A personal tribute by Paul Wiffen, a friend of Dave Smith for over 40 years. Published in June 2022 in Sound on Sound Magazine.
Please note that all copyrights are with Sound on Sound magazine and the author. The original article can be found here.
It is with increasing sadness that we note the passing of another giant synthesizer pioneer, David J Smith (known simply as Dave to the thousands of musicians who used his designs on millions of recordings). His legendary Prophet brand of synthesizers became extinct in the ‘80s after ruling the world for a decade but was reborn Phoenix-like in recent years and has never been more popular than now, riding the wave of analogue nostalgia with far more reliable digital control of its warmth and power. Dave passed away on tour, talking to the very end to enthralled musicians who wanted to hear about the glory days direct from the “prophet’s mouth”!
David J Smith was born in 1950 in Northern California and obtained two degrees in Computer Science and Electronic Engineering from Berkeley University in the Bay Area. It was the combination of these two then separate fields which would prove his strength in taking over the lead from the father of synthesis Bob Moog, whose Minimoog synth Dave purchased in 1972 whilst still at University.
The birth of Sequential
His first product was an analogue sequencer to run the Minimoog and this led to the birth of his company Sequential Circuits in 1974 which Dave quit his day jobs in the computer industry to run full-time in 1977, bringing out the microprocessor-controlled polyphonic Prophet 5 later that same year. The voice architecture was a simplified Minimoog (it dropped from three to two oscillators and the filter was not quite so full-sounding) but this suited a polyphonic instrument (when Bob finally got the true polyphonic Memorymoog to market, producers complained that it swallowed up every other sound in the mix).
model.But the real landmark innovations of the Prophet 5 were the ability to store the parameters of a patch digitally as a memory, recalling them at the touch of a button, and a magical function called Auto-Tune (Minimoog owners would often have to stop to manually tune their instrument between songs when temperature changes put it out of tune).
Of course not all Prophet 5 owners discovered the full extent of its capabilities. Phil Collins bought one from Argent’s (the exclusive UK distributor at the time) and allegedly recorded the whole of Face Value (including the legendary ‘In The Air Tonight’ single) without ever discovering more than the first eight sounds, as he didn’t realise that the Bank key cycled around more patches.
But many synthesists exploited this facility to its fullest, using up to 40 different sounds live in a single concert instead of struggling to manually change patch. Richard Barbieri of Japan was able to perform the abstract musique concrete of ‘Ghosts’ live by swapping between numerous different patches from one line to the next. Tony Banks of Genesis got rid of several keyboards on the 1980 Duke tour because he could change between radically different analogue sounds on his Prophet at the touch of a button.
In 1981, Dave became fascinated by the idea of a digital language that would allow musical instruments and even computers to talk to each other. Initially dubbed the Universal Synthesizer Interface (USI) he presented a paper on it to the AES after meetings with his rivals Tom Oberheim and Ikutaro Kakehashi of Roland. Eventually when the standard was hammered out, it was redubbed MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) and the rest is history. The real beauty of MIDI is that, like Tim Berners-Lee with the world-wide web, Dave Smith and his rivals-turned-collaborators bequeathed it to the world for free and others got rich on the back of their generosity. Suddenly musicians could get to grips with the giant leaps forward in synthesis and sound production which result from hooking keyboards, synths and computers together and getting them talking and data processing.
The real beauty of MIDI is that, like Tim Berners-Lee with the world-wide web, Dave Smith and his rivals-turned-collaborators bequeathed it to the world for free…
Sequential Circuits was first to market with a computer MIDI interface, in the form of the Model 64 interface, which not surprisingly allowed the popular Commodore 64 to talk to synths. It came with free firmware sequencing including real-ltime recording and primitive quantise. But it was Atari who benefitted most, selling hundreds of thousands of their MIDI-equipped 1080ST, Mega 2 and 4, and Falcon computers, dominating the European music market (until someone who only wanted Atari for the games brand name bought the company and shut down all computer manufacture). In their native America, entire new companies like Mark Of The Unicorn were born from making MIDI interfaces for the Mac and PC.
But the days of analogue synthesis were seemingly numbered and it was ironic to see the Prophet 600 being hooked via MIDI to the Roland Jupiter 6 on the 1983 Roland NAMM show booth (even the fact that Sequential brought the Prophet to their booth seemed portentious!). Later when Yamaha released the all-digital DX7 with MIDI, Roy Goudie, Sequential’s European sales manager (joining from Moog having sold all the last Memorymoogs in California) came up with a strategy which almost worked: “Every DX7 owner needs a Prophet 600 MIDI’d to it to bring some analogue warmth to its cold, cold heart!”
But Dave Smith had one last great analogue synth in his arsenal, the velocity- and pressure-sensitive Prophet T8 where the number of voices finally equalled the latest synths from Oberheim, Moog, Elka and whose expressivity finally equalled that of the Yamaha CS80 from the previous decade. It also added the Split/Layer function and the lifelong collaborator of Dave’s demonstrator/voicer, John Bowen, had used a clever trick with resonance bringing out the ninth harmonic to create a usable piano patch, the best ever produced from an analogue synth, and a sync solo lead which literally screamed like a stuck pig when you leant on the key. This writer, so seduced by these sounds, applied to Sequential Europe for a job just so he could get his hands on one with its daunting £4,700 price tag!
People were lining up to buy the T8, especially in the UK where more were sold than in any other territory: Tony Banks of Genesis replaced his Prophet 10 with the T8; Billy Curry upgraded from 5 to T8 and went on Top Of The Pops with it to play Ultravox’s ‘Love’s Great Adventure’; Mike Lindup of Level 42 finally replaced his trusty Prophet 5 with one for the World Machine tour; and the Thompson Twins (prompted by live addition Roger O’Donnell who later joined The Cure) bought three, one each for the full members and appeared in British music stores up and down the country in the afternoons before their nationwide tour gigs to show how they would be using it in the concert that evening. Then Tears For Fears bought two T8s and invited half of Sequential to their Bay Area concert on the Songs From The Big Chair tour.
But the DX7, with its 16-note polyphony and endless electric pianos, bells and slap bass, was appealing to jazz players who could voice their Emin9 aug with a flattened fifth chords on a sound that sounded almost but not entirely quite unlike a Rhodes or a Wurlitzer, was a third of the price and had the mighty Japanese marketing budget behind it. The analogue Goliath had been slain by the digital David.
Undeterred, Dave Smith looked at the success of Emu, particularly with the Emulator II with its 8-bit companded compression system, and knew that better sound quality could be achieved in sampling. His Prophet 2000 (a brilliant name in 1985) used 12-bit linear sampling to seriously outperform the EII sound quality at a fraction of the price (RRP £1,999 inc VAT instead of the best part of £10K) and was an instant success; it was only £600 more than the Ensoniq Mirage which was unusable for sampling by the average muso and only sold because of its price point and its extraordinary factory disks.
A musician could make and more importantly loop his own samples on the Prophet 2000, which automatically searched for click-eliminating zero crossings as loop points. Sales of both Mirages and EIIs stalled and for six months the Prophet 2000 was the only game in town. But then all the Japanese products came flooding out, the Akai S900, Roland S-50 and S-10, Korg DSS-1 (only Yamaha stayed away from sampling until 1988 with the unsuccessful TX16W) and the Prophet 2000 got lost in the shuffle. It sounded much better than all the Japanese units and had authentic Prophet filters but all the other competitors had user-friendly two-line LCD displays, compared with the Prophet’s two-character LED which used hexadecimal to represent 0-127 as 00 to FF. Hardly user-friendly…
Dave upgraded the design with the Prophet 2002 rack, getting rid of the horrid membrane switches in favour of positive button switches with built-in LEDs to show activation, double the memory, plus a much more pleasing primary blue and black front panel instead of the pastels of the 2000.
But Akai were winning the race as people were buying with their eyes rather than ears. The Prophets outsold all the Roland and Korg samplers but the Akai S900 was outselling everything else put together.
Dave went back to synthesis with the Prophet VS, digital this time, in a collaboration with another Sequential engineer, Chris Meyer, who had taken the PPGs as his inspiration and a joystick as a way to control the modulations between one waveform and another in real time. Again the reviews were full of praise but the Roland D-50 came hot on its heels and soon outsold it.
Dave Smith’s last product under the original Sequential Circuits name was the Prophet 3000, a full 16-bit stereo sampling rack with a proper remote control interface which rivaled the CD-quality of the Emulator III and looked like it might save the company. However, production could not be got going in time and rather than face bankruptcy, Dave sold the company to Yamaha which was looking for a way to play catchup on sampling after relying on FM synthesis.
Under Yamaha’s ownership the first production run of Prophet 3000s was built and sold but Dave had had enough, retreating from public view into his Iron Man athletics and licking his wounds, climbing mountains with Roger Linn whose drum machines were starting to reappear under the Akai brand. The shock waves that ran round the industry were huge, at least as big as when Bob Moog lost control of the company that bore his name to Norlin (and Oberheim would follow with the most disastrous sale of all to Gibson). He served as the President of the DSD group at Yamaha, produced a mini VS in the Yamaha SY22 but when ownership of Sequential was passed to their newly-acquired Korg, Dave oversaw that as the Korg R&D group in California, who designed the very successful Wavestation.
It was Korg who reaped the benefits of the core Sequential development team with a string of products like Prophecy, the Z1, the OASYS PCI card which ran on Mac and PC, and finally the mighty OASYS keyboard which John Paul Jones and Keith Emerson finally replaced their GX-1s with. But Dave became increasingly dissatisfied and left quietly to concentrate on a new concept which had fascinated him: software-only synthesis.
It was some time before Dave re-emerged to public view with his synonym Seer Systems virtual synthesis program (sponsored by Intel) which ran only on PCs and that sold gently as a software-only product throughout the ‘90s. When licensed by Creative Labs, it became the synthesis engine in their highly popular Sound Blaster AWE 64 PCI sound cards and played back many a MIDI file.
He took Seer’s in-house product upmarket with the Reality soft-synth, on which Dave himself wrote all the low-level optimised floating-point algorithms that did the synthesis, and it garnered many plaudits across the entire technical press.
But as the nostalgia market grew and grew and digital control of analogue became more and more reliable as well as cheaper, everyone was after Dave to revive the Prophet brand.
He obliged with a spectacular launch at the 2002 NAMM show of Dave Smith Instruments (because Yamaha still owned the Sequential brand name). But Dave was free to call the keyboards he made Prophets with different model numbers. Then in a much-praised move in 2015, Yamaha returned the brand name Sequential to Dave and in 2018 Dave Smith Instruments became Sequential again (but with no Circuits, presumably because everything was now chips instead of discrete circuits on the boards).
In 2016 he brought his former rival Tom Oberheim into the DSI fold with a joint OB-6 design, sold and marketed through the same channels, and models with increasing number of voices proliferated with the same basic voice architecture that had made his name 40 years earlier in the original Prophet 5 and Prophet 10.
At Winter NAMM shows a mysterious supper club group named the Grand Old Men Of MIDI formed around Dave and Tom and this writer was honoured to be taken along to the dinner in 2019 for the first time. John Bowen, Dave’s longtime collaborator, joined in 2020. Dave took to the road to continually promote not just his own products but the synthesis concepts he had developed alongside Bob Moog and Tom Oberheim and it was during one of these tours that he succumbed to a debilitating disease yet to be officially named. He had been walking with a stick for the last few years.
Dave Smith gave the world so much and inspired so many. He will be missed – Rest In Peace