Recently awarded the 2013 Technical GRAMMY® Award for the development of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), Dave Smith is one of the most important innovators in electronic music. From his involvement in developing the MIDI standard to his involvement in innovating both polyphonic analog synths and software synths, Dave Smith has had a hand in nearly every milestone in electronic music’s evolution since the 1970’s.

We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak with Dave Smith recently regarding his long history in developing ground breaking synthesizers, including the most recent Prophet 12. Let’s dig in.

How did you get into designing electronic musical instruments?

I had a music background playing in a couple bands in college, and I had a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Cal Berkeley, so when synths first came out I bought one since it was a perfect combination of my interests. I then started making accessories for my own use (analog and digital sequencers), then started selling them.

You are largely credited with creating MIDI. What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome in the process of creating  the MIDI specification in 1981?

Initially it was difficult to get many companies interested, but fortunately we ended up with 5 companies willing to work on the spec.

When you designed the prophet 5 it was really an innovative piece being the first polyphonic and programmable synth. What were the motivating factors leading up to the innovation and creation of the Prophet 5?

My background as an engineer was in microprocessors, which were still fairly new at the time. I knew I could combine that with some new synth integrated circuits to make an instrument like the P5. Since no one else seemed to be doing it, and I knew it would be a great instrument to play, I jumped in.

What some may not know is that you are also an innovator in the world of soft synths as well. What do you think about the argument of soft synths and analog modeling synths lacking that certain analog bite?

Most soft synths sound reasonably good, though certainly not like analog synths. My biggest problem with them is the usability; it’s not a musical instrument you can simply play without a lot of hassles, and they won’t work in 10 years.

What led you back to hardware design via Dave Smith Instruments after going from Sequential Circuits to software design for various companies?

I realized that I didn’t like playing with my own soft synth, Reality. I don’t like monitors and keyboards and mice, with no direct control over the instrument. A musical instrument should be something you can touch and hold; something with personality, something fun to play. I don’t get that from software.

Are there any plans for any iOS synths the way Moog Music has done with the Filtatron and especially Animoog?

I suppose I should never say “never”, but now that software synths are on iphones and ipads, they are becoming disposable. You pay $5, play with it for a couple weeks, then get something else. That’s the last thing I want to do as a designer. I want my instruments to last; the Prophet-5 is 35 years old, and still quite popular!

Drum machines havent typically been a part of your line. How did the Tempest collaboration with Roger Linn come about?

Actually, at Sequential we had the Drumtraks, Tom, and Studio 440, all important drum machines of their time. Roger and I have known each other for a long time, and we always talked about a collaboration, so it was very cool to join forces on the Tempest.

Dave Smith Instruments is not only made in SF USA but it is the only manufacturer bringing polyphonic analog synths to market. How are you able to make that happen at such incredible price points when no one else has done so?

Well, I’ve been doing it for longer than everyone else. We have a lot of proprietary technology that allows us to not only hit good price points for quality analog products, but build them in the City of San Francisco!

About the Prophet 12… What a surprise at winter NAMM 2013. What do you think the Prophet 12 brings to the table that no other synth has thus far?

This is the best synth I have ever designed. We took the best from the Poly Evolver and the Prophet ’08, and added some great new technology and ideas. The result is awesome, if I do say so myself. Even the prototypes are already in the studio and playing live: Trent Reznor is recording with one, and we had one on the stage at the Grammys with Taylor Swift.

What, in your words, is your legacy?

Building quality musical instruments with a lot of personality and great sound. That’s what it’s all about!

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