Dave Smith, Legendary Synthesizer Designer, Dies at 72

Dave Smith synthesizer
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Dave Smith synthesizer
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Photo Credit: Pete Brown / CC by 2.0

Dave Smith, a groundbreaking synthesizer innovator whose work shaped electronic music, dies at 72.

His passing comes as the result of complications following a heart attack, says Smith’s wife Denise, with whom he lived in St. Helena, CA. He had been in Detroit to attend the Movement Festival from May 28 to May 30 and died in a hospital on May 31.

“We’re heartbroken, but take some small solace in knowing he was on the road doing what he loved best in the company of family, friends and artists,” says a statement from Smith’s company, Sequential.

In 1978, Dave Smith introduced the first polyphonic, programmable synthesizer, the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5. Artists used it extensively throughout the 80s, including Michael Jackson, Madonna, The Cars, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, Duran Duran, a-ha, The Cure, Genesis, and Hall & Oates. Instruments Smith designed over the following decades saw regular use by artists such as Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, Arcade Fire, Dr. Dre, Flying Lotus, and James Blake, among others.

“He loved the people who used his instruments,” Denise Smith says. “He was very curious about how they used his instruments, how they made them sound.”

Dave Smith collaborated in the early 80s with Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of the instrument company Roland, to develop MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). MIDI is a format allowing computers and instruments from diverse arrays of manufacturers to communicate, enabling countless audio possibilities. 

The Prophet-5 conquered the significant shortcomings of early synthesizers like the ARP and Moog, which could only generate one note simultaneously. Smith’s design used microprocessors to control synthesizer functions, allowing it to play five notes at once and store settings in memory, both revolutionary functions for the time.

“Once you have a microprocessor in an instrument, you realize how easy it is to communicate digitally to another instrument with a microprocessor,” Smith explained in 2014

Keyboard manufacturers in the 80s started to incorporate microprocessors, but each company developed its own, primarily incompatible interface. Smith worked with Sequential Circuits engineer Chet Wood to present a paper at the Audio Engineering Society convention in 1981 proposing a universal synthesizer interface.

Four Japanese companies (Kawai, Korg, Roland, and Yamaha) were willing to work with Sequential Circuits on a shared standard, leading Smith and Kakehashi to develop what would become MIDI. In 2013, Smith and Kakehashi shared a Technical Grammy Award for their work, 30 years after its introduction.