How a Technical Standard Changed Pop Culture Forever

Nearly 40 years ago, digital electronics manufacturers pinpointed the need for a technical standard—and with the help of a wide variety of associations, created something that has quietly had a massive impact on popular culture. If your association is looking to make a big impact with a technical standard, the story of MIDI could prove quite informative.

I’m mostly on the digital side of things when it comes to Associations Now, but the magazine might house what’s not-so-secretly my favorite feature of the AN brand: The back page, called “Brought To You By.”

Over the years, the back page has featured the impact of associations on objects as diverse as condiments, golf clubs, high heels, and, more recently, motorcycles.

It’s a great feature to dig into as a collection, because it really shows the breadth and depth of associations’ impact on culture.

With that spirit in mind, I’d like to highlight the way that a “boring” technical standard changed popular culture forever. Like many successful standards, it came about because an industry saw a problem.

From Technical Papers to the Grammys

In the late 1970s, music was becoming increasingly electronic in nature, with synthesizers from brands such as Moog and Roland increasing the potential pool of sounds available to musicians. But there was a problem: The competing products on the market did not speak to one another. While there were varying attempts to synchronize instruments, no overarching standard existed.

You probably feel an impact to the music MIDI enables—even if the four letters don’t mean that much to you.

But the desire to fix that problem was high among industry players. Despite the clear challenge put in front of them, the problem was one that manufacturers were eager to solve, and they did so in a way that should sound very familiar to anyone who has ever worked at an association: Industry players forged the detail with lots of direct help from the association space.

A short timeline of how things played out:

Fall of 1981. Inspired by an idea suggested by Roland’s Ikutaro Kakehashi, engineers Dave Smith and Chet Wood circulate a paper at the Audio Engineering Society’s annual meeting that details a concept called the Universal Synthesizer Interface, which allowed electronic musical instruments to communicate with one another through the use of traditional phone jacks. Smith in particular found his earliest success due to his ties to the association sector; his company, Sequential Circuits, released its first devices at tradeshows in the years prior.

January 1982. The 1982 edition of the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Show brought more direct discussion about a potential standard for electronic instruments, including suggestions for ways to improve the standard, including faster circuitry. (The phone jacks were thrown out.)

December 1982. The first device to use the new standard, the Sequential Circuits Prophet 600, is released, with the Roland JP-6 synthesizer following soon behind.

January 1983. At the 1983 NAMM Show, the standard is officially demonstrated, in the form of a demo that showed the Prophet 600 and JP-6 interacting with one another. The standard’s name? The Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI.

August 1983. The International MIDI Association—made up of manufacturers such as Roland, Yamaha, Sequential Circuits, Korg, and Kawai—releases the earliest version of the standard, an example of which was uncovered last year in a minimal 14-page form. In the decades after, the specification would become much larger.

February 26, 1985. During the 27th Annual Grammy Awards, The Recording Academy has a number of major musical stars of the day—including Stevie Wonder, Thomas Dolby, Herbie Hancock, and Howard Jones—highlight the capabilities of the synthesizer (and the underlying MIDI standard) on stage as part of a medley. (The performance is very 1985.)

1985. With the standard formalized and uptake rising, the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA) is formed—and that association is still active today, with The MIDI Association, an offshoot specifically targeting musicians who use MIDI to produce their music, coming to being in 2016. (Above is a clip of the public television show Computer Chronicles, which highlighted some of the earliest MIDI devices in 1986.)

Keeping Things in Sequence

The formative work of MIDI came to life as a direct result of the work of associations that brought the various players together to highlight their hardware and discuss the broader issues at play.

And these days, as a result of this work, it’s likely the most important pop culture force that you’re completely unaware of. Nearly every song on the Billboard Hot 100—whether electronic, hip-hop, rock, pop, or even some acoustic music—likely has the power of MIDI baked in somewhere. The technology has found its way into products like ringtones, consumer tools like Apple’s GarageBand, and professional platforms like ProTools.

It’s easy to find MIDI in old tech, too. At a 30th-anniversary event, a Commodore 64 and a Moog-produced iPad app were shown successfully interacting with one another—something possible, despite the clear differences in technological capabilities, thanks to MIDI.

And the standard is still being improved: At this year’s edition of the Winter NAMM, the event where MIDI had its coming-out party 36 years ago, MMA and the Association of Music Electronics Industry announced that the details of MIDI 2.0 had been finalized and corporate partners were working on prototyping efforts.

“This major update of MIDI paves the way for a new generation of advanced interconnected MIDI devices, while still preserving interoperability with the millions of existing MIDI 1.0 devices,” the associations stated in a press release. “One of the core goals of the MIDI 2.0 initiative is to also enhance the MIDI 1.0 feature set whenever possible.”

Clearly, this is a technical standard, and if you don’t play music, you may not feel a connection to it. But you probably feel an impact to the music MIDI enables—even if the four letters don’t mean that much to you.

Its mere existence shows the power of collaboration—a power that has shown itself in the form of later technologies like USB, the Qi wireless charging standard, and the forthcoming 5G—and how, if you get the right people together in the same room, you can change the world.

If your association is working on a technical standard, aim big. You never know where it’ll lead you.

(Михаил Руденко/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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