high-level dynamic programming model is feasible to implement also on devices with 2kB RAM and 32kB program memory. And it is a starting point for more interesting exploration.

Next steps

I will continue to experiment with using MicroFlo for new projects, to develop more components and test/validate the architecture and programming model. I also need to read through all of the canonical book on FBP by J. Paul Morrison.

Some bigger things that I want to add include:

  • Ability to introspect the graph running on the device, in particular the packets moving between components.
  • Automated testing (of the framework, individual components and application graphs)  using  JavaScript BDD test frameworks like Mocha or Vows.
  • Ability to change graphs at runtime,  and then persist it to EEPROM so it will be loaded on next reset.

And eventually: Allowing to manipulate and monitor running graphs visually, using the NoFlo development environment. See bug #1.

Curious still? Check out the code, and ask on the FBP mailing list if you have any questions!

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