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Remembering Dave Smith, inventor of MIDI and the Prophet-5 synthesizer

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WASHIGNTON, D.C. (NPR) — The sound of pop music in the ’80s was shaped by synthesizers – and one of the most impactful people behind that sound was inventor Dave Smith, creator of the Prophet-5 synthesizer and founder of Sequential Circuits, the instrument’s small-scale production company. Though his most well-known inventions were decades in the past, Smith, who died last week at the age of 72, is still remembered with reverence.

“He always knew more about what a musician wanted, or needed, than they did,” says keyboardist Roger O’Donnell, who has played synths in some bands you might have heard of – The Cure and The Psychedelic Furs among them. But the legacy of the Prophet-5 is at least, if not eclipsed, by that of another Smith invention: the Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI, which allowed digital instruments to speak the same language for the first time. The technology remains in wide use today – thanks in no small part to it being made totally free.

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Transcript :

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The sound of pop music in the 1980s was shaped by synthesizers. One of the most revolutionary music – electronic music inventors was Dave Smith. David Bowie and Madonna are among the legions who used his Prophet-5 synthesizer. Smith died last week at the age of 72. He suffered a heart attack while attending an electronic music festival in Detroit. NPR’s Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Dave Smith’s Prophet-5 was on the radio everywhere in the 1980s in music by The Cars…

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CARS SONG, “LET’S GO”)

BLAIR: …Parliament Funkadelic’s “Atomic Dog”…

(SOUNDBITE OF PARLIAMENT FUNKADELIC SONG, “ATOMIC DOG”)

BLAIR: …The Talking Heads.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALKING HEADS SONG, “BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE”)

BLAIR: Dave Smith was an engineer in Silicon Valley in the late 1970s. He also had a music background. The Prophet-5 wasn’t the only synthesizer out there, but it allowed musicians to, among other things, play more than one note at a time.

ROGER O’DONNELL: He always knew more about what a musician wanted or needed than they did. He was able to give us the things that we didn’t even know we wanted.

BLAIR: Keyboard player Roger O’Donnell used Prophet synthesizers when he played for The Psychedelic Furs, The Thompson Twins, The Cure and Berlin. He says the Prophet-5 also had a microprocessor that allowed you to store sounds.

O’DONNELL: Because up until then, if you wanted to change the sound of a synthesizer, you had to, you know, scramble and twiddle 20 knobs. But on the Prophet-5, you could press a button and bring up the next sound, which was incredible back in those days. But it also came with a ridiculous price tag.

BLAIR: And yet Smith and Sequential Circuits, the company he founded, couldn’t keep up with demand. Smith didn’t always love the music that featured the Prophet-5, as he said on the podcast “Switched On Pop.”

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, “SWITCHED ON POP”)

DAVE SMITH: It was a breakthrough instrument that actually allowed all of the great and horrible music of the ’80s. Some of it was cheesy, and some of it was really good.

BLAIR: One of Smith’s favorite uses, he said, was by Radiohead in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, “EVERYTHING IN ITS RIGHT PLACE”)

BLAIR: By the early 1980s, pop musicians were using all kinds of electronic instruments made by different companies. Those instruments couldn’t talk to each other or to computers. So Smith led a design team that created MIDI, which stands for musical instrument digital interface. Like the Prophet-5, MIDI was also revolutionary, says Charlie Harding, host of “Switched On Pop.”

CHARLIE HARDING: Without MIDI, there would be no house music, techno or nearly any contemporary genre of music. His 1983 invention was so brilliant that nearly everyone who records music on a computer today uses MIDI all thanks to Dave.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALVIN HARRIS SONG, “SLIDE (FEAT. FRANK OCEAN AND MIGOS)”)

BLAIR: After MIDI was complete, Dave Smith set up a meeting with other keyboard companies, including Roland and Yamaha, to talk about how to make sure the technology was universally adopted. They decided to give it away for free.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SLIDE”)

FRANK OCEAN: (Singing) Do you slide on all your nights like this? Do you try on all your nights like this? I might put some spotlight on the slide. Whatever comes, comes too clear. Do you slide on all your nights like this? Do you try on all your nights like this? I might put some spotlight on the side. And whatever comes, comes too clear. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.