Dave Smith’s name may be ubiquitous enough to look almost forgettable on the back of a synthesiser – at least next to the distinctive monikers of his peers such as Oberheim, Moog, Linn and Rossum – but it fits the portrait of Smith painted by those who knew him and his work: that of an unassuming yet brilliant innovator, a quiet kind of genius. He didn’t just create iconic synthesisers, he united electronic instruments everywhere.
This week’s announcement of Smith’s death at the age of 72 was met with messages of grief and appreciation by musicians and producers the world over. Know him by name or not, you will have nodded your head countless times to the sound of Smith’s innovation: Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Madonna’s Like a Virgin, Radiohead’s Everything In Its Right Place – they all use his Prophet-5 synthesiser.
Smith began his journey in electronic instruments in the early 1970s while studying electrical engineering and computer science at Berkeley, California. In 1972 he caught wind of a novel synthesiser designed by Robert Moog named the Minimoog. It was, as Smith later described it, “a perfect combination of my musical and technical interests”, but the Minimoog’s greatest impartation to the young Smith was the inspiration to take synthesis further. He designed a sequencer for it – a unit to input 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-birthing SP-1200 sampler), hungry Smith devised a fully polyphonic synthesiser and named it the Prophet-5, debuting the design 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 – in particular for allowing users to store sounds as presets instead of having to note down all the knob positions to recreate them.
Smith was also dubbed “the father of Midi” – the universal language that allows electronic instruments from different manufacturers to be plugged into one another to play in time and in tune. Musical instrument digital interface: it’s an unromantic acronym but those four words together spelled the future of music production on their announcement in 1982.
Having co-written a somewhat controversial paper proposing a “universal synthesiser interface”, Smith called a summit with leading Japanese developers Roland, Korg, Yamaha and Kawai to discuss a means by which their respective creations could be connected to work together for musicians, insisting that their futures depended on it. The Prophet-5’s successor, the Prophet-600, was the first ever Midi product, and in 1983 the Sequential Circuits Prophet-600 and a Roland Jupiter-6 synthesiser were demonstrated connected and performing together.
The technical significance of Midi may appear niche, but it represents a crucial value system of cooperation and mutual benefit, one all but thrown out by today’s major tech companies in favor of captive markets. Forty years later, Midi remains arterial to studios and stages around the world, as important to modern music as USB is to computing. Of course the two would inevitably merge with the subsequent computerization of recording studios, but Smith’s original Midi design, version 1.0, has not been retired.
Smith remained reluctant to claim exclusive credit for Midi, a self-effacement that chimes with 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 meeting with Smith while Yorke was touring the US. “I met him backstage at one of Thom’s shows in San Francisco,” Petts-Davies recalls. “He was just so interested in how people were using his inventions by him – still clearly so curious, and warm and funny, like he just wanted to hang out. We talked about the design of the Prophet-6 a lot. He was so giving, so interested in how people were using his creations.”
Hot Chip’s Felix Martin tweeted: “My career in music 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 greatly missed.” Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon said: “Dave Smith made the best keyboards ever … that’s saying it lightly. Innovator of so much. inspiration. Thank you Dave Smith.”
“If you’d like to share your thoughts and memories of Dave, please reach out,” reads a statement on the landing page of Smith’s company Sequential – a request not often seen by the estate of a major figure on their passing, perhaps so as to keep the canonical history and stave off any skeletons that may emerge from the closet. For Smith, though, it would appear there are none.
“You were a legend and a genius and a pioneer and an innovator,” tweeted Smith’s daughter, Haley. “But you were also my dad and you were a really really really great dad. I love you so much. thank you for everything.” An erstwhile software engineer herself, Haley is now a winemaker. Her Instagram handle remains “midiprincess”.