Lost in this year’s Grammy coverage, buried under snarky tweets about Mumford & Sons and overshadowed by Adele’s adorable “fank yous,” was news of a Technical Grammy for someone with the unassuming name of Dave Smith. Smith had been given the award for developing the Musical Instrument Digital Interface, better known as MIDI, exactly 30 years ago this year along with his Japanese collaborator Ikutaro Kakehashi.
Perhaps you’re only familiar with MIDI in those embedded musical files in the e-cards that your more tech-savvy Aunt Edna floods your inbox with on your birthday. But ask any modern musician or producer, from Daft Punk to the 14-year-old Eno-wannabe next door, and they’ll tell you that MIDI was a game changer, allowing synthesizers of all shapes and sizes to play nice with each other. And the man who taught the synths to talk to each other was keyboardist and synthesizer designer Dave Smith.
In 1974 Smith launched his Bay Area synth company, Sequential Circuits, and by 1978 it had created the forward-thinking Prophet V keyboard, the world’s first polyphonic, completely programmable synthesizer. Significantly, it was also the first musical instrument with a built-in microprocessor.
“All synthesizers, before that, were monophonic and not programmable,” says Smith, with notable pride. “Nobody had put it all together before, and I had a technical background and a music background, so it was kind of an obvious thing to me what was needed. It’s important to understand your instruments as a user and not just as a designer. That’s the disconnect in many companies where you have a marketing and sales department on one side and you have engineers on the other. It’s much easier if you understand it all.”
Of the first 10 Prophets built, the first ones were snapped up by luminaries such as prog rocker Rick Wakeman, jazz pioneer Joe Zawinul and eternal futurist David Bowie. Pink Floyd even featured a Prophet V on The Wall in 1979. Not for the last time in his career, Smith’s instincts proved correct and orders for the Prophet overwhelmed his tiny company.
“The Prophet V was unique, sounded great, and everybody wanted one,” says Smith, “but we were still a tiny company so it was very difficult to actually catch up with the back orders. It took us a couple of years actually. In fact, there’s still a big demand for Prophet Vs, and they’re still in use today, 35 years later.”
Business turned in late 1980, and Smith was forced to sell Sequential Circuits to Yamaha and moved on to his next act, getting all synthesizers to talk to each other.
“Once you put a microprocessor into a keyboard instrument, you realize it’s pretty easy for them to communicate to another instrument that has a microprocessor in it. Then, within a few years of the Prophet V coming out, all the other companies also had programmable polyphonic synthesizers with microprocessors. We all had our own interfaces that our own products could communicate with. We had one, Roland had one, and Yamaha had one, and after awhile we realized that that was kind of a silly way to go forward because it doesn’t help customers. If we wanted the industry to go forward, we needed some common interface.”
What followed was a kind of Manhattan Project, driven by Smith, to develop what he called The Universal Synthesizer Interface, or USSI. After talking about this notion with other designers at various trade shows, Smith decided to “get aggressive about it” and presented a USSI white paper at the October 1981 gathering of the Audio Engineering Society (AES). A few months later, he organized another meeting in Anaheim during the NAMM convention, inviting anyone who would listen to get on board. The vaguely hippie utopian ideal of revolution and inclusiveness was only one of the reasons Smith and his cohorts made MIDI technology free for everybody to use and made their interface flexible, wide-open, and easy to incorporate. For business reasons, Smith knew that giving it away for free he had a better chance of getting one hundred percent participation. His gamble paid off, and today most synthesizers built in the last 30 years are MIDI compatible and few would dare to ship without MIDI ports.
“We might have been able to charge a little bit,” laughs Smith, “because the five companies that were developing it probably had up to 70% of the market, so the other companies still would have had to adopt it eventually. But we just wanted to make sure, and giving it away was the easiest thing to do at the time.”
Although five companies initially got on board, it was Smith and Roland’s Ikutaro Kakehashi who did most of the heavy lifting, which is why Kakehashi shared the Grammy with him.
Besides having synths talk to each other, Smith believes that one of the greatest triumphs of MIDI was the way the disruptive technology gave rise to the modern home-recording studio. All musicians today who use an Apple laptop, for example, now have MIDI built into their GarageBand software, and they can thank Smith and Kakehashi for that. Smith, however, recalls some initial resistance from certain corners of the musical community.
“MIDI allowed a single person to control a number of synthesizers and compose and make music all by themselves,” says Smith. “I think some people still hold a grudge about things like that. Beyond that, when something’s there all the time, it kind of gets taken for granted because it was just so simple. People don’t appreciate simple. But simple meant it was easy to develop, and it was easy, and cheap, to add to an existing product, all of which led to 100% integration.”
Asked about those MIDI music files that get posted all over the web, Smith just laughs, dismissing these so-called “General MIDI” files as novelty. He does acknowledge, though, that General MIDI played a role in getting sound into the first home computers and cellphones, which didn’t have the power or the memory space to run digital audio. Still, he groans when thinking of the earliest General MIDI songs, which he says sounded “atrocious.”
“The synth engines weren’t very good and the music was really basic,” scoffs Smith, “so those were kind of irritating. Same with some of the earlier cellphone ringtones, just a bad implementation of General MIDI, but most people probably thought it was just magic that their cellphone could even ring like that.”
In 2003, Smith re-entered the keyboard business with a leaner company called, with customary simplicity, Dave Smith Instruments. Contemporary synth enthusiasts such as Radiohead, Hot Chip, and Trent Reznor are currently using many of his products and regularly drop by his North Beach headquarters when they’re in San Francisco looking for the next thing.
And just what is the next thing, Dave Smith?
“My goal is always just to build new instruments that have lots of personality, sound good, and are a lot of fun to play, using whatever technology is available. So much has been done, synthesizer wise, in the last 40 years, that it’s sort of hard to imagine some big breakthrough thing. I just build whatever looks like it might be the most fun to play and hopefully people like it.”
Meanwhile, looking back for a moment, Smith has no regrets about the Grammy win coming so late in his career.
“Better late than never,” says Smith, laughing, “and besides, I wasn’t exactly sitting around waiting for it. Thirty years ago they didn’t even have a Technical Achievement award, so it wouldn’t have happened then anyhow. I think the Commodore 64 might have just come out around the same time as MIDI, so it was hard to predict how far that would go, although I do recall predicting that your entire recording studio could be in a little box someday. If you go sufficiently far ahead, it’s pretty much impossible to predict anything. And you have to remember that the industry was really small back when MIDI first came out. We’re so used to high tech stuff now, where everything’s done on a huge scale.
Smith concludes that MIDI’s greatest legacy is the way it has enabled musicians and composers to do it all by themselves on their home-studio systems. But he adds that the best part of being one of the founders of MIDI is getting the Grammy for it.
“Any excuse to get a Grammy is a good one,” he laughs. “One of the beauties of MIDI is that we got it incorporated and shipped, all done, in less than a year, and it’s still version 1.0, 30 years later. That’s unlike anything else in the tech world.”