MIDI's Founders Recall its Beginnings


Update: The MIDI Manufacturer's Association requests your assistance by taking this super-quick survey about the digital language that allows all music-making equipment to communicate freely, across manufacturers and types of gear. To give you a little something in return for your time, we’re reposting our November 2013 article on how MIDI was conceived, developed, fine-tuned, and eventually brought to market by Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi and synth design legend Dave Smith.

Take the survey here: http://www.midi.org/survey


MIDI is three decades old this year. Today, we take for granted that any synth in our studio can talk to and be layered with any other, that our DAWs and iPad apps can sequence our hardware synths, and that barriers between hardware and software, between this company’s instrument and that one’s, are virtually non-existent. It’s all owed to the Musical Instrument Digital Interface, whose specification is still unchanged and going strong these last 30 years.

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In turn, we owe MIDI chiefly to two Keyboard Hall of Fame members: Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi (left) and synth designer Dave Smith of Prophet-5 fame (right). This year, they co-won a Technical Grammy Award for their achievement. In this two-part interview, we speak first to Mr. Kakehashi, then to Mr. Smith, about the once unthinkable agreement between competitors that forever changed the way we make music.

Next: Roland Founder Ikutaro Kakehasi's exclusive interview with Keyboard.

MIDI's Founders Recall its Beginnings Part 1: Ilutaro Kakehashi of Roland

Interview by Yoshihiko Kawai. Translated by Miki Nakayama.

Keyboard: Before Roland was established, your precursor company Ace Electronic Industries produced rhythm machines such as the Rhythm Ace FR-1. Why drum machines?

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Ikutaro Kakehashi: To tell you the truth, I wanted to make electronic organs. Ace was started to make that dream of mine come true. In 1964, however, when we first exhibited at the NAMM show, electronic organs in general were too big to transport to the U.S. Therefore, we ended up bringing a smaller organ, the Canary S-2, and our drum machine, the Rhythm Ace, to the show. Even in Japan, it was difficult to sell big instruments to wholesalers; small items sold much better at the time. So, we had no choice but to adapt to the market.

Why did you want to make electronic organs?

I found the sound of the organ in the church fascinating. In my church, an organ kit called the Lowrey Organo was attached to a Japanese reed organ. One day, the organ had trouble. Since I was a retail dealer of electric products then, they asked me to repair it. Through that experience, I saw how an organ is basically built and learned its circuits, then started thinking that I was capable of building them.

You’re known for a lifelong fascination with pipe, theatre, and church organs. What is the source of that?

At the time, organs were the king of all musical instruments. In addition to their physical size, just one organ could accompany a whole movie from beginning to end. Every major pipe organ manufacturer made theatre organs because of that—Wurlitzer was one of the most popular marques. My initial goal was to make a popular theater organ like theirs. I converted that enthusiasm into Roland’s home organs.

The very first Roland synthesizer was the SH-1000, which had organ-like stop tabs. What was its design concept?

Our basic concept for the SH-1000 was that you could set it on top of an organ to play. Because it was what an organist would be accustomed to, placing tabs on the front was crucial. Back then, organs were polyphonic while synthesizers were monophonic, so it was unique to be able to have this synth play melody lines while you could accompany on the organ. On top of this, most organ manufacturers weren’t good at making smaller synthesizers. We, however, discovered the potential there. In fact, I met Bob Moog at Frankfurt Musikmesse before the SH-1000 was born, and we talked about developing small synths together, but the project didn’t happen for various reasons. But that same idea led to the SH-1000.

You and Dave Smith co-won a Technical Grammy for MIDI this year, but Roland products could talk to each other before the advent of MIDI in 1983 . . .

Yes, and that interface was called DCB. This name came from the 25-pin socket. This interface was too high in cost, though, because we anticipated that synthesizers would be low-cost in the near future. So we developed a five-pin DIN plug to simplify it. It was a European standard that hadn’t been popular in Japan or the U.S. yet.

How did you come up with the idea of interconnecting different gear in the first place?

The beginning was trying to figure out how to connect synthesizers and sequencers. We had already developed the MC line of sequencers and many musicians liked them very much. Without the MC-8, I think it would’ve been very difficult for me to take a leadership role to set MIDI as the standard.

What was biggest challenge for you in taking that role?

Nearly all synthesizers at the time had analog oscillators and filters. The main problem there was unstable musical pitch. On the other hand, it wasn’t a big problem if the filter behaved imprecisely to some extent. Roland’s Jupiter-8 had the unstable pitch problem, though some people thought it made the sound thicker and that made it popular. It was, however, difficult to control this unstable pitch with digital interfaces. So we came up with a more stable DCO [digitally-controlled oscillator], which was first successfully deployed in the Juno-6.

What did the market think of MIDI at first?

Well, almost everyone disagreed. One response at the time was written in Joel Chadabe’s book “Electric Sound.” On page 196, it says, “I think that MIDI has been brought on because of market pressure, not because the de facto standard is technically exquisite.” In that same part of the book, the president of one of the U.S. manufacturers is quoted as saying, “The only thing I won’t give in on is this stupid five-pin DIN plug thing. I can’t stand it. To force people to go out and buy a piece-of-shit connector that they can’t use for anything else in their whole rig is insane.”

Their words show that MIDI was absolutely misunderstood. The only person that tuned into my idea was Dave Smith. As he said in the book also, “We knew from the start that interface had to be a compromise.” The name “MIDI” was born during discussions in Dave’s workshop. I explained the result to the Japanese manufacturers: “MIDI allows us to exchange signals between different instruments from different manufacturers with no sweat.” One major reason it became accepted was probably the fact that we were determined to have the standard open for anyone with no patents. It would’ve been very different if we’d taken a patent. We [Dave Smith and I] developed the very first MIDI synthesizers, the Roland Jupiter-6 [and Sequential Prophet-600]. For the first ten years or so after MIDI was born, I didn’t say anything about Roland’s being the propounder of MIDI to anyone. I was strongly determined that we must make it the universal standard and have it last as long as possible. MIDI celebrates its 30th birthday this year and has become thoroughly entrenched in the music industry. But what happened behind the scenes is the story I’ve just told you.

Fig. 1. The 2013 NAMM show featured the same now-vintage synths that were first connected and layered at NAMM 1983 to demonstrate the potential of MIDI: the Sequential Circuits Prophet-600 (top) and Roland Jupiter-6 (bottom). What more can you tell us about working with Dave Smith on MIDI?

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I had a very good impression of him from the beginning because he was always very open. I remember seeing Dave’s company Sequential Circuits launch the Prophet-5 at the same NAMM show at which Roland exhibited the Jupiter-4. The Prophet was designed for playing rock music, as all of its knobs were on the top panel, whereas the Jupiter-4 was still designed for setting on top of an organ. That told me the standard in the synth industry was moving in another direction. But we were steps behind in that aspect, and the Prophet-5 opened our eyes, so we went back to the drawing board. The fruit of those labors was the SH-101. It was like a rebirth of Roland’s synth development, and became a big hit. In terms of the first MIDI experiment, we connected the Jupiter-6 and JX-3P to Sequential’s Prophet-600. I had such profound feelings, but none of us there had the slightest idea that it would still be a big deal in 30 years! [See Figure 1.]

When did you first realize that MIDI had become the universal standard?

Well, maybe when we received the Grammy award this year. It came when least expected. But I really want to express my gratitude to the National Academy of Recording Arts and Science for voting for MIDI. It is truly gratifying for Dave Smith and me to receive this wonderful prize while we’re still around.

Next: Dave Smith

MIDI's Founders Recall Its Beginnings Part 2: Dave Smith

Interview by Stephen Fortner.

Before you worked on MIDI, what led up to you designing your most iconic classic synth, the Prophet-5?

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It started with my purchase of a Minimoog in 1972. Synthesizers were a perfect combination of my technical and musical backgrounds. While my day job was working with microprocessors in Silicon Valley, I started making accessories for my Minimoog. In 1974, I started the company Sequential Circuits to sell them. First was an analog sequencer, then a digital sequencer, then a synth programmer with memory.

In 1977 I finally quit my job and started working on the Prophet-5 design. I’d discovered a new chipset that implemented the main synth blocks: VCO, filter, VCAs, and envelopes.I knew that it would be easy to combine this with a microprocessor to build a polyphonic and completely programmable synth. We started shipping [the Prophet] in early 1978, and instantly knew we had a great instrument and an industry game-changer.

What led you from the Prophet-5 to developing MIDI?

In the next few years after the Prophet-5 was released, other companies of course followed with similar designs. During this time, some of us also had an obvious thought: having a microprocessor in the instruments made it very easy for them to communicate digitally with one another. Roland had the DCB bus; we at Sequential had a four-pin serial interface that was ten times faster than MIDI. There were a couple others around, but of course the problem was that different companies’ products couldn’t work together; customers were forced to stay with a single manufacturer.

How did MIDI get designed between you and your Grammy co-winner, Mr. Kakehashi?

A few of us had the same obvious observation: the need for a standard. I decided to make it happen. The first step was a paper I delivered at the AES convention in October 1981, presenting what was called USI—Universal Synthesizer Interface. While it did define an actual interface, then main point I made was that USI was just a starting point; the important part was to get agreement in the industry.

For the next step, I set up a meeting at the January 1982 NAMM show, inviting all companies who made synths and keyboards. From what I remember, pretty much everyone came. My message was the same: Here’s USI, it’s a starting point, so who wants to get involved?

It was clear that many companies for many reasons did not want to join in an effort to make a standard. So, we had a second meeting in Roland’s booth at the same show, with representatives from Sequential, Roland, Korg, Yamaha, and Kawai. It was then that we all decided to work together in the much-needed spirit of compromise to develop the standard.

What happened next?

Over the next year we jointly worked on the specification. The actual implementation turned out closest to Roland’s interface, which was fine. Even though ours was much faster, we were most interested in getting agreement. There were a number of features we made sure were included, such as modes for multi-timbral operation, which we were already planning.

During a meeting at Sequential in 1982, Mr. Kakehashi suggested a new name for the interface: UMII (pronounced “you-me”) or Universal Musical Instrument Interface. While I liked widening the scope from synths to all [electronic] musical instruments, it didn’t have the right ring to me, so I suggested Musical Instrument Digital Interface—MIDI—which everyone seemed to like.

In December 1982, Sequential shipped the Prophet-600, the first MIDI instrument. In January 1983 was the famous connection of the Prophet-600 and Roland Jupiter-6 in the Sequential booth at the NAMM show. The Yamaha DX7 came out in the spring, soon after the MIDI 1.0 specification was released.

Fig. 2. Also at NAMM 2013, an ancient Commodore 64 sequences Animoog on on iPad, showing MIDI’s decades-spanning compatibility. How was MIDI received initially?

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I think the stories are well documented; there was a lot of confusion, “NIH” (not invented here) attitudes, and the like. But the musicians loved it, and there was enough critical mass from the five core companies that the others really had no choice but to join in.

We made MIDI free, simple to implement, and inexpensive, so it could be included in all products. It wasn’t designed to do everything, but by going this route it enjoyed 100 percent implementation from that point onward. If it was more complicated, it may not have turned out that way. I’m quite happy when a solution can cover 98 percent of possible uses!

What’s next for MIDI?

Three decades of MIDI going strong at version 1.0 makes a pretty strong statement! Everything made in those 30 years can be interconnected and it will just work. At NAMM 2013, the MIDI Manufacturers Association exhibited a Commodore 64 computer sequencing the Animoog soft synth on an iPad [see Figure 2 target="_blank"]. That just about says it all!

While there have been some proposed protocols that could be seen as “MIDI 2.0” solutions, none have caught on yet. Part of the problem is that most musicians are quite happy with MIDI’s current capabilities. Another problem is the increased amount of effort and cost to implement some of the new designs, and in some cases the proprietary aspects of certain designs. My guess is that if the right five or six companies once again decided to get together and develop a new, backward-compatible solution, it just might work—if, like we set out to do with MIDI—it’s free, simple to implement, and inexpensive.