Dave Smith, whose Prophet-5 synthesizer powered ’80s pop, dies at 72

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Dave Smith, an engineer who helped create the Prophet-5 synthesizer that became a staple of 1980s pop music, as well as the electronic MIDI system that enabled drum machines, keyboards, sequencers – an entire orchestra of machines – to talk to each other, died May 31 in a Detroit hospital. He was 72 years old.

The cause was complications from a heart attack, said his wife, Denise. Mr. Smith, a resident of St. Helena, Calif., had traveled to Detroit to attend the Movement electronic music festival.

The Prophet line of synthesizers, designed by Mr. Smith and John Bowen for Smith’s Sequential Circuits company in the late 1970s and 1980s were the first commercially available polyphonic synthesizers, meaning musicians could play full harmony and chords. Each unit had programmable memory that allowed the user to store and reuse sounds at any time.

Throughout the 1980s, Mr. Smith’s analog instrument became ubiquitous on the pop charts, gracing such hit albums as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1982), Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” (1984) and “Abacab” (1981) by Genesis. , as well as music by Vangelis for the film “Blade Runner” (1982) and several scores by horror filmmaker John Carpenter.

A computer programmer and fledgling bassist, Mr. Smith became fascinated with Wendy Carlos’ “Switched-On Bach” (1968), a hit album of pieces by JS Bach performed on a Moog synthesizer.

“It was so realistic the way [Carlos] played, it was right, it sounded like an acoustic instrument,” Mr. Smith said in 2014 at a Red Bull Music Academy event. “We all know what’s electronic and what’s not. There was just this life that was just amazing to hear and the way she played it.

Because Moog models of this era could only play one note at a time, it took Carlos nearly five months to record his Bach album – something Mr. Smith discovered when he purchased a Minimoog .

“The funny thing is, when the Minimoog first came out, because it had a keyboard on it, a lot of people would get on it, and the first thing they would do was play a chord, and a single note would play, and they’d be like, ‘What’s going on? Is it broken?’ ” he explained.

Wanting to solve this problem, he quit his day job in 1974 and started working on a new line of synthesizers.

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In the early 1980s, with the engineer from Roland Corp. Ikutaro Kakehashi, Mr. Smith introduced the MIDI – Musical Instrument Digital Interface – multi-channel cables that allowed interfacing between synth technology from different manufacturers.

Keyboardists, quick to grasp new technology, often appeared on stage surrounded by stacks of keyboards and sequencers that created a decadent range of sounds. Guitarists were not left behind, as MIDI guitar synthesizers soon followed. For their work on MIDI, Mr. Smith and Kakehashi shared a Technical Grammy Award in 2013.

In the 1990s, Mr. Smith also built one of the first software synthesizers that could be installed on a personal computer, Reality, for the company Seer Systems.

David Joseph Smith was born in San Francisco on April 2, 1950 and grew up in the Bay Area. Her father was an English teacher and her mother was a housewife and later an interior designer.

He had a bachelor’s degree in computer science and electrical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.

In addition to his 33-year-old wife, of Saint Helena, survivors include two children and four siblings.

Yamaha bought Sequential Circuits in 1987 and closed it in 1989. Mr. Smith then worked for Korg, where he helped design the company’s Wavestation synthesizer, popularized by the band Depeche Mode. In 2002 he started a new company, Dave Smith Instruments. The company was renamed Sequential in 2018 after Yamaha returned the trademark rights to Mr. Smith.

“My goal in all of my instruments is for them to have a unique personality, great sound, and be fun to play,” Mr. Smith told Keyboard magazine in 2021. reflects this.

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