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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Data-driven testing with fbp-spec

Automated testing is a key part of software development toolkit and practice. fbp-spec is a testing framework especially designed for Flow-based Programming(FBP)/dataflow programming, which can be used with any FBP runtime.

For imperative or object-oriented code good frameworks are commonly available. For JavaScript, using for example Mocha with Chai assertions is pretty nice. These existing tools can be used with FBP also, as the runtime is implemented in a standard programming language. In fact we have used JavaScript (or CoffeeScript) with Mocha+Chai extensively to test NoFlo components and graphs. However the experience is less nice than it could be:

  • A high degree of amount of setup code is needed to test FBP components
  • Mental gymnastics when developing in FBP/dataflow, but testing with imperative code
  • The most critical aspects like inputs and expectations can drown in setup code
  • No integration with FBP tooling like the Flowhub visual programming IDE

A simple FBP specification

In FBP, code exists as a set of black-box components. Each component defines a set of inports which it receives data on, and a set of outports where data is emitted. Internal state, if any, should be observable through the data sent on outports.

A trivial FBP component

So the behavior of a component is defined by how data sent to input ports causes data to be emitted on output ports.
An fbp-spec is a set of testcases: Examples of input data along with the corresponding output data that is expected. It is stored as a machine-readable datastructure. To also make it nice to read/write also for humans, YAML is used as the preferred format.

topic: myproject/ToBoolean
  name: 'sending a boolean'
  assertion: 'should repeat the same'
    in: true
      equals: true
  name: 'sending a string'
  assertion: 'should convert to boolean'
  inputs: { in: 'true' }
  expect: { out: { equals: true } }

This kind of data-driven declaration of test-cases has the advantage that it is easy to see which things are covered – and which things are not. What about numbers? What about falsy cases? What about less obvious situations like passing { x: 3.0, y: 5.0 }?
And it would be similarly easy to add these cases in. Since unit-testing is example-based, it is critical to cover a diverse set of examples if one is to hope to catch the majority of bugs.

equals here is an assertion function. A limited set of functions are supported, including above/below, contains, and so on. And if the data output is a compound object, and possibly not all parts of the data are relevant to check, one can use a JSONPath to extract the relevant bits to run the assertion function against. There can also be multiple assertions against a single output.

topic: myproject/Parse
  name: 'sending a boolean'
  assertion: 'should repeat the same'
    in: '{ "json": { "number": 4.0, "boolean": true } }'
    - { path: $.json.number,  equals: 4.0 }
    - { path: $.json.boolean, type: boolean }

Stateful components

A FBP component should, when possible, be state-free and not care about message ordering. However it is completely legal, and often useful to have stateful components. To test such a component one can specify a sequence of multiple input packets, and a corresponding expected output sequence.

topic: myproject/Toggle
  name: 'sending two packets'
  assertion: 'should first go high, then low'
  - { in: 0 }
  - { in: 0 }
    out: { equals: true }
    inverted: { equals: false }
    out: { equals: false }
    inverted: { equals: true }

This still assumes that the component sends one set of packet out per input packet in. And that we can express our verification with the limited set of assertion operators. What if we need to test more complex message sending patterns, like a component which drops every second packet (like a decimation filter)? Or what if we’d like to verify the side-effects of a component?

Fixtures using FBP graphs

The format of fbp-spec is deliberately simple, designed to support the most common axes-of-freedom in tests as declarative data. For complex assertions, complex input data generation, or component setup, one should use a FBP graph as a fixture.

For instance if we wanted to test an image processing operation, we may have reference out and input files stored on disk. We can read these files with a set of components. And another component can calculate the similarity between the processed out, as a number that we can assert against in our testcases. The fixture graph could look like this:

Example fixture for testing image processing operation, as a FBP graph.

This can be stored using the .FBP DSL into the fbp-spec YAML file:

topic: my/Component
 type: 'fbp'
 data: |

  readimage(test/ReatImage) OUT -> IN testee(my/Component)
  testee OUT -> ACTUAL compare(test/CompareImage)
  reference(test/ReadImage) OUT -> REFERENCE compare
  name: 'testing complex data with custom components fixture'
  assertion: 'should pass'
    input: someimage
    param: 100
    reference: someimage-100-result
      above: 0.99

Since FBP is a general purpose programming system, you can do arbitrarily complex things in such a fixture graph.

Flowhub integration

The Flowhub IDE is a client-side browser application. For it to actually cause changes in a live program, it communicate using the FBP runtime protocol to the FBP runtime, typically over WebSocket. This standardized protocol is what makes it possible to program such diverse targets, from webservers in Node.js, to image processing in C, sound processing with SuperCollider, bare-metal microcontrollers and distributed systems. And since fbp-spec uses the same protocol to drive tests, we can edit & run tests directly from Flowhub.

This gives Flowhub a basic level of integrated testing support. This is useful right now, and unlocks a number of future features.

On-device testing with MicroFlo

When programming microcontrollers, automated testing is still not as widely used as in web programming, at least outside very advanced or safety-critical industries. I believe this is largely because the tooling is far from as good. Which is why I’m pretty excited about fbp-spec for MicroFlo, since it makes it exactly as easy to write tests that run on microcontrollers as for any other FBP runtime.

Testing microcontroller code using fbp-spec

To summarize, with fbp-spec 0.2 there is an easy way to test FBP components, for any runtime which supports the FBP runtime protocol (and thus anything Flowhub supports). Check the documentation for how to get started.

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