MIDI Changed Everything

In 1981, Roland developed a standard for electronic musical instruments called Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI. This was a standard for unifying the signal that connected the keyboard and sound generator. By unifying all the different types of signals that manufactures had been using into the MIDI standard, we were able to give electronic musical instruments the ability to communicate with each other.”

This is a passage from An Age Without Samples: Originality and Creativity in the Digital World by Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland. In the book, he outlines how this marvel of modern technology came about.

No one attempted to create a unified standard for electronic musical instruments in 1981 so this was a situation where we had ‘no samples.”

By ‘no samples’ he means that it had not been done before so he couldn’t copy something that was already in existence. Today, we know that there are so many applications for USB ports. We can plug harddrives in to them, cameras, and even musical instruments. But well before this, MIDI was the only answer. And before that, nothing.

Roland wasn’t sure how to connect instruments to each other or computers. What connection would serve them best?

“In the end, the method that caught our attention was the five-pin Deutsches Institut fur Normung (DIN) jacks. DIN is a German industrial standard that corresponds to the JIS standard of Japan. The jacks were inexpensive, easy to connect, and very robust. Having five pins meant that we could use one for the ground, and use the remaining four to send four different types of signals in parallel. These specs were more than enough for MIDI. In MIDI, we use three of these pins—one for ground and another pair for sending signals—with the remaining two reserved for future expandability.”

They could have easily made this proprietary technology so only Roland instruments could use it. But they wanted to offer a solution for everyone and create a new standard.

One of the factors that accelerated the widespread adoption of the MIDI standard was that we provided it free. . . . I did not budge on my decision to keep it free because our intent was to establish this as a unified global standard.”

I used a sampling keyboard that was connected to an Atari computer via MIDI cables when I first got into rap music production. Now I use an AKAI that connects via USB and can work with several different DAW (Digital Audio Workstations). None of this would have been possible without MIDI.