MIDI From The Inside
Updated with a new Youtube video
We found this excellent Youtube interview by Orchestral Tools and thought it would be a great addition to this article with the first President of the MIDI Manufacturers Association, Jeff Rona.
This post was contributed by the well known film composer, Jeff Rona. Jeff was the first president of the MIDI Manufacturers Association and ran the MMA from 1983 until 1992 . Jeff was instrumental (pun intended) in getting MIDI started and gives us an inside look at the beginnings of MIDI.
We recently did an exclusive interview with Jeff where he talks about how he uses MIDI today in his film composition and why “the studio is his instrument”.
In 1982 I was a young composer writing music for theater, dance, and programming synthesizers for a few recording artists to earn money. But an unexpected and odd opportunity came to me that seemed right to try at the time. I was really one of the first people in Los Angeles experimenting with linking desktop computers (a very new thing at the time) with synthesizers. I had a computer mentor of sorts, a scientist from Jet Propulsion Laboratories whose hobby was developing hardware and software to make music. All very experimental – but amazing things were possible with some effort. I learned just enough about writing computer code to be dangerous. It was all purely musical. I was by no means a software expert. But I had a good aptitude for it. I was eventually invited to speak about computers and music at the first TED conference.
I was at a local music store in Hollywood and struck up a casual conversation with a couple of guys from Roland who happened to be there at the time. When I told them what I was doing with synths and desktop computers, they got very excited. Within a couple days I found myself in the office of Tom Beckman, the president of Roland US, explaining my work and background. When he asked me if I wanted a job and could I write code for music software. I lied, basically, and said yes. I became a programmer and instrument designer for Roland that day.Within a few weeks of starting (I quickly got a programming coach to help me get up to speed fast) I had my first official meeting with some of Roland’s top engineers and designers, who were in LA from Roland headquarters in Japan. We hit it off very well right from the start. I had learned a few words of Japanese and did my best to express my deep admiration for their work (one of my guests had designed the TR-808 drum machine!). They brought me two prototype keyboards. They showed me a 5 pin jack on the back each and said “we think this is very useful…we want you to devote all your time to writing software for this.” These were likely the first 2 MIDI instruments in the country. The plan was to develop software to show what could be done with combining keyboards and sequencing. I was blown away. I had already written some software to sequence analog synthesizers with a pre-MIDI computer interface. This was a whole new world.
A few months later I was asked to represent Roland at a small private meeting at the NAMM show to discuss how American musical instrument companies might be able to coordinate their efforts in making MIDI a true standard that was useful, functional, and consistent. I can’t remember everyone at that meeting, but I do remember Bob Moog, Tom Oberheim, Dave Smith, Roger Linn, as well as engineers and designers from Yamaha, Roland, Akai, Casio, Korg, and a few other companies that had gotten a start on MIDI. (This was also the 1983 NAMM show where MIDI was shown to the public for the first time by my Roland US cohort Jim Mothersbaugh).
The agreement around the table was that a strong need existed to create a coalition of all interested parties to help get MIDI off the ground and into wider use by as many musical instrument manufacturers as possible. The issue then was to find someone willing to get this technical cooperative started. Silence. No one had any interest in taking on the rather monumental task of figuring out how to form an organization for musical instrument companies – competitors – to disseminate, share, develop and test this brand new technology on a grand scale. As the newest member of this group I had the least amount of work responsibility. And the idea of bringing all this together was absolutely compelling to me. I spoke up and said I would take on the responsibility to try and get an official MIDI governing body together. I remember Tom Oberheim, who I’d never met before, saying “Fantastic! And who are you?”
Over the next several weeks, the enormity of the task became clearer. While Dave Smith, head of Sequential Circuits, was the man who initially conceived of a universal protocol for all musical instruments, a lot of the nuts and bolts of MIDI happened in Japan – primarily with one engineer at Roland working with one engineer at Yamaha. I had already become close to both of them, and had started helping on the design of Roland’s first MIDI/computer interface, called the MPU-401. So I began an ongoing dialogue with them both to discuss the challenges of making MIDI a universally accepted technology by every interested instrument company in the world. Several companies had already vowed to never touch MIDI for a variety of reasons both technical and political. Some were bigger players in the industry. And a lot of companies simply hadn’t heard about our work yet.
I went to a lawyer in Los Angeles to set up an official not-for-profit corporation to be the official entity for MIDI’s development. It would collect dues (tax free), generate the official technical documents for engineers to follow, and oversee further development to the hardware and software layers of MIDI. I had to think of a name for the group for the incorporation papers, and came up with the MIDI Manufacturers Association – The MMA. By mid 1983 we were off to a good start with about 10 or 12 members. We made a pact to work in tandem with our Japanese counterpart, the Japanese MIDI Standards Committee (the JMSC or just “MIDI Committee” for short).
Most technical standards are overseen by sanctioned governmental committees and highly rigorous legal procedures. All the various digital audio specifications, broadcast standards, time code formats, video formats, the Compact Disc, were all technologies started with the cooperation of private companies working with government standards groups and protocols, and these all took years to complete before they made their way to the public. Many technologies are half obsolete before they even make it to into stores. We didn’t want that, and so we decided to do what we could to steer clear of any governmental oversight. It did cause problems. For example, if MIDI were to have an official logo (like compact discs did), who would decide that a company had implemented MIDI fully and correctly and could display the logo? And what if they didn’t? Could we stop them? Who would make the call, and would it stand up in court? How would future added MIDI protocols be ratified as ‘official’? Would we grant licenses to companies for a fee? Who owned MIDI? While this made some people a bit nervous, we set all those potential worries aside to focus on the best ways to just get MIDI out into the world. The companies there at the beginning had a sense that MIDI would help sell a lot more keyboards – a good incentive to move quickly. Little did anyone know at the time how explosive the success of this technology would be. It was seen then as little more than a technique to help higher end musicians work with multiple keyboards on stage or in the studio. Nothing radical – just easier.
The NAMM show takes place twice per year. Winter NAMM is in Anaheim California, across the street from Disneyland an hour south of Los Angeles. The summer NAMM was usually in Chicago. But this particular year the event had been moved to New Orleans. As the newly appointed head of the MMA (more a coin toss than an election) I gave myself the task of organizing a private meeting there and inviting instrument companies from around the country and throughout Europe to attend a meeting to show what MIDI was, and to try and get the MMA moving forward. Members of the JMSC offered to attend to officially recognize the MMA for all companies using MIDI outside of Japan. There was also at the time a new users group for interested musicians to learn about this cool new MIDI thing. It was run by an LA-based musician named Lachlan Westfall, and we had become good friends. He was also an adept print layout artist, and I was in the midst of translating and editing the 1st edition of the official “MIDI Specification 1.0″ from Japanese to English for MMA members to use as a reference. Lachlan helped me put that together and we agreed to continue helping each other out in different ways. We both spent days poured through music magazines looking for any company we thought might be interested in using MIDI and I sent invitations to come to NAMM to be a part of this new MIDI and MMA movement. Getting rivals and competitors to sit down together was unheard of. Before MIDI there was never a need to discuss anything of mutual benefit. I was hoping to double the size of the organization and maybe get up to 20 or so members that summer.
Uncertain anyone would even attend, I booked a small private meeting room at the New Orleans Hilton, got refreshments, printed up copies of the new MIDI Spec, and put together an itinerary for the meeting. I was incredibly nervous this being the first time I used MMA money for anything. Not only was a lot riding on this, but there were still a number of detractors who didn’t see the MMA getting off the ground. I walked into the room to begin the meeting, and instead of the 20 or 30 people I expected, there were over a hundred – engineers and executives from every instrument company, audio company, and music magazine I’d ever heard of. This was far beyond anything I could have hoped for.
I’d invited Karl Hirano, Yamaha’s chief engineer at the time (and developer of the DX7), who was also the president of the JMSC, to say a few words. He graciously spoke to acknowledge the MMA as the only technical group with the power to develop and ratify new MIDI protocols outside of Japan. By the end of the meeting, all the major instrument companies, as well as young startups were on board. MMA, and MIDI’s development, was in full swing. Some of those little startups there went on to be some of the most successful music and audio companies in the business.
There were plenty of kinks along the way, but we developed a working method for rapidly proposing, amending, and approving new elements to MIDI. And while many new and improved implementations for MIDI came from Japan, the one person in my opinion who pushed MIDI forward more than anyone was a young engineer (also from Sequential Circuits) named Chris Meyer. Chris is a full-tilt genius with an incredibly low tolerance for egos, errors, wasted energy, or bullshit of any kind. Serious on the outside, delightful on the inside, he was absolutely incredible to work with, and he kept the rest of the MMA, myself especially, on its toes at all times.
Obviously, MIDI has been a runaway hit far beyond anyone’s wildest expectations at the start. It is ubiquitous. Eventually we did get called up by one of the US governmental technical bodies to tell us that if we didn’t slow down and do things by the book, MIDI was heading for nothing but lawsuits and eventual destruction. We agreed to meet and discuss the option of changing to a different method. It would involve dissolving the MMA and allowing an organization such as AES or SMPTE to take over and run things “properly”. It was an odd meeting – again in a back room at another NAMM show. It was a rather stodgy, unnamed member of that governmental body (wearing two pairs of coke bottle thick glasses – legally blind I imagine, and utterly geekish), Bob Moog, Chris Meyer, one other engineer, and myself. And it was actually a rather brutal meeting. We were lectured like we were children about to crash our bicycles over a cliff, with all the potentially dire consequences listed out for us.
But afterward it was clear to all of us at MMA that we simply had to stay “rogue” or we would have to stop all the amazing change going on right then for the entire music industry. MIDI instrument development had still only been in full swing a few years, but already we were introducing protocols for synchronizing video machines, multi-track systems, lighting boards, automation of all kinds, samplers, patch editors and librarians, and especially computer interfacing and sequencing – and it was really going well. In all of that early rapid development and deployment only a tiny handful of products ever made it to market with real flaws in their MIDI support, which was a major coup for the MMA.
Regardless of how things “should” have been done, we were doing things right, and the music industry was going crazy for it. MIDI brought synthesizers so much further into the mainstream of music production and live performance. In my estimation, no other digital technology, maybe no other technology of any kind, has ever succeeded at the pace and with the success of MIDI on a global scale.
I ran the MMA for 7 years. In the middle of my time there I took a break for a couple years to focus more on my music, but returned to keep things moving as smoothly as possible. But as my work as a musician in recording studios and eventually my composing for film and TV took off, I had to give up my role in the MMA. It was incredibly sad for me to leave, but I was no longer an active developer, having left my job at Roland a few years earlier. Those wonderful geeky people that started the whole thing, virtually all superb musicians in one way or another, had become some of my close friends and favorite people.
These days I attend NAMM shows to find the best new hardware and software for my studio, and I am fortunate enough to still run into a lot of the people that were there from the start. Some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. And we share a smile for something that we can all be very, very proud of.
I know I am.