For some reason, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) seems to be getting more attention on its thirty-second birthday than it did on its thirtieth. I’ve read more misinformation than I thought possible until I realized I was reading things on the Internet. Did you know, according to RedShark, the Yamaha DX-7 was the first synthesizer to support MIDI? Strange. For those of us lucky enough to be standing in the Sequential booth at the Anaheim convention center to see it work for the very first time we saw a Sequential Prophet 600 and a Roland JP-6 play each other, and miscommunicate program changes by one number. That’s not what this is about, though. This is about celebrating more than MIDI. It’s about celebrating a little company on North First St. in San Jose, California that could see into the future.
On MIDI’s thirtieth birthday I sent Dave Smith a note telling him I’d just purchased a MIDI interface for my iPhone, and how cool was that? That same 5-pin DIN plug hadn’t changed. Of course, the 30-pin on my iPhone was doomed, but not MIDI. Dave reminded me that MIDI was still at rev 1 after all that time, and that hardware was more fun than software, cheers. And that is one of the legacies of Sequential. The resiliency of good design. When something works and people can use it; when it’s simple and elegant and deep enough to hang for a long time, particularly in the world of technology, it’s a good idea. Look at Dave Smith’s instruments now. They are sleeker and faster than the originals of 1977, and incredibly similar. Dave has always designed and built performance instruments, and thirty-two years ago MIDI was designed primarily so that physical musical instruments could discuss making music together. Yet MIDI is the defacto standard for hardware and human interfaces to discuss the making of music with pretty pictures of instruments captured under the glass of a computing device’s monitor. It doesn’t matter if it’s a USB cable or that thirty-two-year-old 5-pin DIN, the language spoken is MIDI.
In 1982 when I’d walk by and see Dave in that corner office with reams of green-bar paper and teletype pages covered in hex I had no idea. I don’t suspect that he did, either. Or he might not have given it away. That’s right, the MIDI protocol is free. A very Northern California concept. Hippie engineers making the world a better place for synthesizer players, free. Imagine. MIDI was conceived to foster a sense of modern musical community. That’s some pretty serious save-the-future tree hugger engineering for you right there.
Now for the other really important “seeing into the future” thing that rarely gets mentioned. Barb Fairhurst. What? A female vice president and business manager in 1977? In a couple of male dominated businesses? Not just technology and engineering, but the music business as well. Back in the old cigar smoke, big talk and “what can I do for you, little lady” times. Back when women were usually the vice presidents of the laundry room and the grocery store run, at Sequential we had a lady boss. Who gave this long haired kid from Oklahoma a shot at seeing the future, a coffee cup with my name on it, and made us sign things in a specific color of ink as a “standard.” Barb dealt with the business end of things, the banks, the vendors, the dealers. Us. She even handled the great “we’re not galley slaves” revolt in manufacturing when it was decided they should use anti-static wristbands that were attached to their workbenches. Walk from the “carpet” to the “tile” at Sequential back then and you got an earful from someone about indentured servitude until Barb calmed the waters.
Sequential was the heart of a romantic music-meets-technology ideal in a pragmatic world, and, as a result, is no longer with us in that little building on North First Street, but it is still with those who make modern music every day. I would like to suggest that instead of just wishing MIDI a happy thirty-second birthday we also celebrate the programmable polyphonic performance synthesizer, vector synthesis, multi-timbral workstations, the insight and wisdom of female executives and the spirit of a global musical community that rides for free on the three hot wires of that 5-pin DIN plug. That’s the real reason to be nostalgic and celebrate Dave, Barb and Sequential. To celebrate the little company so small and long ago that showed us the future.