Standards have been part of our civilisation ever since human life evolved on Earth. One of the most obvious examples is language; the fact that a group of human beings can exchange information with each other relies completely on the concept that all individuals within the group share the same language. Countries worldwide institutionalised their languages in their educational systems, maintaining standards on syntax and vocabulary, teaching students in schools. Often, languages of neighbouring countries are also included in the school curriculum to ensure cross-country compatibility of communication.
For music, a common language was developed by Catholic monks in the Middle Ages to ensure that religious music could be distributed and performed throughout Europe’s church communities. This language of musical notation has become a global standard, still in use today by musicians and orchestras worldwide.
In electronics, standards are a major factor, especially when it comes to system design. Without standards, products from different manufacturers could not be used together in a system. For example, global standardisation bodies such as AES (Audio Engineering Society), IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), ITU (United Nations International Telecommunication Union), EBU (European Broadcasting Union), SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers), IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) and ISO (International Organization for Standardisation) publish standards for interfacing and functionality to support interoperability in the professional audio field.
For professional audio manufacturers, designing products to support international standards is a lot of extra work. The additional design, testing and evaluation involved makes their products more expensive compared to products that use a manufacturer’s own standards or no standards at all. The big question is, why pay the extra money for products that support standards?
The first answer is quality. The design and manufacturing process for a product that is geared to comply to certain standards has an intrinsic quality management to ensure compliance. This means that such a product tends to have a higher probability to do what the buyer expects. Also, when products from different manufacturers are combined into a system, the probability that the system actually works increases if all products comply to relevant established standards.
The second answer is less clear, but at least as significant - design freedom. If a product doesn’t comply with any standard, then it’s very unlikely that it can interface with other products. This basically means that it can only be used as standalone application. For systems, if a manufacturer maintains its own standards, then only products from that manufacturer can be combined, limiting the choice of products as well as the system’s functionality to that of the manufacturer’s product line-up. Only if a manufacturer’s product complies to internationally-agreed standards can it then be used with products from other manufacturers that support the same standards, greatly expanding the design possibilities. Efficient re-design is also supported in case a system has to be changed or expanded at a later time. In the long run this is often favourable to the total system costs, because the efficiency of the re-design outweighs the higher product costs. This applies in particular to rental companies, where every system going out of the warehouse has to be tailor-made for a particular rental case.
One often-used standard that comes to mind is AES3, or AES/EBU, a standard published in 1985 by the IEC and still present on many digital mixing consoles as ‘pro audio’s Esperanto’ for audio connections. Another is the Musical Instrument Digital Interface - or MIDI - published in 1983 by the Manufacturers MIDI Association and adopted by virtually all electronic musical instrument manufacturers worldwide, ensuring flawless functionality of any system no matter what brand and type of synthesiser, drum machine or Digital Audio Workstation is used.