Dave Smith: A Tribute to the Father of MIDI. To me, there has been no more important technology that transformed my life than MIDI. Dave Smith was a genius level inventor who changed my creative world and millions of others with his invention of MIDI.
My First “Real Keyboard”
Dave Smith’s company, Sequential Circuits, built the first proper synthesizer I ever owned, the Sequential Circuits Six Trak.
When I say proper synthesizer, I did beg, borrow and “save” enough money to buy a Siel Cruise .
While this was technically a synthesizer, like every other analogue keyboard that was built before MIDI, you could do nothing with it. You could not save sounds, you could not use a single cable to plug it into another keyboard/module to get it to make a sound. And, even though it was dirt cheap at the time, it sounded dirt cheap. In a nutshell, it was like your first used car, it was a set of wheels, but nothing more. My fondest memories were of my tutor playing German folk songs and Christmas Carols on it. It sounded hilariously awful, but he had loads of fun doing it.
I didn’t even know what Sequential Circuits was, and I certainly was not in a position to afford a Prophet 5, or a Jupiter 8, both pieces of equipment that I really wanted. I went into the local music shop and I said that I wanted to trade in my Siel Cruise. They said that they could show me a few different things. One of the keyboards they showed me was this cut down, smaller keyboard called a Six Trak.
It was very unassuming, there was not a forest of knobs, just one knob which allowed you to go through a set of menus to tweak one parameter at a time. But, there was this thing called a sequencer, which if you used it with a Commodore 64, you could “sequence” up to six tracks at a time.
That was a revelation. I could create whole compositions with one keyboard. Now there were only six voices, which means that you could only play six notes at a time before it would steal notes, or cut off the sound, but it was something and it was a start.
I didn’t have a studio, I didn’t have a mixer. But I had my tape machine, which had an input on the back and with my Commodore, I could sequence music. I went nuts! I learned so much about programming synths from that one keyboard.
From Keyboard to Drum Machine
I knew that I had to own a drum machine because my favorite musician at the time, Howard Jones owned at least one. His drum machine, the Linn Drum was too expensive. I needed something that was affordable, but still could do the job. Enter the Sequential Circuits TOM . Just look at this thing, does it not seem like exactly the same aesthetic as the Six Trak? Well, you are correct, it was super simple to program patterns, it sounded great, and like my Commodore 64, it had a cartridge port on it, that if you paid $300.00 at the time, you could get another 8 sounds loaded into the drum machine to use. Wow, I learned about tuning drum samples, programming, beat making, stringing patterns together to make sounds. I absolutely loved this piece of kit, it really was wonderful.
What About Dave Smith?
As you can tell, I was supposed to write about Dave Smith and how much his inventions formed my musical background and informed everything that I did and why he meant so much to me. There is a reason I have been procrastinating, it is because not having ever had the chance to meet Dave Smith in person, only use his inventions from afar and not actually have the chance to shake his hand and thank him for making my creative life better for his inventions and his technology, finding out that he had passed, hit me much harder than I expected. With Vangelis passing, one of the most important musical influences in my life, then less than a month later, Andy Fletcher from Depeche Mode, the most important band in my life musically, to now, Dave Smith, the most important technologist to my professional and creative growth, it is hard to write these words and appear to be sincere without being mawkish or maudlin. Instead, I will let this excellent video tell Dave’s story and what he meant to so many people. I can only say this, having never met him, I watched the video through. At the 22:04 mark in the video, Dave actually mentions his MIDI invention for the first time.
With a single swipe of his hand, he mentions MIDI like this invention was a “blip” in his life. Like it was a “one shot thing.” In my life, his instruments, his creativity, his vision and most of all his “hobby”, which he describes, his making of musical instruments, like the Prophet 5 and like MIDI, was not a one shot thing for me. Dave, I never met you in person, but your one shot thing, has been at my side everyday of my musical/creative life. I cannot express how deeply sad I am to see him go. I certainly hope, that wherever in the afterlife his journey goes, that there is a place where Dave can hear the echoes of the past and the future and smile quietly, like he always appears to do, and go right back to his hobby.