Remembering Dave Smith (RIP), the Father of MIDI & the Creator of the 80s’ Most Beloved Synthesizer, the Prophet‑5

Some founders rest on their lau­rels, build indus­tries around them­selves like a cocoon, and nev­er escape or out­grow the big achieve­ment that made their name. Some, like Dave Smith — the so-called “father of MIDI,” and one of the most inno­v­a­tive syn­the­siz­er pio­neers of the last sev­er­al decades – don’t stop cre­at­ing for long enough to col­lect dust. You may nev­er have heard of Smith, but you’ve heard his tech­nol­o­gy. Before pio­neer­ing MIDI (Musi­cal Instru­ment Dig­i­tal Inter­face), the dig­i­tal stan­dard that allows hun­dreds of elec­tron­ic instru­ments to play nice­ly with each oth­er across com­put­er and soft­ware mak­ers, Smith found­ed Sequen­tial Cir­cuits and built one of the most revered syn­the­siz­ers ever made, the Prophet‑5, invent­ed in 1977 and essen­tial to the sound of the 1980s and beyond.

Smith’s key­boards made appear­ances on stage, video, and albums through­out the decade. Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes used the Prophet‑5 on the band’s first album and “vir­tu­al­ly every record I have made since then,” he said in a state­ment. “With­out Dav­e’s vision and inge­nu­ity,” Rhodes went on, “the sound of the 1980s would have been very dif­fer­ent, he tru­ly changed the son­ic sound­scape of a gen­er­a­tion.”

Sequen­tial synths appeared on albums by bands as dis­parate as The Cure and Daryl Hall & John Oates, who demon­strate the dream-like, ethe­re­al capa­bil­i­ties of the Prophet‑5 — the first ful­ly pro­gram­ma­ble poly­phon­ic ana­log synth — in “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).” The Prophet‑5 also drove the sound of Radio­head­’s Kid A, and indie dance dar­lings Hot Chip wrote they would be “noth­ing with­out what [Smith] cre­at­ed.” 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 prob­lems such as unsta­ble tun­ing and a lack of MIDI. Smith fixed that issue 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,” the MIDI Asso­ci­a­tion writes, Smith “always focused on the future.” He was “not actu­al­ly a big fan of being called the ‘Father of MIDI.’ ” Many peo­ple 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 made its debut as a new stan­dard in 1983.

Smith pre­ferred mak­ing hard­ware instru­ments and “almost begrudg­ing­ly accept­ed inter­views about his con­tri­bu­tions to MIDI.…. He was also not a big fan of orga­ni­za­tions, com­mit­tees and meet­ings.” He was a synth lover’s synth mak­er, a design­er and engi­neer with a “deep under­stand­ing of what musi­cians want­ed,” says Rhodes. Col­lab­o­ra­tions with Yama­ha and Korg pro­duced more soft­ware inno­va­tions 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 intro­duced it just weeks before his death.

He had trav­eled a long way from invent­ing the Prophet‑5 in 1977 and pre­sent­ing a paper in 1981 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 we still can, and that elec­tron­ic instru­ments and com­put­ers can talk to each oth­er eas­i­ly thanks to MIDI. Few of those instru­ments sound as good as the orig­i­nal, how­ev­er. See a demon­stra­tion of the Prophet-5’s range of sounds in the video just above and hear more tracks that show off the synth in the list here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of the Syn­thAxe, the Aston­ish­ing 1980s Gui­tar Syn­the­siz­er: Only 100 Were Ever Made

Wendy Car­los Demon­strates the Moog Syn­the­siz­er on the BBC (1970)

Thomas Dol­by Explains How a Syn­the­siz­er Works on a Jim Hen­son Kids Show (1989)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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