In Appreciation of MIDI How a 30-year-old electronic communication remains on the bleeding edge of music technology

Perhaps even more essential to the development of the electronic music industry, Smith worked to get his new technology accepted as an industry-wide standard, thus allowing units from across the market to be usable together by any musician. He proposed establishing this standard at the 1981 meeting of the Audio Engineering Society, and over the next two years, representatives from American electronic instrument companies like Sequential Circuits, Oberheim Electronics, and Moog Music worked with their counterparts at Japanese firms such as Korg, Kawai, and Roland to make this communications format a convention on which they’d base future designs. This collaboration was historic in that it crossed both corporate and international lines to deliver a product measurably improved by standardization. Last year, Smith and Roland Corporation executive Ikutaro Kakehashi won a Technical Grammy Award for their contribution to the development of MIDI.

When the final format was announced and demonstrated for the public in 1983, it led to an explosion in sales and usage of synthesizers and other electronic musical equipment. For the first time, consumers could pick and choose their favorite gear from across various companies’ product lines, then link them together to quickly, easily, and reliably create rich and complicated compositions. Those compositions were stored on computers and shared either face-to-face or through electronic communication platforms that eventually evolved into the internet. The future of composition no longer rested on scribbling down dotted eighth notes in a graduate-level music theory class. Anyone electronically interested could simply plug in and jam away. The future seemed limitless.

At around the same time, a new kind of sonic equipment was making a giant splash in hip-hop and began slowly moving into other forms of music. Samplers, machines capable of capturing snippets of audio and rearranging them into custom sequences, allowed electronic musicians to pull drum beats and musical phrases from other records to form a new whole. A user could, for instance, sample a Led Zeppelin drum solo and repeat certain fills and phrases for rhythmic effect. Or they could simply extract each individual recorded drum hit and come up with a totally original beat using John Bonham’s thundering kit. Then the artist could take string swells and guitar chord hits from other records and layer them together, creating an interesting backing track for further manipulation or for a rap verse.

For a group seemingly obsessed with worrying about the sanctity of human music-making, this kind of technology has got to be artistically terrifying.

The act of sampling audio was nothing new in the world of professional recording studios and music production, but the “sampler” turned this technique into the basis for a single, enclosed, consumer-based, self-sufficient instrument. With time, these products became more compact, affordable, and useful for programming with the advent of recording quantization, pitch-shifting, intelligent chopping, mutatable effects, and, eventually, computer integration. Products like E-mu’s SP-1200 and Akai’s MPC series helped hip-hop artists create a sonic language that would eventually create a genre from scratch and change the course of the music industry.

Several concerns immediately popped up. Firstly, legal complications arose. Sampling musicians tended to rip their material from records that had copyrights, and those copyright infractions often translated into serious lawsuits for the artists and labels involved. One of the furthest-reaching, Campbell vs. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., flamed up when the rap group 2 Live Crew sampled parts of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” without permission. It was eventually pursued by the Supreme Court, who held that 2 Live Crew’s use of the audio material, in the context of the ultimate resulting song, constituted parody and fair use, protected under the First Amendment. Subsequent use of recorded material in the music industry has often skirted the line between actual parody and simple reappropriation. For the most part, labels tended to attempt to “clear” samples — gain permission for use from the copyright holder, often in exchange for a fee or residual payment — rather than release a potentially offending (and lawsuit-inducing) product. For their part, many electronic artists have taken legality of the equation by chopping and manipulating samples until they are nearly unrecognizable. Others, the likes of Danger Mouse and Girl Talk, attack the legal question head-on by mashing readily-recognizable audio pieces together to form pastiche somewhere between an art project and a DJ set.

The debate over the legitimacy of sampling in popular music has raged for decades as new technology and new genres digest the practice. It’s become something of a favorite topic for legal scholars and cultural theorists alike. Arts and Sciences professor Dr. Andrew Goodwin wrote, in his 1990 academic paper, “Sample and hold: pop music in the digital age of reproduction,” that sample-based music represented an “orgy of pastiche,” “stasis of theft,” and even “crisis of authorship.” He went on to claim sample-based music “place[s] authenticity and creativity in crisis, not just because of the issue of theft, but through the increasingly automated nature of their mechanisms.” In short, Goodwin claimed that electronic samplers and sequencers did all the important work for a user, leaving the final product without the human spark of groove or true creativity.

In his 2001 New York Times article, “Strike the Band: Pop Music Without Musicians,” Tony Scherman attacked electronic music production as representing the evaporation of soul: “Digital music making represents an epochal rift in music-making styles, a final break with the once common-sense notion of music as something created, in real time, by a skilled practitioner, whose contribution presupposes a long, intimate and tactile relationship with an instrument.”

Later, he focused his ire specifically on the flourishing sampling genre, patronizingly lamenting, “If rock was conventionally modernist, its creators mining their souls in search of inspiration, then hip-hop and dance music, with their negation of traditional skills and rummage sale, frankly appropriative aesthetic, are pure postmodernism.”

Author and professor Dr. Tara Rodgers took direct aim at both Scherman and Goodwin in her 2003 academic paper “On the process and aesthetics of sampling in electronic music production.”

[Referring to Scherman] The author expresses nostalgia for a pre-digital era when skilled musicians played acoustic instruments in recording sessions,” she noted, “implying that digital instruments do not demand a comparable level of skill. And like Goodwin, Scherman confers authenticity on a pre-digital era when ‘technology’ supposedly did not intervene in musical process, despite the fact that musical instruments and music-making have always evolved in tandem with technological developments. To move beyond these incorrect, uninformed assumptions, it is productive to explore how digital music tools have their own accompanying sets of gestures and skills that musicians are continually exploring to maximize sonic creativity and efficiency in performance.

Rodgers went on to explore how the unique tactile qualities and mechanical operations of various electronic samplers and synthesizers inform how musicians interact with them, inspiring specific manual techniques that are just as significant as the development of the proper way to hold a guitar neck or sound a violin bow. She used the example of internet-based discussion groups figuring out a gestural workaround to solve the Yamaha RM1X sequencer’s inability to simultaneously mute specific tracks and change song sections. Ultimately, Rodgers pointed out how the interconnectivity and workflow of digital samplers and sequencers inspired an artistic method and aesthetic that was completely unique, musical, and legitimate.

Perhaps the best ground-up defense for the artistic virtue of digital sampling was coined by Joseph Schloss in his book Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop. Addressing the concerns of commentators like Scherman and Goodwin, Schloss said: “[This line of reasoning] contains the hidden predicate that music is more valuable than forms of sonic expression that are not music. If one believes that only live instruments can create music and that music is good, then sample-based hip-hop is not good, by definition. […] Creating an analogous argument about painting: if you believe that musicians should make their own sounds, then hip-hop is not music, but by the same token, if you believe that artists should make their own paint, then painting is not art [emphasis mine]. The conclusion, in both cases, is based on a preexisting and arbitrary assumption.”

It’s worth noting that whole generations of electronic musicians have directly challenged the validity of this debate. Avant-garde godfathers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich made entire compositions from tape loops: not discretely chopping and resequencing bits of audio to add to an existing piece or create a pleasant groove, but quickly repeating with a brutal staccato intensity and violently affecting the audio to create challenging soundscapes. Christian Marclay made experimental music by scratching and attacking a row of simultaneously-engaged vinyl record players. His technical mannerisms while twisting these discs into mountains of cacophony went on to largely inspire the sample pairing and rhythmic scratches of turntablism in hip-hop. (By the way, in support of Rodgers’ defense of the unique gestures and skills of sample-based electronic music, I’d like to see Scherman try to deny the masterful, uniquely-learned technique required for performances such as these.)

Significantly, these artists made no bones about using another artist’s sounds. They weren’t content to discretely swipe a drum beat or keyboard chord progression: they wanted to manipulate the final mastered recordings themselves in new and interesting ways. Composer John Oswald coined the term “plunderphonics” in the mid-80s to describe his confrontational approach to intentional reappropriation: taking whole tracks, from pop music to television commercials and educational programs, and contorting them into wart-covered perversions of their former selves. His work inspired a whole sub-genre of nightmarish mashups of unknown thrift-store trash audio, overly-known hit tracks, and (appropriately enough for this piece) MIDI reproductions of outside material. Artists inspired by the plunderphonics ethos intentionally brutalized outside audio as a form of artistic experimentation and protest against copyright legalities.

These days, the mostly-impenetrable microgenre vaporware seems to be carrying the tenants of the mostly analog-based plunderphonics artists from the 80s and 90s into the new, disposably digital age. Artists such as INTERNET CLUB, Vektroid (Laserdisc Visions, Macintosh Plus, 情報デスクVIRTUAL, etc.), and Computer Dreams had ripped emotionally void muzak from the deepest depths of the internet and proceeded to violate it with reverb, grain delay, resampling with horrific cassette equipment, and (again, apropos to this piece) the looping and BPM-shifting capabilities of software packages like Ableton Live.

Whether this amounts to new aesthetic statements of fidelity in the world of digitally hertz-based audio, dramatic statements on loneliness and disposability in the information age, or simply hipster buffoonery, it’s nice to see a new batch of confrontational weirdoes twisting audio to malevolent ends.

Since, even when they ignored the confrontational weirdoes, commentators like Goodwin and Scherman wrung their hands when technology allowed artists to cut and paste bits of audio for compositional purposes, think about the conniption fits they’ll go into when they’ve had the chance to digest Ableton Live 9’s audio-to-MIDI feature. Do you like a certain guitar solo? Not only can you now chop up and re-sequence the recording, but you can also extract the actual notes played and use them to drive a synthesizer or some other MIDI instrument. Like a particular beat? Ableton Live 9 has an audio-to-MIDI setting that recognizes the frequencies of various pieces of the drumset, sequences the MIDI data appropriately, and allows a user to swap in their own drum sounds. For a group seemingly obsessed with worrying about the sanctity of human music-making, this kind of technology has got to be artistically terrifying.

I recently spoke with Dennis DeSantis, Ableton’s Head of Documentation, about these concerns. He quickly tried to dispel these worries and insisted that Ableton’s real goal is to simply allow users to create music in a way they’ve never been able to before.

“The ethical questions around sampling predate Ableton,” DeSantis points out, “and any tools for manipulating digital media simply make easier what people were already doing in the analog domain anyway. Ableton makes tools for music production, with an emphasis on freedom, flexibility, and ease-of-use.”

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