Home Technology News Dave Smith, whose Prophet-5 synthesizer powered ’80s pop, dies at 72

Dave Smith, whose Prophet-5 synthesizer powered ’80s pop, dies at 72

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Dave Smith, whose Prophet-5 synthesizer powered ’80s pop, dies at 72
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Dave Smith, an engineer who helped create the Prophet-5 synthesizer, which became a staple of 1980s pop music, as well as the MIDI electronic system that allowed drum machines, keyboards, sequencers — an entire orchestra of machines — to talk to one another, died May 31 at a hospital in Detroit. He was 72.

The cause was complications from a heart attack, said his wife, Denise. Mr. Smith, a resident of St. Helena, Calif., had been in Detroit to attend the Movement electronic music festival.

The Prophet line of synthesizers, designed by Mr. Smith and John Bowen for Smith’s company Sequential Circuits in the late 1970s and ’80s, were the first commercially marketed synthesizers that were polyphonic — meaning that musicians could play harmony and full chords. Each unit had programmable memory that allowed the user to store and reuse sounds at any time.

Throughout the 1980s, Mr. Smith’s analogue instrument became pervasive in the pop charts, gracing hit albums such as “Thriller” (1982) by Michael Jackson, “Like a Virgin” (1984) by Madonna and “Abacab” (1981) by Genesis, as well as Vangelis’s music for the film “Blade Runner” (1982) and several scores by horror film auteur John Carpenter.

A computer programmer and fledgling bass player, Mr. Smith became fascinated with Wendy Carlos’s “Switched-On Bach” (1968), a hit album of J.S. Bach pieces performed on a Moog synthesizer.

“It was just so lifelike the way [Carlos] played was just, it sounded like an acoustic instrument,” Mr. Smith said in 2014 at a Red Bull Music Academy event. “We all know what’s electronic and what’s not. It just had this life into it that was just amazing to hear and the way she played it.”

Because the Moog models from that era could only play one note at a time, it took Carlos nearly five months to record her Bach album — something Mr. Smith discovered when he bought a Minimoog.

“The funny thing was, when the Minimoog first came out, since it had a keyboard on it, a lot of people would go up to it, and the first thing they’d do is play a chord, and only one note would play, and they’d go, ‘What’s going on? Is this broken?’ ” he explained.

Intent on solving this problem, he quit his day job in 1974 and began work on a new line of synthesizers.

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In the early 1980s, with Roland Corp. engineer Ikutaro Kakehashi, Mr. Smith introduced MIDI — Musical Instrument Digital Interface — the multichannel cables that allowed an interface between synth technology from different manufacturers.

Keyboard players, quick to seize on the new technology, often appeared onstage surrounded by stacks of keyboards and sequencers that created a decadent array of sounds. Guitarists weren’t left behind, as MIDI-based guitar synthesizers soon followed. For their work on MIDI, Mr. Smith and Kakehashi shared a technical Grammy Award in 2013.

In the 1990s, Mr. Smith also built one of the first software-based synthesizers that could be installed on a personal computer, Reality, for the company Seer Systems.

David Joseph Smith was born in San Francisco on April 2, 1950, and grew up around the Bay Area. His father was an English instructor, and his mother was a homemaker and later an interior designer.

He had a bachelor’s degree in computer science and electrical engineering from University of California at Berkeley.

In addition to his wife of 33 years, of St. Helena, survivors include two children and four siblings.

Yamaha purchased Sequential Circuits in 1987 and closed it in 1989. Mr. Smith later worked for Korg, where he helped design the company’s Wavestation synthesizer, popularized by the band Depeche Mode. In 2002, he started a new company, Dave Smith Instruments. The company was rebranded Sequential in 2018 after Yamaha returned the brand name rights to Mr. Smith.

“My goal in all my instruments is that they have a unique personality, great sound and be fun to play,” Mr. Smith told Keyboard magazine in 2021. “That’s what all music is about if you think about it, so the instruments should reflect that.”

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Go to Publisher: Technology
Author: Terence McArdle