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Paul Ward: Standardisation

Sounding Off By Paul Ward
Published October 1995

Thanks to MIDI, modern musicians can achieve effects that would have seemed nothing short of magical only a few years ago — but it can still seem like mumbo jumbo to the uninitiated. Regular SOS contributor Paul Ward believes it could all be so different with just a little standardisation.

It was Arthur C. Clarke, I believe, who wrote something about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. I certainly think you'd be hard‑pushed to explain to a 12th century peasant that a motor car is not the product of magic!

I have found the modern recording studio to have a similar effect on the average person in the street. On seeing my studio for the first time, family and friends gaze with a sense of awe, usually followed by something approaching disbelief when they hear a full arrangement of a song, complete with strings, choirs, guitars, drums and vocals — all without a single piece of tape in sight. In our sheltered, technologically‑oriented little world, we hi‑tech musicians are unaware of the leaps of logic required to get a grasp of the concepts behind the electronic toys and gizmos that we now take for granted. A synth capable of realistic pianos and strings is now the norm, sampling allows us to include the looped performances of real instruments played by real players, and tapeless recording is now an (almost!) affordable reality.

Your visitor asks if it's possible for him/her to play a few notes of a simple piano sound, so you spend a minute or two flicking through program changes and dialling up a new MIDI patchbay configuration, then reset the MIDI volume which was turned down at the end of the piece you just played, and turn down the aux send on the mixer that was supplying a flanged delay effect... OK, maybe I'm exaggerating slightly, but you get my point. Much like an ancient magician or alchemist, we are bound by a series of ritualistic activities to perform the simplest of tasks. By now, your guest is usually saying something to the effect of 'How on earth do you manage to understand all of this?', and is also somewhat dismayed, as a key press now introduces the sampled delights of a Vietnamese pot‑bellied pigin labour!

The technology we employ to drive a car or to make hi‑tech music is nothing short of miraculous, but there is one glaring difference — no matter how complex the underlying technology, cars have a pretty much standard user interface. There may be the odd extra feature, such as cruise control or an automatic gearbox, that may take some getting used to, but essentially all cars are driven in the same way. How would you feel about buying a car that requires you to programme the exact route you are going to take before you set off, or where the windscreen wipers stopped when you went above 50mph because the CPU couldn't handle the extra demand? How well would a car sell if the maker decided to swap the pedals around, or put the accelerator on the dashboard?

I have to admit that this analogy has its flaws. You wouldn't expect the same controls in a helicopter or an aeroplane as a car, although they perform much the same basic job of transportation. Similarly, a sampler and a synth have fundamental differences that will determine much of their user interface. Surely we must be beyond the point where we can all agree on what constitutes a patch, a voice, or a program?

Have we not arrived at a time when this array of equipment should be able communicate without our constant intervention? How about being able to define that 'I just want to sit down and play a piano sound' as a kind of macro patch that could be recalled by a single command, whereupon the individual elements in the system will respond by getting themselves into the correct state to achieve that task? MIDI certainly goes a long way towards making this possible, but we are still mucking about with patch numbers, SysEx data, and control information — much like lifting the bonnet to re‑configure the engine for a day trip to the coast.

So, what is the answer? Well, I'm not a designer, but I'm sure it doesn't lie in producing manufacturer‑specific disk formats (like the now ubiquitous Akai format which can't be read by a PC!), or infuriatingly tortuous program architecture (look to your Wavestation, Korg). I'm also fairly certain that MIDI will have to give way to a newer, faster communication system before we see any real improvements to our control and command of the next generation of hi‑tech musical marvels. While the experts are busy trying to define the standards for MIDI's successor, might I suggest they also consider some other standards, such as the definition of a basic user interface requirement for specific devices. Most importantly, the underlying technology must be hidden under the bonnet. A consistent and familiar user interface will not only make the equipment easier to use and get more people interested (look at the growth in the PC market once Windows applications took hold), but also make upgrading to newer equipment less traumatic, creating more new sales for the manufacturers.

Does all this sound like a Utopian dream? So did MIDI back in the '70s...