Whilst the average music listener may have no idea who Dave Smith is, or why he’s relevant, anyone in the music-making community should make it a point to read up on the man. For over 40 years, Smith has been contributing to the world of music by not only advocating the sounds of synthesizers, but also by pioneering the technology that use today. Whether it’s the creation of the first polyphonic synthesizer in the 70′s, or his role in the development of MIDI technology in the 80′s, or his current work at Dave Smith Instruments, the man has continued to give musicians the kind of cutting-edge tools they need to elevate their art to the next level. I met up with him at the recent NAMM conference to talk about his work and career.
Hi Dave! I assume that you’ve been coming to NAMM since the 70′s. How many have you attended at this point?
Probably 40, roughly.
That’s a lot. What are some of the newer products that DSI are showcasing this year at NAMM?
One of our new products is the Prophet 12 module, which is a black module version of the Prophet 12 keyboard that we released 6 months ago.
Having been credited with making the first soft synth in the 90′s for Intel, how do you compare working with digital versus making analog synths?
Well, there’s always been analog component to all of DSI instruments. The Prophet 12 is a good example. It has digital oscillators with analog filters. That’s because the analog oscillators can’t do what we wanted them to do, so we couldn’t use them, which is okay. We don’t take sides between analog and digital. We’d rather build the kind of instruments that we want. But we think analog filter and signal path are important, so we put those in.
I don’t really count the soft synths I made in the 90′s as being instruments. The problem with software is that if you don’t keep rebuilding it every year, they don’t work. So that synth might have worked in the mid-90′s, but it won’t today unless you have a computer from that period. So I went back to building musical instruments that will still work in 35 years like acoustic ones do.
You did a joint interview with Roger Linn last year, and he had commented that digital synths would require significantly more processing power to produce sounds close to their analog counterparts. Do you think that if the processing power were enough, it might be possible to make a digital synthesizer that could match an analog one?
Well, digital synths sound good. There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re just different, and it’s really hard to quantify that without using abstract words like “fat” or “warm”. But there’s something about it, and you have to play it for yourself to hear the difference, and see whether it speaks to you or not. Many musicians say that the analog stuff fits better in a mix, which makes sense. It’s all about the subtle differences between the different oscillator voices.
Do you think that there might still be some unexplored avenues with regards to bridging the gap between digital and analog? Arturia have made some pretty well-received emulations.
I haven’t looked into enough myself. I don’t really care, to be honest. I spent some time with physical modelling 20 years ago, and I thought it might be an interesting thing, but then at some point you realize that there’s not much of a point in modelling something that already exists. If I wanted to play a violin or piano, then I’d play a violin or piano. I don’t feel the need to emulate that. It’s understandable that there might be a need for having a portable keyboard that sounds like a piano, but it’s not interesting for me. I’d rather build something that has new sounds.
For most people, using digital synths probably happens due to lack of funds, so buying analog ones might be out of the question.
Yeah, that’s true. The great thing about digital domain is that the products are cheap. That’s the main reason why people build it. It’s good that the technology is out there, because it gives people a place to start. It’s also great for synth manufacturers like me, because kids can start off with the software and learn how synthesis works. Then when they play the real thing, they say “Oh I get it now“. Sure, the money thing is a drag, but if a synth has 12 analog voices, it’s going to be expensive. I can’t do much about that. But even those synths are selling really well for us because people appreciate the sound.
Given how more people are looking to make music in today’s age, to what extent have you been able to scale the cost of making your analog synthesizer to make it affordable?
If you were to compare a Prophet 5 to a Prophet 12, the latter has more voices. The number of features on a 12 is multiplied significantly in comparison. A Prophet 5 cost $4500 in 1978, which is probably more than $20,000 in today’s currency. You used to be able to buy a car for less money than a Prophet 5. Yet, our Prophet 12 only costs $3000. So clearly, we’ve learned a lot about how to scale down and make affordable analog synths in comparison to the old days, even with the same filters. You could buy a 4-voice analog keyboard for $1300. That was unheard of a few years ago.
How long does it take for you to make a new synth product?
It depends. The Prophet 12 module was quick to make, since it was a spin-off from something that already existed. The keyboard version took about a year. We don’t tend to go way overboard on designing new things. The Prophet 12 does have a lot of new things in it, and the technology is different from what we’ve used before. 6-12 months is the typical time frame it takes though.
Tell me about the Mopho. Where did the concept for that synth come from?
Roughly speaking it’s a one-voice Prophet 08, with additional features like sub-oscillators and feedback. It also has a module version. A lot of people forget that it was the first low-cost module. When it came out, $400 for analog synth was unheard of. Everybody and their brother are making low-cost analog synths now, most of which that aren’t programmable. It’s quite easy to build a simple, non-programmable analog synth. Even software companies are doing that now. But nobody’s been able to match the features of the Mopho at its price point. I don’t think anyone could, because they haven’t been doing it as long as we have. So our idea was to make a low-cost, high quality, fully-featured monophonic synth. It’s not just one oscillator, two envelopes, one filter, one LFO, and limited routing of modulation.
How’s the Mopho faring for you, commercially?
It’s been great. The nice thing about our products is that they have a really long lifetime. We’ve been shipping Prophet 08 since 2007, and we’re selling as many now as we ever have. Whenever companies come out with a new product, it’s usually replacing their last one. “Here’s the new version that has more voices” or whatever. When we come out with one, it’s an entirely new instrument. So a lot of people own both a Prophet 12 and a Prophet 08, since they’re different. That’s the same thought we had for the Mopho. We’ve been shipping them for a few years and they’re still chugging along pretty well.
Given your background in developing both monophonic and polyphonic synthesizers, what would you say the advantages are in using one over the other?
It’s really comes down to what you want to do. For us, there’s a cost factor of course. It costs more to make eight voices than one. Also, people usually play mono-synths differently. Even on the Prophet 08, people have a lot of unison patches, which is great for lead lines and bass. There’s no set rules, but polysynths are generally used for pads and chords, whereas monosynths are used for bass and leads.
You mentioned last year that the Prophet 12 was your favorite synth to make. Why is that?
Well, it’s just a combination of a lot of things. You’d have to play it to understand it. It’s got the old analog soul, but also has a digital component. So you can make very piercing digital sounds that still retain a certain warmth to it. So it’s a hybrid synth with a wider range of features.
Do you have any desire to make a synth that will top the Prophet 12 as your “best synth”?
It’s not a target to for us top our instruments. We’re working on one now that will come out in the summer. We’ve got an idea for some combinations of new things, but it’s not meant to be our “best synth ever”. If someone likes the Minimoog sound, they can go buy a Moog synth. We’re not going to put a Moog filter in our stuff just to sound different. Like I said about the Prophet 12 and 08, we’re selling both in equal measure because people like them as different instruments.
When DSI works on building synths, do you ever feel like the company has to balance being creative versus being cost-efficient, in order to not go overboard?
We don’t consider cost that much, to be honest. We build the instrument we want to. We see what it ends up costing afterwards, and that’s what we sell it for. We don’t think in terms of “This has to be $499 or $999“. We start with the instrument. I have no idea how much the one we’re building right now will cost.
We’re lucky, because nobody else is making polyphonic synths, so we have the market to ourselves. When there’s no competition, business is good. Also, we’re not a huge company, so we don’t do a whole lot of promotion. As a result, people keep finding out about us every year. We still have people walking up to our booth who haven’t heard about us before. Then they try out our products and go “wow”. Then they buy it and tell their friends. That’s how we keep going even though we’re not doing big campaigns.
Touching on your pioneering work on MIDI technology, we’re wondering why didn’t you patented that. It’s a globally used technology, without the music industry would be crippled. You could have made a lot of money on it.
I know, could have made money on it, but the whole idea was to give it away to make sure that it happened. Also, there were 5 companies involved, so the money would have been split between us. But if there had been licensing restrictions and royalties involved it would have just complicated everything. And it turned out to be the right thing to do, because 30 years alter MIDI is everywhere. If you take something from the 80′s and plug it in, it works.
Do you think MIDI technology will have to evolve at some point to accommodate for technology changes that will occur?
It doesn’t have to, but someday it’s bound to. It wouldn’t be that hard to do.
Final question. After having collaborated with Roger Linn to make the Tempest, do you think that there’s a chance you’ll work with other famous brands to make electronic instruments, such as Moog? That would be an interesting combination. DSI + Moog?
We’re competitors, so it’s not likely. So far, they seem happy to make variations of the same monophonic synth over and over, which is fine with us. We’ll keep building new instruments, and let them keep doing what they do. Everybody seems happy.