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.
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
Leave a Reply