A tour of MPE, with apologies to Roger Linn

This article coincides with the publication of the MPE specification, which I facilitated and helped to write. If you register with The MIDI Association, you can download it free from here.

Roger Linn didn’t invent the drum machine, but he did make one of the first examples of a very good one. Drum machines began their lives in the 1960s, as little panels of buttons that gave organists a Latin rhythm to play against. The sounds of the day were built entirely out of snippets of simple waveforms and chuffs of filtered noise. These camp little drumbeats were subverted by Kraftwerk and post-punks, but hardly entered the cultural mainstream. Witness the Ace Tone Rhythm Ace.

When Donna Summer recorded ‘I Feel Love’ in 1977, the kick drum was provided by a (presumably both bored and anxious) real drummer; everything else on the percussion track was hand-crafted using a huge synthesiser. The result prefigured a coming of age for these early machines. Those who were present at the recording session routinely discuss what a pain it was to piece the single together, part by part. It was revolutionary in terms of its sound, and helped to cement George Moroder’s legacy as a producer, but the painstaking techniques he had developed to make such music possible would not catch on.

The LinnDrum, which arrived in 1982, actually sounded somewhat like a drum kit. Each drum could be tuned and tweaked like a recorded kit, to punch nicely through the mix. It, and contemporaries made by Roland (the company that Ace Tone became), Oberheim, and later others, underpinned the backing tracks of the synthpop music of the 1980s. These artificial instruments were intended to sound natural, but they were often programmed in a context that deliberately emphasised their inhuman nature. The machines began a long-lasting aesthetic of meticulously-layered, robotic backing tracks, where often the only live performer on the recording was the vocalist.

None of this would have been possible on such a scale without MIDI, a standard devised for interconnecting early synthesisers, which propelled this music into the mainstream by providing an easy way for drum machines, bass synthesisers, and other instruments to play their musical patterns in lockstep.

In person, Roger Linn has become fairly ambivalent about the Eighties, about the musical revolution he helped to create, and his obscurity as an inventor beyond the tiny music technology industry.

MIDI, too, has struggled with its reputation as a protocol for making robotic music. The early Nineties brought a thing called General MIDI, which enabled synthesisers to work more seamlessly with each other and computers so that, for example, orchestral music written to be replayed on one device would sound right on others. The unintended consequence of this was a craze for polyphonic ringtones about ten years later, when this technology became cheap and commoditised enough to end up in mobile phones. It has not been easy to foment much strategic consensus in the music tech industry beyond General MIDI, but that hasn’t stopped us trying.

Music tech has long had a problem where the tail wags the dog. The success of MIDI means that the form and function of electronic instruments has, for years, been driven by what the specification does best, and not the other way round. This is why, after a Cambrian explosion of exotic devices in the Eighties, all controller keyboards now look precisely the same: why there are always eight control knobs, and a data slider, and wheels marked ‘pitch’ and ‘mod’.

Why isn’t MIDI capable of supporting other approaches: of conveying and shaping natural human expression in all its variety? Well, it sort of is, but that’s not how it’s used. The limits of creativity are no longer determined by channel count, processing power, or data bandwidth. Rather embarrassingly, they’re driven by the cultural assumptions of a technical specification that’s more than 35 years old, and so entrenched in its own status quo that it cannot easily be changed.

This is why ROLI ran into difficulty about six years ago, when we tried to connect our prototype instruments to existing synthesisers, and quickly realised that not many people had given the problem of musical expression much thought. If every note in your performance needs to respond to a different movement of a user’s finger, there are technical workarounds that can achieve this. But, as hardly any instruments could generate such rich data, hardly any synthesisers could be made to work with it.

Other companies who had made expressive instruments had written their own synthesiser software, and ROLI got the situation under control by following the same path, and making Equator. We realised early on that customer confidence equals sales: that, only by building strong relationships with other companies, and making an ecosystem where our stuff would work, would we prosper.

A few synthesisers made by other people were actually ready to do the unusual things that we had to do, such as pitch-bending and swelling individual notes in a chord. After a couple of false starts trying to reinvent MIDI to fit our problem, we reinvented our problem to fit MIDI. In 2015, we started working with the MIDI Manufacturers Association to put together a specification called MPE [MIDI Polyphonic Expression]. This is a common way of allowing expressive controllers and synthesisers to communicate.

Aside from us, this has helped other hardware manufacturers to sell their instruments. Keith McMillen, Haken, Madrona, Eigenlabs, and Roger Linn benefit from MPE. It’s also helped makers of innovative synthesisers, such as Audio Modeling, find a small but interested market for their novel instruments. And it’s been supported by companies as far-ranging as Bitwig and Apple. But driving consensus among around twenty different vested interests has taken its time, and the specification has finally been published today, some three years later. You can find it and download it freely from the link at the top of the page.

If you already make electronic music, you probably won’t notice MPE compatibility slipping into the newer devices you use. This was one of the intentions. The other is that, if you do decide to go out and buy a Seaboard (if you haven’t already), there are a whole host of companies that have embraced MPE, and the Seaboard will work with their equipment.

Perhaps in an effort to produce a more interesting legacy, Roger Linn produces his own expressive instrument, the aptly-titled LinnStrument. He has been a champion of MPE since its pre-MIDI days. In his quest to imbue electronic music with the humanity that he unintentionally helped it to divest thirty years ago, he is making liberal use of the slogan ‘Stop using on-off switches!’

It’s my pleasure to say that I’ve stood on the shoulders of Roger Linn and others, in chairing the MPE Working Group, in writing and endlessly revising about 80% of the specification, and in speaking about it in various places. In glorious anonymity, it has been published today.

Now that you can afford to do so, and there’s a widely-supported and freely-published way of doing it, it’s become easier than ever to take Roger’s advice.

More chicks in the mix

The Audio Engineering Society is attempting to mend its membership. In LA in 2014, it organised an all-female panel (with a male moderator) to encourage creative women into music production. What let it down was its title, which I borrowed for this post.

This isn’t intended as good journalism. To deserve such an accolade, I’d have given the AES a right to reply before publishing. I’m a lone writer, though. My most popular blog post to date is about legal compliance with radio emissions regulations. If you do happen to be reading this and you object, please comment appropriately.

The UK section is pushing the UN’s He For She initiative very hard, dedicating much of its newsletter and several of its lectures to the subject of gender equality, and encouraging its members to sign a public pledge. In this month’s newsletter, more space was devoted to gender issues than to anything else. I’ll accept this as necessary: social engineering is a large part of our craft.

About twenty years ago, a friend of mine, an undergraduate engineer, was working on an industrial placement for a manufacturer. One requirement of her job was helping to run a stand at a trade show. Within earshot, a salesman of a more senior generation said to a customer, ‘She’s only here because she’s pretty.’ He also quipped, ‘I thought harass was two words’. A senior designer she’d passed on the stairs at work had once asked, ‘Fancy a shag?’ As the power relationship was skewed ovewhelmingly in their favour, these remarks couldn’t be raised safely. They had to pass without comment (except to me).

While it’s hard to arbitrate he-said-she-said disputes, I see that casual verbal abuse is becoming exceptional: mindsets such as these are rightly being seen as revolting instead of funny. I’m confident that this kind of sexual harassment would be treated seriously anywhere I’ve worked since.

We have a more nuanced understanding of discrimination today. It exists more perniciously in small decisions and ungendered put-downs: the sort of abuse that all human beings face at some point in their lives as they progress in a competitive world. No matter who you are, you harden yourself against cruelty and failure, because unscrupulous people will use any vulnerability as a foothold. Although it’s illegal, some will attempt to weaponise sex, age, race, and social status. Women still have it harder: it’s just more difficult to prove.

The terms of He For She’s pledge are surprisingly hard to see at a glance on their website, but the gist is as follows:

  • When making appointments, insist on seeing candidates with a range of backgrounds and attributes.
  • Abandon the use of sexist language and turns of phrase.
  • Don’t bully or demean women, either to them or to others.
  • Call out sexism when you see it.
  • Spread the word about the initiative.

I’ve not signed it. Laudable as the terms are, the gesture makes me uneasy for three reasons:

  1. Why would I sign a statement that I’ve stopped beating my wife? Following these rules is the minimum standard required for permission to participate in a modern industry. I’ve listened to my peers, I’ve read feminist literature, and I’ve recruited with fairness in mind. Equal rights aren’t a new issue to me: I’ve agonised about my behaviour and my wider accountability for decades and (as I should) questioned equality of opportunity versus outcome in the field of engineering. I haven’t always done well, and I still feel ashamed when I fail, but I promise to make my failures in life ever more subtle and less stupid. And I call bad behaviour, politely but firmly, when I see it. Signing this pledge is like putting the ‘L’ plates back on my car. You never stop learning to drive but, beyond a certain level, you’re not obliged to make a public spectacle of the fact.
  2. Walking around wearing a badge saying ‘I won’t be sexist’ doesn’t stop you being sexist. It just means you like badges. What it might do is embolden you and your peers against unflattering feedback about your conduct, should you receive it. Who knows, it might even make your denial of sexual harassment more plausible at an employment tribunal. Unless it’s a genuine social enterprise, which I don’t think it is, I’m sceptical about the ability of He For She to correct bad behaviour.
  3. There’s evidence that people in some circles are being shamed or no-platformed if they refuse to sign the pledge. To put it bluntly, this isn’t kosher.

I’ve interviewed and recruited women. Good women are as hard to find as good men. They’re just as highly sought: in fact, more so, because they bring fresh perspectives to a very male discipline. My year on the Tonmeister course (1996-2000) comprised sixteen male and two female students. The ratio varies year-by-year, and has occasionally passed 75:25, but has never been close to 50:50. Other technical courses are balanced similarly.

Even with an enlightened selection process, the long-term ratio of graduates, in one of the most artistic of technical disciplines, is about five to one. It’s just hard to attract women to some professions. Those who choose ours set forth their own reasons. Perhaps prejudice drives others away, but you cannot blame every community and every school.

I’ve also been involved with the wonderful ADC conference, which explicitly set out with a goal of inclusivity. Again, it’s not going to approach 50:50 participation in this generation, because that’s not how its audience is composed. Of our four keynote speakers last year, though, three were women working at the highest levels of industry and academia. The fourth was Jules Storer, creator of JUCE: the reason we were there.

With that in mind, here’s a recent tweet from the incoming AES UK chair:

To give Dr Lopez the benefit of the doubt, Twitter is a platform for provocation rather than nuance. But this message goes beyond He For She. It starts to caricature the adversary, treat the problem in monochrome, and urge us to rush to judgement.

Here’s a personal tale. At ADC ’16, I convened a panel about spatial audio. I didn’t have a lot of notice, which is often the way at these things. Spatial audio is my academic speciality. Even for somebody with connections, who has read a couple of hundred papers on the subject and released a modestly successful product, it’s a niche field. We asked three relevant, preeminent female technologists we knew if they were able to attend: two weren’t free to travel for personal and budgetary reasons; the third had already booked into a rival conference. Thinking laterally, we contacted two female executives in relevant companies that would have helped us to take the argument beyond technicalities. When they found time to reply, it turned out that they weren’t available either.

Sometimes, you’re unlucky. It would have been disingenuous to apologise for convening an all-male panel after a deliberate attempt, in good faith, to balance it. Alternatives would have been to dissolve the session, denying delegates an enlivening perspective on an interesting subject, or to have co-opted a less qualified panellist at short notice at the expense of the discussion.

We chose to go ahead with the best panel we could assemble. There was no hostility, and there didn’t need to be: it was a good panel, and we took questions from both men and women. This is why I am troubled by Dr Lopez’s tweet.

Now that personal privilege is a public concern, we should not let hypocrisy undermine small, hard-won victories. As we climb our ladders, it is only by continually engaging our subordinates as equals, and avoiding tyranny, that trust will coexist with power. The choice to respect people we don’t need to respect brings us closer to a fairer, more sustainable workplace. This is the hallmark of what He For She sets out to achieve, and the way to win this argument.

If you’re able to determine who gets to speak in public, it’s easy to ostracise those with whom you disagree. This is fine when the speaker is actually inciteful, but the pledge risks correcting one abuse of power with another, driving poisonous ideas into a place where their proponents cry persecution and recruit more eloquent supporters, while bystanders are caught in the crossfire. The right way to challenge repugnant but prevalent ideas is to tolerate the people who hold them, and beat them in debate until they are on their own.



ADC 2017 Lightning talk: narcissism meets venture capital

This is the transcript I spoke from last night. I might have skipped some of the bits at the end. As a result of last night’s road test, the answers to the personal questions are: 1. definitely; 2. something more irresponsible, like posting the transcript on my blog.

I’m going to read this very quickly from my screen which isn’t my usual style but there are good reasons why. Although this talk is put together at very short notice it concerns ideas that I’ve been researching somewhat longer. I call it simply: narcissism meets venture capital.

My central thesis is this: much of the world of venture funding is useful and prosaic. But what’s new — a kind of disease brought about by a bizarre gold rush — is:

  • That poorly-formed tech companies with grandiose visions,
    are backed by abundant capital with insufficient diligence.
  • This attracts the wrong kind of founders,
    who are encouraged to build the wrong kind of organisations,
    and whether you’re part of them or not, but particularly if you are,
    these companies are bad for the world around you, for your livelihood, and your mental health.

One thing I need to make clear: this is not about my experience at ROLI and it’s not an indictment of anybody I’ve met here. But, working at a new company brings you into the orbit of others, and can expose you to some of that world.

I suggest a need for vigilance: I believe that these dangers are intrinsic in the current climate and can be felt widely.

My personal reason for giving this talk is to answer two questions:

  1. If I were to write a book about this, would you read it?
  2. What would it take to get me fired?

Let’s look back at ancient history. Before the world went mad, Google took eight years to reach a billion-dollar IPO; Apple took five; they had investment rounds that were fairly modest by today’s standards. $25m in Google’s case; Apple’s was in the Seventies so it doesn’t make sense in today’s money.

Today an eight-year timescale to a public offering would barely make Google newsworthy. Last month, a pair of founders obtained VC based on a nine-figure valuation of their company. They’re not old enough to shave and their company, a graduate project, didn’t seem exceptional to me; it will scale only with tremendous luck and exceptional talent. The anecdote can remain anonymous while we still recognise the story. We know what usually happens next.

I started talking about the money, but that’s just the food; narcissism is the organ it sustains.

Beyond name-calling, what actually is narcissism? There is a narcissistic spectrum where a dark personality disorder lies at the extreme right-hand end, but the continuum is more interesting than the endpoint.

Sandy Hotchkiss in her book, ‘Why is it Always about You?’ lists a number of narcissistic traits, including:

  • Shamelessness, and an unwillingness to engage with feelings of shame;
  • Use of other people in order to maintain self-image: reflected glory, obsession with celebrity, diffusion of shame by finger-pointing. Steve Jobs’s legendary hair-trigger dichotomy of his staff into assholes and gods is an archetypical example.
  • A belief that one is exceptional, so that reward is predicated on entitlement rather than merit and hard work;
  • Grandiosity and magical thinking, where the belief in something makes it real;
  • Poor personal boundaries, so expecting people to be on call all hours of the day to buff your halo and heal your wounds.

Narcissists are constantly shopping for the opportunity to exercise power, and this is one thing that attracts them to the startup world.

(While we’re discoursing on personal narcissism, here’s a health warning. Although it’s inferred that narcissism is undesirable here, you can and should possess a healthy amount: the ‘zero end’ of the scale is also dangerous. You need, for example, to look after yourself to avoid being rejected or exploited by others. An acknowledgement of your own gifts is an essential part of the urge to create. And a prerequisite of being self-aware, which is good, is being somewhat self-regarding.)

That’s the background matter.

Thing one: the tech startup culture is like crack to narcissists.

Globalisation of software distribution and social network effects mean that companies can get big user bases fast. A wide reach and a lot of engagement usually results in an exaggerated sense of importance.

The ‘Get Big Fast’ mentality emphasises big gambles: maximising risk-to-return at the extreme high end of both. If you’re a VC with a portfolio comprising many companies, it can be a responsible gamble. For those affected, though, it can over-inflate the ego.

Founders, selected principally by charisma and confidence, can practise their pitch a hundred times in a big market. They have many chances to access a lot of power and a lot of money quickly.

Thing one point five: as well as attracting narcissists, this world protects their delusions.

It is built into to the VC model that you outdo incumbents because you don’t compete authentically. Uber offers cheap taxi rides because it’s bankrolled by Californian investors. It’s called extinction pricing. You can ride a wave of early success because you’re cheating. This lets you extinguish the competition. Then you put the prices up.

Endemic poor handling of negative publicity (and frequent denial that it’s actually happening) is seen as typical and sometimes even endearing. People look at Trump’s pronouncements and say ‘that’s just Trump’; people see misconduct in our industry and say ‘that’s just tech’.

There’s a poor public understanding of risk in capital, so the more irresponsibly you borrow, the more uncritical attention you attract. Listen to John Humphrys on the Today programme interviewing a founder of Improbable after its half-billion-dollar valuation. He is severe with politicians, but is out of his depth when confronted with the ludicrousness beyond this sphere.

The limited company model and bubble mentality means that founders generally walk away without a scratch and start again if it all goes wrong.

Let’s zoom out. We live in a world where shamelessness and grandiosity are feted, everyone’s gambling with someone else’s cash, and accountability is minimised. If you don’t do the same then you can’t keep playing. The messages that are radiated influence us.

Thing two: this is routinely screwing with people’s heads.

Jeannie Yang’s talk yesterday provided an interesting illustration, in Smule’s redefinition of the way they measured their software’s success.

In the early-stage model, the goals were about personal joy: software was plotted on a graph of sounds-good versus easy-to-play. Then the goals became about effective self-promotion: connecting people versus expressivity, and the product took off. Narcissism leverages the network effect. The pretext is ‘I am special, and people have to know’.

Consumers can be creators. We can debate finer points, but this is true. Most people will be rubbish though: taste and talent are things that are part learnable, part innate, and both rare. Not all people who watch football on television want to play it; very few of those who do will end up being good. Football playing, like music creation, is a pyramid scheme when to do it for a living is not a healthy aspiration for the vast majority of people; of those who do, only the top 1% are wealthy, and the top 0.1% are super-wealthy.

Jean Twenge [prounounced ‘Twengy’], author of ‘The Narcissism Epidemic’, suggests that there are four pillars on which our narcissistic society rests. Think about these first in a personal capacity:

  1. Obsession with fame;
  2. Social media, where attention-seeking behaviour is rewarded;
  3. An unhealthy ‘win at all costs’ view of competition engendered by poor parenting;
  4. Easy credit so you can live a fantasy world.

Run through that list again and think of the tech sector, with the venture funder as the parent.

In conclusion

As with any bubble, when the sun is shining, a capitalist will lend you an umbrella, and when it rains, they’ll have it back. Meanwhile money is traded for control, so you’ll have to convince colleagues to work in conditions they didn’t sign up to, and shut them out of conversations.

If you can structure your start-up in the old-fashioned way, staying within a magnitude of your ability to repay until you’re ready to go to market, and otherwise pursue a nice quiet life, then you totally should.