I wanted to drop you a line regarding the
obsolescence of music synthesizers and the programs &
patches used to control them.
Electronic music technology seems to be about five
years behind the advances in personal computers. Older
equipment is usually kept up, rather than tossed when new
models come out of R&D. For example, I have a Roland
Juno-106 that is lusted after by techno musicians. It
offers a cassette-tape based patch storage system that
went out of style with the Commodore Vic-20.
Nonetheless, the scythe of obsolescence swings.
One technology that is definitely dead is Control-
Voltage (CV), an analogue interface for controlling
electronic musical instruments and connecting them with CV
based sequencers. Basically. these were very, very simple
analogue computers that stored a short pattern of notes
and durations and looped through them with some
programmable variations. The only people doing anything
with this technology are analogue enthusiasts, who have to
search like skip-tracers for replacement parts when their
ARP patch matrixes are a little hard to find these
days, as I have recently discovered while scanning the
Analogue Heaven web site. I can imagine that in a few years,
I might have to make calls to electronics warehouses in
Osaka to find replacement voice packs for my Roland.
The CV technology has been obsolesced by MIDI, a data
transfer protocol which was invented in 1982 and agreed
upon by an industry consortium. MIDI directly interfaced
keyboards with computers to create flexible composition
systems. Sequencer packages such as Opcode Vision have
given birth to the house, techno and ambient scenes, just
as QuarkXPress and PageMaker gave birth to desktop
The golden age of MIDI is now over. Extensions to
the original MIDI spec, such as MIDI GM and MIDI XG, offer
more standardization, but no increased functionality.
These extensions are driven by the PC multimedia and
gaming industries, not by musicians. The new extensions
offer a standard set of instruments and effects, so that
MIDI sequences using the MIDI GM instruments will sound
the same on different soundcards, synths and voice
modules. MIDI is mutating to fit a new niche within
The problem with MIDI is that its structure (the
structure of the protocol itself, its slow data rate and
method of encoding musical information) restricts
composers and musicians in unmusical ways. Engineering
decisions made in the early 1980s cast their shadow on all
synthesized music. This often shows up in the wooden,
poorly composed 4/4 techno songs that are stock in trade,
sounding as if the instruments tried to make the songs up
by themselves. Another MIDI restriction is in composing
microtonal music. Alternate musical scales are supported
by some MIDI musical instruments, but never were
implemented in the MIDI specifications. And, in this case,
"supported" is a term used most loosely.
Music synthesizers have only recently entered the
virtual world. As processing power continues to become
cheaper, synthesized virtual instruments based on physics-
based modeling are taking over. Physics-based synthesized
sounds were once possible only with mainframes, but now
they can be produced on a $2,000-5,000 top of the line
synth. Virtual instruments will soon be available at the
$800-1,000 entry level price point.
Musicians will want finer control of these virtual
instruments than the piano-roll, mod wheel world of MIDI
will allow. For example, they will want to do realistic
slides, will want to morph from one sound to another.
Perhaps they will want a slider that changes the material
of the virtual instrument, from wood to brass to quartz
crystal. They will not want a lot of 1982-era crap to get
in the way.
They will want higher data rates, shorter latency
times, more modulation sources, variables with 32 bit
accuracy, more networking flexibility and fewer glitches.
MIDI, along with all the sequences and synthesizer patches
written in MIDI, will become dead tech, and dead media, in
the not too distant future.
This brings up a related dead media issue: various
recording studio formats. Sony F1, a digital recording
standard that prints two digital audio channels to a VHS
tape, has already been obsolesced by DAT. These and other
digital formats, with their nonstandard error correction
schemes and peculiar ways of striping data onto a tape,
will undoubtedly be harder for future generations to
decode than any analog recording medium ever used. I can
picture sound technicians of the future trying to rebuild
a working VHS deck and digital decoder/encoder in order to
remaster, say, early Nirvana studio material recorded on
ADAT, so that GenXers like me can groove to it in our
And what has become of all the compositions written
for the pioneering electronic music systems of the 50's
and 60's? My guess is, that if they were not recorded to
reel to reel, they are gone for good. Recreating such a
performance from a composer's notes, patch diagrams and
paper tapes would be a nearly impossible task, even
assuming that the system they used to create it is extant
and in working order.
The ephemerality and fragility of the technology I
work with every day has now become frighteningly apparent
C. Adam O'Toole: firstname.lastname@example.org