by Francis Preve
Here’s the extended conversation with synth designer Dave Smith, upon which we based the text for his induction into the Keyboard Hall of fame in the September 2012 issue.—Ed.
While the synthesizer industry is massive—and nearly 50 years old—few inventors are truly entitled to be called legends. Bob Moog is one, as are Tom Oberheim, Roger Linn, Alan R. Pearlman, and Don Buchla. Dave Smith, though, stands out as a legend whose mission today has total continuity with his mission at the beginnings of the synth industry: To make synths fun and affordable to gigging musicians.
Aside from having been one of the primary contributors to the invention of MIDI itself, Dave Smith was instrumental in the development of the first polyphonic, fully programmable synth (the Prophet-5), vector synthesis (Prophet-VS), wave sequencing (Korg Wavestation) and PC-based software synthesis (Seer Systems Reality). As the launch of the long-awaited Tempest
—an analog/digital hybrid drum machine co-developed with Roger Linn—loomed over an eager industry, we had a chat with Dave to delve deeper into his accomplishments and get his thoughts on the current state of synthesizer tech.Let's go back to the very beginning... What got you started in music technology?
It all started playing in bands in high school and college, as seemingly everyone did back in the late 1960s, followed by an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science degree from [the University of California at] Berkeley in 1971. While there, I wrote a computer program that composed music and printed it on a plotter—very primitive.
This was before engineers were in demand, even in Silicon Valley, so I had a horrible job in aerospace. One day a friend told me he saw a synthesizer in a small local music store; it was a Minimoog, and this was in 1972. I immediately got a loan from the Lockheed credit union and bought it—it seemed like a perfect combination of my musical and technical interests. And, yes, I still have it.
What was your first product?
After playing with the Mini for a while, I wanted to do more with the synth. The Moog modular stuff was too expensive, and I really wanted a sequencer. So, I designed a 16 x 3 analog sequencer that worked with Moogs and ARPs. After building it, I thought other people might want one, so I officially started Sequential Circuits in 1974. I sold three of them!
How did the Prophet-5 come about?
After the analog sequencer, I designed a digital sequencer in 1975, then the Model 700 Programmer, which allowed limited programming on Minimoogs and ARP 2600s. All this time, I still had a full-time job working with microprocessors, which were quite new at the time, in 1975–77.
I then found out from Dave Rossum at E-mu that there was a synth chip set in the works from Solid State Music. I thought, what an obvious idea: Combine these integrated circuit chips with a microprocessor, and make a polyphonic, completely programmable, polyphonic synth. I didn’t pursue the idea at first, thinking it was so obvious that Moog or ARP must be designing such an instrument.
After a few months, it seemed like they were not, so in the spring of 1977, I quit my day job and started in on the design. We showed it mostly working at NAMM in January 1978—in the basement of the Disneyland hotel, that's how small it was back then—and started shipping a few months later.
You are often credited as the inventor of MIDI, or at the very least, one of the key designers of the original spec. Can you tell us a bit about that?
This story likely appears in many places. Briefly, it started with informal discussions with Mr. Kakehashi of Roland, and Tom Oberheim. I decided something had to be done, so I delivered a paper at the 1981 AES convention in New York, presenting the “Universal Synthesizer Interface” (USI), with a rough spec meant at a starting point.
I then organized a meeting at the January NAMM show to follow up, and quickly determined that only a few companies (Roland mostly, plus Yamaha, Korg, and Kawai) wanted to make it happen. So we did! I coined the acronym MIDI in a meeting with Roland at Sequential, when we had decided that USI wouldn't work. The Japanese companies wanted UMII (Universal Musical Instrument Interface), as it sounded like “you-me.” When I suggested Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), everyone seemed to like it. Here we are 30 years later, and it’s still version 1.0, and works everywhere, all the time. Plug a Prophet ’08 into a Prophet-600 (the first MIDI instrument, 1982) and it will work.
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, if you could go back and rethink the original MIDI spec, is there anything you would change?
As just mentioned, it works, and always has. Of course there are speed limitations after 30 years of technology developments. But I wouldn’t change a thing based on the technology at the time and the best guesses we had going forward. We even had diagrams back then showing personal computers as the controllers for numerous synths.
After the original Prophet, you pioneered vector synthesis with the design of the Prophet-VS. Tell us a bit about your inspirations and how the product development came about.
Vector Synthesis was not my idea, but came originally from one of my engineers, Chris Meyer, who developed it more with Josh Jeffe, who did the software development. I was involved in the hardware design and of course project management. The funny thing is that it didn’t sell too well when first released. We eventually had to dump them somewhat on the market. It was only later that they were in demand, as they still are today. Though it has a somewhat limited sonic palette, nothing sounds like a VS!
So despite all of these innovations, what happened to Sequential?
Simple answer: An ill-fated decision to move into computer audio and sound in 1985–86. We were too small and under-capitalized, and we were a few years too early in the market. I’ve made the mistake more than once—it’s just as bad to be too early with a product as it is to be too late. It drained our resources, so by the time we pulled back to professional instruments (Prophet 2000 sampler, the VS, and the Studio 440), it was too late. Yamaha purchased the company, and shut it down within about a year in 1989.
After Sequential, you moved to Korg, correct? What was that experience like?
In between there was the year at Yamaha, where I got interested in physical modeling, and came up with ideas for some products that did eventually become Yamaha products. Funny, they even patented the idea of wave sequencing without telling me—this after they said it wouldn't work! Wave sequencing was of course the concept behind the Wavestation, designed by Korg R&D in California, a group of ex-Sequential/Yamaha employees that I started up for Korg. I did not have much to do with the actual design work beyond the initial concepts. After that, I really didn’t do too much for Korg, beyond suggesting involvement in physical modeling and multimedia applcations, including software synthesis on computers.
Other than the Wavestation, were there any other Korg products that benefitted from your involvement?
Not really. The OASYS was of course a software-based synth, but I can’t take any credit for it.
In the mid-’90s, you pioneered the first full software-based synthesizer that could be installed on any compatible PC, Seer Systems Reality. Please tell us a bit about its origin and features.
It started with a contract for Intel to develop a soft synth, which we did at Seer (which was not my company, by the way). It was premiered by Andy Grove at a COMDEX in . . . maybe 1994? We then did a second-generation synth that included some physical modeling, and licensed it to Creative Labs for their AWE64, which sold in the millions. Reality was actually our third-generation synth, the first professional soft synth ever made, in 1995 or 1996. It had analog emulation (a.k.a. virtual analog), FM, sampling, and physical modeling in one synth. It was a hard sell: Picture a NAMM show, trying to explain that the synth was software running on a PC, and lots of blanks stares and confused looks. As mentioned earlier, it’s hard to be the first to market sometimes!
So after Seer, you returned to your roots in hardware, via Dave Smith Instruments. Your first product was the Evolver in 2002. What was the inspiration there?
It was simple. Reality did a lot of stuff, but I realized I was never playing with it. I always like to play around with my instruments, so I had to ask myself why? I realized how silly it is to have a computer screen—QWERTY keyboard and mouse on one side, MIDI keyboard on the other—and somehow try to have fun. Fun is extremely important when playing with a synth! Menus and typing and clicking and so on . . . even using a control surface is not ideal when the knobs’ functions change or don’t have logical placement relative to the instrument they’re controlling. It just doesn’t feel or act like a musical instrument.
At the same time, I was helping Roger Linn on his Adrenalinn, and I realized how much I liked hardware. It's fun. It has knobs and switches. And, unlike soft synths, it’ll still work in 10 years. Soft synths have to be ported forever to new operating systems, platforms, and endless versions. I like designing an instrument once, then moving on, not working on the same thing forever.
The Evolver first shipped in 2002; we're still selling it eight years later, and there’s still nothing that can touch it! The concept was to combine real analog electronics with highly integrated digital circuits—the best of both worlds, from pure analog warmth to digital crunch.
Then the Evolver begat the Poly Evolver, followed by the Mono Evolver Keyboard. Finally, in 2008, you unleashed the Prophet ’08, a modern-day version of the analog synth that launched your career. How did the Prophet ’08 come about?
At first, the concept was a lower-cost, all-analog, eight-voice poly synth. I was able to hit my target price point of about $2,000, and only when it was mostly done that I realized while playing it one day that it deserved to be a Prophet. I was originally thinking that compared to the Evolver and Poly Evolver voice structure it would be too simple, but the all-analog signal path produced a sound that was pure Prophet analog power, though updated with numerous modern features.
With all of these analog and analog/digital hybrids coming out of your laboratory for over 30 years, what’s your take on the current state of the synth industry?
Well, it’s mostly software, number-wise. Which is fine; they sound okay, and they’re usually free, and if it gets kids started with synths, that’s a good thing. Of course, it’s hard to compete with free, but more and more musicians are discovering the benefits of a one-knob-per-function, concise, consistent hardware interface—and of course, the appeal of the analog sound. Something I see quite often when someone plays one of our synths for the first time is a big smile after about ten seconds; then they often say, "Okay, now I get it!"
ROMplers are fine for what they do, but not much has changed since the Korg M1, just bigger numbers, samples, voices, and so on. There are some cool digital synths also. Fortunately there are still a bunch of instruments just waiting to be designed. That’s what we’re doing!
The world knows you as a technology mastermind, but you're musician as well. Give us some insight into the kind of music you make as an artist. What does Dave Smith sound like?
Usually just turning knobs and making interesting sounds on a synth. I can often judge how good a new design is by how many times I lose an hour (unintentionally) playing with it when I started by just testing a new feature. Completely separately, sometimes after working with synths all day, I’d rather play my piano or pick up one of my guitars. I haven’t done any recording though, and only occasional jamming, usually on bass.
Which artists inspire you?
I prefer music with an edge, and I’m most interested in the sound, something that strikes me as new and interesting. It’s hard to be specific these days with so many genres put there, but I usually prefer music in the alternative/indie categories. Then again, I like a much wider range of music when it’s live, compared to recorded music. I love going to concerts when our customers are in town, especially at the Fillmore in San Francisco, where I saw so many great bands in the late ’60s. It’s hard to list favorites without including all the artists who are our customers, many of whom I’ve been lucky to see live. As an instrument designer, that's the payoff: seeing musicians play your synths!
Any final words of wisdom for our readers?
It’s all about personality. My goal in all my instruments is that they have a unique personality, great sound, and be fun to play. That’s what all music is about if you think about it, so the instruments should reflect that.