Dave Smith: the synth genius who made pop instruments work in harmony | Electronic music
DSmith’s name may be ubiquitous enough to seem almost forgettable on the back of a synthesizer – at least next to the distinctive nicknames of his peers such as Oberheim, Moog, Linn and Rossum – but it matches the painted portrait of Smith. by those who knew him and his work: that of an unpretentious man brilliant innovator, a sort of discreet genius. He didn’t just create iconic synthesizers, he brought together electronic instruments everywhere.
This week’s announcement of Smith’s death at the age of 72 was met with messages of grief and appreciation from musicians and producers around the world. Whether you know him by name or not, you’ll have nodded countless times to Smith’s innovation: Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Madonna’s Like a Virgin, Radiohead’s Everything In Its Right Place – they use all his Prophet-5 synthesizer.
Smith began his journey into electronic instruments in the early 1970s while studying electrical engineering and computer science in Berkeley, California. In 1972, he got wind of a new synthesizer designed by Robert Moog called the Minimoog. It was, as Smith later described it, “a perfect combination of my musical and technical interests”, but the greatest transmission from the Minimoog to young Smith was the inspiration to pursue synthesis further. He designed a sequencer for this – a unit for inputting complex melodic patterns with adjustable sequences of voltage values - and went on to found the aptly named Sequential Circuits in 1974.
The Minimoog was a revolutionary design but it was monophonic, only able to play one note at a time. With a little help from fellow San Franciscan Dave Rossum (now famous for his hip-hop-born SP-1200 sampler), a starving Smith designed a fully polyphonic synthesizer and named it the Prophet-5, making his debut at the National Association of Music Merchants in the basement of a Disney hotel in January 1978. The Prophet-5 would become revered for both sound and functionality – particularly for allowing users to store sounds under form presets instead of having to write down all the button positions to recreate them.
Smith has also been dubbed “the father of Midi” – the universal language that allows electronic instruments from different manufacturers to be plugged together to play in rhythm and in tune. Musical Instrument Digital Interface: It’s an unromantic acronym, but those four words together spelled the future of music production when they were announced in 1982.
After co-authoring a somewhat controversial paper proposing a “universal synthesizer interface”, Smith convened a summit with leading Japanese developers Roland, Korg, Yamaha and Kawai to discuss a way in which their respective creations could be connected. to work together for the musicians, insisting that their future depended on it. The successor to the Prophet-5, the Prophet-600, was the very first Midi product, and in 1983 a Sequential Circuits Prophet-600 and a Roland Jupiter-6 synthesizer were demonstrated connected and performing together.
Midi’s technical significance may seem niche, but it represents a crucial value system of cooperation and mutual benefit, a system all but discarded by today’s big tech companies in favor of captive markets. Forty years later, the Midi remains open to studios and stages around the world, as important for modern music as USB is for computing. Of course, the two would inevitably merge with later computerization of recording studios, but Smith’s original Midi design, version 1.0, was not retired.
Smith remained reluctant to claim sole credit for Midi, a self-effacement that matched the modesty he was known to maintain. British producer and engineer Sam Petts-Davies, perhaps best known for his work with Radiohead and Thom Yorke, describes a chance encounter with Smith while Yorke was on tour in the United States. “I met him backstage at one of Thom’s shows in San Francisco,” Petts-Davies recalled. “He was so interested in how people used his inventions – always so curious and warm and funny, like he just wanted to hang out. We talked a lot about the design of the Prophet-6. He was so generous, so interested in how people used his creations.
Hot Chip’s Felix Martin tweeted, “My music career would be nothing without the things he designed. It was an honor to have met him. A true genius and a lovely person who will be sorely missed. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver said, “Dave Smith has created the best keyboards of all time… that’s to say lightly. Innovator of so many things. Inspiration. Thanks Dave Smith.
“If you would like to share your thoughts and memories of Dave, please contact us,” read a statement on Smith’s Sequential company homepage – a request rarely seen by the estate of a major figure during of their passing, perhaps if in order to keep the story canonical and avoid any skeletons that might emerge from the closet. For Smith, however, there seems to be none.
“You were a legend and a genius and a pioneer and an innovator,” Smith’s daughter Haley tweeted. “But you were also my father and you were a very very very good father. I love you so much. Thanks for everything.” Once a software engineer herself, Haley is now a winemaker. Her Instagram handle remains “midiprincess.”