A wry view of life for the world-weary

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Seven


Dave Smith (? to present)

Ah, the nineteen eighties. Whether you loved them or hated them, the music of the time was dominated by synthesisers and electronica and one of the developments that made this possible was the creation of the MIDI or Musical Instrument Digital Interface in 1983. It quickly became the universal standard and you would have thought that its inventor would have found the key to a fortune. But you would be wrong as the story of Dave Smith, the latest inductee to our illustrious Hall of Fame, reveals.

The problem with electronic instruments pre-MIDI was that they couldn’t talk to each other. OK, a clever keyboard player could play two instruments at the same time, one with their left and the other with their right but that was pretty much as far as it went. A graduate in Computer Science and Electronic Engineering from UC Berkley, Smith was fascinated by synthesisers, creating Sequential Circuits in 1974 and in 1977 developed the Prophet 5, one of the first analogue polyphonic synthesisers. Sequential Circuits went on to become one of the most successful synthesiser manufacturers ever.

But Smith wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to develop a protocol whereby electronic instruments and synthesisers could communicate, allowing the musician to control a range of instruments from one synthesiser or computer. In 1981 he issued a challenge to the industry to back a universal protocol. To set the ball rolling, he created a rough draft of what it might look like, calling it the Universal Synthesiser Interface. Few came forward to insist but one who did was Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland. The two collaborated during 1982, communicating – it seems astonishing to write this these days – by fax and by the time of the National Association of Music Merchants in 1983, Smith was ready to reveal what they had come up with.

By today’s standards the specification for MIDI was pretty rudimentary, consisting of eight sheets of paper and limiting itself to a range of basic set of instructions you might want to send between two synthesisers, like what notes to play and at what volume. But it worked – Smith was able to link up his Prophet 600 synthesiser with a Roland JP-6. A musical revolution had arrived.

MIDI’s development coincided with the development of the PC whose processors were now fast enough using MIDI to sequence notes, control the number of keyboards and drum machines operating at the same time. It also allowed aspiring musicians to operate at home rather than spending time in expensive recording studios. But it didn’t stop there. MIDI technology has been on Mac OS since 1995 and is used in your smartphone, powering the first wave of ring tones. Games like Guitar hero use it. And it has stood the test of time. The basic protocol has been added to but remains the same.

And why did Smith not make a fortune? Well, he gave it away. Explaining what may seem on the face of it a baffling decision, he said, “we wanted to be sure we had 100% participation, so we decided not to charge any other companies that wanted to use it”. Very magnanimous. On the other hand, it may have been a sprat to catch a mackerel, making products such as synthesisers more valuable and desirable. But even then, Smith had to sell Sequential Circuits to Yamaha in 1988 to stave off bankruptcy.

He is still making and selling synths with his own company, Dave Smith Instruments. But for eschewing the money that would have come his way through licensing MIDI, Dave Smith is a worthy inductee.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link


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