The Synth Design Icon Talks Analog, MIDI, and More!
When it comes to how keyboard players make music, Dave Smith just 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 perfectly acceptable shorthand to say that he invented MIDI.
At the North Beach, San Francisco offices of Dave Smith Instruments—which now makes some of the most desired analog and hybrid synths out there—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.
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 into the army and got sent to Vietnam. So I decided I wanted to go to college. It was kind of a default to go into engineering. I always had kind of a technical interest. I started at University of Santa Clara for a year and then I went to UC Santa Barbara for a year and the last two years were at Berkeley. So of course when I got out of school I had to get a job as an engineer. I had a day job 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.
Did any music you were listening to as a student influence your desire to build synthesizers?
Back then I was a big fan of Led Zeppelin and the Who and all the English bands. Being in San Francisco, I was able to see them all. I was actually a guitar player and bass player and played in bands in high school and college. I had always played keyboard at home. We had a piano in the house. But I think the first synth music I started listening to was Wendy Carlos. Like everybody else, I heard Switched-On and went, whoa, what’s that?
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.
The Minimoog was monophonic. What was your trajectory from building a sequencer for it to thinking there should be a polyphonic synth—like the Prophet-5—that people could put on top of their Rhodes or B-3 and take to the gig?
It wasn’t as direct a path as you might think. Again, I was working full time and doing this stuff first in a closet and then in a spare bedroom in an apartment. The second product I built was a digital sequencer. I did end up selling a few hundred of those starting around 1975. And then I built the Model 700 programmer that worked with a Minimoog or ARP 2600 so you could actually save patches.
So, that was what led to the Prophet?
The main idea that led there was programmability. I found out that there was going to be a set of integrated circuits from Solid State Music that did synthesizer functions: oscillators, filters, envelopes. I’d been working on microprocessors in Silicon Valley for a few years and this was still real 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. It’s too obvious. Moog and ARP are going to do it. Maybe it’s better if I just stay niche and make sequencers and programmers.” So that was kind of the plan and it wasn’t until 1977, when 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. It was a project that probably went well beyond my abilities at the time but I did it anyway. 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.
Why five voices, not four or six or eight?
Four and eight are computer numbers. I hold up my hand and see five fingers. There was the Oberheim Four-Voice that was already out there and it was partially programmable, but not the streamlined ready-to-go kind of synth I was envisioning. But I thought, just be one better than four! [Laughs.] Because our board had five voices, originally you could get the Prophet-5 or Prophet-10 in the same case. We found we couldn’t do ten voices in single-manual unit because of heat problems—you probably know the story—and later the Prophet-10 became the big synth with two keyboards.
What were some initial challenges with taking an engineer-driven project commercial?
In general, the first version just wasn’t reliable. There were some issues with some of the Solid State Music parts, which led to a swap with Curtis parts. But a lot of it was just me doing such a big project basically solo. It was a learning curve. The problem was that everybody wanted one because there was nothing like it and it sounded great. So we were trying to get Prophets out the door while addressing reliability.
Today, musicians tend to see you, Tom Oberheim, Alan Pearlman, Roger Linn, and the memory of Bob Moog as one big happy family of demigod synth designers. Back in the day, though, what was the competition like between you?
We had competition almost immediately. We’re lucky that the Prophet-5 had over a year with no competition because it took everybody by surprise. ARP claimed they thought about doing a polyphonic synthesizer, but who knows? I don’t know what Moog was thinking at the time. Oberheim was the fastest to respond with the OB-X, which they had out in 1979. There was also the Roland Jupiter-4, but it was a preset synth and people didn’t take it that seriously.
Basically, after a year and a half of competition with Oberheim, everybody was either an Oberheim guy or a Prophet guy. It wasn’t until the early ’80s when the Jupiter-8 and Memorymoog came out that the market got more crowded with polysynths, so we had a good head start. What’s really cool now is, fast-forward to 2016 and people have the same choice! They can buy a Prophet-6 or an OB-6. It was surprising being at NAMM and seeing how many people just immediately gravitated towards one or the other. It’s like it’s 1979!
Now that both of those are under your umbrella, what’s the difference between the Prophet sound and the Oberheim sound?
It’s hard to put that in words. I think the OB-6 has more personality in the sound. It just grabs you. A lot of people hit three notes and go, “Wow.” I think the Prophet-6 has a wider sonic palette. I was going to say it’s a little bit more refined, but that’s not quite the right word because it can get unruly also.
What was your first multi-timbral instrument?
Well, a simple split or layer like on the Prophet-10 or the T8 or the Roland Jupiter-8, I don’t call that multi-timbral, what you could do on a Prophet 10. That’s just bi-timbral. Actually the first true multi-timbral instrument anybody did was the Six-Trak, which we released in ’84. Each of its voices could play a different sound and there was a six-track sequencer, and it had MIDI. We should’ve made a more professional version of it but we were trying to keep prices down.
Speaking of MIDI, you were its principal developer. Before that, brands had proprietary interfaces but their gear couldn’t talk to other brands.
Right. Roland had the DCB bus. Oberheim had a parallel interface on these wide ribbon cables. Sequential, we had a high-speed serial interface. Everybody was doing something different. So clearly that had to change.
What was the tipping point? At that point the competition was so fierce.
The synthesizer market was tiny in the late ’70s. It was small well into the ‘80s. No one was selling 50,000 of these things. It wasn’t until the Yamaha DX7 came out that a company shipped 100,000-plus synths. But the Prophet-5 was the first synth with the microprocessor so when everybody started copying it, they used microprocessors. As soon as you have one in an instrument, you realize it’s pretty easy for them to talk to each other digitally.
“Microprocessor control” was often a tagline in magazine ads back then . . .
Exactly. It was around 1981 that we all started realizing the interface needed to be common. It wasn’t like any one person had a bright idea. It was all kind of obvious. I remember talking to Tom Oberheim about it and he had talked to [Roland founder] Kakehashi about it. I decided that somebody just needed to start it up. That was when I gave a talk at the AES convention in New York presenting the USI—Universal Synthesizer Interface. From the beginning I said, “This doesn’t have to be it. It’s just a starting point. Who wants to get involved?” I get tagged as “the person who started MIDI” because I just initiated all of that.
You got the conversation going.
Yeah. Again, everybody knows the story, but I followed up three months later at NAMM. I rented a room and sent out invitations to anybody who made keyboards of any kind and said, “We want to talk about an interface. If you have a rep or engineer you can send, please do.” And pretty much everybody showed up, which was kind of cool. We actually had a second meeting at NAMM. This was 35 years ago, but I’m pretty sure it was Roland, Korg, Yamaha, and Kawai—who all said “Let’s do it.” That was the start of what became MIDI.
Was there a business case made that someone who owns synth brand X might also buy brand Y if the two can talk to each other?
I don’t remember it being quite that market-driven. Kakehashi was an engineer and a product guy, just like me. The same goes for Bob, Tom, Roger—everything was driven by someone where, it was their company. I think that’s what’s gone missing as things have become more corporate. The work was mostly done by Roland and Sequential. We were the only non-Japanese company so we wrote the spec and handled the English-language side of things. Yamaha, Korg, and Kawai came onboard, and I knew then that it was going to work. If those five companies’ products all work together, everyone else would have to come along for the ride.
You also came up with the name “MIDI”?
I remember a meeting where Kakehashi visited Sequential in San Jose and Jim Mothersbaugh [of Roland] was with him. They wanted to talk about the name. We all decided “USI” wasn’t good. So they’d suggested Universal Musical Instrument Interface, pronounced “you-me” as in "we all connect together." I thought it sounded a little corny, but I liked the idea of musical instrument instead of just synthesizer. For some reason “Musical Instrument Digital Interface” popped into my head and I said, “How about MIDI?” Everybody said, “Okay.”
In January 1983 at the NAMM show, the Roland guys brought a Jupiter-6 to the Sequential booth. We had the Prophet-600. We got a MIDI cable and connected the two. One way worked, the other way worked, and that was it! In 2013, for the 30th anniversary of MIDI, they had the same setup. They also had a Commodore 64 sequencing Animoog on an iPad. That’s the coolest thing about MIDI—something from a million years ago can work with something new, and it always works the same.
The original promise of analog synthesis was to create any sound by getting under its hood, so to speak. Starting in the ’80s, there was the idea that digital was a scalpel where analog was a hammer and chisel. Were digital Sequential synths like the Prophet-VS part of that narrative?
We did the Prophet 2000, which was a sampler. We did the Prophet 3000 and the Studio 440, which was a kind of percussion-based sampler. That was a monster machine. The Prophet-VS was kind of in between—hybrid digital oscillators and analog filters with the whole vector synthesis thing. It wasn’t an attempt to “be more digital.” That was what we were doing with the samplers. [The VS] was more that a couple of guys came up with the idea of this four-way envelope-modulated vector synthesis idea, controlled by a joystick. We all just said, “Hey, that sounds like fun.”
I’ve said this many times before: To me, one of the reasons the Prophet-5 was so successful is that it was the first time people could actually have an emulative instrument on which they could play brass and strings and organ, some electric piano-like sounds, flutes . . . Of course, we would’ve sold ten times more if it was $1,000 instead of $5,000. One of the main reasons the DX7 did so well is it was $2,000, it had 16 voices, it had velocity, but it was a better emulative instrument. That Rhodes sound was, like, 90 percent of it! Now everyone had a portable Rhodes that didn’t cost much money.
Was that the beginning of analog’s long slumber?
The real death blow was when the Korg M1 came out, which was by far the most popular keyboard ever made. It even outsold the DX7. Finally, here was what keyboard players always wanted—real piano, brass, strings, organs, basses, leads. This is somewhat unfair and I’ll say why, but it put synthesis innovation into a 20-year dark ages, because ever since the M1 every company just kept building M1s. More voices, more and better sounds, more precision—just more, more, more.
In some ways, they’re still doing it. So why was that unfair to say?
Because it’s what 90 percent of keyboard players need to play gigs, which is different from players who are into synths for their own sake. What’s cool and different now is people are once again playing synths as synths because they’ve already got their Nords and Motifs and so forth to cover all the other sounds they need. So if you buy a synth now, it’s because you actually want to play a synth. That’s why I think this time it’s going to be different than last time. There’s not going to be something digital that comes in and makes true synthesizers go away again.
This leads right to a thought I wanted to get from you. From the M1 on, the trend was convergence—one keyboard to rule them all. The unattainable height of that might have been the Synclavier. Now, with your own success, the Eurorack boom, and more, the pendulum is swinging towards specialization. Even big companies like Yamaha are hip to this with things like the Reface.
It’s about variety. In that 20-year dark period I talked about, people would say, “I have a keyboard that does every sound.” That was America’s keyboard motto. They lost track of what the old stuff sounds like. They lost track of how much fun it is to interact with a musical instrument. The whole software thing is another conversation. But there’s something about having an instrument in front of you to pick sounds and easily change them.
People also want to be different—they want fresh sounds. They want to be inspired. It’s a whole lot easier to get musical ideas on a synth like the Prophet-6, where you’ve got one knob per function. It’s funny. We sell a lot more Prophet-6s than we do Prophet-12s, even though the 12 is about the same price and has ten times the features and twice as many voices.
People are once again choosing their synthesizers as a statement of individuality.
Yeah. Synths reek of personality, or should. If they don’t, it’s not a good design. Guitarists can choose whether to play a Telecaster, a Strat, a Les Paul, whatever, and they can pick which one was built in which year at which factory. There might even be two identical ones side by side and they’ll pick one over the other because it speaks to them. That’s what I think you get with an analog synth. We try to make them exactly the same but they can’t be because every voice is a different set of circuitry, so no matter what you do, there will always be subtle differences. It’s a great time to be a synth player because there’s cheap stuff, there’s expensive stuff, there’s analog, there’s digital, there’s software that’s free or cheap, there’s disposable software on iPhones, and just about everything sounds good. There’s no obstacle to finding stuff you like.
What’s ironic is that today’s keyboardists can be tough customers. Retail sales folks will tell you they’re very price-sensitive, they want to talk specs and features, and they want it all to come in under $2,000. A Prophet-5 in 1978 dollars cost $4,595 for five voices, and the earlier versions could be less than reliable. Still, we gladly saved up for them. Now . . .
That’s because people are used to anything technological being twice as fast and half the cost every year or two. If it’s a digital instrument, that’s true. The Prophet-6 is not cheap but it does a whole lot more than a Prophet-5, and it’s cheaper and much more reliable, because we can take advantage of new technology. There’s no way I could have built it back then—it would have been twice the cost of a P5. But the cool thing about the Prophet-5 was that, even though you could buy two brand new cars for the price in 1978, just about everybody who bought one said they made money with it. Having a Prophet-5 meant you got gigs. But there was definitely a love-hate thing as well, at least in the early years: “This is the best thing ever, but it keeps drifting!” [Laughs.]
Fast-forward a few years. A lot of people credit Seer Systems Reality as the first soft synth. What was the impetus for your getting into software?
Well, whenever you talk firsts, there’s always somebody earlier. They were in a university, or they built one and nobody knew about it, or they sold 20 of them, whatever. But at Seer we did three generations of soft synths. The first one was for Intel. Intel was just starting the idea of native signal processing actually being able to do real stuff on a computer, and Andy Grove even used it for demos at Comdex. The second generation, we licensed to Creative Labs to put in one of their sound cards—this was mainly sample-based with General MIDI. A million of those things shipped. But what we’ll call the first real professional soft synth was Reality. It had sampling, it had subtractive, it had FM, it had modeling—all of this in one soft synth.
So we called it the future of music synthesis and to a degree, we were correct. But the first time we showed it at NAMM it was very difficult because people would come in and we’d have a keyboard connected to it and they’d go, “Oh what are we listening to?” “It’s called Reality. It’s a software synth.” “What do you mean, software synth?” “We’ve got this PC here. It’s running software that actually is the synthesizer.” “I don’t understand.” It was one of those cases where you’re too early to the marketplace.
You’re known for not being a big fan of soft synths today, though. Why?
Part of the fun of designing your own instruments is playing around with them. So I started asking myself why I was never playing Reality at home. I realized it was because I didn’t like starting at a computer monitor, dragging parameters around, then switching my focus to play something on a MIDI keyboard, then going back to staring at the screen. I mean, it was a very capable instrument. It did stuff no other product at the time did, but I missed having something I could hold in my hands and play.
As a developer, you have to update software every six months to a year because operating systems change, plug-in structures change, and the like. So you spend half your engineering time working on the same product. That’s when I started getting interested in hardware again, and this was the early 2000s.
The software ecosystem is only as good as the human chain of custody that’s built around it . . .
Yeah. That said, software is good for a lot of things. It generally sounds good. It allows you to be in the box, and if you have all your stuff in your laptop, you’re highly portable. It’s free or inexpensive so it’s gotten a bunch of kids into synthesizers that they normally wouldn’t be. It lets you build instruments that would be impractical as stand-alones, such as granular or modeling-based synthesizers. Those methods of synthesis are hard to build concise user interfaces for—it’s not like you can have 20 knobs and make it work, like with subtractive synthesis.
The other thing I like to say is, subtractive has passed the test of time. It’s easy for humans to interact with. A minimal amount of controls provides for a maximum amount of sound possibilities. It’s not going anywhere. Most synthesizers implement it, even soft synths that mainly do something else. So that’s how I got back into hardware. I always point to 2002 as the start of the analog resurgence because that’s when I came out with the Evolver and Bob Moog released the Voyager.
Would you share the story of Sequential selling its name to Yamaha, and you getting the name back in 2015?
One of the biggest mistakes we made at Sequential was that we tried to get into the computer market in around 1984. We were also trying to build lower-cost instruments. We should’ve stayed with pro instruments and probably would’ve done fine. Out of the blue Yamaha came in and asked, “We want to work with you guys somehow.” And I said, “If you do, you better do it quickly because we may not be around in six months.” They actually moved very quickly and bought the company in such a way that nobody made any money on it but it kept it from going belly-up at the time. Over the next year and a half, they never could quite decide what to do with it. I think we kind of got caught in between Japan and Yamaha US. Ultimately they just decided to shut it down. And of course they owned all the names.
That’s when I went over and started with the Korg R&D group in San Jose, which is still there. The first product we did was the Wavestation. And after three or four years I kind of drifted away from that, then to Seer, then back to my own stuff. In hindsight, if we’d built a software Prophet-5 we would’ve been much more successful from the beginning. Instead, Native Instruments did.
Also, doing the same thing just for business reasons is no fun. I’ve always had that problem—I want to do something new. So I never asked for the Sequential name back. It was kind of a surprise when I got a call out of the blue from Yamaha asking if we wanted it back. Apparently Kakehashi had sent a letter to the president of Yamaha, Takuya Nakata, asking him to give Dave his name back, and he very graciously agreed. That never happens anymore in the industry. Everybody’s all about grabbing brands and intellectual property.
At the time we were working the Prophet-6. So we said, “It might be fun to call this a Sequential product.” It got some attention and kind of fit the product perfectly. I’m not sure if we’ll do another Sequential product, but if it makes sense we might. It was very cool of Yamaha to do that because they certainly didn’t have to.
The M.I. industry is full of stories of small developers being bought by larger companies and running into trouble. Since DSI started, you’ve kept control of your brand. What have you done differently this time around?
There was a time where I said I’d never have another company again. When I started DSI, I told myself I didn’t want employees. Obviously, it morphed up from there as people started buying more of the products and eventually I needed help. But the main difference is that I was in my mid-20s when I started Sequential and didn’t really know what I was doing. Back then the attitude was more like, take over the world and see how much we can grow. This time around I purposely avoided that. Any growth we had is—I was going to say accidental but that’s not right—it’s been an organic result of just wanting to make cool synths. There was no five-year business plan or anything like that.
Some might say the best business plan is simply to make the best products.
It’s turned out that way. We can design things quickly because we have no sales reps or marketing department to have a bunch of meetings with. So our development cycle is, hey, let’s build our first proto, a second proto to verify everything, and then start shipping. The OB-6 took us six months. Tom Oberheim and I talked in June and showed it in January.
There’s another main difference. A lot of the bigger companies, when they come out with a new product, it’s almost always replacing an old one. When we come out with a new product, it’s a unique thing that adds to our product line. The Prophet ’08 has been out for eight years already, almost nine, and we’re still selling them steadily because it’s different than a Prophet-6 and both are different from the 12. People pick up the synth that fits their needs and we just keep growing.
Also, all of your manufacturing is done right in the San Francisco Bay Area, right?
Yes, right near here. We go to the factory all the time and they come here. Tom Oberheim is starting to get his stuff built there, too. The technology is good enough that we can still hit reasonable prices, even building in the United States, even analog. Of course, there will always be musicians who can’t afford $2,000 or $2,500 for a synth, which I understand.
And for analog, they’ll snap up a Korg Minilogue for $599.
Yeah, and that’s going to continue. We had five, six, seven years with nobody else making polyphonic analog synths—nobody. So competitors are looking at us and seeing how much we’re growing, how much we’re selling, and there are rumors of more people building poly analog synths soon, which is fine.
Some I’ve seen actually go upmarket, like the Modal 002 from the U.K., which is similar in design philosophy to a Prophet 12.
We see that a lot. We come up with stuff and see other products and go, “Oh, where did that idea come from?” [Laughs.] It’s going to happen more and more. But we have an advantage having the history behind us. I don’t like to lean on that as a reason to buy our stuff. I mean, you either like the synth or you don’t. But having Tom’s name on the OB-6, Roger with the Tempest, Sequential, Prophet, all that . . . a new company might have to be around ten years to get the kind of street cred. But it’s still great to see what companies like Modal are doing. It’s not easy to make a good analog polysynth.
What are the main challenges in doing so?
Well, the Prophet-6 has over 100 control voltages flying around, so we have high-speed processors generating control voltages at audio rates. We were able to do it at a reasonable price point. It’s a tricky design. We know all of our competitors probably bought one last summer and opened it up. It actually started with the Poly Evolver—the idea of having a high-speed processor per voice to do everything efficiently, and that’s of course what’s in the Korg Minilogue. It has four voices, each one with a fast processor controlling it. This kind of thing is to be expected once people figure out how to do things.
Where do you think the whole Eurorack craze is going to end up?
I refuse to predict, but I think it’s awesome. The fact that people are getting into synthesizers, getting hooked on buying modules, and hopefully actually using the modules they buy to make cool new sounds. Personally, I like having a “save” button in whatever instrument I’m working with. I’d put a Prophet 12 or Pro 2 up against most modular systems. Obviously it doesn’t give you the advantage of adding some awesome wacko little module somebody built in their basement. I’d like to see more real music made with them, but that’s difficult because any sound you get, you have to use it right then because you won’t get it again! Of course, modulars look great. Having all those wires gives you that synth cred! But just philosophically, I prefer to build complete instruments.
Still, you have a couple of Eurorack modules out yourself?
And we’re working on a third. We’ve sold a reasonable number of them and it’s gotten us into different markets and a different mindset of people, so it was a good move. Still, if you’re going to ship a thousand of them, you’ve got almost the same amount of work as making a keyboard. But you sell the module for $200 and the keyboard for $2,000. I think I’d rather build the whole instrument. But again, we have a couple software guys, me, and one hardware guy, and we do it all. We never have a shortage of ideas, but a long time ago I decided there’s no hurry, and that’s kind of proven to be the case.
Plus, more staff and more overhead means your business gets more analytics-driven, like the big keyboard companies.
Yeah, you have to support that. Right now we’re in a great position because if, let’s say, everybody builds an analog synth next year and our business is half as much in two years, it’s not a problem. We didn’t overgrow. We just can scale to whatever the market is doing so we don’t have that fear. A big problem with the old Sequential was, we’d build this new product and sales would be off the chart, and then at some point after six or nine months it would start slow down, but we’d have this huge factory that we’d have to keep busy and payroll to meet so we’d have to get another product done quickly and get it out there. It was a constant roller-coaster. I just never want to do that again. So this time I kept it small and scalable, with a lot of reserves so whatever happens there’s no company debt, there’s no stress. If analog hadn’t come back, this would be a different story, but it did, and I love meeting with the artists and seeing live music. For me, it’s all about having a good time.
MPE—Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression—is showing up in more and more controllers like Roger’s LinnStrument, the Roli Seaboards, and Keith McMillen’s stuff. Is this the future of playing the synthesizer, a solution in search of a problem, or something in between?
It’s something in between. Roger just asked me very specifically about MPE. We have customer wish lists for all our products. MPE is something like that. We’ve had a handful of people request it. I told Roger if it gets to the point where a lot of people want it, we’ll consider it. It’s like alternate tunings. People have been bugging us for years about that—usually the same small group. We finally did implement it—I think the Prophet 12 was first. This gets back to our limited engineering time. Of course, people have been interested in alternate controllers for years—go back to the original Moog versus Buchla debates in the ’60s!
The “east coast” versus “west coast” schools of synth design?
Right. [East coast] has a keyboard because that’s what most people want to play. [West coast] didn’t because synthesizers should have a controller that connects to their unique sound possibilities. Well, we know which one won the Darwinism battle. The main thing, though, is chicken-or-egg: getting enough people willing to spend the hours to develop the muscle memory to play your alternate controller, and they’re not going to do that unless they’re pretty much guaranteed that the thing is going to be around. I used to point to the Chapman Stick as an example. Here is this cool bass-guitar hybrid thing that Tony Levin played, but aside from a small group of enthusiasts it’s not really in the musical instrument repertoire now.
What do you think of the prospects for alternate controllers in general?
Well, the Seaboard is better because it’s keyboard-based. It’s kind of like a black-and-white keyboard on steroids. Don’t get me wrong—I really want to see things like the Seaboard and the LinnStrument take off. One of the first accessories I ever built for my Minimoog was a light-based controller, in fact. It’s similar to what I’ve always said about the idea of MIDI 2.0: If you could get Yamaha, Korg, Roland, and maybe Nord to do it, game over. Everybody else would have to sign on, just like the first time around. But I also think that as is, MIDI is good enough to do anything you need.
True. In fact, MPE itself uses the existing MIDI 1.0 spec, just in a clever way.
Yeah. MIDI was cheap to implement and easy as an engineer to develop. We gave it away for free. It’s simple enough that people can use it without freaking out too much. People underrate simplicity. I think simplicity is why the Prophet-6 is currently our best-selling keyboard. Is it because it has VCOs, not DCOs? Is it because it says “Sequential” on it? Is it because it sounds good? Or is it because it has the simplest and most interactive front panel you can put on a synth?
One of your most recent releases is a DJ sampler in collaboration with Pioneer. Tom Oberheim once told me, “Say what you want about EDM, but it gave me my career back.” What is dance music’s role in DSI’s success?
One of the things that we’ve never done is to build “for a market.” We just build synths and fortunately all types of musicians use them. A lot of techno and EDM people use our stuff. You see people with a Pro 2 or a Tempest or a Mopho onstage. I happen to really enjoy that whole scene. You do get tired of people saying, “That’s not music,” and sometimes it’s not. But there can also be a lot of artistry. One extreme is they’re just doing a playlist. Another is that they’re sequencing a bunch of live synths in real time. Most people are in the middle, screwing around with tracks and adding a synth or two. Obviously, a good DJ is reading the crowd and has enough mastery of their tools to respond. It’s fun watching the good ones.
I’ve seen how your booth at NAMM just mobbed. I’ve seen the adulation when 20-year-olds in an indie band recognize you. I’ve seen this happen to Tom and Roger. In the first heyday of synthesis, it didn’t seem like the synth designer was a personality—except possibly Bob Moog. Now, you guys are treated like rock stars. Is that a new feeling?
A lot of it is about longevity and history. Bob started ten years before we did, and this is going to sound kind of silly but his name was simple to pronounce—even though most people mispronounced it! It became the Kleenex of synths. People looked at any synth and went, “Is that a Moog?” When I came out with the Prophet-5, I didn’t have that history, and I was actually the only one that didn’t use my name. Moog, ARP, Linn, Oberheim—pretty much everybody else did. So of course nobody knew who I was, even the second time. “Dave Smith Instruments, what’s that? The Prophet guy? Oh, cool.” Just like everybody loves old synths, they like the old synth designers, too!
But again, it’s about history combined with the fact that we’re still coming back and doing relevant instruments. There are other designers who should be at the top of the list. Marcus Ryle, if you knew all the stuff he’s done, but he’s always kept in the background. It’s fun to see Dave Rossum get back in there. People don’t know him because, like me, he didn’t put his name on it. [Rossum was co-founder of E-mu. His new company, Rossum Electro-Music, designs Eurorack modules. —Ed.]
It’s funny you compare us to rock stars, because there’s a big parallel between bands and synth designers. How many bands did something 20 or 30 years ago that was really cool and ever since, they’ve been trying to record new albums? Go to a show and they want to play the new stuff but the audience only wants to hear the old stuff. I get that even now. People come up to me at the booth and only want to talk about the Prophet-5, even as they’re surrounded by new instruments. It’s having to prove later in life that you can still be relevant, just like somebody in a band. Some bands like Radiohead or U2 do this successfully, but many still tour based on what they did 20 or more years ago.
So I think why we get treated like that now is because if we haven’t so much reinvented ourselves, we’ve been able to reproduce what we did before with instruments that people actually like and use and that have modern convenience and stability. It’s a good combination, and we also have the name recognition that comes from history, since the mindset in our industry is very “vintage.” It shouldn’t be, but I’ll take it!