Dave Smith was someone who brought all of us in electronic music instruments closer – and I don’t only mean through his contributions to MIDI.
News reached us yesterday that the legendary engineer had died at age 72. I’m not at all surprised that it happened as he was doing what he loves, following up a trip to Berlin and Superbooth with a modular synth event in Detroit. Dave was perpetually reaching out to others.
Here’s the official statement from our friends at Sequential:
It is with heavy hearts that we share the news that Dave Smith has died.
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.”
I expect every obituary will begin the same way – Dave founded Sequential, makers of storied Prophets, instruments beloved by artists, and was known as the “father of MIDI” for his contribution to the specification that allowed standard expression of musical ideas and interconnected devices. And all of those things are true, and staggering in the impact they’ve had.
Of course, whenever you peel back the history, music technology is always about what’s interconnected between these names, forgiving any strained MIDI metaphor. People flocked to Dave as the face behind these truly prophetic instruments, true. But Dave’s utter warmth and energy, a sheer joy in making instruments, is what lit up all these projects. Synth engineers are not known particularly for their outgoing nature, but Dave consistently made an impact on anyone he met, even briefly.
Add to that Dave’s major contributions to polyphony, wavetable synthesis, soft synths, panel design, interaction — the list goes on.
For all the praise and criticism, what few of us have really talked about with MIDI is the cultural transformation that came along with it – not to music, but to the industry. It was a gesture of real cooperation and collaboration, that to this day can have an almost magical effect – “hey, these two boxes I bought that come from different makers are playing together or staying in time.”
If that sounds like a hyperbola, even Dave Stewart of Eurhythmics fame said as much, describing the first MIDI demo for the Grammy technical award given to Dave Smith. “Once I grasped what they were talking about I felt quite faint, my head spinning with the possibilities,” he says.
When you do appreciate the full evolution of MIDI and its contributors – Tom Oberheim with his System, and Roland’s Ikutaro Kakehashi who did a lot of the work – you begin to see that part of Dave’s importance was bringing people together and fueling the effort. With manufacturers split between Japan and the USA, with language and cultural barriers and radically different makers on top of it, it was also critical to have Dave’s San Francisco-born approach.
I say this not to go back into the 1980s, but because I saw that same energy in Berlin this month. It’s part of what makes this news hard to process. Dave is one of the people who makes the whole business of making synths come alive. That’s something that can’t change.
The last conversation I had with Dave at Superbooth was about some of the challenges we face now, and my own sense that some of the toughest times for making synths may be ahead. He talked about how they’ve dealt with that at Sequential, in order to deal with the global supply chain crisis and how to keep instruments coming – including the just-released Oberheim. We also talked a bit about health, about the pandemic and Dave’s health. It’s strange because there, standing in the Berlin sun drinking sake during a Richie Hawtin event, my mind went suddenly to the thought of a synthesizer world that no longer had Dave Smith in it. I just didn’t expect that would be in a matter of days.
Machines and humans, none of us is immortal – not even Prophets. So I hope all of this helps us rise to the challenge. I know his inspiration is deeply felt today and for the time to come.
But this means a new urgency. The feeling that we are losing a lot of a generation of innovators is not your imagination. I hope we all look hard beyond not only the Bay Area but worldwide at the next generation of instrument designers. I hope we find a way to support them, to come together and collaborate. And that means fiercely defending the creation of new designs and independent makers. Dave gave so much to us. It seems the best way we can give something back to music, too.
Synthtopia has a perfectly composed timeline of what Dave accomplished:
Another archival interview, 2-parter by Simon Trask for Music Technology in 1990:
Read of course Craig Anderton’s oft-cited “Brief History of MIDI”:
And the MIDI Association’s own sprawling history (there’s more than this section, starting at roughly the invention of the wheel or something):
And some remembrances. Even the gods wear socks. I’ve included some in Japanese, as they’re pouring in from both sides of the Pacific – fitting given Dave’s work on MIDI and at KORG, both trans-Pacific.
I’m going to join with Synthtopia in closing with Dave’s favorite drink.
From The Pyjama Cookbook, the KORG Berlin project I also contributed to during lockdown. (My recipe may help if this gives you a hangover.)
- Pour a lot of high-quality reposado tequila over ice
- Add a splash of Cointreau
- Add fresh lime to taste
- Drink any time (especially these days); ideally while working on a new synth design (it helps).