Coming next week…MIDI at 30: A retrospective of the ‘Masters of MIDI’

As the BBC recently pointed out, this December marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Sequential Circuits’ Prophet 600 synthesizer, the first to feature MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) capability.

As an aspiring electronic musician who purchased an Ensoniq ESQ-1 synthesizer, an Ensoniq Mirage DSK-1 sampling keyboard, a Roland U-20 synthesizer, an Alesis HR-16 drum machine and a Kawai Q-80 sequencer (third one down the page at that link) by the time I turned 17 years old, MIDI was a very important part of my life at one point as demonstrated in the photo below.

NOT a Master of MIDI...Brian at his keyboard rig c. 1990
NOT a Master of MIDI…Brian at his keyboard rig c. 1990

So, each day next week, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of MIDI, I’m going to post a video demonstrating the early use of MIDI in the 1980s. For a preview, here is a personal example of my experience with MIDI…albeit a humorous, not-all-successful one.

Back in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I was in a techno-rap act called TMC+The New Generation. My friend Christian Beach and I were heavily into electronic music at the time and each of us had an array of synths, samplers and drum machines. The two of us had just started working together on electronic, “new age” (a popular term at the time) music around 1988 when Christian’s father introduced us to an Asbury Park rapper who went by TMC, who was looking for backing musicians and wanted to do something different. Although Christian and I weren’t really into rap/hip-hop, we accepted the challenge and—using the ESQ-1’s built-in sequencer—put together a few sequenced patterns adapted from popular rap hits at the time for an audition with TMC at an open mic night at the Green Parrot Rock Club that was once a very popular live music venue in Neptune, N.J. Well, even on that first night, MIDI betrayed us. We put the sequenced patterns together into three “songs” that we planned on performing that night. Well, I turned on the ESQ-1 and all but one of the patterns were somehow gone. It was like a partial reinitialization of the memory took place. So we were left with no other choice but to play the same 16-bar loop for about 10 minutes with TMC rapping to it all that time. Somehow, TMC still decided to continue working with us…with me and Christian, as well as some dancers who were TMC’s younger brothers and sisters, considered “The New Generation.”

Unfortunately, things never went smoothly for us. And the video below demonstrates this fact. Christian and I programmed the drum, bass, samples and other parts for “Don’t Die Poor” (see below) into a sequencer (Kawai Q-80) and played a number of parts live. Anyway, each of the sequenced parts were assigned to one of 16 available MIDI channels—and I would always try to keep all the instrument/channel relationships consistent throughout our songs. For instance, bass lines were usually put on channel 4, drums/percussion on 15 and 16…and so on. For this song, we also had this kind of percussive synth thing going on in the background. Something like that was usually on, let’s say, channel 10. Well, we arranged everything so Christian didn’t have to play anything for the final section of the song. This allowed him to load in the sampler setup for the following song, which included a saxophone part…that wound up being on the same channel as the percussive synth pattern. So once that was loaded in the sampler, the percussive synth part was being doubled by a very annoying saxophone part. Obviously, we should have planned our set list out better or reassigned the MIDI channels accordingly. But what did we know? We were just kids…with nowhere near the experience of the “Masters of MIDI” I’ll be featuring on the site next week.

“Don’t Die Poor” (live, 1990?) – TMC+The New Generation

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