When we were introduced to Dave Smith by his colleague Roger Linn we jumped at the opportunity to talk him into an email interview about synths, MIDI and whether analogue still matters.
Like his friend and colleague Roger Linn – who we also interviewed recently – Dave Smith’s contribution to the world of modern electronic music equipment has played a fundamental role in shaping the way every single one of us makes music. And that’s no exaggeration. Look at the synths you use on a daily basis – whether hardware or software, chances are they’ve been influenced in some way by Dave’s designs, from 1970s classics like the Sequential Circuits Pro One and Prophet 5 onwards.
Thinking of buying a new hardware synth or drum machine? Even if you’re not considering one of Dave’s own products, we guarantee that every manufacturer on the market has one eye on keeping pace with Dave Smith Instruments. Oh, and did we mention he was one of the key players in developing the MIDI protocol, still ubiquitous in hardware and software as it enters its fourth decade?
During our conversation, Dave offered characteristically straight-talking opinions on the development of synthesis, the legacy of the MIDI protocol and why synths today offer more bang for the buck than ever before.
Attack: Let’s start with a pretty obvious topic. Alongside MIDI, your name is most commonly associated with analogue synthesis. You’ve made the occasional foray into digital synthesis methods, including the digital oscillators in the Evolvers and the Tempest – and you’ve never been afraid to incorporate groundbreaking digital control methods into your products – but it’s still analogue which you’re best known for. It’s hard to believe that we’re still having this discussion in 2013, but I can’t think of many people who are in a better position than you to offer an informed opinion on the seemingly endless analogue versus digital debate. Where do you stand on that now? In terms of synthesis, is there any debate left to have, or is it now simply a matter of taste? Are we finally on the verge of reaching a consensus that digital does some things well, analogue does other things well and they’re not necessarily in competition with each other?
Dave Smith: Musical instruments are (or should be) more than the technology used to build them. It should be all about playing music. Some people get way too wrapped up in technology debates, when it should simply be: ‘Do you like the way the instrument sounds, does it have personality, do you bond with it?’ In my instruments, I make decisions based on what I think will sound the best and produce an instrument that musicians will want to play. To me, the key is in the analog filters; in the Prophet 12 we have digital oscillators simply because analog were not precise enough and did not give us all the features we wanted. But, we still have analog low-pass and high-pass filters, and the signal path is analog from that point on.
How do you feel about digital emulations of your analogue gear, like the Pro One and Prophet 5 soft synths?
They sound OK as long as the real thing is not nearby, and they can be convenient if you want to work in the box. But, software does not have the look and feel of a real musical instrument. And they become disposable instruments. This may be why some software companies are now making analog hardware synths.
Some people get way too wrapped up in technology debates.
Are you ever tempted to produce another digital synth, or even a soft synth?
At the moment I have no plans for either, for reasons mentioned above.
Thirty years on from the release of the Juno-6, people still argue that DCOs aren’t ‘proper’ analogue. You seem to be committed to DCOs now. Can you explain that decision to people who still lust after the sound of VCOs?
The early DCOs got a bad rap since they were not very well implemented. Some don’t realize that a DCO is completely analog in the signal generation; a capacitor gets charged just as in a VCO, and is the base shape in the oscillator. The only difference is that the timing of the capacitor reset comes from digital circuitry. Best of both worlds; you never have to deal with tuning problems (which even now still plague most VCO synths), but you have 100% analog signal.
Is there ever any temptation to make another VCO-based synth to satisfy vintage purists?
Not really; I prefer to move forward with interesting ideas for new instruments, rather than follow some set of rules.
At this stage is there anywhere new left to go with analogue synthesis or are we going to see small, incremental improvements on a formula which is already pretty much complete? You seem the kind of person who’s always looking to improve things and move forward.
Definitely. The basic oscillator/filter/amplifier structure has passed the test of time, from the first modular in the 60s through digital and soft synths that mostly emulate that architecture. We have a lot of ideas to work within that framework while producing new and cool instruments.
Looking back for a moment, what do you think are the greatest achievements of your career so far?
Hmmm… Mostly just producing a lot of different instruments in the last 35 years that have been played by a lot of great musicians in a bunch of great recordings and live shows. That’s ultimately the goal as a synth designer.
The basic oscillator/filter/ amplifier structure has passed the test of time, from the first modular in the 60s... We have a lot of ideas to work within that framework.
One of your greatest contributions to electronic music is your involvement in the creation of the MIDI protocol. Thirty years on, how do you feel MIDI stands up today? Are there signs that it might become outdated at some point? Is it time for us to try to move on to a new protocol, or do you think it’s got a lot more life left in it? What do you think of the improvements offered by protocols like OSC?
It’s still used every day, by everyone, everywhere. Now it’s often virtual inside the box or over USB. While more advanced protocols would certainly add a lot of cool features, I fear that the actual number of musicians who would take advantage of the improvements is not so large, but we’ll see!