The Prophet And The Rising Sun (Part 1)
Designer of the revolutionary Prophet 5, prime mover behind MIDI and now one of Korg's chief designers, Dave Smith's career is unique in hi-tech music. Simon Trask conducts the exclusive MT interview.
FOUNDER OF SEQUENTIAL CIRCUITS AND A PRIME MOVER IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF MIDI, DAVE SMITH IS NOW MAKING WAVES AT KORG. IN THIS TWO-PART INTERVIEW HE TALKS EXCLUSIVELY TO MT ABOUT SEQUENTIAL, YAMAHA AND THE INFAMOUS PROPHET 5.
AMERICAN SYNTH COMPANY Sequential Circuits' petition for bankruptcy in December 1987 marked the end of an era, for during their 13-year history the company had become a cornerstone of the American synth industry. First coming to prominence in 1978 with a bona fide classic synth, the Prophet 5, Sequential were never slow to introduce new ideas to musicians and to the industry. Back in December 1982, the Prophet 600 was the first commercially-available synth to offer MIDI, a reflection of the fact that company founder, chairman and chief engineer Dave Smith played a leading role in the creation of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface. With the Prophet t8 in 1983 the company introduced a high-specification keyboard offering both attack and release velocity along with polyphonic aftertouch, with optical sensing used to register velocity (an approach which Yamaha were to later adopt on their MIDI grand piano).
Also in 1983, Sequential ventured into effects processing territory in typically forward-thinking fashion with the Pro-FX 500 programmable modular signal processing system, which consisted of a Signal Controller and a 3U-high 19" rack-mount chassis which was able to hold up to six slot-in effects units drawn from a range which included digital delay, parametric EQ, distortion and phase shifter. Control settings for every knob and switch could be stored in up to 64 memories. Not a lot of people know that.
In 1984 the company explored the possibilities of multitimbral synthesis on the SixTrak, which also included a six-track sequencer, making it an early example of what later came to be called a workstation. The company also took advantage of MIDI sync to ensure that the SixTrak could be used with the Drumtraks, their first digital drum machine; it was even possible to program velocity-sensitive drum parts into the Drumtraks from a MIDI keyboard, a concept which MT's reviewer at the time found bizarre.
Around this time Sequential also brought out an early example of computer-based MIDI sequencing software, the Model 64 Sequencer for the Commodore 64. And getting wholeheartedly into the spirit of the computer music revolution, they followed up the SixTrak with MAX, a synth which was unusual in that it could only be programmed via MIDI from a Commodore 64 using the company's own editing software. Unfortunately it was too unusual for the punters, and didn't meet with much success.
Mixing innovation, inspiration, quirkiness and reliability problems in equal measure, Sequential were a source of both delight and exasperation to musicians. In fact, they were not so much a company you either loved or hated as a company you both loved and hated. Never able to call on the sort of financial resources available to the Japanese companies, if an idea didn't "take" first time round they generally had to drop it and move onto something else. While this assured plenty of innovation and an intriguing assortment of equipment, it also meant that other companies were better able to capitalise on Sequential's originality than they were.
At the same time, it wasn't unknown for the company to release equipment onto the market before it was properly tested so they could raise the capital to complete its development. The Prophet 5 was a prime example of both this strategy and the attendant infamous "reliability problems" - but it became a classic instrument, all the same.
Often lurching from one product to another, perhaps it was inevitable that Sequential should eventually lurch into bankruptcy. Sitting opposite me in the offices of Korg UK, Dave Smith is both candid about his company's shortcomings and sanguine about its demise - but then it would be difficult to imagine this affable, easy-going Californian not looking on the bright side of life.
"I'm the kind of person that rolls with the punches, so I didn't feel any deep remorse about losing the company", he confirms. "Looking back, it's sort of sad, but on the other hand things have worked out very well for me so I can't complain. If anything, at the time I felt more for the other employees than I did for myself, because I knew I could always do something similar to what I'd been doing."
In his current position as Vice President of Korg R&D, Smith no longer has to contend with the day-to-day worries and burdens of running a company, and is instead able to concentrate on what he knows how to do best: conceiving and designing new instruments. He heads up a California-based R&D team of some 12 or 13 people ("I haven't counted lately"), mainly ex-Sequential, Ensoniq and Yamaha employees.
"Korg are a great company to work for", he offers. "In a lot of ways they're a very non-Japanese company. They're just a lot looser, they're not quite so structured as most Japanese companies are. I think that shows in their products and in a lot of their innovations. That starts at the top and goes all the way down. They're personable people, looser..."
But where Korg's approach seems to gel with Smith's outlook, his time at Yamaha seems to have been less rewarding. As many of you will no doubt be aware, Yamaha (in fact, the Yamaha Corporation of America) stepped in as Sequential went down and took over the company. To this day, Smith isn't quite sure of their motives. While they bought up Sequential's assets, including all the company's technology and the rights to the names Sequential Circuits, Sequential, Prophet and Studio, they also paid off the company's debts and took on some Sequential employees as an R&D team, easing what could have been a more unpleasant situation. At the same time they could hardly be accused of picking like vultures at the carcass of Sequential. For one thing, there was a lot of speculation at the time as to whether or not the company's Prophet 3000 stereo 16-bit sampler would be taken over by Yamaha.
"We had no idea, and I think the problem was that they had no idea either", says Smith. "We kind of got lost between Yamaha in the United States and Yamaha in Japan. They're a pretty big company, so it's easier for things to get lost in the shuffle, and I think that's what happened to our whole division. Things fell through the cracks."
So what exactly was Yamaha's intention in buying up Sequential?
"It's hard to say", Smith professes, "because they never really took advantage of what we could have done for them. I won't even start to guess what their thinking was. I assumed they got us for ideas we could have helped them out with, different angles and insight on products from how they would do things. But in the end it didn't really turn out that way. so... I don't know. It was a strange period of time.
"We did start out in the sampling domain, and we were going to do a range of things based on the 3000 technology, but I personally got bored pretty quickly with sampling. First of all, it's easy to do technically, and then it's just a matter of forever adding features to the software. We actually had a direct-to-disk system working which we were going to develop more. I did lose interest in it personally, but I don't think that's got anything to do with what Yamaha wanted us to do or not do. I became more interested in sound generation again, and we were working on ideas similar to the Wavestation, I can probably say that much."
"I PERSONALLY GOT BORED PRETTY QUICKLY WITH SAMPLING. IT'S EASY TO DO TECHNICALLY, AND THEN IT'S JUST A MATTER OF FOREVER ADDING FEATURES TO THE SOFTWARE."
Eventually the R&D team decided that they would go their own ways, and it was then - around May or June of '89 - that Korg stepped in.
"They wanted the group as intact as possible", Smith recalls. "They had to do some quick talking, because it was hard for us to get enthusiastic about getting involved with another Japanese company in that way. But like I said, it turned out to be a real good move. They're willing to let us do what we want to do - which makes sense, of course. If they're going to invest in us, the reason for doing that is to get our ideas. Now they have their Japanese developers working on one set of products while we're working on another set, and a lot of times they're completely different. So if ours does well but theirs doesn't, they still do well, and the same if next time theirs does well but ours doesn't. That way the company as a whole has twice as good a chance of coming out with something that will maintain the momentum. That's obviously what we're able to bring to the table with Korg: after the M1 and the T-series, we're able to give them something that's totally off-the-wall from that stuff."
That "something" is the recently-released Wavestation, the first instrument to emerge from the Californian camp. And by being "off-the-wall" from the M1 it may also be the first synth to successfully maintain the momentum of a best-selling predecessor, in which case Korg's strategy will have been vindicated.
"With the Wavestation we were basically taking existing technology and coming up with something that would open up some doors for people - and which wasn't a workstation", explains Smith. "We wanted it to be a synthesiser and to be used as a synthesiser. Obviously we'll be coming out with drum cards and piano cards, so you can cover a lot of those bases if you want to, but its main thrust is to offer something new and fresh. People talk about stagnating markets and how nothing's selling, but that only happens when everybody's coming out with the same sort of thing, which is what's been happening recently."
Surely there must be areas of difficulty for Smith and his team working with a Japanese company, even one that's as "non-Japanese" and "loose" as Korg apparently are.
"Well, there's the obvious language problems", he replies. "We'll ask them about their custom chips and they'll send us some specs that are rough translations, whereas before they didn't have to translate technical information. Most of it's on that type of mechanical level. We've had a few philosophy differences as far as directions and markets and stuff, but even then I think it's all healthy arguments. You never know if you're going to be right or if they're going to be right until it happens. The market's pretty fickle, and you can't always be right there with the right things, so the more people you have input from, the better, as far as development of products goes. We like having their input and I think they like having ours. We can disagree and that's OK. I mean, we disagree among ourselves within the team; if we didn't I'd be worried. It's great to meet and have everybody yelling at each other, that's the right way to do something."
And what might all the yelling be leading to in the future? I'm hoping for a scoop, here, but...
"Well, obviously I can't be too specific", comes the inevitable reply, "but I can say that we want to come up with something that'll be a radical departure, and so it's going to take some time. Sound generation is really where our interests lie. We want to make new sounds, different sounds, and come up with something that hasn't been done before - which is not easy these days."
No doubt Smith and his team will continue to work under the auspices of Korg. But as economic tensions between America and Japan rise, how does a former pillar of the American synth industry feel about working for a Japanese company? Is there really room for parochialism in today's world, where global communication networks, international economic interdependence and the worldwide reach of multinational corporations increasingly make a nonsense of national boundaries?
"After a point it's really a world market and a world economy these days, so I don't know at what point you stop getting rah-rah about what country your company's in and who you work for", Smith replies. "We have a group of Americans that make a living working for a company in Japan, and by doing that we get the best products for the best price out to the users, so it's kind of an everybody win situation. I don't know if that's really much different than if we had the old company in the States still. Obviously there were our famous reliability problems which we don't have any more because the product is Japanese-built and they have a lot of things over us in manufacturing and so forth. So in the long run the user comes out better 'cos they get our innovation with the Japanese benefits of reliable manufacturing. Of course it's obviously more of a synergy than that; I don't want to make it sound like they're not doing anything in Japan, 'cos they obviously are."
All of which is a far cry from the situation which Sequential were in when they launched the Prophet 5. Smith recalls the problems he had in bringing the Prophet 5 to market:
"Our biggest problem was that we were a real small company, only three or four people, and we had no capital so we were doing things week-by-week. With the demand we had waiting there, everybody yelling to get units, and having a lot of technical problems with the unit when it first came out... First we had to ship it before it was really ready, just to get some revenue so we could keep working on it. That was problem number one. Then problem number two was that we had all sorts of problems with the chips - first of all just getting enough of them, and then getting enough of them that worked.
"Those were probably our biggest problems in getting the thing going, but we also had some heat problems and some mechanical problems. We were all neophytes, so we had a learning curve there also. If we hadn't shipped things when we did, maybe we would have gone out of business and there never would have been a Prophet 5. So do you ship 'em and give people something to work with, and put up with the downside of all the problems with not really having things ready to go? It's a tough question. Most of our customers had a love-hate relationship where they loved the unit and couldn't bear to part with it, but at the same time they were having problems with it. There again, a lot of people were able to do good things with it, and in the long run I think things worked out pretty well."
There probably aren't many musicians who would disagree with that statement. But these days it's doubtful that any new instrument could come to market in such circumstances.
"So many sounds have already been heard that it's getting harder to come up with something that really stands out", Smith says. "Plus there's the amount of development that's needed now. I was able to do the Prophet 5 by myself in seven to eight months, all the software, all the electronic design, laying out the circuit boards, designing the case, silkscreening... Now it takes at least a year to a year-and-a-half to see a product through. The hardware's fairly easy: once you get the custom chips done, one person can do the hardware. But you need five, six, seven people to do the software. It's a long and complex job, but today you can't do something without having that burden, which of course has made it harder for startups. You can't just get two guys together and do something in your garage, because first of all you can't afford to build the custom chips, and second of all the software effort's going to be that much greater."