Dave Smith, whose synthesizers shaped electronic music, dies at 72
Unlike a piano or organ, early synthesizers, like the Moog and ARP, could only generate one note at a time. Shaping a particular tone involved tweaking multiple knobs, switches, or dials, and trying to replicate that tone afterwards meant writing all the parameters and hoping for similar results next time.
The Prophet-5, which Mr. Smith designed with John Bowen and introduced in 1978, overcame both of these shortcomings. Controlling the functions of the synthesizer with microprocessors, he could play five notes at once, allowing for harmonies. (The company also made a 10-note Prophet-10.) The Prophet also used microprocessors to store settings in memory, providing reliable yet personalized sounds, and it was portable enough to use on stage.
Mr. Smith’s small business was overwhelmed with orders; sometimes the Prophet-5 had a two-year backlog.
But Mr. Smith’s innovations went much further. “Once you have a microprocessor in an instrument, you realize how easy it is to digitally communicate with another instrument with a microprocessor,” Smith explained in 2014. Other keyboard manufacturers have begun to incorporate microprocessors, but each company used a different, incompatible interface, a situation Mr. Smith said he considered “a bit silly”.
In 1981, Mr. Smith and Chet Wood, a sequential circuit engineer, presented a paper at the Audio Engineering Society convention to propose “The ‘USI’, or Universal Synthesizer Interface.” The point, he recalled in a 2014 interview with Waveshaper Media, was “Here’s an interface. It doesn’t have to be that, but we all really need to come together and do something. Otherwise, he said, “This market is going nowhere.”
Four Japanese companies—Roland, Korg, Yamaha, and Kawai—were willing to cooperate with Sequential Circuits on a common standard, and Roland’s Mr. Smith and Mr. Kakehashi worked out the details of what would become MIDI. “If we had done MIDI in the usual way, creating a standard would take years and years and years,” Smith told the Red Bull Music Academy. “You have committees and documents and pa-da-da. We got around all of that by just doing it and then throwing it out there.
In 2013, Mr. Smith told the St. Helena Star, “We made it low cost so it would be easy for companies to incorporate it into their products. It was distributed without a license because we wanted everyone to use it.