Remembering Dave Smith (RIP), the father of MIDI and creator of the most beloved synthesizer of the 80s, the Prophet-5
Some founders rest on their laurels, build industries around them like a cocoon, and never escape the great achievement that made their name. Some, like Dave Smith — the so-called “father of MIDI” and one of the pioneers of the most innovative synthesizers of decades — don’t stop creating long enough to gather dust. You may never have heard of Smith, but you have heard of its technology. Before pioneering MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), the digital standard that allows hundreds of electronic instruments to play well with each other across computers and software makers, Smith founded Sequential Circuits and builds one of the most revered synthesizers ever created, the Prophet-5. , invented in 1977 and indispensable to the sound of the 1980s and beyond.
Smith’s keyboards made appearances on stage, on video and on albums throughout the decade. Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes used the Prophet-5 on the band’s debut album and “virtually every record I’ve made since,” he said in a statement. “Without Dave’s vision and ingenuity”, continued Rhodes, “the sound of the 1980s would have been very different, it really changed the soundscape of a generation.”
Sequential synths have appeared on albums by bands as disparate as The Cure and Daryl Hall & John Oates, which demonstrate the dreamlike, ethereal capabilities of the Prophet-5 – the first fully programmable polyphonic analog synth – in “I Can’t Go for This (nobody can do this) The Prophet-5 also drove the sound of Radiohead Child A, and indie dance darlings Hot Chip wrote that they would be “nothing without what [Smith] established.” Few vintage synths are as desirable as the Prophet-5.
The original Prophet is “not immune to the dark side of vintage synths,” writes Vintage Synth Explorer, including issues such as unstable tuning and a lack of MIDI. Smith has solved this problem himself with new iterations of the Prophet and other synths featuring his most famous post-Prophet-5 technology. “Like so many brilliant and creative people,” writes the MIDI Association, Smith “has always been focused on the future.” He was “not really a fan of being called the ‘father of MIDI'”. Many people have contributed to the development of the technology, especially Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi, who won a Technical Grammy with Smith in 2013 for the protocol that debuted as a new standard in 1983.
Smith preferred to make hardware instruments and “almost reluctantly accepted interviews about his contributions to MIDI…He was also not a big fan of organizations, committees and meetings”. He was an avid synth maker, designer, and engineer with a “deep understanding of what musicians wanted,” says Rhodes. Collaborations with Yamaha and Korg produced more software innovation in the 90s, but in the 2000s Smith returned to sequential circuits and debuted the Prophet X, Prophet-6 and OB-6 with Tom Oberheim. The two designers collaborated in 2021 on the Oberheim OB-X8 and Smith presented it a few weeks before his death.
He had come a long way since inventing the Prophet-5 in 1977 and presenting a 1981 paper to the Audio Engineering Society on what he then called a universal synthesizer interface. Smith himself never seemed to stop and look back, but lovers of his famous instruments are happy that we still can, and that electronic instruments and computers can easily communicate with each other through MIDI. However, few of these instruments sound as good as the original. Watch a demo of the Prophet-5’s range of sounds in the video above, and listen to more tracks that show off the synth in the listing here.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, North Carolina. Follow him on @jdmagness