It’s not waiting for someone to be “offended.” It’s about why anyone would be defensive about clinging to terrible terms based on horrific inhumane things. Let’s just fix this, finally.

And yeah, right now seems like as good a time as any to stop using slavery references when you just need clear, boring technical terms. It’s not that fixing something small like language will make a larger difference. It’s that it might be good practice to begin thinking about change even with something small.

This is language-specific, significantly (see below), but not exclusive to any one region – not even the USA, despite its particularly long and intense relationship to African slavery.

I know it’s easy to resist change. So let me explain why I think this one is especially a no-brainer – something that could be done immediately. The fact that it triggers debate is to say, then we are taking some critical terms and evaluating exactly what they mean. Any process that does that improves the language, and whatever improves the language also makes us more effective at communicating the technology. So any debate this may trigger is far from pointless – on the contrary, it proves that language matters.

A major disclaimer: I am a native speaker of American English. The issues with this language originate in these words in English. As an Italian-speaking commenter observes, translating them to other languages is another matter. We have a problem here in English, and the two dominant countries speaking English – the USA and UK – have an especially ugly history in slavery and imperialism. That’s also why this whole conversation is happening in this language, which is itself problematic, but – that’s a much tougher fix. So I’ll talk about the English problem and solution, but I’d be happy to hear how people understand terminologies like “leader” and “follower” in your language, and whether we might be better learning your words and using the translation rather than simply imposing the English ones. My sense is still that this is probably better than using your language’s native terms for master and slave, or adopting the English terms directly as often happens in technological terms.

Likely replacements

Main/secondary is likely the default technical replacement we need, for the simple reason that they start with the same initial letter. That means abbreviations on spec sheets and schematics, already abbreviated M and S, don’t need to be changed. And it’s still clear and generic, especially fitting cases (as with database primary/secondary) where what’s emphasized is just prioritization, not necessarily hierarchical or controller relationships/

Conductor/follower or leader/follower works well for clock or other situations where a source sends control signal to a receiver, but most descriptive in timing scenarios. It also makes the most sense to end users for those cases. (As some readers note, directly translating “leader/follower” into German is not something you want to do.)

I personally find myself biased toward these terms as a teacher and writer because I think they’re the easiest to convey to beginners, and I’ve done a lot of teaching of beginners. There are good arguments against using any anthropomorphic terms, though, and this particular pair has some unpleasant associations if you translate directly into German (though in German there are already non-slavery alternatives).

Source / sink may be the best single solution for both physical hardware plugs and outlets and software connections. Adapted from German Quelle and Senke, I notice it’s also used in software like GStreamer and PulseAudio on Linux, that intuitively connects the digital audio interconnect to the physical connector. Probably its only weakness is that non-technical English speakers aren’t as accustomed to using the term “sink” in this manner, though it is in the language. [Correction: I mistakenly said JACK used this, too, but that’s only how JACK (correctly) labels its connections with these other tools. I would presume there’s also a correlation any time you involve German-speaking developers.]

Host/client or host/guest work in networking situations, since they’re already understood and widely used (meaning it also makes no sense to suddenly swap them out for master and slave).

Sender/receiver fits when the words describe the transmission of signal (I also see “controller”/receiver which is commonly used in MIDI for sending parameters)/

These aren’t euphemisms, either; they carry different nuances of meaning. That says to me we didn’t need them in the first place.

Why change – a checklist

This is not a new idea. The music tech industry, if it were to dump “master” and “slave” now, would be already late to the party. It’s not that the critique hasn’t come up – but it hasn’t translated into action. (For instance, Roberta Lamb I believe raised it in her feminist critique of music education back in 1994, among others – someone got a JSTOR subscription handy?)

Tech has gradually taken action, and raise international press visibility. Los Angeles County took legal action to rid itself of the terms back in 2003. IBM, Microsoft, Amazon, and the Python platform have all used the terms “primary” and “secondary” for some time in applications like databases. GitHub is doing it now – and that’s arguably a heck of a lot more complicated in terms of implementation and documentation than anything we have in music.

Speaking of that, using “primary” and “secondary” for databases more clearly describes what they’re meant to describe. (The secondary databases refer to the primary copy as the authoritative one, which makes way more sense than saying they’re “slaves” of that database.)

But that’s often the case – letting go of defensiveness means making things, you know, better. That’s true for music, too —

Leader and follower are easy, clear replacements for clock. “Leader” and “follower” more accurately articulate what happens with clock in the context of MIDI and other uses. The leader initiates start and stop and transmits tempo, and the follower, well, follows. “Master” and “slave” immediately fail by contrast, because a node could both receive and transmit MIDI clock signal – as do many DAWs, for example. (How would that work – the slaves have their own slaves? Just… no.)

Yes, this refers to slavery. Put master and slave together, and you’re definitely talking about slavery, or referring back to slavery so that people know what you mean.

The term master on its own you don’t have to worry about. It’s associated with mastery, master classes, master copies, master bedrooms, the antiquated practice of calling young men “masters,” Masters’ degrees, uh… MasterCard. Not one of those terms originated in the practice of slavery. (I checked.) If you master the bassoon, you did not enslave your bassoon. So people will still get this meaning.

Here’s the thing, though. While “master” usually isn’t associated with slavery in English when seen on its own, the word “slave” is never not associated with the word… slave. (Yeah, surprise.) It’s always slavery.

In a reminder that this also can’t be dismissed as “just an American thing,” as in the United States’ of America’s deep history with the slave trade, the term slave comes from Slav. The Slavs were the ones being most commonly enslaved in Europe when the word arose. That’s how many centuries of baggage this term has on it – from the many centuries of baggage the inhumane practice has.

Adding to the trouble here, the origins of the use of master and slave in technology, at least as I could find, was in things like locomotive chaining and hydraulic cylinders. So yeah – slavery was still a widespread legal practice in the English-speaking world when the terms jumped over to technology. And they’re teachable only in reference to people understanding the master/slave relationship in slavery.

That is inarguable, disqualifying horribleness.

At this point, you should all be running to work out how to change documentation, but in case I need to point out the obvious —

Slavery is terrible. Let’s not refer to it casually. Let’s be very, very clear. This is not a historical curiosity, as with some etymologies. Slavery is still a threat today in many places in the world, an active and horrifying real practice. And in virtually every major market in music technology, there are very present discussions about how, especially, black people (nearly worldwide) — but also indigenous people and other minorities (in many localities) — are still having to live with the legacy of widespread trade in slavery.

Naming something mundane and technical – something that demands clarity – with something horrifically awful to a specific group of people is the very essence of casual racism.

Of course, all of us talking about music technology or teaching it or writing about it – like me – had to use the term because it hadn’t been replaced. It was technically correct to do so. So this is easy – we change the label.

This change has already started. Quietly, a lot of software developers already started shifting their terminology. (Ableton and Propellerhead are two examples I’ve seen; I’m sure there are more. If you’ve done so, let us know – and in particular which terms you chose, and why.)

The funny thing is, I didn’t even notice it wasn’t there in Ableton Live or who else had already made the change. But I think that’s the reality – because the replacements are clearer, no one will really even miss the terms.

We just need to make this change explicit so that it becomes a de-facto standard.

Old standards and documentation shouldn’t be an obstacle, either. Look, yeah, your 1980s synth will always have “master” and “slave” in the manual; hardware will have it buried in menus. I am sure the MIDI Manufacturing Association will have to have some process to change the MIDI standard.

But the question is, will we describe what they mean and then explain their newer replacements and why we made the shift?

Or will we describe what master and slave mean in music tech, then feel awkward about why in the Hell are we still using them?

Not acting now causes damage. It’s not that this will fix or even help fight racism in the music tech industry. It’s that right now, with the discussion this present, if we fail to act, that’s a problem. It really would hurt the industry and its user community if we missed the chance now. We should just go do it.

Think of it as stretching your legs before running a marathon. It’s just a stretch. You don’t go anywhere. But it’s a good first step to make sure you’re ready to get onto the actual race. And that’s the bit that will be challenging.

The winner is…

Okay, so let me just tally this up:

For the change: New terms are clearer and more precise, other tech sectors are doing it already, music tech tools have done it already and most people didn’t even notice meaning it’s no big deal, and slavery is horrible, and not doing anything or getting defensive telegraphs to minorities that they’re not really welcome in the industry, very much not necessarily in that order.

Annnnd against: Maybe it’ll take a little effort or habit breaking.

Uh, yeah, not really a fair fight there.

Choosing the alternative

This is not meant to be a think piece or a discussion topic or clickbait – let’s just do this right now, please.

Because I know standards are most often held up by indecision, though, I want to put in my vote again for leader and follower, at least in describing clock. It seems a good default. As I said, if you have another situation where other terms are clearer or a reason to make something else a widespread standard, sound off. (I’m just remembering that time where we all failed to agree on the pinouts for minijack MIDI…)

As my engineering cohort James of MeeBlip points out, though, electronics and hardware should use main and secondary. These are clear, too, they cover a broader range of applications than leader/follower, and because they conveniently start with the same initial letter, you don’t have to change spec sheets and the like. That is especially important because things literally etched into hardware are not easy to change. Main / secondary fit a more generic hardware case – as with applications ranging from storage to other electronic interconnects.

Normally I’m for a simple, single solution. But different options are okay if they add clarity. Just so long as we come together and dump the slavery labels. I suspect there’s a whole lot of challenging, uncomfortable change ahead. So let’s get on with the stupidly easy one first. If we can’t do that, I’d be deeply worried.

Now that all that’s off my chest, let me go figure out why this synth is still lagging behind the drum machine clock. Let me know how you all fare with the fixes.

(if other folks have been saying this in recent days – which is likely – let me know and I’ll add your voices here)

Bonus footnote – male and female? Switch to “plug” and “socket.” This change is tougher, though, because there’s no easy abbreviation to ‘m’ and ‘f’ for text that is tougher to change. But the terms are clearer and … you know, less gross.

Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

Other instances:

Ardour 6.0 actually already rolled out the removal of the term “slave” as part of already-planned changes; that version shipped last week.

Other developers have also indicated the same interest.

One very fast response today: