In celebration of the 30th anniversary of MIDI, we take a look at the remarkable effect it has had on the music industry.
August, 1983. Thirty years ago, the Americans and the Russians were still openly testing nuclear weapons. Hurricane Alicia was ripping up Texas and David Crosby was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of drugs and weapon possession (also in Texas, though it's not believed the events were related).
One other thing that happened that month would affect music far more, however: the release of the first MIDI specification. The ability, via the Musical Instrument Digital Interface, to link and play multiple instruments together would become the cornerstone of the digital music industry. MIDI enabled layering of sounds, the foundation of the dense synth-based record productions of the 1980s, when dozens of synths joined multiple sampled snares on a single recording. Computer-based music would explode in subsequent years, with MIDI providing the connection between a vastly proliferating number of products, virtually all of which were fitted with the deceptively simple five-pin DIN MIDI port — including, in 1985, the Atari ST, the first home computer to feature MIDI, and an early platform for sequencing software developers. Opcode would shortly create a serial-to-MIDI interface for Apple's Mac... You know the rest of that story.
MIDI's influence can be charted in numerous ways: aesthetic, legal and technical. While it encouraged the thick synth sounds that characterised the 1980s, it could arguably have also caused the return, as a backlash, to the guitar-based sound of grunge and garage during the following decade. It raised legal questions still not fully answered today, such as whether a MIDI file constitutes a sound recording, not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars in litigation arising from samples played via MIDI. In the era before software-based recording platforms brought the potential for seemingly endless numbers of tracks, MIDI offered extra tracks in the form of as many slaved instruments as you could muster, in exchange for a single tape track for MIDI timecode. In that respect, it laid the way for the personal recording phenomenon, along with the introduction, a year later, of the four-track Tascam Porta One, putting the musician on a putative technical par with the audio engineer.
While many would cite this as a turning point for the conventional recording studio business, the fact is that MIDI offered as much opportunity as it did cause for concern. A number of recording studios used MIDI to create a new kind of business, at a time when the level of investment needed to gain MIDI credibility was not that much less than the cost of a decent mid-level studio console. The best-known exponent of this strategy was Unique Recording, near New York's Times Square, where owners Bobby and Joanne Nathan opened MIDI City, which many regard as the first MIDI-based recording studio, in 1984. Tethered to the analogue era via its Neve 8068 console, it became the beta-test site for the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, which was also the first synth to incorporate MIDI. The Nathans also brought in Jim Cooper, of JL Cooper fame, to retrofit MIDI capability into their growing arsenal of synthesizers.
As much a laboratory as a commercial business, MIDI City attracted a new kind of music geek who would go on to make the connection between music and computers complete and irreversible. In the process, it also ironically became a locus for rap and hip-hop, genres that embraced the simplified access that MIDI offered to sophisticated technology. Artists including Afrika Bambaataa, Run DMC, LL Cool J, Kurtis Blow, Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Klan, Grand Master Flash, the Sugar Hill Gang and Notorious BIG all came through MIDI City, drawn by a technology that seemed free of the intensely technical granularity that pro audio had embedded, transistor by transistor, valve by valve, into studios. MIDI was a plug-and-play proposition: you didn't calibrate it, you didn't align it — you just plugged in and got sound, quickly.
Within the context of the digital era, MIDI has had a long life, especially when it's considered that the format was one of the earliest ever introduced. It has also proven flexible: over time, MIDI has been adapted to other applications, including show control and machine control, and became compatible with USB over a decade ago. Next, the MIDI Manufacturers Association is expected to announce the finalisation of the HD MIDI protocol, which will support higher-speed transports, allow plug-and-play device discovery, provide greater data range and resolution, and may include a wireless component. Entirely new kinds of events will be supported, such as a Note Update message, and a Direct Pitch value within the Note message, aimed at guitar controllers (stringed instruments have historically been the biggest challenge to MIDI adaptation).
Fittingly, earlier this year, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the specification's release, Ikutaro Kakehashi and Dave Smith, the founders of Roland and Sequential Circuits, respectively, were honoured with a Technical Grammy Award for their development of the MIDI standard. For all its impact, I'd venture to say that MIDI's most notable feature is that Kakehashi and Smith offered it to the industry gratis, without a license-fee structure that might well have crippled it, and which would certainly have delayed its rapid implementation. In an era when the word 'free' has so many negative connotations in the music business, and proprietary formats have become a universal goal for many pro-audio manufacturers, the idea that this very same industry would not be where it is today had MIDI not been as easily and freely available as it was is worth pondering.