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Dead medium: Fragile formats in synthetic music
From: (Adam O'Toole)
Source(s): personal experience

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

instruments malfunction.

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

to me.

C. Adam O'Toole: