When it comes to how keyboard players make music, Dave Smith may be the most influential person alive. His early experiments building sequencers led to his first company, Sequential Circuits, releasing the first programmable polyphonic slab synth, the Prophet-5. His work on wavetable and vector synthesis in the Prophet-VS was reborn in the enduring Korg Wavestation. His Seer Systems Reality is widely acknowledged as the first commercially available “professional” soft synth. And though he tells the story more modestly, it’s acceptable shorthand to say that he invented MIDI.
At the North Beach, San Francisco, offices of today’s Dave Smith Instruments—which makes some of the most desired analog and hybrid synths on the market—we settled in for a long conversation with Dave about where he’s been, where he sees the synth industry going, and what it’s like to finally feel like a rock star. In fact, we covered so much ground that we could fit only part of it here—so be sure to read the “extended remix” at keyboardmag.com/september2016.
What was your point of entry into engineering before you were a synth designer?
When I got out of high school it was a time where if you didn’t go to college you went to Vietnam. It was kind of a default to go into engineering. I always had kind of a technical interest. I started at Santa Clara, then I went to UC Santa Barbara for a year, and the last two years were at [UC] Berkeley. I had a day job as an engineer for about six years until I quit. I started Sequential Circuits after the first three years. I realized I didn’t want to work in “regular” engineering the rest of my life, and that’s when I got interested in synthesizers—when I bought my first Minimoog in, I think, 1972.
|Photo Credit: Laura Christie
Your first product was a sequencer, correct?
Yeah. It was an analog sequencer—16 steps by three rows, a bunch of knobs, kind of the style everybody’s building again these days. I wanted a sequencer to go with the Minimoog and the Moog ones were too expensive. So I just built it for my own use. Then I realized, maybe other people might want to have one, too. Sequential sold a grand total of four! That was 1974-ish.
What was the path that led from there to the Prophet-5?
It wasn’t as direct a path as you might think. The main idea was programmability. I found out that there was going to be a set of integrated circuits from Solid State Music that did synthesizer functions. I’d been working on microprocessors in Silicon Valley for a few years and this was still early in the game, but I knew how they worked. So it was obvious to me that if you put a bunch of these synthesizer chips on a board with a microprocessor, you could build a fully programmable polyphonic synth. For a while I said, “I don’t want to build a keyboard. Moog and ARP are going to do it.” Then in 1977, two things happened. One, I finally quit my day job. Two, I thought maybe nobody is going to build this thing after all, so I’m going to do it. I started in probably spring of ’77 working on what turned out to be the Prophet-5 and had it available to demonstrate at NAMM the following January. I basically did everything—the metal, the wood, the circuit board, the schematics, all the software, just the whole thing.