The Path of the Prophet: How Dave Smith's Invention Changed the Synth Game

It was more ubiquitous than unfortunate hairstyles and more expensive than having your DeLorean detailed, but in the first half of the ‘80s, the Prophet 5 was the must-have synthesizer of the era. It changed the way synths were designed, the way music sounded, and the way records were made. The Prophet was the bottomless magic box with an endless supply of tricks—at the time it seemed there was nothing beyond its capabilities.

The instrument emerged from the mind of Dave Smith, the man who founded Sequential Circuits in 1974 and went on to alter the musical landscape forever. Born in San Francisco in 1950, Smith played in bands in his high school and college years, and while attending UC Berkeley, he became conversant enough with electronics to write a primitive music composition program.

Origin Stories: The 1970s

The hammer of the gods struck when Smith bought his first synth in 1972, reportedly one of the first 300 Minimoog Model D's that were constructed. He was working as an aerospace engineer for Lockheed by then, but he started devoting all his spare time to pursuing the possibilities of electronic music. He designed an analog sequencer that became the first Sequential Circuits product in 1974—the Model 600—followed the next year by the digital 800 sequencer.

In 1976, he created the Model 700's programmer which was designed to externally store patches for Minimoog and ARP 2600 users. It worked well enough that designer John Bowen at Moog began using it in-house. Bowen helped promote the 700 and started working closely with Smith.

With Bowen’s help, Smith set to work on the instrument that would change both his life and the music world as we know it. It was partly made possible by two technological advances: one was the Solid State company’s music chip set for voltage-controlled (aka analog) oscillators, filters, amplifiers, and envelope generators—the other was the Z80A microprocessor, which could scan the chips and store the digital equivalents of synth settings permanently.

This had never been done before, and it allowed Smith and Bowen to create the first programmable polyphonic synthesizer. After giving E-Mu Systems a piece of the action in exchange for licensing their voice-assignment system, Smith rewrote that technology to power his polyphonic keyboard. Bowen called upon his sound-design prowess and created 40 preset patches for the synth. Initially known as the Model 1000, it would soon become as world-famous as the Prophet 5.

In the spring of 1977, Smith finally dumped his day gig to put his full energy behind Sequential. Prog rock keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman was already in Smith’s orbit at the time, having used and appeared in ads for the 700 and 800. No stranger to grandiosity’s appeal, Wakeman suggested giving the groundbreaking synth a more majestic name than Model 1000. Redubbed the Prophet 5, it met the music world for the first time at the NAMM expo in the winter of 1978.

With two oscillators for each of its five voices and the ability for each to travel an independent modulation path, the Prophet seemed to have all the visionary qualities of its namesake. It blew musicians' minds and Sequential started taking an avalanche of advance orders. After securing a loan for mass production, they were off to the races.

Up to that time, synth players had it rough: polyphony had only been available for a couple of years, and even then, on a very limited basis. You could stack a bunch of Oberheim modules together to achieve their Four-Voice or Eight-Voice configurations, or shell out an amount akin to a down payment on a house to haul around all 200 pounds of a Yamaha CS80, which was also pretty much the only option for presets during that era.

A synth that was polyphonic, programmable, and portable was beyond even the most optimistic players’ wildest dreams until the Prophet arrived, bringing a whole new world of possibilities with it. As early as 1979, you could hear it on the radio, providing that quintessential New Wave synth line at the forefront of The Cars’ “Let’s Go"—but by the early ‘80s the instrument was everywhere: the dreamy textures of Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That,” the mysterious arpeggios framing Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes,” the menagerie of squawks, growls, and roars on Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House”—they all emerged from the Prophet 5.

The Cars perform "Let's Go" on Midnight Special in 1979 with their Prophet 5

Golden Years: the 1980s

It would be far easier to list the artists who didn’t use a Prophet in the early to mid ‘80s than to tally the ones who did. Sure, a handful of other polysynths joined the fray, but suffice it to say that if you were a keyboardist in a major band without a Prophet, you might as well have just been playing an organ.

During the six years that the Prophet 5 was in production it went through several updates, with Rev. 3 becoming the most popular. In 1981 Smith doubled down with the Prophet 10. Basically a double-keyboard version of the 5, it was actually the first synth Sequential designed, but the early model was too unpredictable. By ‘81, they would smooth things out: keyboardists could now command as many voices as they had fingers—if you put the 10 into unison mode you could wield a massive monophonic sound blending all the voices into one. For extra fun, an onboard polyphonic sequencer was added to the mix.

On the other side of the coin, Smith introduced the Pro-One. As popular as the Prophet was, there was a vast market of people who couldn’t afford one. Enter the Prophet’s three-octave monophonic little sibling. Armed with the same two-VCO setup as the Prophet 5, plus a sequencer a la the 10, the Pro-One became enormously popular, and not only with players on a budget.

Because the first wave of synth pop depended so heavily on monophonic melodies, the Pro-One turned up on tracks by some of the genre’s top artists, like Soft Cell, New Order, and Depeche Mode. After main Depeche songwriter Vince Clarke moved on to Yazoo (Yaz in the U.S.), he went all in for the instrument. He’s stated numerous times that the Pro-One is one of his favorite synths—he’d go on to use it all through Erasure’s discography—and it’s allegedly the only synthesizer he played on Yazoo’s blockbuster 1982 debut LP, Upstairs at Eric’s.

Official video for "Don't Go" by Yazoo / Yaz, featuring the Pro-One

Amid all this invention, Smith somehow found the time to revolutionize the electronic instrument industry in perhaps an even bigger way. In 1981 he introduced the idea for what he called a Universal Synthesizer Interface. By the end of ‘82, with help from Roland, Yamaha, Korg, and Kawai, the technology forevermore known as MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) was making it possible for electronic instruments from any manufacturer to operate in sync with each other, drastically altering the way music was made.

Hordes of Prophets and other synths were duly retrofitted for MIDI, but Sequential speedily unveiled the Prophet 600, which was more or less a Prophet 5 with built-in MIDI capability, the first instrument of its kind. But by 1983, the great analog-slayer had arrived: the Yamaha DX7 synth started a digital avalanche. Smith responded by introducing the snazzy Prophet T8. It matched the DX7’s aftertouch and velocity sensitivity and featured eight voices and 76 wooden keys providing a satisfying, pianistic feel.

It wasn’t digital though, and the DX7 locomotive could not be slowed down. Sequential slugged it out boldly for the next few years, refusing to let the analog synth die. They even got into the drum machine business along the way with the MIDI-ready Drumtraks, their answer to the ubiquitous, sample-based LinnDrum.

Only three more keyboards would slide down the Sequential chute before the company closed its doors, but their features show that Smith was really thinking outside the box in an effort to keep pace with progress. In 1984 came the Six-Trak. It was a moderately priced, four-octave analog synth, but crucially, it was one of the first multitimbral synthesizers, able to punch out multiple tones (as opposed to voices) at a time. Adorably, it was also built to operate in conjunction with a Commodore 64 computer—now that’s peak ‘80s!

The following year, Sequential got into the all-the-rage sampling game. The Prophet 2000 offered 12-bit sampling, plus analog modulation for an old-school touch. The last thing with keys to come down the line was 1986’s Prophet VS. Smith had finally acquiesced to the digital zeitgeist, but he still insisted on doing things his way. As engineer Chris Meyer’s baby, the VS employed the still-new process of vector synthesis. We won’t stop to explain that here, but the VS offered 127 waveforms, and four DCOs per voice.

Along with analog giants like Moog and Oberheim, Sequential Circuits eventually succumbed to the digital onslaught. Overextended and undercapitalized, they went bankrupt and sold the business to Yamaha, who shut it down in 1989. Too talented to rest on his laurels, Smith went to work designing for other companies, including Korg, Yamaha, and Seer Systems.

The Comeback: The 2000s

In the 2000s, when the pendulum inevitably swung in the opposite direction and people started caring about analog synths again, Sequential instruments came back in fashion, with vintage Prophets commanding collectors-item prices. That remains unchanged to this day, but in 2002, Smith decided to jump back in the saddle and started a new company. Since he no longer owned the Sequential name, he dubbed his new venture Dave Smith Instruments.

In 2007 DSI celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Prophet 5 by releasing its 21st century sequel, the Prophet 08. An analog synth with digital components, the 08 was significantly more sophisticated than its forebear and became a big hit.

A new golden age for the Prophet began. DSI eventually unveiled the Prophet 12 with four DCOs per voice plus a sub oscillator, and the Prophet Rev 2 with up to 16-note polyphony, two sequencers, velocity sensitivity and aftertouch, and exponentially more possibilities than its predecessors. The Prophet 6 was a tribute to the 5, but with extras like a polyphonic step sequencer, an arpeggiator, and an array of onboard effects including reverb, delay, chorus, and phaser.

Yamaha returned the rights to the Sequential name to Smith in 2015. He officially put up his new/old shingle in 2018, the 40th anniversary of Sequential Circuits, releasing the Prophet X with its DCOs and sample-based sounds. It was later updated as the Prophet XL. It seemed like Smith was going stronger than ever, but the music world was dealt a tragic blow when a heart attack took him from us on May 31, 2022 at the age of 72.

The Legacy: Today

Today the latter-day iterations of the Prophet are nearly as popular as the ‘80s originals and a whole new generation of artists has embraced Sequential’s sonic universe. “Like the Minimoog was to monophonic synths, the Prophet set a particular standard of what a polyphonic synth should be,” says L.A.-based ambient-jazz artist Benny Bock. “I appreciate the ease of use, the stability, and predictability of the Prophet, as well as its hardware design and aesthetics. Inextricably tied with this is my appreciation of and gratitude to the late Dave Smith, who was an innovator, creator, and lover of music.”

"Sponge (For Miyake)" by ARP, 2022

Putting his gear where his gab is, Bock used a vintage Prophet 5 on his upcoming duo album with singer Nora Stanley for Colorfield Records. Electronic artist Alexis Georgopoulos, who records as Arp, relied heavily on the Prophet for his latest album, New Pleasures. “I used the Prophet more than any other synth on my new album,” he says. “I love being able to create chordal percussive hits with the Prophet. In a way, even though it’s obviously very modern, the tonal aspects can remind me of ancient tuned percussion. You can get massive bass sounds, clavinet or harpsichord-like sounds, really shiny, glowy sounds, lush whooshes of sound. The white noise generator is gorgeous.”

“The chordal intervals you hear on New Pleasures were created by tuning the two oscillators and playing with the amazing poly-mod section,” Georgopoulos reports. “The Prophet has a richness, a depth, but also a lovely mid- and high range. It never gets brittle. It can be massive, really muscular—without being brutish. There’s a kind of elegance to it and a futurism, even now.”

Further reading: The Prophet from Silicon Valley: The Complete Story of Sequential Circuits by David Abernethy, foreword by Dave Smith.

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