You'd think you'd have heard of a guy who invented a language so elegant, so powerful, it's used by tens of millions of people around the world. But few have heard of Dave Smith. He invented MIDI, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface 30 years ago. That's the software that lets computers and synthesizers talk to each other, and it shapes our sound environment every day. Smith will receive the Technical Grammy Award this weekend.
George Hurd leads an up-and-coming electronic and acoustic ensemble in San Francisco. He recorded the sounds of brakes on a garbage truck and stored them on his computer. He then plays that brake sound using a piano keyboard connected to his computer, on a track recorded with his band. And it's a perfect way to demonstrate the power of MIDI.
Thirty years ago, Dave Smith and other music geeks were inventing the first digital synthesizers.
"And we realized that for this small industry at the time to move forward," Smith explains. "We needed a common way to for the instruments to interconnect."
So Smith -- who had his own company, Sequential Circuits -- developed a universal interface with a few other synthesizer manufacturers.
"It was kind of a call to arms," Smith says.
Smith tells me this story at his office in San Francisco's North Beach.
As he shows off one of his newer synthesizers, Smith recalls how he demonstrated MIDI for the first time at a music convention in 1983. He connected one of his synths to one made by Roland with a cable -- a MIDI connection -- and played them both from his own machine. For a historic moment, it lacked drama.
"There was a small crowd, Smith says."
Courtesy Dave Smith
Dave Smith (C) at NAMM in 1983, making the very first MIDI connection between a Sequential Circuits Prophet-600 synthesizer and a Roland Jupiter-6 synth. To Dave's right is Jim Mothersbaugh, who worked for Roland at the time. Jim's brother Mark co-founded the band Devo.
That's because few people understood what a big deal MIDI was. But it soon became the language with which all digital instruments communicated, and the way computers record and generate digital sound. Think of Do Re Mi and how that eight-note scale is everywhere. MIDI is just as universal.
"You hit a note, you hit middle-C, and it sends out the information, 'play Middle-C,'" Smith explains, "and then the other instruments will play Middle-C. Or from a computer to one keyboard, or a single computer to a number of keyboards, each one with its own part."
In an age when software and hardware change so fast, Composer George Hurd notes MIDI 1.0 is still the standard.
"Which is just a ridiculous idea," Hurd says. "The way technology moves forward that something can stay as it was when it was created so long ago, is a testament to how great an idea that it is."
Smith never made a penny off MIDI. It was the first open software. I asked him if he ever thought the Grammys would be honoring him for inventing it.
"No I never could have guessed that," he says. "It's kind of the consolation prize for not having any sort of royalty agreement for inventing MIDI."
Smith will get his Special Merit Technical Grammy, along with a Roland founder and keyboard engineer, this weekend.