Man of Vision
Dave Oppenheim of Opcode | Dave Oppenheim
Mike Collins chats to Dave Oppenheim, founder of and main programmer for Opcode Systems, the creators of Vision sequencer, the original MIDI File Format, and a range of primarily Macintosh music software and hardware.
Mike Collins talks with Dave Oppenheim of Opcode Systems.
At the recent MacWorld Expo in Boston, USA, I caught up with a very busy Dave Oppenheim, founder of and main programmer for Opcode Systems. Amongst other things Dave and his team are responsible for the Vision sequencer, the original MIDI File Format, and a range of primarily Macintosh music software and hardware. During a hurried lunch break I asked Dave how he got started.
"I started learning to programme computers in high school, at around 14 or 15 years of age. Later, I studied Electrical Engineering at Stanford, and I started learning more about hardware and software on postgraduate courses after I got my first degree. I had always been some kind of musician - I was playing piano at six years of age, and I played in rock bands at college - so I was always interested in the idea of using computers with music."
One of Dave's first music-related projects involved hooking an IMSAI personal computer up to a modular Moog synthesizer system. Another was to implement a language called 'Play' on the IMSAI, his first taste of sequencing. "This language was originally designed by Joel Chadabe. It didn't really record stuff, but you could type in note lists and play them back."
Between leaving Stanford University and starting Opcode, Dave held down a job at Zilog. He also designed a small hardware sequencer for a friend's Oberheim OBXa synthesizer so that he could record notes and play them back. "I was always on such a tight budget making these things," explained Dave, "that I was always fixing the cheap components I had to use, and they did break down frequently." After Zilog, he went to work for robot manufacturers Androbot until early 1984. "When Androbot folded I drove round the US and Canada for a few months. Then I turned 30, and decided that it was time to have my own company!"
So how did Dave begin programming MIDI applications on the Macintosh?
"I wanted to continue the hardware sequencer idea. The Mac had a high resolution screen, a 68000 processor, and it was an integrated system with its own serial and parallel ports. I got a MIDI retrofit for my OB8 synthesizer, and a 512K Mac, and bought Consulair C [one of the first sophisticated programming languages for the Mac]. Between November '84 and February '85 I had managed to write a basic sequencer package with a basic user interface for the Mac. I showed these to Joel West at the Computers And Music store near San Francisco. He had a really nice piano sound in his OB8 - so then I just knew I would have to write a librarian package for it.
"Because of the Mac learning curve [the time to learn how to programme the Mac's user interface, mostly), it took me much longer to write my first sequencer than my first editor/librarians. Since then it's been a gradual evolution, with everything building at a reasonable rate. I'm glad I chose the Mac. It's much better for novice users and musicians, and all the other computers are copying the Mac now anyway."
Opcode has added its own features to the standard Mac user interface, like the one that allows you to increment or decrement highlighted numbers within their fields by clicking on the mouse, or by holding the mouse button and rolling it in an upwards direction to increase and in the opposite direction to decrease the numbers in the field. "Some people may not like this feature," Dave announced, "but we believe that it is a very useful addition to the standard interface."
From November '84 until June '85, Opcode Systems was essentially a one man outfit, until someone joined Dave Oppenheim to work on the adverts and to prepare for the forthcoming summer NAMM show. Things changed dramatically soon after, as Dave explained: "In April 1985 there was a Macintosh show on campus at Stanford. David Zicarelli bought an interface from me, and gave me a prototype DX editor in June, which I took with me to the NAMM show. This helped to start the ball rolling. In 1986 I took on more programmers, and production and marketing people. We were very low-profile at first - we just put ads in magazines and waited for the phone to ring."
And ring it did! So much so that there was enough money around to support the venture from the outset and to allow Opcode Systems to flourish. The company is presently owned by Dave Oppenheim and Chris Hallaby, who joined Dave around the beginning of 1988 to handle the business side of things.
"I have known Chris for a long time now, and he was never far away while I was building the company up, so it seemed natural for him to join me when things got busy. We have developed the product line to include editor/librarians for most popular MIDI devices, MIDI sequencers, and MIDI interfaces for the Mac.
We now publish other people's software, like Music Mouse, and Cue - a film composer's utility program. And we are working on a notation program with Don Byrd and his team of programmers."
Dave revealed that "further integration" between programs is uppermost in Opcode's future plans." Now that Apple have released their MIDI Manager software, everything we come out with will be compatible with this. For instance, we used MIDI Manager to allow our Vision sequencer to work together on one Mac with Macromind Director [a multimedia animation program for the Mac which can send start and stop messages to MIDI sequencers to play music in sync with its visual sequences]. This was actually very slow, but I am sure that performance will improve in the near future.
"In future, our MIDI programs will direct MIDI in and out via the MIDI Manager routines, which will then communicate via the appropriate output port on the Mac, whether SCSI, serial, parallel, or whatever. For instance, our latest version of Vision here at the show works in this way with the MIDI Manager. All our MIDI programs will be able to send data in or out via the same port or, alternatively, have links with each other via the MIDI Manager's internal MIDI patchbay links, so that they communicate with each other."
As Dave's lunch break drew to a close, I asked him if Opcode's future plans include the Atari ST?
"Well, I realise that the Atari is more popular than the Mac in Europe, mainly because of its cheaper price. So we now intend to ship our new Emu Proteus Editor/Librarian for the Atari, as well as the Mac. And we will port as much stuff as we feel is appropriate to the Atari to satisfy the market demand over there in Europe."