Reverb Interview: Dave Smith on Synths, Inspiration and Experimentation

Even among the pantheon of synth pioneers, few instrument makers have covered as much ground as Dave Smith, founder of Dave Smith Instruments. From selling his first analog sequencer designs through ads in Rolling Stone to developing the Prophet 5, the first programmable polysynth, Smith made Sequential Circuits, his previous company, one of the most successful and revered of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Sequential Circuits Prophet 5

Sequential Circuits Prophet 5

Not content to stop there, he was instrumental in the development of MIDI, debuting the Prophet 600 at the Winter NAMM of 1983 as the first commercially produced synthesizer to feature the now ubiquitous protocol. He went on to pioneer new techniques for wavetable synthesis, physical modeling and software synthesizers before striking out on his own with Dave Smith Instruments in 2002.

DSI has gone on to release a plethora of beloved instruments, most recently the Pro 2, Prophet 6, Prophet 12 and Tempest. We got the opportunity to sit down with this Grammy-winning engineer and designer to talk about his process, the state of synthesizers today and the future of DSI.

Many synth makers pride themselves on pure-analog designs or stick to digital emulations; you’re unique in your pragmatic approach to both. How do you decide whether to use a digital or analog element in your designs?

Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 12

Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 12

There’s no real formula that we follow; it depends on what we want from a particular synth design. We use digital oscillators on the Prophet 12 and Pro 2, since we wanted four oscillators per voice, many different shapes and shape mixing, full FM capabilities, etc. On the Prophet 6, we went more old-school with real voltage controlled oscillators, which are much more limited in capability, but give you the awesome vintage analog sound. Note that in all cases we use analog filters. They do wonders for a digital front end; clearly the best of both worlds!

What inspires you when envisioning a new instrument?

Again, no set formula. Often it starts with an existing instrument. For example, what if we took the Prophet ‘08, switched to digital oscillators, more voices and a ton more modulation? That turned into the Prophet 12. The Pro 2 came from a desire to build the ultimate mono synth; all the many different, unique things that it does. But mostly we want to build instruments that are a joy to play, with a lot of personality and character. We never build products just to address market segments; that’s no fun.

What are your thoughts on the explosion of the Eurorack format in recent years?

It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a great way for people to learn synthesis and experiment with sound. Plus, they look great in photos! We have a couple modules we sell, and we may do more in the future. I wish there was more actual music made with them, but there’s plenty of time for that.

Do you have any plans to venture into that territory outside of the Filter and Character units? Is there a polyphonic oscillator unit in the future?

We have many ideas, and one module in development now, but no immediate plans for an oscillator, poly or mono. Too much to do, so little time!

You still work with digital synthesis and designed some of earliest professional software synthesizers. Now that DSP technology and personal computers have attained such high levels of power and sophistication, have you considered making a software based or hybrid product for DSI?

Dave Smith in the DSI Demo Room

Dave Smith in the DSI Demo Room

Nope; while softsynths are good for many reasons, I like real instruments that you can touch and play. A Prophet 6 is likely to still be in use in 20 years, unlike most softsynths. Our analog synths have a lot of sophisticated DSP in them, controlling the analog circuitry, generating oscillators, or handling digital effects as in the Prophet 6. They already are hybrid, but it’s all hidden, as most technology should be.

Pittsburgh Modular recently adapted a framework for using their units in a stompbox format and many new synths, including your own, feature expanded abilities for processing external audio. We also geek out over guitars here at Reverb and are curious if you have any plans for exploring a stompbox format?

Over the years, we’ve discussed effects a number of times. People have requested spinning out products like the analog distortion/compressor from Tempest, and the FX section of the Prophet 6. We certainly have the technology to do almost anything in the analog, digital and hybrid worlds, but we tend to get more excited about synths. But, someday we’ll probably do it.

What are the challenges of integrating electric guitar and synthesizers, or audio input in general, into synths?

It’s easy to include an audio input on a mono synth but not on a poly synth, since it doesn’t make much sense with multiple voices. To do it correctly you need to be able to trigger envelopes with the audio and include envelope-follower and peak-hold functions to really make it useful.

Any other insights into your workflow or new instruments would make our day. What’s next for Dave Smith Instruments?

Well, there are many more synths that are just waiting to be made! We never have a shortage of ideas; the hard part is selecting which one to do next. We have a couple surprises coming up soon and more in the works after that. All from a company of 12 people!

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