Andrew's Blog

I'm Andrew Madsen, and I'm an electrical engineer and Mac/iOS developer.

MIKMIDI - A new Objective-C MIDI library

MIKMIDI is a library intended to simplify implementing MIDI functionality in OS X and iOS apps. We at Mixed In Key have released MIKMIDI as an open source project so that others can use it, and hopefully contribute to improving it. MIKMIDI is available on GitHub here and can also be installed using CocoaPods. In this post I will introduce the library, our motivation for creating it, along with an overview of the library itself.

Origins and Motivation

My day job is doing Mac and iOS development at Mixed In Key. Recently, we released our first live performance DJ software, Flow. I spent most of 2013 working on Flow, and really enjoyed the work we did (and continue to do) on it.

Like most DJ performance software, Flow allows you to connect a DJ controller (like this one, for example) to control the software when you’re on stage. There are many such controllers available from a wide variety of manufacturers, but they all use MIDI to communicate with a Mac or PC.

OS X and iOS include a system framework for dealing with MIDI, called CoreMIDI. CoreMIDI allows you to connect to and communicate with MIDI devices, as well as with other MIDI enabled apps. CoreMIDI is very powerful, but it’s a pure C API, and like its sister framework, CoreAudio, can be a bit daunting and difficult to get started with. Also, as a C API it’s not always a natural fit for a codebase mostly written in Objective-C.

MIKMIDI attempts to alleviate the difficulties of using CoreMIDI directly, by providing a well-written, purely Objective-C API for MIDI. It also adds a number of higher level features useful in a MIDI enabled app beyond the things CoreMIDI already allows.


There are essentially three major parts of MIKMIDI:

  • Device support — includes support for device discovery, connection/disconnection, and sending/receiving MIDI messages.
  • MIDI commands — includes a number of Objective-C classes that various represent MIDI message types.
  • MIDI mapping — support for generating, saving, loading, and using mapping files that associate physical MIDI controls with corresponding application features.

The first two of these, device support, and MIDI commands, mostly consist of a straightforward Objective-C wrapper for existing CoreMIDI functionality, with functionality enhancements where it makes sense. MIDI Mapping is something that CoreMIDI does not provide at all.

Note that currently, MIKMIDI is focused on working with MIDI communication rather than recorded MIDI files containing music. However, contributions to add features for working with MIDI files are certainly welcome, and I may work on them myself at some point. MIKMIDI’s ultimate goal is to make working with all aspects of MIDI easier in Objective-C.

Device Support

With MIKMIDI device support functionality, you can get a list of available MIDI devices as simply as this:

NSArray *availableDevices = [[MIKMIDIDeviceManager sharedManager] availableDevices];

MIKMIDIDeviceManager's availableDevices property is Key Value Observing (KVO) compliant, and NSNotifications are also posted anytime a device is connected or disconnected. This makes it quite easy to create a UI that displays a list of connected devices and updates automatically as devices are added and removed.

MIKMIDIDeviceManager also makes it easy to connect to and disconnect from MIDI sources. When connecting to a source, you pass in an event handler block, which is called anytime MIDI messages are received from that source. Multiple event handlers can be connected, allowing multiple objects in an application to receive MIDI messages from the same source.

Sending a MIDI command is as simple as creating an MIKMIDICommand instance and passing it to MIKMIDIDeviceManager's -sendCommands:toEndpoint:error: method.

MIDI devices are represented by instances of MIKMIDIDevice. MIKMIDIDevice includes properties to get the manufacturer and model name of the device, as well as to access its entities, which contain its endpoints.

MIKMIDI also allows for connecting to virtual MIDI endpoints, in order to communicate with other MIDI apps on the same computer. Available virtual ports can be found by MIKMIDIDeviceManager's virtualSources and virtualDestinations properties.

MIDI Commands

In MIKMIDI, MIDI messages (aka commands) are Objective-C objects. Specifically, they’re instances of MIKMIDICommand or one of its subclasses. Each of MIKMIDICommand's subclasses is used to represent a specific type of message. That way, for example, a control change message has methods for accessing controller number and value, while a note on message has methods for note number and velocity. Support for command types beyond those currently directly supported by MIKMIDI can easily be added by subclassing MIKMIDICommand.

The library includes a category on NS/UIApplication to allow easy routing of MIDI messages to interested objects in an application. This system is inspired by the Cocoa event handling architecture. This functionality will be detailed in a later blog post, and more information can be found in the documentation.

MIDI Mapping

MIKMIDI includes features to help with adding MIDI mapping support to an application. MIDI mapping refers to the ability to map physical controls on a particular hardware controller to specific functions in the application. MIKMIDI’s mapping support includes the ability to generate, save, load, and use mapping files that associate physical controls with an application’s specific functionality. A mapping between a specific controller and the application’s UI is represented by an MIKMIDIMapping object. MIKMIDIMappingGenerator can be used to manage mapping files on disk, including both user-generated and application-bundled mappings. Also included is MIKMIDIMappingGenerator, which helps with implementing a system that allows end users to easily generate their own mappings using a “MIDI learn” style interface.

In developing Flow, we found out that MIDI DJ controllers each have their own quirks and differences. The data format for MIKMIDIMapping was informed and driven by our experiences with various controllers, and the different ways they transmit control actions by the user. MIKMIDIMappingGenerator includes algorithms that attempt to interpret the messages coming from a controller and associate them with a control type (e.g. knob, button, jog wheel), without the programmer needing to know about the specific quirks of the controller being used.

What Next?

Complete documentation for MIKMIDI can be found on CocoaDocs. In follow up blog posts, I’ll provide some examples for working with MIKMIDI, including sample code. If you have any questions about MIKMIDI, suggestions for future improvement, or would like to contribute to its development, please email me, or comment below!

ORSSerialPort - A new Objective-C serial port library


I’ve just released ORSSerialPort (github link). ORSSerialPort is my take on a modern, easy-to-use Objective-C serial port library. It’s a simple, Cocoa-like set of Objective-C classes useful for programmers writing Objective-C Cocoa apps that must communicate with external devices through a serial port (most commonly RS-232). Using ORSSerialPort to open a port and send data can be as simple as this:

ORSSerialPort *serialPort = [ORSSerialPort serialPortWithPath:@"/dev/cu.KeySerial1"];
serialPort.baudRate = [NSNumber numberWithInteger:4800];
[serialPort open];
[serialPort sendData:someData]; // someData is an NSData object
[serialPort close];

ORSSerialPort is released under an MIT license, meaning you’re free to use it in both closed and open source projects. However, even in a closed source project, you must include a publicly-accessible copy of ORSSerialPort’s copyright notice, which you can find in the LICENSE file.

If you have any questions about, suggestions for, or contributions to ORSSerialPort, please contact me. I’d also love to hear about any cool projects you’re using it in.


This post will describe my motivation for writing ORSSerialPort along with how to use it and some implementation details. First, a little background. In early 2008, I released Aether, an amateur radio logging application for Mac OS X. Most commercial amateur radios made in the last 30 years or so have an RS-232 port through which various radio functions and parameters can be controlled and read. Aether uses this capability to automatically insert the frequency and mode the user’s radio is set to without requiring manual entry of these values. This explains my interest in and use for serial ports on Mac OS X.

OS X’s API for talking to serial ports is provided by IOKit along with standard POSIX functions like open(), select() and close(), etc. None of these APIs are high level Objective-C APIs, rather they’re C APIs. In order to easily integrate with other Objective-C Cocoa code, it’s nice to have Objective-C classes that can be used to communicate through serial ports. The currently shipping version of Aether uses the AMSerialPort classes for serial communication. AMSerialPort has served me well, but it’s a little more complex than I’d like, and doesn’t take advantage of the newer multiprocessing approaches provided by Grand Central Dispatch. As part of my work on the next major version of Aether, I decided to write my own serial port library to replace AMSerialPort in Aether. It’s my hope that it will also be useful to others.

How to Use ORSSerialPort

To begin using ORSSerialPort in your project, simply drag the files in the “Source” folder into your Xcode project. ORSSerialPort.h/m are required, while ORSSerialPortManager.h/m are optional, but useful (see below). Next, add #import "ORSSerialPort.h" and ‘#import “ORSSerialPortManager.h”’ to the top of the source code files in which you’d like to use ORSSerialPort.

Important Note: ORSSerialPort relies Automatic Reference Counting (ARC). If you’d like to use it in a non-ARC project, you’ll need to open the Build Phases for the target(s) you’re using it in, and add the -fobjc-arc flag to the Compiler Flags column for ORSSerialPort.m and ORSSerialPortManager.m. ORSSerialPort will generate a compiler error if ARC is not enabled.

The ORSSerialPort library consists of only two classes: ORSSerialPort and ORSSerialPortManager. As its name implies, each instance of ORSSerialPort represents a serial port device. There is a 1:1 correspondence between port devices on the system and instances of ORSSerialPort. That means that repeated requests for a port object for a given device will return the same instance of ORSSerialPort.

Opening a Port and Setting It Up

You can get an ORSSerialPort instance either of two ways. The easiest is to use ORSSerialPortManager's availablePorts array (explained below). The other way is to get a new ORSSerialPort instance using the serial port’s BSD device path:

ORSSerialPort *port = [ORSSerialPort serialPortWithPath:@"/dev/cu.KeySerial1"];

Note that you must give +serialPortWithPath: the full callout (“cu.*”) path to the device, as shown in the example above.

After you’ve got a port instance, you can open it with the -open method. When you’re done using the port, close it using the -close method.

Port settings such as baud rate, number of stop bits, parity, and flow control settings can be set using the various properties ORSSerialPort provides. Note that all of these properties are Key Value Observing (KVO) compliant. This KVO compliance also applies to read-only properties for reading the state of the CTS, DSR and DCD pins. Among other things, this means it’s easy to be notified when the state of one of these pins changes, without having to continually poll them, as well as making them easy to connect to a UI with Cocoa bindings.

Sending Data

Send data by passing an NSData object to the -sendData: method:

NSData *dataToSend = [self.sendTextField.stringValue dataUsingEncoding:NSUTF8StringEncoding];
[self.serialPort sendData:dataToSend];

Receiving Data

To receive data, you must implement the ORSSerialPortDelegate protocol’s -serialPort:didReceiveData: method, and set the ORSSerialPort instance’s delegate property. As noted below, this method is always called on the main queue. An an example implementation is included below:

- (void)serialPort:(ORSSerialPort *)serialPort didReceiveData:(NSData *)data
    NSString *string = [[NSString alloc] initWithData:data encoding:NSUTF8StringEncoding];
    [self.receivedDataTextView.textStorage.mutableString appendString:string];
    [self.receivedDataTextView setNeedsDisplay:YES];


ORSSerialPort includes a delegate property, and a delegate protocol called ORSSerialPortDelegate. The ORSSerialPortDelegate protocol includes two required methods:

- (void)serialPort:(ORSSerialPort *)serialPort didReceiveData:(NSData *)data;
- (void)serialPortWasRemovedFromSystem:(ORSSerialPort *)serialPort;

Also included are 3 optional methods:

- (void)serialPort:(ORSSerialPort *)serialPort didEncounterError:(NSError *)error;
- (void)serialPortWasOpened:(ORSSerialPort *)serialPort;
- (void)serialPortWasClosed:(ORSSerialPort *)serialPort;

Note: All ORSSerialPortDelegate methods are always called on the main queue. If you need to handle them on a background queue, you must dispatch your handling to a background queue in your implementations of the delegate method.

As its name implies, -serialPort:didReceiveData: is called when data is received from the serial port. Internally, ORSSerialPort receives data on a background queue to avoid burdening the main queue to simply received data. As with all other delegate methods, -serialPort:didReceiveData: is called on the main queue.

-serialPortserialPortWasRemovedFromSystem: is called when a serial port is removed from the system, for example because a USB to serial adapter was unplugged. This method is required because you must release your reference to an ORSSerialPort instance when it is removed. The behavior of ORSSerialPort instances whose underlying serial port has been removed from the system is undefined.

The three optional methods’ function can easily be discerned from their name. Note that -serialPort:didEncounterError: is always used to report errors. None of ORSSerialPort’s methods take an NSError object passed in by reference.

How to Use ORSSerialPortManager

ORSSerialPortManager is a singleton class (one instance per application) that can be used to get a list of available serial ports. It will also handle closing open serial ports when the Mac goes to sleep, and reopening them automatically on wake. This prevents problems I’ve seen with serial port drivers that can hang if the port is left open when putting the machine to sleep. Note that using ORSSerialPortManager is optional. It provides some nice functionality, but only ORSSerialPort is necessary to simply send and received data.

Using ORSSerialPortManager is simple. To get the shared serial port manager:

ORSSerialPortManager *portManager = [ORSSerialPortManager sharedSerialPortManager];

To get a list of available ports:

NSArray *availablePorts = portManager.availablePorts;

ORSSerialPortManager is Key-Value Observing (KVO) compliant for its availablePorts property. This means that you can observe availablePorts to be notified when ports are added to or removed from the system. This also means that you can easily bind UI elements to the serial port manager’s availablePorts property using Cocoa-bindings. This makes it easy to create a popup menu that displays available serial ports and updates automatically, for example.

ORSSerialPortManager's close-on-sleep, reopen-on-wake functionality is automatic. The only thing necessary to enable it is to make sure that the singleton instance of ORSSerialPortManager has been created by calling +sharedSerialPortManager at least once.

Example Project

Included with ORSSerialPort is a demo application called ORSSerialPortDemo. This is a very simple serial terminal program. It demonstrates how to use ORSSerialPort, and may also be useful for simple testing of serial hardware.

ORSSerialPortDemo includes a dropdown menu containing all available ports on the system, controls to set baud rate, parity, number of stop bits, and flow control settings. Also included are two text fields. One is for typing characters to be sent to the serial port, the other for displaying received characters. Finally, it includes checkboxes corresponding to the RTS, DTR, CTS, DSR, and DCD pins. For the output pins (RTS, DTR), their state can be toggled using their checkbox. The input pins (CTS, DSR, DCD) are read only.

The demo application demonstrates that it is possible to setup and use a serial port with ORSSerialPort without writing a lot of “glue” code. Nearly all of the UI is implemented using Cocoa bindings. With the exception of two lines in ORSAppDelegate.m, the source code for entire application is contained in ORSSerialPortDemoController.h/m.

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