One of America’s leading session players takes a breather between TOA equipment demonstrations, and takes Tim Goodyer into his confidence over MIDI and a few of the behind-the-scenes goings-on in its administration.
In which Steve Cunningham, an American session keyboardsman with more than a passing interest in product development, discusses the future of a subject close to UK hearts: MIDI.
A Birmingham hotel, plush enough to boast an upright piano in the Gents, recently played host to a promotional clinic held by American manufacturers TOA to publicise their amplification and electronic products. Not an earth-shattering event in itself, I admit, even though the equipment on display was pretty impressive.
But the demonstration had been designed primarily with the keyboard player in mind, and the musical honours left to American sessionist Steve Cunningham. Here was a man with considerable Stateside recording experience, more than a passing familiarity with MIDI and its associated problems, and blessed with a most un-American modesty. His past recording associations include the likes of Stevie Wonder and Toto — though Cunningham dismisses those associations as coming about primarily through opportunism.
'I came into the good work through the back door', he explains. 'The guy I worked for became the US distributor for PPG, so whenever we sold a system I had to go out and demonstrate it. That was how I got to work with Stevie Wonder, Steve Lukather of Toto, Robbie Buchanan (Laura Brannigan's producer) and a few others.'
Cunningham still likes to keep the session work coming through and, surprisingly enough, doesn't believe the secret of being in demand necessarily lies with up-to-the-minute sounds and state-of-the-art technology. It's an attitude that's borne out by the list of favoured equipment he's only too eager to reel off.
'There's the Synergy GDS, a Wave 2.2, an Akai S612 sampler, and the old Prophet 5. Apart from that I have a LinnDrum and a bizarre collection of old synths: I still have an ARP 2600, two MiniMoogs, two Oberheim Xpander modules and two analogue Oberheim mini-sequencers, remember those? Now that's hip!'
But what use can a man with access to today's hi-tech wizardry find for yesterday's heroes?
'Most of the work I do in the States now I do with the GDS, which of course is a dead machine. I'm a big GDS fan — it's a wonderful box. But part of that allows me to have an edge. I can still walk into a studio and do things that the guy with the TX rack can't do. To make money you first of all have to have something to say — and you have to find a way of saying it that's different from all the other guys out there — then you have to be able to produce something that's unique.'
Now, not all this equipment finds its way around the world to help promote TOA, but there's an impressive array of gear that does.
On the UK tour, Cunningham used a system that dropped him firmly into the MIDI compatibility mire. There's a DX7, the Wave 2.2, a JX8P, a Mirage, a Korg EX800, a CZ101 (put through a Rockman for trendy Jan Hammer guitar patches) and a CZ1000, plus two Drumulators — one of which has an alternative set of Latin chips, while the other has triggers for an SDS9 — and a DMX which provides the master clock. And Cunningham is one of a growing number of US players to make use of an Apple Macintosh-based software package for all his sequencing tasks.
'This setup is a typical example of the kind of compatibility problems you can encounter', says Cunningham. 'For example, there are a lot of people with clock-based instruments that now find they need to use the MIDI sync — and they're going to have to buy a box to do that for them.'
"I don't see MIDI being superceded in the near future; manufacturers have spent a lot of money to get it where it is today."
The TOA link was made a couple of years ago, and involved Cunningham moving his base of operations from LA to San Francisco. Although this meant being further from the heart of the musical action — an experience Cunningham likens to leaving London for Birmingham — it brought with it considerable contact with the behind-the-scenes world of MIDI.
'I've seen a lot of what really goes on regarding MIDI compatibility and implementation between the various manufacturers. The average individual has a tendency to think that if he buys two MIDI synthesisers, he's going to be able to hook them up together and do most anything he wants to with them. The fact of the matter is that it's not always the case.'
Few musicians would beg to differ with that. Equally universal is the subject of money. For as Cunningham reveals, MIDI isn't the purely musical world we might like to believe it to be; commercial considerations have also had an impact on the system's development.
'From the manufacturers' point of view MIDI involves an incredible amount of time and money in R&D and writing software. It's very difficult, especially for the smaller manufacturers, to get together on some of the basic issues, simply because of the money factor.
'What's happened in the US is that the manufacturers have taken their cue from the Japanese, who've got their MIDI situation together in spite of the fact that not all of their instruments will work together. Their JMSC (Japan MIDI Standards Committee) has fairly detailed and comprehensive guidelines for manufacturers as to how various system functions should be implemented, and they have testing procedures to ensure that they work correctly. The American MMA (MIDI Manufacturers' Association) has been taking its cue from the Japanese because their system works.
'It also has something to do with the fact that the Japanese have so much weight to throw around, though. I think at the last count there were 110,000 DX7s out there — that's some serious numbers! You're not going to buck those guys. And it leaves some of the smaller companies in a bad way, manufacturers like Octave Plateau, who're still alive and kicking, thank you. They came out with MIDI on a canon connector on the Voyetra 8. At one of the first MMA meetings they said: "This five-pin DIN is a cheap connector; what the Hell are we doing putting this 39-cent connector on a $6000 synthesiser?" Eventually they were overruled, but that's typical of what happens.
'Up until the last MMA meeting the software companies had been very quiet. At one point last year, not only was there a great deal of paranoia between the individual companies about getting together and sharing the MIDI implementation, which is equivalent to giving out trade secrets, but there was almost open hostility between the hardware manufacturers and some of the software people. A number of people at the software end were making noises about MIDI being too slow and not being adequate for the things that would need to be done in the second half of the 80s. They were talking about MIDI 2, and the last rumour I heard at Digicon in August was that Yamaha were supposedly preparing a 'SuperMIDI' standard that was going to utilise the two unused pins on the five-pin DIN jack, but not even be compatible with the current standard! That has pretty much turned out to be an ugly rumour, but there are still an incredible number of misconceptions concerning the speed of MIDI.'
Whilst it remains within the realms of daydreams for some even to own enough equipment to run into cumulative MIDI delays and their ilk, there are artists having problems with the limitations placed upon them by MIDI. But Cunningham is none too impressed by their arguments.
"Most of the work I do in the US now I do with the GDS. It's a dead machine, but it's still a wonderful box."
'I heard Michael Boddicker get up at Digicon in front of 300 electronic music academic types, and talk about a SuperMIDI spec. Granted, individuals in his capacity are very demanding of the MIDI standard; they can hear delays of 2mS, and for them it's a big deal. But it was pointed out that the Oberheim OB8 takes 8-15mS to scan its own keyboard internally — which has nothing to do with MIDI — so to pin those sorts of problems onto MIDI is misleading.'
Which brings us back to the original question: is MIDI fast enough, or is it just a matter of time before E&MM's free ads pages are filled with out-of-date synths fitted with the current 1.0 standard?
'I think MIDI really is fast enough as it stands. It's only in about the last year that MIDI has been implemented on ROM as a real and active part of the operating system within the synthesiser, rather than as a bunch of subroutines that were tacked on later which caused the processor to stop what it was doing performance-wise and go out of its way to listen to something or send something. It's only now that MIDI is really being integrated into the operating system so that the whole thing flows smoothly; and it's only as that continues, and the processors get faster and the code gets tighter, that I think we'll find that it's fast enough for 95% of what needs to be done musically. There'll always be the Michael Boddickers of this world that have to play it manually because they can't deal with the delays. But that's a special case.'
Realistically, MIDI as it currently exists must have a limited useful lifespan. How long does Cunningham see it surviving, and what does he see as the next step along the road we call innovation?
'I don't see MIDI being superceded in the near future. The manufacturers have spent a lot of money to get it where it is today; to ask them to turn around and invest more hundreds of thousands of dollars to come up with a MIDI 2 spec is unreasonable because, if they had to do that, the costs would be passed on to the end user, and in the marketplace that's death. Just imagine it. Suddenly the Mirage isn't a bargain any more because the company has had to spend another two million bucks in R&D and the price goes up...
'Maybe in five years we may see the MIDI 2.0 spec, or 16-bit MIDI. It's going to be a while both in terms of money and compatibility. Manufacturers aren't just out to make a fast buck — they want their customers to be happy with them. That's a normal, rational part of business. It's going to be a son of a bitch for them to design a better, faster system that is compatible with the existing one. Just look at personal computers: the Mac is a fabulous machine, but it's compatible with nothing. That's a problem.'
But the future holds more in the way of encouraging things than problems. What's the next stop on the MIDI Magical Mystery Tour?
'At TOA we're working on a MIDI mixing console. We know we're not the only ones, but we are trying to do it within a reasonable price range for the average guy. It's all uncharted water as yet — the MMA hasn't dealt with any equipment other than synths. So there are a whole load of questions that need to be answered. How do you make a mixer compatible with a DX7? What do you make compatible with the DX7?'
Answers on a postcard to...
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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