Blog:Lets Talk About SysEX Baby

Blogger Lagrange Audio explains      10/02/14

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Lagrange Audio (aka Jason Durbin) writes: 1983 probably rates as one of the most significant years in all of music technology history. It heralded the introduction of MIDI or Musical Instrument Digital Interface. This protocol was originally promoted by Dave Smith (with some inspiration from Tom Oberhiem) who recognised that as electronic musical instruments began to move into the digital realm it opened the door to solve one of the enduring challenges of the day. This was entirely to do with the fact that although instruments could be connected together in a very limited performance fashion these analog connections made cross-platform and cross-manufacturer interactions extremely difficult and unreliable, if not commercially impossible.

Dave Smith and Ikutaro Kakehashi from Roland demonstrated the way forward at the Winter NAMM show in 1983 using a Prophet-600 and Roland JP-6 and the rest, as they say, is history. While this demonstration only extended to essentially one machine being 'played' or triggered by the other the impact of what was introduced cannot be overstated.

Personally I rate MIDI as the most significant development in music technology after digital audio. Both gentlemen would be awarded a Technical Grammy in 2012 in recognition of their efforts. This article is deliberately not highly technical so for the down and dirty specification I recommend you go to the Midi Manufacturers Association (MMA) who control the entire MIDI spec at if you want to find out more.

The premise of MIDI initially was very simple. In terms of fundamental principles the scenarios being driven were these:

1) A keyboard from one manufacturer should be able to play, or trigger notes on a keyboard from another manufacturer, including basic performance controls;

2) By definition a sequencer should be able to trigger a series of notes on another sound source; and

3) Any tempo driven machine should be able to synchronise the clock, or be synchronised by the clock of another machine, including transport control.

The common element of course is that the principles above promote 'manufacturer independence'. This meant that while a much expanded range of performance control information could be exchanged between devices such as keyboards, sequencers, drum machines and later computers it did not immediately address individual manufacturers that might want to exchange specific information between their own machines. In particular when you consider the challenges associated with getting a bunch of highly competitive manufacturers to even consider adopting a standard the last thing they would entertain were restrictions on their own innovation.

From this environment SysEx or System Exclusive, an extension to the MIDI specification, came into being. It could be argued that SysEx is the one element of the overall spec that has contributed to the ongoing longevity of MIDI because of the flexibility and possibilities it offered. Chief amongst these was the fundamental way that patches on a synthesizer for example could be managed as a library and edited externally. To really understand the significance of this it's worth noting two restrictions that were quickly beginning to emerge.


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