MIDI Interface For NeXTcube Plugs Into The Past

[Joren] recently did some work as part of an electronic music heritage project, and restored an 80s-era NeXTcube workstation complete with vintage sound card, setting it up with a copy of MAX, a graphical music programming environment. But there was one piece missing: MIDI. [Joren] didn’t let that stop him, and successfully created hardware to allow MIDI input and output.

The new panel provides all the connectors necessary to interface with either classic MIDI devices, or MIDI over USB (where it appears as a USB MIDI device to any modern OS.)

Interestingly, the soundcard for the NeXTcube has an RS-422 serial port and some 8-pin mini DIN connectors. They are not compatible with standard MIDI signals, but they’re not far off, either.

To solve this, [Joren] used a Teensy developer board to act as an interface between classic MIDI devices like keyboards or synthesizers (or even not-so-common ones like this strange instrument) while also being able to accommodate modern MIDI over USB connections thanks to the Teensy’s USB MIDI functionality.

A metal enclosure with a 3D-printed panel rounds out the device, restoring a critical piece of functionality to the electronic music-oriented workstation.

MIDI as a protocol isn’t technically limited to musical applications, though that’s one place it shines. And just in case it comes in handy someday, you can send MIDI over I2C if you really need to.

21 thoughts on “MIDI Interface For NeXTcube Plugs Into The Past

  1. The Cube didn’t really have a sound card as such. It had a “high speed” serial port connected to the DSP, along with the RS-423 DIN modem ports.

    Other audio hardware was located in the monitor (or in the soundbox for color Cubes.)

    1. Ah, the “sound card” was an aftermarket IRCAM DSP interface card. Yeah, their stuff was always kind of esoteric, like it was designed for a university lab in Paris.

      1. “Each ISPW card had two Intel i860 microprocessors (running at 80 MFLOPS). ”

        “A single ISPW card cost approximately $12,000US (not including the computer)”

        1. And there you have the reason why NeXT was a failure in the market. Very few people could afford to buy into the platform. IBM set their PC prices at a level most businesses could justify paying, even if they only figured they needed just one – for something. Accounting software was the first killer app.

          1. That price was for an aftermarket, non-NeXT product intended for academic labs and similar.

            The NeXTStation machines, at least for a little while, were price competitive with comparably powered Mac, and Windows machines. (ie, Contemporary machines comparable to a 68040 with a couple hundred megs of disk space and 8-16 MB of RAM.)

          2. The reason why the IBM PC succeeded wasn’t because they were ‘cheap’ enough for businesses, since at the time there was already the S100 bus CP/M standard whose computers were much cheaper, alongside the appearance of competing 16-bit computers (such as the Victor 9000 / ACT Sirius) which offered better features for the same price.

            Nor was it that the IBM PC was an ‘open’ standard: CP/M had an open API, the Apple ][ and S100 had publicly defined expansion standards, and in fact that was the norm at the time. The BIOS of the IBM PC was published so that IBM could exert copyright control over it and this delayed bona-fide clones for a few years.

            The reason the IBM PC rose to dominance was simple: “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.” Business in the 1980s (and this is usually the case today) were risk-averse; so although companies already knew that they needed to get into microcomputers (as they were called then), the IBM PC’s brand provided the confidence for them to do that.

  2. Not MIDI, but the coolest sound demo I saw on the NeXT (this was the 80s, remember), was it transmitting a tone and simultaneously listening on its microphone, and using its DSP to do real-time Doppler signal processing, to detect and ‘display’ people walking around the room. No additional hardware required.

      1. No, it really isn’t. The extra thread is to account for different thickness front panels.

        There is a gasket that presses up to the inside face of the panel, which will cause the thread to stick out if you need the seal and you have a thin panel, but if you are designing the panel you can eat the extra thread on the inside of the box so that the face is flush with the nut.

  3. Calling the NeXT Cube an 80s computer is kind of disingenuous. The machine was built and designed in the 80s but extremely few people had their hands on the machine until 1990 when they officially went on the market. I was in college in the early 90s and only saw these for sale and in labs in spring or later of 1990. Education was about the only market of consequence that saw these machines. It is sort of splitting hairs but this machine is more a creature of the early 90s with its history of being the first platform for the development of the first web-server/browser/web-page. The 80s was the era of desktop publishing and the beginnings of wysiwyg and early mouse guis. The NeXT had its share of issues but some of the ideas behind it and nextstep were definitely necessary for what happened later in the 90s.

    1. “Education was about the only market of consequence that saw these machines. ”

      We had the NeXTstation and were a business, not a school. A very pleasant machine to work with considering the time period.

  4. And my cube is sitting idle in a corner without this ariel card. :( So i have to use the Atari stacy 2 in stead with cubase for midi. But no max on old hardware here: My mac SE with digidesign card is missing its external ad converter box.

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