Dave Smith and Sequential Circuits
Dave Smith was born in San Francisco in 1950 and like Dave Rossum grew up in the Bay Area in the 1950s.
He took piano lessons as a child and started playing bass and guitar in rock bands in high school because it was after all the 1960s in San Francisco.
When the record Switched on Bach came out in 1968, Dave bought a copy of the record and was intrigued by the sounds coming from the Moog modular synth.
Just like Don Buchla 10 years earlier, he went to college at the University of California, Berkeley where he earned a degree in computer science and electrical engineering.
One of his college projects was a very primitive program to write music on a printer plotter.
After graduating he got a job in the Aerospace industry.
Yes, I was working in the aerospace industry. This was a time when nobody wanted to hire engineers. I was in what was to become Silicon Valley, but it was not quite Silicon Valley yet, so it was very early on in the technical revolution, I suppose you might say.
So I worked at Lockheed doing stupid work, because that was the only place I could get a job, and a friend told me he saw this synthesizer thing in a music store, and I said, “Oh, that sounds interesting.”
So I went to look at it, and it was a Minimoog, and I had no idea what it did or how it worked. It just looked cool, and it was as kind of a perfect combination of my music background and technical background.
So the next day I went to the Lockheed Credit Union and got a loan and went back and bought it, and here I am.
by Dave Smith in a 2014 interview with Red Bull Academy
Interconnections -John Bowen, Bob Moog and Dave Smith
John Bowen went to UC Berkeley (as did Don Buchla and Dave Smith) where he was introduced to Moog Synthesizers.
In 1972, he rented a Minimoog to learn synths from Pat Gleason of Different Fur Trading company. He then
went to a CES show and convinced Bob Moog that he was the right person to demonstrate Moog synthesizers and so John moved to Buffalo, New York and became the first official Moog clinician in 1973.
In 1976 he met Dave Smith, and started working with Dave to promote his Model 800 sequencer, and then helped specify the Model 700 Programmer.
So through John Bowen there is a direct connection between Bob Moog and Dave Smith.
This would later be important in the development of MIDI.
MODEL 600 ANALOG SEQUENCER
Dave bought his first synthesizer for $1500 (a Minimoog) in 1972 and immediately started to think about designing peripheral products to get more out of the Minimoog.
He bought books about electronic circuitry and microprocessors and he studied the analog sequencers that Moog and Buchla had designed for their modular synths. Soon his hobby was becoming a business and in 1974 he formed Sequential Circuits, a name that described exactly what he was building and released the Model 600 Analog Sequencer- a 16 step sequencer using analog control voltages.
MODEL 800 DIGITAL SEQUENCER
Dave was gaining more and more experience with microprocessors and the Model 800 had the ability to record 16 banks of 16 sequences. You could input the steps in real time or in step time. The Model 800 didn’t make any sound so you needed a voltage controlled synthesizer to connect it to.
It was similar to the Oberheim DS2 digital Sequencer that Tom Oberheim had released to control the Arp 2600 in 1972.
MODEL 700 PROGRAMMER
Sequential Circuit’s next product was remarkable for a number of reasons.
First, it was all about controlling other products (like MIDI would do a few years later). The Model 700 didn’t make any sounds, it actually added programmability to either the Minimoog or the Arp 2600.
It was one of the first products that stored presets. It could store 64 programs (8 banks of 8 programs).
You could store the settings for attack, decay, sustain and release. There was also a built-in sequencer.
Also it’s important to note that the Model 700 was really starting to look like a Sequential Circuits product with the buttons, the knobs and design elements (like the white border around the core programming area) that would soon become famous with the release of the Prophet 5.
Here is the PDF Manual for this seminal product.
Perhaps no other synthesizer had as much impact on the professional synthesizer business around the world than the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 released in 1977.
It didn’t sell the most units -estimates range between 8000 and 6000 units of the three Prophet 5 variations created between 1977 and 1984. The Korg M1 holds the record for largest selling synth of all time with over 300,000 sold and the Yamaha DX7 comes in second.
But the Prophet 5 was the first product where a number of important factors came together.
It had 5 voices of polyphony and each voice had 2 VCOs, a VCF with ADSR and a VCA with ADSR.
Rev. 1 and Rev. 2 models had the SSM2040 filter chip. Rev. 3 (and higher) used the CEM3320 filter.
But what really set the Prophet 5 apart was that the whole synth operated by Z-80 microcomputer that controlled the keyboard scanning and voice assignment (under a patent licensed from Dave Rossum of EMU fame), the storage of sound presets (40 memories, and later 120) and the oscillator calibration to keep the oscillators in tune.
The Polymod section was designed by Sequential’s John Bowen who created all the Prophet 5 factory Presets and who was also instrumental in MIDI’s early development.
If there was a single feature that defined the Prophet sound, it was the poly-mod section, which enabled you to use the filter envelope and OSC 2 to modulate the frequency of OSC 1, the pulse-width of OSC 1, and/or the filter cutoff frequency. These modulation routings, combined with OSC 1’s sync function, produced the trademark (and at one time hopelessly overused) oscillator sweeping sync sound, usually variations of what was originally factory preset 33.
by Mark Vail, Vintage Synthesizers – page 174
The PolyMod sound is instantly identifiable on The Cars song “Let’s Go.
The extended version of George Clinton’s Atomic Dog also shows off the Prophet 5 Poly Mod sound. There are also two synth bass parts-one is a Minimoog and the other is a Prophet 5. The drum sound is a Roland TR606 played in reverse!
Before the Prophet-5, synthesizers required users to adjust cables and knobs to change sounds, with no guarantee of exactly recreating a sound.
The Prophet-5, with its ability to save sounds to patch memory, facilitated a move from synthesizers creating unpredictable sounds to producing “a standard package of familiar sounds”. According to MusicRadar, the Prophet-5 “changed the world – simple as that”.
The Prophet-5 became a market leader and industry standard.
The Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes used the Prophet-5 for the band’s hits “Let’s Go” (1979) and “Shake It Up” (1981).
Kraftwerk used it on their 1981 “Computer World” Tour.
David Sylvian used it on Japan’s 1982 hit single “Ghosts” and Richard Barbieri of the same band has used it frequently.
Michael Jackson used it extensively on Thriller (1982), and Madonna used it on Like a Virgin (1984).
Peter Gabriel considered the Prophet-5 his “old warhorse” synthesizer, using it for many sounds on his 1986 album So.
Brad Fiedel used a Prophet-10 to record the soundtrack for The Terminator (1984), and the filmmaker John Carpenter used both the Prophet-5 and Prophet-10 extensively for his soundtracks.
The Prophet-5 was widely used by 1980s synth pop acts such as Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Tears for Fears, Thompson Twins, Thomas Dolby, Devo, Eurythmics, Soft Cell, Vince Clarke and Pet Shop Boys.
Radiohead used the Prophet-5 on their 2000 album Kid A, such as on the song “Everything In Its Right Place”.
Other users include Giorgio Moroder, Tony Banks, Phil Collins, Tangerine Dream, Jean-Michel Jarre, Dr. Dre, Richard Wright, Rick Wakeman, Pendulum, BT, and John Harrison.
The intro to the video for Hall and Oates November 1981 release “I Can’t Go For That” looks like a Prophet 5 demo reel with Hall playing all the intro parts on a Prophet 5 and even changing Programs in real time.
It also features a drum part programmed by Daryl Hall on a Roland CompuRhythm CR-78.
This article focuses on the seminal products that Dave Smith, John Bowen and Sequential Circuits created before 1983,
The Prophet 5 was an important part in the build up to MIDI and we will see how the digital sequencers that Sequential Circuits was working on would lead directly to the need for the universal digital musical interface that we now call MIDI.
In Chapter 6 and 7 of the History of MIDI, we look at how Sequential Circuits, Kawai, Korg, Roland and Yamaha came together to create MIDI and the roles that Dave, John and both Tom Oberheim and Bob Moog had in creating important personal connections for MIDI.
The first MIDI synthesizer
Sequential Corporate History
Sequential Circuits released the products listed above and also the following products-
- Max (1984)
- Six-Trak (1984)
- Drumtraks (1984)
- Multitrak (1985) ( replaced the Six Trak)
- Split-8 (1985)
- TOM (1985)
- Prophet 2000 (1985–87)
- Prophet-VS (1986–87)
- Studio 440 (1987)
Dave Smith Division
Dave Smith was President of the Dave Smith Division of Yamaha based in San Jose.
Sequential Circuits ran into financial difficulties because they had invested heavily in both a product roadmap for sequencing software, the Prophet 2000 sampling technologies.
They met with Bryan Lanser (former MIDI Association Exec Board member) who was working for Otari at the time. Sequential thought that the Prophet 2000 sampling technology would be a really good fit for Otari to get into the hard disk recording business.
Pro Tools founders Evan Brooks and Peter Gotcher had expanded from just making EPROMs for Emu’s Drumulator and developed their Sound Designer program for the Macintosh which worked with to many other sampling keyboards, such as E-mu Emax, Akai S900, Sequential Prophet 2000, Korg DSS-1, and Ensoniq Mirage. Thanks to the universal file specification subsequently developed by Brooks with version 1.5, Sound Designer files could be transferred via MIDI between sampling keyboards of different manufacturers.
But when the second meeting with Otari was scheduled, it was people from Yamaha who showed up instead. John Bowen recounts that when Dave and John first went to Hamamatsu to visit Yamaha in 1987 and saw stacks of Yamaha TX16W samplers, they both realized that Yamaha was probably not interested in Sequential’s sampler technology.
Dave and John (along with a team that included Alex Limberis from Ensoniq) worked for 2 years on physical modeling and softsynths projects, but never came out with a product under the Yamaha brand name.
San Jose, Ca
In May 1989 he started the Korg R&D group in California, which went on to produce the innovative and commercially successful Wavestation synthesizer and other technology. We will tell the story of the creation of Korg R&D and the Wavestation in another installment of MIDI History.
Korg R&D released a number of spinoff of the Wavestation and also started to work on the core technology for the Korg Oasys.
Smith reunited with Stanley Jungleib who had worked with at Sequential and served as president at Seer Systems which developed the world’s first software based synthesizer running on a PC.
This synth was commissioned by Intel to prove the power of Intel CPUs. The second generation of Seer Systems software was licensed to Creative Labs in 1996 and used in the Creative Labs’ AWE 64 line of soundcards which were developed by Dave Rossum from Emu (EMU having been acquired by Creative Labs in 1993).
The third generation of Seer Systems software synthesizers was called Reality and was released in 1997.
Dave Smith Instruments
In 2002, Smith launched Dave Smith Instruments, a manufacturer of electronic musical instruments.
Dave Smith Instruments released the following products:
- Evolver (2002)
- Poly Evolver (2005)
- Mono Evolver (2006)
- Prophet 08 (2007–16)
- Mopho (2008)
- Tetra (2009)
- Tempest (2011) co-created with Roger Linn
- Prophet 12 (2013)
- Pro 2 (2014)
In 2015, Smith regained the rights to the Sequential name from Yamaha, and released the Prophet-6 under that name.
Ikutaro Kakehashi, who had worked with Smith to create MIDI and was in failing health reached out directly to the President of Yamaha, Tak Nakata.
Kakehashi said: “I feel that it’s important to get rid of unnecessary conflict among electronic musical instrument companies. That is exactly the spirit of MIDI. For this reason, I personally recommended that the President of Yamaha, Mr. Nakata, return the rights to the Sequential name to Dave Smith.”
Kakehashi passed away at age 87 in 2017.
On 27, April 2021, Sequential announced that it had been acquired by the British audio technology company Focusrite.
Dave Smith passed away on 31 May, 2022 just a few days before his friend for many years Tom Oberheim would launch the OB-X8 at the 2022 June NAMM show.
Sequential Products released since 2015
- Prophet-6 (2015–present)
- OB-6 (2015–present) (co-created with Tom Oberheim)
- Prophet Rev2 (2017–present)
- Prophet X (2018–present)
- Pro 3 (2020–present)
- Take 5 (2021–present)
- Trigon (2022–present)
Tom designed the VCO and VCF sections and Dave provided the arpeggiator/step sequencer, effects and production capabilities. After 30 years, two of the pioneers of modern synthesis were working together to design new products.
2022 -Oberheim Electronics reopened and Oberheim OB-X8 released
At the 2022 June NAMM show, Oberheim Electronics showcased the new OB-X8. What was supposed to be a joyous celebration was dampened by the news that just days before the June NAMM show, Dave Smith had passed away.
This is a picture from 2019 of Dave Smith, Tom Oberheim, Marcus Ryle (an engineer at Oberheim when still in his teens and founder of Line 6) and Roger Linn.
For more information about Dave Smith and Sequential, please see these excellent resources.
Sequential was founded led by legendary instrument designer and Grammy-winner Dave Smith. In 1977 Dave designed the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, the world’s first fully-programmable polyphonic synth, and the first musical instrument with an embedded microprocessor. Sequential released many innovative instruments and drum machines over the next 10 years.
Today, Sequential’s talented and dedicated team of designers and synth fanatics continue Dave’s legacy in accordance with the spirit of innovation and ingenuity Dave embodied and imparted during his lifetime.