The PROFESSIONAL MIDI MACHINE
And How It Grew
by Jim Pierson-Perry
START Contributing Editor
In 1984, Jack Tramiel and associates formed Tramiel Technology, ltd. to build and market an advanced home computer--the ST. Among their plans for the new machine was that it support the budding MIDI technology. Little could they have realized then just how important that feature would become. From little seeds do niche markets grow!
The ST and MIDI partnership has been one success story after another. Capitalizing on the computer wave sweeping the music industry, the ST has quickly risen to a leadership role for musical applications. Along the way, MIDI acceptance and uses have grown far beyond the original scope--and the ST has been there every step of the way.
MIDI was a child of necessity. It was conceived initially as a way to cope with the explosion of new electronic instruments in the late 1970s, as synthesizers became a major part of the music scene. One problem was that a single synth by itself sounded weak compared to acoustic instruments. A way around that was to play several synths together and get a fuller "layered" sound. Since most musicians have only two hands apiece, this approach was of limited use for live performances. Even with a tape deck in the studio, it was hard to play multiple keyboard tracks in perfect synchronization. Keyboard players needed a way to connect multiple synths as slaves to play under the control of a single master keyboard.
Some manufacturers began to build computer interfaces into their synths, but each, unfortunately had his own interface scheme. As long as you used all Oberheim equipment, for example, you were fine. But the player who wanted to link gear from different sources together? Forget it.
In 1981 Japanese and American synthesizer manufacturers began discussing ways to develop a single standard for communicating musical performance data between instruments, regardless of company brand. This standard would describe both the interface hardware and the communications software to drive it. By June of 1982, enough work had been done on the standard so that some companies began to build new synthesizers incorporating it. During this time, the standard was officially named as the Musical Instrument Digital Interface standard: MIDI.
The first public display of MIDI came at the National Association of Music Manufacturers meeting in January, 1983. With baited breath and crossed fingers, a Sequential Circuits Prophet 600 was connected with a Roland JP-6--and it worked the first time! It was finally possible to play a single keyboard and have the other track it perfectly.
In the first generation of MIDI synthesizers, some differences in interpretation of the standard arose that had to be resolved. Watchdog organizations were formed to control and nurture MIDI: the Japanese MIDI Standard Committee (JMSC) and the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA). A user group, the International MIDI Association (IMA), took over distributing the standard and educating musicians, retailers and developers on using it. MIDI standard specification 1.0 was officially released in October 1983 by the JMSC and MMA, then published in English with a detailed description by the IMA in September 1985.
From the start, MIDI was anticipated to be a dynamic standard that would grow with need. The first major amendment came in 1986 with a standard for handling sampler data dumps. A second addition came in 1987 when the MIDI Time Code (MTC) was accepted. MTC provides a connection between MIDI and SMPTE, an absolute timing reference standard used throughout the professional audio and video world.
The most recent change has been acceptance of a MIDI data file standard by the MMA. Discussions on a universal file standard had been ongoing since sequencer programs first emerged in 1984. Anticipating its acceptance, several companies have already released programs that can read and save files in this format. Because of the continuing changes to the original document, the IMA has just completed and released version 4.0 a total rewrite of the MIDI detailed specification.
The Atari Angle: Pre-ST
Atari was a force in the MIDI market even before the ST was designed. In April 1983 a small Los Angeles company named Hybrid Arts was formed that set out to bring MIDI to the Atari 8-bit computer line. Founder Bob Moore stated that they chose the Atari because it was the sturdiest of the lightweight personal computers and stood the best chance of surviving a professional road tour. Any questions about basing their work on a "game machine" were quickly quashed when Hybrid Arts demonstrated the very first MIDI sequencer program at the January 1984 NAMM show.
This led to the MIDItrack II sequencer program for 48K Atari computers in mid-1984, followed by the even more powerful MIDItrack III for the 130XE in 1985. Both were extremely well received. A series of patch editors, librarians and a sample editor for the Mirage filled out the product line, which continues to do well today.
A MIDI Computer
Computer support for MIDI was just starting in 1984. Although designed for communication between synthesizers, software developers quickly realized that MIDI could easily be extended to the computer front. A report on a MIDI software conference in 1984 carried the understatement that "everyone agreed MIDI could quite possibly become the focus of a revolution in the music industry." Quite true, but the revolution spilled over into the computer market as well. Once users discovered how computers could aid their musical pursuits, new applications appeared like wildfire. By the end of 1984 there were about 40 programs available for all makes of personal computers. This grew to greater than 165 programs by mid-1986 and shows no sign of tapering off even today.
Musicians in early 1985 had three choices for a computer. If you had a lot of money, you bought a Macintosh or an IBM PC; if not, you bought a Commodore 64. Suddenly that summer, a brand-new option appeared: the Atari 520 ST. This was the first personal computer with MIDI as an integrated part of its hardware and operating system design--and the raw computing muscle to back it up.
From the very beginning, the ST was appealing to musicians. Other computers required an external MIDI interface and there was no standardization among them. Software for a particular computer would also require a particular interface; pick the wrong one and you were locked out of other programs (a situation persisting today, particularly for the PC). With its built-in MIDI ports, the ST never had this problem.
The ST had its initial big break in Europe. As it competed easily with the Mac and PC on features, its significantly lower price led to quick acceptance. In the music market the ST took a commanding position that has never faltered. A report from the 1988 European music trade show concluded that the industry " . .is now totally dominated by the Atari ST." In the U.S., a poll taken by Keyboard Magazine showed the ST to be the first choice for a new computer purchase.
The ST's combined power and low price also made it the first personal computer to be used as a basis for a music equipment component. Hybrid Arts, in collaboration with Nilford Labs, showed the first of these in 1986 with ADAP, a 16-bit stereo sampler built around a dedicated ST. Another use for the ST has been as the controller for automated mixing consoles.
The Early Days
The release of the ST could not have been timed better for the MIDI market. While musicians were discovering the computer, instrument manufacturers were just starting to learn new ways to use MIDI. MIDI was settling down and ambiguities were being ironed out while the JMSC and MMA fought the language barrier. The first software programs were aimed at duplicating common tasks done by hand or studio equipment. These were primarily sequencer and patch editor/librarian programs.
A major advantage of sequencer software over tape recorders was that music could be captured and edited without losing fidelity. As the program was just recording the MIDI commands then literally replaying the instruments, you could play with the music to your heart's content before actually committing to tape. This also encouraged the spread of home studios. Musicians could do the basic recording at home, then bring their disks into the studio for the final polish and take. This saved a Iot of money for the artists and made it easy to experiment and try new ideas. Also, anyone who had ever created sounds directly through a synthesizer front panel quickly appreciated the speed and efficiency of using the computer as a patch editor.
Predictably, the first MIDI program for the ST was released by Hybrid Arts. DX-Droid, a DX7 patch editor/librarian, came out in 1986 and introduced a new concept--applying artificial intelligence to create new patches. Following close behind was MIDI Magic, a program that turned the ST into a MIDI player piano. Supporting it was a library of piano rolls (including ones originally cut by Scott Joplin, Liberace and George Gershwin) converted into MIDI data disks. Tom Jeffries, MIDI Magic's author, also wrote the first MIDI articles published in Antic and START magazines.
Another early ST convert was Emile Tobenfeld, better known as Dr. T, who has become one of the the major forces in the MIDI software arena. Previously known for his Commodore 64 programs, he foresaw the ST becoming the preferred personal computer for music applications. His first releases for the ST were a patch editor for the CZ-101 family and the Keyboard Construction Set (KCS), a professional-level sequencer ported and substantially upgraded from the Commodore 64.
Other MIDI software houses joining the ST in 1986 were Sonus, Steinberg and Electronic Music Publishing House. A surprise hit came from Activision, better known as a game house, when they brought out Music Studio. This was a player program that let you type in music, then play it back through the internal speaker or via MIDI. It caught on quickly and soon BBS's were filled with Music Studio data files.
A popular feature of Music Studio was its ability to change the sounds of the internal speaker voices, very much like using a software synthesizer. This idea was taken further by Lee Actor and Gary Levenburg with "Hot Sounds: Noise Doodling on your ST" in the Winter 1986 START that led to the utility program G.I.S.T. G.I.S.T. uses a software synthesizer metaphor to create new sounds for the internal speaker voices that can be played via MIDI. The sounds can be saved and used with other programs such as GFA BASIC, Personal Pascal and even the sequencer program, MIDI Recording Studio.
Having proven its utility for control of musical instruments, MIDI manufacturers next turned their sights to control devices such as effects boxes and mixing consoles. One of the first was the PCM-70 by Lexicon, an all-purpose effects box (reverb, echo, etc) that could be controlled in real-time via MIDI. The PCM-70 today remains a choice piece of processing gear and even has its own patch editor program. Once the gate opened, a number of MIDI-equipped effects boxes followed as well as digital equalizers and mixers. "Incest" was fair game as new devices appeared that translated (mapped) MIDI commands from one form to another (e.g., mod wheel to pitch bend).
Drums were popular targets for MIDI control. No longer did a drummer have to be buried behind a drum kit. With a sensing pad to trigger hits and drum sounds coming from a sampler or synth, the drummer was free to go out in front with the rest of the band. Mick Fleetwood revealed one of the wilder cases of this in a recent START interview (Summer 1988) in describing a drum controller he built into a cod-piece! Thanks to MIDI we can now now hear the sound of one hand clapping.
In 1987 MIDI software was coming fast and furious, particularly for the ST, which by then was asserting itself as the musicians's computer. Professional-level sequencers were available from Dr. T, Hybrid Arts, Sonus, Steinberg and CLab. Passport, one of the original MIDI software developers, became a new player for the ST by porting their Master Tracks sequencer from the Mac (reviewed in the Spring 1988 issue of START). This was significant, since just one year before they had stated that " . .as Atari's survival is questionable we are not investing in software for it." Apparently, the enthusiastic acceptance of the ST in music circles did not escape them. Currently there are more professional level sequencers for the ST than for either the Mac or the PC- there's nothing like freedom of choice.
While it seemed that new patch editors were arriving each week for every synthesizer in existence, the new center of attention in 1987 became sample editing. Samplers were last year's darlings. Unlike synthesizers, however, getting quality sounds and effects was difficult and subject to outside interferences. Recording a sample was only half the battle--musicians also needed to be able to trim out noise, set loop points, do digital processing (volume and equalization) as well as to do special tucks like playing a sample backwards, cut/paste, merging multiple samples, etc. These were clearly jobs for software.
Sample editing software is more sophisticated than a standard patch editor or librarian. It requires substantially more graphic-oriented programming and editing tools. Each sampler had its own way of assigning which samples would map to particular MIDI notes, what MIDI commands would be recognized and the sample data dump format. For the ST, sample editors came from Steinberg, Drumware, Sonus and Compu-Mates. More recently, Sound Designer has been ported from the Mac by Digidesign. This is the state-of-the-art sample editor for any computer and an excellent addition to the ST lineup.
Softsynth is another ST conversion from Digidesign and represents a new trend in sample software: creating a sound from first principles. The program uses additive and FM synthesis to build up a sound from a series of individually tailored harmonics. Another new release, Sample Maker from Dr. T, continues the trend and incorporates a host of different algorithms for sample synthesis. Digidesign is also notable as the US distributor of ST software from C-Lab of Germany. One of their recent imports, C-Lab Creator, is a current favorite for the "king of the sequencers" title.
A Holy Grail for music software has been to play a song into the computer and have it produce a sheet music transcription. Transcription is a very complex task, much more an art form than a textbook procedure and the software for it is just now coming out with acceptable quality. Early programs simply had you type in the music and use graphical editing tools to place the notes, ornaments, and so forth on the score. While easier than doing it by hand, this approach fell short of the ideal.
Several ST software developers now offer transcription programs designed to work with their associated sequencer programs. Among these are The Copyist by Dr. T, EZ-Score by Hybrid Arts, Masterscore by Steinberg, Super Score by Sonus and The Notator by C-Lab. A bonus is that many of them can recognize music files from other sequencers through implementation of the MIDI file standard.
MIDI is now five years old and has passed well beyond the original expectations of its creators. Almost every piece of electronic musical equipment has fallen under its influence from synthesizers to reverb units to light controllers. Even non-keyboard instruments have benefitted--we now have "MlDified" drums, wind instruments and guitars. One of the more spectacular recent products is the Yamaha DMP7 digital mixer. You can send MIDI messages to it and watch the faders move automatically in response.
MIDI has also spread beyond the realm of music. One of the best examples is the multi-player arcade game MIDI Maze from Hybrid Arts (reviewed in the October 1988 START). Up to 16 players can be connected via the ST MIDI ports and attempt mutual annihilation in real-time. Similar software for the Mac and PC has yet to appear. An other idea now fermenting in designers' minds is to use the ST MIDI ports as the basis for a local area network. More uses are sure to follow.
The growth of MIDI software applications has even surpassed that of MIDI hardware applications. Today's programs far surpass the simple sequencers and patch editors of just a couple years ago and let us redefine what we call music and how we make it. One of the current hot areas is the explosion of self- or guided-composing programs for the ST. These work with music fragments you supply or rules you define for generating notes; the programs produce music of startling complexity and interest. Some can interact with you in real-time while you play. These include M and MIDI Draw by Intelligent Music, Tunesmith and Fingers by Dr. T, Ludwig by Hybrid Arts and Mouseterpiece by MIDImouse.
Another leading-edge topic is multitasking. Dr. T was the first here with his Multi-Program Environment, which lets you run several patch editor, scoring or composing programs from within his KCS sequencer. Hybrid Arts followed suit with their Hybriswitch which runs under GEM and can juggle among up to 10 programs (memory permitting)
Back in 1986, there were seven MIDI programs available for the ST At last count there were more than 170 programs released by more than 40 developers. These cover the gamut from simple home jukeboxes to professional-level composing and scoring to film. The ST has proven itself more than capable as the preferred platform for MIDI applications. I can't wait to see what comes of their next five years together!
Jim Pierson-Perry is a research chemist and semi-professional musician. He lives in Elkton, Maryland.
EZ-Track Plus, $65; EZ-Score Plus, $149.95; Hybriswitch, $29; Ludwig, $149.95; MIDI Maze, $39; ADAP I, $1,995; ADAP II, base price $3,495; with the AES EVU digital bus, add $300; with SMPTE-Mate option, add $250; MIDItrack II, $174 with interface; MIDItrack III, $189 with interface, DX-Android, $199.95. Hybrid Arts, 11920 W Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90064, (213) 826-3777.
Keyboard Controlled Sequencer (contains the Multi-Program Environment), $249; Fingers, $79; Tunesmith, $149; DX Heaven, $129; The Copyist Level I, $99; Level II, $249; Level III, $399; Matrix 6 Tricks, $129; Sample Maker, $299. Dr. T's Music Software 220 Boylston Street, Suite 306, Chestnut Hill, MA 02167, (617) 244-6954.
Super Score, $299. Sonus Software, 21430 Strathern Street, Suite H, Canoga Park, CA 91304, (818) 702-0992.
Masterscore, $350; Pro 24 III, $295; Beam Team Transform X-Note and X-Track, prices not available; Timelock interface, $375. Steinberg Jones. 17700 Raymer Street, Suite 1001, Northridge, CA 91325, (818) 993-4091.
MIDIplay, $49.95. Electronic Music Publishing House, Inc., 2210 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 448, Santa Monica, CA 90403, (213) 455-2025.
Sound Designer, $349; Softsynth, $295; C-Lab Creator, $349; The Notator, $595. Digidesign, 1360 Willow Road, Suite 101, Menlo Park, CA 94025, (415) 327-8811.
Genwave/12, $299, Soundfiler S900, $299; Soundfiler X7000/S700, $249; Soundfiler S612, $199; K1 Editor/ Librarian, $119. Drumware, 12077 Wilshire Blvd., #515, Los Angeles, CA 90025, (213) 478-3956.
K3PO+ Synth-droid, $99.95; Casio Synth-droid, $74.95; DW8000 Synth-droid, Final Track, $79.95; DSS-1 Synthdroid, $129.95. Compu-Mates, 8621 Wilshire Blvd., #177, Beverly Hills, CA 90211, (213) 271-7410.
Music Studio, $49.95. Activision, a division of Mediagenic, 388 Bohannan Drive, Menlo Park, CA 94025, (415) 329-0500.
G.I.S.T., $34.95. The Catalog, 544 Second Street, San Francisco, CA 94107, (800) 234-7001.
Master Tracks Pro ST 2.1, $349.95. Passport Designs, 625 Miramonte Street, Half Moon Bay, CA 94019, (415) 726-0280.
M, $200; MIDI Draw, $95. Intelligent Music, PO. Box 8748, Albany, NY 12208, (518) 4344110.
Sonicflight patch editor/librarians for the Ensoniq ESQ-1/M/SQ-80 and Roland D-10/110, $99.95 each; Mouseterpiece, $229.95. MIDImouse Music, PO. Box 877, Welches, OR 97067, (503) 622-4034.
MIDIsoft Studio Advanced Edition, $149. MIDIsoft Corporation, PO. Box 1000, Bellevue, WA 98009, (206) 827-0750.