Ikutaro Kakehashi: The MIDI Backstory
Over three decades later, the path to MIDI seemed easy...but it wasn't
by Craig Anderton
Many people have commemorated Mr. Ikutaro Kakehashi’s contributions to the music industry. As the founder of Roland, the products he influenced literally changed the course of popular music—not just music technology. But arguably his biggest contribution has flown “under the radar,” and in honor of his life and his passing, I’d like to shine a light on it.
First, though, let’s set the stage. I had the honor of knowing him and we often had discussions about music and technology. He never lost a little kid’s sense of wonder, and whenever he discovered a new interest—such as video—he always saw it from a perspective that was broad yet focused. And once he found merit in something, like MIDI guitar or greater expressiveness with keyboards, he would keep pushing until what he thought was possible became reality.
The origins of MIDI are generally—and properly—credited to Dave Smith and Ikutaro Kakehashi. But that just scratches the surface. There had already been movement on the part of Roland, Oberheim (the “System”), and Sequential Circuits to find some way for the new generation of electronic synthesis devices to “talk” to each other. Dave Smith concentrated on keyboards with the Universal Synthesizer Interface, which was first presented in a white paper to the Audio Engineering Society. What Mr. Kakehashi brought to the party were (primarily) the timing and synchronization aspects that made MIDI relevant far beyond the stage, and established its importance in the studio. As no less a luminary that Alan Parsons opined, MIDI has become part of the DNA of modern music production. It’s everywhere, whether people know it’s there or not.
"[DON'T] GIVE UP SO EASILY"
But MIDI wasn’t just about technology. Initially, some companies resisted MIDI. Dave Rossum, the genius behind E-Mu Systems, saw Ethernet as a far more capable protocol. He was right, of course; but in reality, it would have been too expensive for consumer-oriented gear. Other companies simply didn’t see any value, or were reluctant to add a feature to their products that had no guarantee of success. In fact, Dave Smith said that at the first meeting about MIDI there was a lot of disagreement because some people wanted more expensive and faster hardware. Dave left the meeting thinking it wasn’t going to happen, but later that night an engineer from Roland showed up at Dave’s hotel room and said “I have been told by Kakehashi-san not to give up so easily.”
Ultimately, one of the reasons MIDI caught on was because it was inexpensive enough that it could be part of something like a consumer-oriented Casio keyboard. Companies had little to lose by including MIDI…and if it took off, then they’d be poised to enjoy the benefits.
IT TOOK TWO TO TANGO
And then there was the 800 lb. gorilla in the room: The intense rivalry between Yamaha and Roland. For MIDI to be successful, it would have to be adopted universally. There was no room for the two industry giants to go in different directions, yet at the time Japanese corporate culture had a tendency toward insularity. Fortunately, Mr. Kakehashi did not take the position that since Roland made such a significant contribution, it could obtain a competitive advantage over its rival. As a believer in the power of music, he realized there was something bigger at stake than corporate politics. Equally fortunately, Yamaha jettisoned the “not invented here” syndrome, embraced MIDI, and made its own contributions to help make MIDI a practical reality.
The adoption of the spec by Roland and Yamaha became an incredibly powerful statement that ensured the success of MIDI. The smaller companies were taken aback by such a show of unity from two powerful rivals, and adopted the attitude of “Well if Roland and Yamaha can join together for this, who are we not to participate?” Whether it was the force of Mr. Kakehashi’s personality or Yamaha’s keen foresight—or more likely, both—doesn’t really matter at this point because after Dave Smith and Kakehashi-san birthed MIDI (and earned a technical Grammy in the process), the rest of the industry raised the kid enthusiastically.
I’ll close with a story that showed just how revolutionary MIDI was. Having written the book “MIDI for Musicians,” which was the first mainstream book explaining MIDI, I was often asked for comment. One day a journalist called me and wanted details on the protocol. I gave him the lowdown on what MIDI did, how it worked, and why it was so great. After my rant, he said “Okay, but let’s give equal time to the other standards.” I told him there wasn’t another standard, the entire industry had adopted MIDI. He seemed puzzled and said “I understand it’s been adopted by the industry, but I want to know about the other standards, and how they fit in.” I explained that prior to MIDI there had been attempts to create something similar, but none of them gained traction, and had fallen by the wayside as MIDI took over.
He remained unconvinced. After all, this was a world of Mac vs. PC and VHS vs. Beta. Exasperated, he tried one last time to get me to spill the beans on MIDI’s rivals, and again, I explained there simply weren’t any. He became upset, and essentially gave no credibility to anything I said because he was convinced I was an unprincipled shill for this MIDI thing. He didn’t quite hang up on me, but it was clear he felt he had wasted his time talking to someone so obviously biased.
Looking back, I can understand his confusion. He didn’t realize people like Dave Smith and Ikutaro Kakehashi could exist, and that rivals like Yamaha and Roland could place the needs of musicians above their own potential agendas. I don’t know what that journalist is doing now, but the specification he dismissed endures. Dave Smith continues to make exceptional synthesizers. Yamaha, Korg, Casio, Kawai, and so many others keep innovating ever-cooler products. Roland carries forth Mr. Kakehashi’s vision of always pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.
Yes, we lost a giant in this industry—but not before he left a mark on it that will endure after everyone reading this will have passed away. I can’t really be sad about Mr. Kakehashi’s passing…because it’s far outweighed by the happiness he helped bring to the world.
To learn more about the life of Mr. Kakehashi, The MIDI Association (www.midi.org), which is exceptionally cool in its own right, has published an informative article https://www.midi.org/articles/ikutaro-kakehashi-passes-away-at-87 on his life. The following articles also describe the beginnings of MIDI…interesting stuff. And of course, the TMA has a ton of articles about MIDI techniques, basics, advanced topics, and the future of MIDI.
Craig Anderton is Editorial Director of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.