January 31, 2013

NAMM - 30th anniversary of MIDI

Great bit of history at The Verge:

How the 808 drum machine got its cymbal, and other tales from music's geeky underbelly
This year marks the 30th anniversary of MIDI, the language that electronic instruments use to talk to one another. It’s how drum machines stay in sync with arpeggiators, how a keyboard tells a synthesizer which notes to play, and how a DJ controller tells an MP3 how to behave. Making a keyboard without MIDI today would be kind of like making a car without air conditioning — something people didn’t know they needed until it existed.

Before there was MIDI, there was Don Lewis. Raised with a rich gospel tradition in Dayton, he brought his myriad musical talents to San Francisco in the ‘60s, where he was a staple in nightclubs. His one-man-band became known for its wild array of electronic instrumentation, which was still a novelty in those days — a small truckload of synthesizers and early rhythm boxes accompanied Don’s richly-vocoded tenor to make a sound no one had heard but everyone liked.

Don had learned the ins and outs of electronics during his time as an engineer in the Air Force and was constantly digging around in the circuitry of his machines, bringing new sonic capabilities to life with his soldering iron decades before circuit benders would popularize the concept of instrument hacking. Normally his audience was profoundly unaware of the trailblazing after-market innovations they were dancing to, but the crowd at the NAMM show in 1969 was a little different.

Don had been hired by the Hammond organ company to demo its products on the show floor. He was using an Ace Tone rhythm box (which was distributed by Hammond at the time) as his percussion section. “I had modified my Ace Tone to death, changed all the rhythms because none of them fit my style of playing. I also wired it through the expression pedal of the Hammond, so I could get [percussion] accents, which no one was doing then. After the show this man from Japan came up and the first thing out of his mouth was ‘that looks like my rhythm unit but it doesn’t sound like my rhythm unit! How did you do that?’” It was Ikutaro Kakehashi, the president of Ace Tone.

A fun story. Don's home page is here: Don Lewis Music

Posted by DaveH at January 31, 2013 12:38 PM
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