The Early Days of Software Sequencers

April 22, 2011 · Posted in Uncategorized 

KVR’s Chris Halaby is a skilled writer and in this editorial he takes on the early days of sequencers, enjoy:

This is the second part of my perspectives and it’s about the beginning of the transition from tape and hardware devices to computers.

Technology drives music. Once a talented individual gets a hold of a new technology and makes beautiful music with it the technology will evolve quickly. This was certainly the case with the computer. There was clearly a need for these software products. Sequencing musical events was taking off and the new technologies allowed music that couldn’t have been created without these new tools. In fact computers can make mediocre musicians sound good, good musicians sound great, and great musicians incredibly productive.

Everything changed for musicians and recording engineers in 1982 and 1984 with the standardization of MIDI and the introduction of the Macintosh computer. It also started a sea change for the musical instruments industry. MIDI allowed a standardized way to send musical data between devices. The Mac had a Graphic User Interface by initial design and the 512 x 342 screen of the Mac could display significantly more information than any LCD display at the time.

There were already some MIDI sequencing software products available for the PC running DOS in 1984, but the lack of a PC graphic user interface made them unusable by the faint of heart. Windows didn’t appear until later and wasn’t useable by musicians in any kind of professional environment until Windows 2.0. Always an innovator under the guidance of Ikutaro Kakehashi Roland had an early software sequencer application, but its interface was one step above command line, making it very cumbersome.

One Silicon Valley engineer who noticed the potential of MIDI and the Mac immediately was Dave Oppenheim, who had recently stopped working for Androbot (an early venture capital backed personal robotics company), and was thinking about what to do next. Dave and I had been housemates while we both attended Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA. Dave was a Music/EE major (also a classically trained pianist with perfect pitch!) and I was an Music/Art Major (Hunh! No really. I’m not joking).

Dave had been messing around with synthesizers as long as I had known him. In fact he had created his own interface to play an Oberheim SEM from the keyboard of a Vox Continental organ in the late ’70s. (An unfortunate side effect was the voiding of his warranty.) A later project was a hardware device that intercepted the keyboard connector inside an Oberheim OBXa. His box had several buttons, each of which would record or play back a small sequence.

Dave’s idea was to use the Mac to replace the dedicated hardware that people like me were using in recording sessions. In November of 1984, he bought a Macintosh, and after learning to program in a GUI environment, wrote the first version of ‘Sequencer’ (a software version of the aforementioned box) in six months. I loaned him my DSX for a couple of weeks so he could make sure that his software would be able to everything the DSX could do.

In order to connect to the Mac he designed a simple MIDI interface that could be connected to the printer and modem ports (RS-422) and in a stroke of brilliance made the package narrow enough so that one could screw two separate interfaces to the ports on back of their Mac and get a total of 32 MIDI channels.

In 1985 he hooked up with Gary Briber, a friend from high school, and formed Opcode Systems. Though he asked me to get involved at the beginning I was too busy trying to be a rock star, and opted instead to help once a week with tech support and writing user manuals. Briber lost interest after about a year so Dave asked me to be fully involved. It was an easy decision given the momentum the company had generated. A new category within the musical instrument industry was growing very rapidly and Opcode was part of it.

The full story here >>


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