His designs have revolutionized the way music is made and his Prophet synths continue to lead the way.
It was in 1972 that Dave Smith bought a Minimoog synth—and that started it all. With degrees in computer science and electronics, Dave was immediately drawn into the possibilities of synthesized music. He proceeded to design what would evolve into the Model 600 Sequencer, a 16-step controller to program his Minimoog. Production of a handful of these sequencers for electronic-music labs led Smith to found Sequential Circuits in 1974. What followed was a string of innovative programming devices and synths that would forever change electronically created music.
By 1981, Smith and a coterie of other electronic-instrument designers were running headlong into a lack of compatibility in the gear they were producing. Dave presented a paper at that year’s Audio Engineering Society convention proposing a standardized interface. At the NAMM show the following January, he managed to get all the major keyboard producers into the same room to begin talking about a common set of standards. Although there was dissent at first, Dave was able to enlist Roland, Korg, Yamaha, and Kawai as collaborators in refining the design specification.
It was fitting that Dave both coined the acronym MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) and shipped the first MIDI product, the groundbreaking Prophet-600 synth. At the 1983 NAMM winter show, the Prophet-600 and Roland’s newly debuted Jupiter 6 wowed the crowd as the two synths were connected and played in tandem. Remarkably, in a world where tech standards seem to change by the hour, MIDI still runs under its original version 1.0. Even though current uses in live sound, lighting, video, and deejaying weren’t around at its birth, MIDI is still the unrivaled digital-control standard.
After Sequential Circuits, Dave worked on physical-synthesis R&D with Yamaha then started up Korg’s R&D team in California, resulting in the Wavestation. A stint as the president of Seer Systems led to the first professional soft synth, Reality, that ran on Intel processors.
Founding Dave Smith Instruments marked a return to hardware-based synthesis, with the Evolver hybrid analog/digital synth reaching the market in 2002. Since then, the product range has focused around the Prophet-6 keyboard and module as well as the flagship Prophet X sampling synth. In 2018, Dave reverted to his original company name, Sequential, thus closing a circle in his storied career.
We recently chatted with Dave at NAMM 2019 in Anaheim. With the 40th anniversary of the landmark Prophet-5 at hand, we asked him for the backstory of the world’s first fully programmable polyphonic synth.
The HUB: How did the concept for the Prophet-5 come about?
DS: I thought it was an obvious idea. I actually held off designing it for a few months because I figured Moog and Arp, who were the big two companies back then, would be working on the same thing. I had already been working in microprocessors, but they were kind of new to everybody else. I was working in Silicon Valley just as it was becoming Silicon Valley. And that was my day job, working with microprocessors. So I knew how they worked and why they were cool. And at the same time, I found out about a chipset coming out from Solid State Music that was going to include VCOs, filters, envelopes, and VCAs. The logical thing to do was to take a bunch of those and have a microprocessor control them. You could not only make a good polyphonic synth, you could also make it completely programmable. The problem with the Minimoog was that you couldn’t save programs and you only could play one note at a time. So…
A vintage Prophet-5 in Dave's office at Sequential headquarters in San Francisco, CA.
The HUB: The Prophet-5 was an immediate success, right?
DS: Yeah, it was, pretty much. But it was a little overwhelming, because I didn't know what I was doing, and we had a tiny company, and all of a sudden we had all these orders for this highly complex product. And so, it was tricky times. But it was fun, and yeah, we knew we had the right thing.
The HUB: You’re considered the father of MIDI. At what point did you and the other pioneers of the standard decide, okay, it's time to get some kind of format together?
DS: It was obvious then that we had to do something. So we started talking at trade shows, informally. We agreed it would be a good idea if we could all talk to each other instead of having our own proprietary formats. So, I went back to Sequential and we wrote up a spec as a proposal. I gave a talk at the NAS convention in 1981 in New York, saying ‘Here's an interface proposal. It doesn't have to be this, but, we really need to get everybody together to do this.’ I organized a meeting at the NAMM show that January, and invited every single company that made keyboards, and they pretty much all came. I said the same thing at NAMM: “Here's an interface. We need to do something. Who wants to get involved? As it turned out, most of companies weren’t on board. But there were the four Japanese companies [Roland, Korg, Yamaha, and Kawai] that did want to work with us and we developed the standard over that year.
Dave Smith at the Sequential booth at Winter NAMM 2019.
The HUB: Obviously it was good enough, because here we are years later, and the MIDI standard hasn't changed at all. Did you have any idea of its impact at the time?
DS: Well, we kind of knew. Obviously, we didn't know that there would be such a thing as a cell phone back then. But we did know that there were going to be computers, and in fact, computers were kind of written up in the original spec.
The HUB: What’s it like to hear your instruments being used by leading musicians on major albums?
DS: Well, that's always for me the payoff, you know. Designing a musical instrument is useless if nobody makes music with it. So from the first Prophet-5 run of 10 instruments, units went to Rick Wakeman, David Bowie, and Joe Zawinul. It was just like, immediately, all this music, and all these songs with Prophet-5s on them. These days it’s great to have a new set of people out there making music with the Prophet. And sometimes it's the original Prophet-5 artists, because they're still out there making music.
The HUB: It seems like you, Tom Oberheim, Roger Linn and all the synth legends have over time developed a pretty strong camaraderie. But was that always the case, or was there any kind of competition?
DS: Back in 1979 or 1980 you were either a Sequential player—a Prophet player or an Oberheim player. So, of course we were, in some ways, mortal enemies. But at the same time, I probably met Tom Oberheim in 1975, we were all friends even then. It was a really tiny market. It wasn't like, you know, we were kings of industry, by any means. So, it's more the group excitement of getting this new market started. It was always, always fun.
The HUB: How did the collaboration come about with Oberheim for the OB-6?
DH: We realized that with the way we designed the Prophet-6, it was fairly easy to convert it to a different type of sound engine. I asked him if he wanted to so something like that and he said sure. It was very informal, off the cuff, and it turned out to work really well.
The DSI OB-6 Module delivers classic Oberheim sound in a compact package.
The HUB: Hybrid synths aren't a new concept, really, but it seems to be a trend right now. What do you think are the benefits and disadvantages of hybrid stuff versus maybe just all analog?
DS: There are no rules. And actually, if you think about it, the Prophet VS was a hybrid synth. It had digital oscillators with analog filters. All the early samplers had samples playing back through analog filters. So the hybrid thing's been around for a while. And then when I started this company in 2002, my first product was hybrid. That was the Evolver, which had wavetable oscillators and DCOs, and an analog backend on it. I've always said that digital just works so much better when it goes through analog.
The last 20 years, everybody's been asking me, “When are you going to do samples through filters?” And so we finally did it, and the Prophet X is just that. It's got this monstrous library — 10 times bigger than anybody else’s — of samples, stereo samples, deep sampled from 8Dio. And yet they all go through stereo-analog filters. It's magic. It just makes it all so much better. The Prophet 12 had digital oscillators and the Rev 2 has DCOs, which some people think are digital, but they're not. They're analog oscillators with digital timing. And then of course, the Prophet-6 and the OB-6 have VCOs. So we don't take sides.
The HUB: Whatever's going to work best for the instrument.
DS: It’s whatever the purpose of the instrument is; what we want to get is a specific personality, that's what we do. A lot of people want it all-analog start to finish. And I say, fine. But then that limits you, you know? It's an unnecessary limitation.
The HUB: How did the concept come up for the Prophet X?
DS: I became friends with the 8Dio people a few years back, and they mentioned, “Hey, maybe we should do this someday.” And I said, “Nah, I don't want to do samples.” But then I started thinking about the people who wanted filters, and started thinking about how, you know, workstations have been around now for, what, 30 years. And to me, they're just that, they're workstations. They're tools. There's no excitement, there's no interaction like with a musical instrument. So, we just set out to make a sampler that was actually a musical instrument, where everything's fast, easy, convenient, interactive, inspirational—all the things that are missing when you try to do this stuff on laptops. So, yeah, it was kind of an obvious product to build all of a sudden. 8DIO has fantastic-sounding stuff. So, for a collaboration, that was a good choice.
I'm big into the personality of an instrument, and their samples have this extra something about them. It's not necessarily absolutely perfect, pristine, and clean. But you don't want that in music. Music has nothing to do with being perfectly pristine. It's all about the personality of the samples. And so when you run the 8Dio samples through the stereo-analog filters, it's just magic.
The Sequential Prophet X delivers the best of both worlds thanks to its hybird analog/digital design.
The HUB: What do you think about the surge in modular synthesis right now?
DS: Oh, I think it's cool. It's probably what I would've done if I was just starting now, because it allows somebody in their garage on weekends to design a module or a product they can sell 50 of. And for playing around with, it's awesome, because there's so many choices. And they seem to be getting over the analog vs. digital thing, too, which is good. So, you know, there's some cool digital modules, and people don't mind putting them in there and using them, because they do things that analog can't. It's a great, great concept, a lot of fun. For me personally though, I don't have the patience for it, and I don't want to get into collector-itis and build a huge thing. And I really, really like having a save button. So, because the modulation matrices in our products are really deep, you can get close to modular modulation at audio rates, and save the whole thing so you have it forever.
The HUB: You guys have a few modules out, right?
DS: We have three. We're kind of winding down from that. We could do dozens, you know? Because we obviously have both analog and digital technology. But we just realize, for the effort required to put something in production and do it right, we may as well just build a keyboard. And since we can, and some people can't, it's just better to build the real instrument instead of just one little part. And I don't want to grow the company. I mean, I suppose we could grow the company and have a modular division that did nothing but. But then it becomes too much work.
The HUB: Why did you feel it was important to revert back to the Sequential name?
DS: There are a few reasons. When I started Dave Smith Instruments, I had no plan, no idea. I just wanted to build a product. And it was just me for the first five years — just kind of playing around. But then I began work on the Prophet 08. And the original name was always too long and stupid, and the logo was horrible, I didn’t like anything about it. And yet I found myself stuck with the name as the company started growing. When Yamaha was gracious enough to let me get the Sequential name back four years ago, we put it on the Prophet-6, and then when we decided to put it on the Prophet X. The other big thing was that it wasn’t just me anymore. When I was the only person in the company, well, sure, it made sense. But now we've got 14 of us, and everybody contributes to all the products, so it's kind of unfair to have my name alone on the product.
A Sequential Prophet-6 Synthesizer at Sequential HQ in San Francisco, CA.
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