Three questions with legendary engineer and founder of Sequential, Dave Smith.
Synth History: What initially drew you to developing synthesizers?
Dave: There were a number of factors. I always banged around on the family piano, and added guitar during The Beatles and British invasion in the mid-60s. I played in a couple bands during college days, playing guitar or bass. Meanwhile I was getting a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Cal Berkeley - the late 60s were interesting times there!
After graduating, my first synth exposure was Switched On Bach, which of course was a huge breakthrough, musically and technically. Among many things, the album led me to a much wider appreciation of classical music, which I still love. Wendy Carlos was a hero, and we did end up meeting a few times over the years.
Anyway, the big step was one day in 1972 when a friend said a small local store had a synthesizer. I was curious so I went to check it out. They had a Minimoog and an ARP Odyssey. I had no idea how they worked, but I saw a keyboard and a bunch of knobs. I had to have one. The next day I went to my credit union at Lockheed (the only jobs for engineers in 1971 were in aerospace), and got a loan for $1,500 and bought the mini. The ARP did not have the same appeal.
So, I figured out how synths worked, and bought a Teac 3340, the first 4 track consumer recorder. At one point I decided I needed a sequencer, but the Moogs were too expensive. So I designed an analog sequencer, and in 1974 started a company called Sequential Circuits.
By the way, I still have the mini in my office, serial 1340; I think they started at 1000, so this is one of the first units. It works.
Synth History: What was it like when major musicians (Phil Collins, John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, Madonna) started to embrace and incorporate your synths into their music, do you remember the first time you heard a popular song with the Prophet 5 on it?
Dave: It was quite awesome as you might imagine. Out of the first 10 Prophets sold, one went to Rick Wakeman, one to David Bowie, and one to Joe Zawinul. And it took off from there. That has always been the best part of designing musical instruments: hearing them on recordings, in live performance, sound tracks, etc.
I don’t remember the first time I heard the P5 on a song; maybe the Car’s “Let’s Go,” though it seemed like there should have been one earlier. First time in concert was probably Yes, with Rick Wakeman playing. There are so many awesome recordings that I will not try to list them here.
I just read your interview with Pete Townshend, and it was nice to see he still has his P-10! He sent a hand-written letter (remember those?) to us in the early 80’s saying “The Prophet 10 is amazing! Please pay me for saying this.” As a huge Who fan – I saw them many times in the late 60s – it was quite a thrill.
Synth History: You played a key role in the development of MIDI, which is hard to imagine living without now. What is the development process like for developing new technologies and products? (Is there an "Aha!" moment you can recount?)
Dave: Occasionally there might be an "aha", but usually it’s more just something that swims around in your head as you consider different aspects of a new product or design. The Prophet 5 was an extended "aha"; I was working in Silicon Valley with microprocessors when I heard about a new set of synthesizer ICs coming from a company called Solid State Music. To me, the idea was obvious: with a microprocessor controlling a few sets of these ICs, I could easily (it turned out not so easy) make a fully programmable polyphonic synth. But, I did not start on it for a couple months, since I thought it was too obvious, and Moog and ARP were probably already doing it.
These days at Sequential, product development is very much a team effort. We’re a small company as you know - 15 of us – but everyone is a synth nut, and everyone contributes. I might still have an occasional "aha" for a specific aspect of a new design, but it’s certainly not just me anymore. This is one of the main reasons I changed the company name from Dave Smith Instruments!
References: Synth History Exclusive, Dave Smith.